Books Features

Five New Books about Ancient History worth a look

From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

By Ingrid D. Rowland

Harvard University Press, 2014

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, the force of the explosion blew the top right off the mountain, burying nearby Pompeii in a shower of volcanic ash. Ironically, the calamity that proved so lethal for Pompeii’s inhabitants preserved the city for centuries, leaving behind a snapshot of Roman daily life that has captured the imagination of generations.

The experience of Pompeii always reflects a particular time and sensibility, says Ingrid Rowland. From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town explores the fascinating variety of these different experiences, as described by the artists, writers, actors, and others who have toured the excavated site. The city’s houses, temples, gardens—and traces of Vesuvius’s human victims—have elicited responses ranging from awe to embarrassment, with shifting cultural tastes playing an important role. The erotic frescoes that appalled eighteenth-century viewers inspired Renoir to change the way he painted. For Freud, visiting Pompeii was as therapeutic as a session of psychoanalysis. Crown Prince Hirohito, arriving in the Bay of Naples by battleship, found Pompeii interesting, but Vesuvius, to his eyes, was just an ugly version of Mount Fuji. Rowland treats readers to the distinctive, often quirky responses of visitors ranging from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain to Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

Interwoven throughout a narrative lush with detail and insight is the thread of Rowland’s own impressions of Pompeii, where she has returned many times since first visiting in 1962.

Review from The Guardian: Elegant, witty and beautifully produced, this book is aimed at a classier audience. It is less a guide than an overtly aesthetic appreciation of the site and its environs, poetic in its sense of connections over time. Rowland lines up a choice group of companions, among them Dickens, Renoir, Freud, Leopold Mozart, polymath and volcano-enthusiast Athanasius Kircher and an 18th-century amateur archaeologist, Mr Freeman. We pause for specialist lectures on the techniques of Roman wall painting and the tradition of selling cameos as souvenirs.

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Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

By James Romm

Knopf, 2014

In this intense historical drama, I trace the complex and tortured relationship between two of history’s strangest political bedfellows, the emperor Nero and the philosopher Seneca. I deal with the troubling ethical question readers of Seneca have confronted for centuries: How could this sage, who constantly exhorted his readers toward virtue and reason, have served as the right-hand man of a despot notorious for madness, repression and family murder? The climactic events of the years 50-68 A.D. form the backdrop to this bizarre story, including the fire of Rome and the revolt of the Celtic queen Boudicca in Britain.

Dying Every Day is a portrait of Seneca’s moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess. In his treatises, Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed, exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death. As Nero’s adviser, Seneca was presented with a more complex set of choices, as the only man capable of summoning the better aspect of Nero’s nature, yet, remaining at Nero’s side and colluding in the evil regime he created.

Dying Every Day is the first book to tell the compelling and nightmarish story of the philosopher-poet who was almost a king, tied to a tyrant—as Seneca, the paragon of reason, watched his student spiral into madness and whose descent saw five family murders, the Fire of Rome, and a savage purge that destroyed the supreme minds of the Senate’s golden age.

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Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor

By Adrian Goldsworthy

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2014

In the year 44 BC, when Julius Caesar was killed, Augustus was a mere teenager who had been adopted into Caesar’s household. His reaction to Caesar’s death was to step forward and proclaim himself Caesar’s rightful successor. The Senate did not take him seriously, but over the following months he raised his own army and, after defeating Mark Antony in battle, became one of the three most powerful men in Rome. He was not yet 20 years old. Over the next ten years he consolidated his power in Rome, and finally overthrew the last of his rivals in 31 BC. From that moment on Rome became an empire, and Augustus its first emperor. This is the story of how one man rose to become the most powerful man in the world, and stabilised an empire that had been racked by decades of civil war. Augustus’s achievements, and his legacy, are almost unparalleled. Like Julius Caesar, he presided over a huge expansion in wealth and territory. Like Caesar he was honoured by having a month of the year named after him. But unlike Caesar he was able to keep hold of power for over 40 years, and bequeath the empire, whole, to his successors.

Review from The Telegraph: Goldsworthy is no flatterer. He is defensive of his subject, maintaining Augustus behaved no better or worse than other warlords; at the same time, he can’t conceal his distaste for some of Augustus’s actions. Like, for example, his willingness to behead so many enemies, including Cicero – “Augustus killed a lot of people”. Or the way he stole another man’s pregnant wife (the 20-year-old Livia) and married her in an “indecently hurried” ceremony three days after she gave birth – not only that, but insisted on the attendance of her recent husband. The Augustus unearthed here is a figure as difficult to like as to understand.

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The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World

By Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press, 2014

Amazons—fierce warrior women dwelling on the fringes of the known world—were the mythic archenemies of the ancient Greeks. Heracles and Achilles displayed their valor in duels with Amazon queens, and the Athenians reveled in their victory over a powerful Amazon army. In historical times, Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, and the Roman general Pompey tangled with Amazons.

But just who were these bold barbarian archers on horseback who gloried in fighting, hunting, and sexual freedom? Were Amazons real? In this deeply researched, wide-ranging, and lavishly illustrated book, National Book Award finalist Adrienne Mayor presents the Amazons as they have never been seen before. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history across the ancient world, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Great Wall of China.

Mayor tells how amazing new archaeological discoveries of battle-scarred female skeletons buried with their weapons prove that women warriors were not merely figments of the Greek imagination. Combining classical myth and art, nomad traditions, and scientific archaeology, she reveals intimate, surprising details and original insights about the lives and legends of the women known as Amazons. Provocatively arguing that a timeless search for a balance between the sexes explains the allure of the Amazons, Mayor reminds us that there were as many Amazon love stories as there were war stories. The Greeks were not the only people enchanted by Amazons—Mayor shows that warlike women of nomadic cultures inspired exciting tales in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, Central Asia, and China.

Driven by a detective’s curiosity, Mayor unearths long-buried evidence and sifts fact from fiction to show how flesh-and-blood women of the Eurasian steppes were mythologized as Amazons, the equals of men. The result is likely to become a classic.

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A History of Ancient Greece in Fifty Lives

By David Stuttard

Thames and Hudson, 2014

The politicians, writers, artists and philosophers of ancient Greece turned a small group of city states into a civilization whose legacy can be found everywhere today. But who were these people, what do we know of their lives and how did they interact with one another?

This original new approach to telling the history of Greece weaves together the lives of the movers and shakers of the Greek world into a highly enjoyable narrative, from the early tyrants, through the stirrings of democracy to the emergence of Macedon under Philip II and Alexander the Great and the eventual decline of the Greek world with the rise of Rome.

This book creates a vivid picture of life in all arenas of the ancient Greek world, moving from Sicily to Afghanistan, and from Macedonia to Alexandria; delving into the worlds of mathematics and geography, rhetoric and historiography, painting and sculpture; exploring the accounts of historians and mystics, poets and dramatists, political commentators and philosophers.

As well as the most famous politicians and writers, including the Athenian statesman Pericles, the Spartan general Leonidas, the philosopher Plato and the scientist Archimedes, the reader will meet less well-known figures such as Milo, the Olympic wrestler; Aspasia, the brilliant female intellectual, who taught rhetoric to Socrates; Zeuxis, the painter who invented trompe l’oeil; and Epaminondas, the Theban who taught tactics to Philip of Macedon and so destroyed his own city.

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