Author: Mary Beard
Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (November 9, 2015)
A sweeping, revisionist history of the Roman Empire from one of our foremost classicists.
Ancient Rome was an imposing city even by modern standards, a sprawling imperial metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, a “mixture of luxury and filth, liberty and exploitation, civic pride and murderous civil war” that served as the seat of power for an empire that spanned from Spain to Syria. Yet how did all this emerge from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy? In S.P.Q.R., world-renowned classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even two thousand years later still shapes many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty.
From the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus to 212 ce―nearly a thousand years later―when the emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire, S.P.Q.R. (the abbreviation of “The Senate and People of Rome”) examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries by exploring how the Romans thought of themselves: how they challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation.
Opening the book in 63 bce with the famous clash between the populist aristocrat Catiline and Cicero, the renowned politician and orator, Beard animates this “terrorist conspiracy,” which was aimed at the very heart of the Republic, demonstrating how this singular event would presage the struggle between democracy and autocracy that would come to define much of Rome’s subsequent history. Illustrating how a classical democracy yielded to a self-confident and self-critical empire, S.P.Q.R. reintroduces us, though in a wholly different way, to famous and familiar characters―Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Nero, among others―while expanding the historical aperture to include those overlooked in traditional histories: the women, the slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and those on the losing side of Rome’s glorious conquests.
Like the best detectives, Beard sifts fact from fiction, myth and propaganda from historical record, refusing either simple admiration or blanket condemnation. Far from being frozen in marble, Roman history, she shows, is constantly being revised and rewritten as our knowledge expands. Indeed, our perceptions of ancient Rome have changed dramatically over the last fifty years, and S.P.Q.R., with its nuanced attention to class inequality, democratic struggles, and the lives of entire groups of people omitted from the historical narrative for centuries, promises to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come.
Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar
Author: Tom Holland
Publisher: Doubleday (October 20, 2015)
Author and historian Tom Holland returns to his roots in Roman history and the audience he cultivated with Rubicon—his masterful, witty, brilliantly researched popular history of the fall of the Roman republic—with Dynasty, a luridly fascinating history of the reign of the first five Roman emperors.
Dynasty continues Rubicon’s story, opening where that book ended: with the murder of Julius Caesar. This is the period of the first and perhaps greatest Roman Emperors and it’s a colorful story of rule and ruination, running from the rise of Augustus through to the death of Nero. Holland’s expansive history also has distinct shades of I Claudius, with five wonderfully vivid (and in three cases, thoroughly depraved) Emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero—featured, along with numerous fascinating secondary characters. Intrigue, murder, naked ambition and treachery, greed, gluttony, lust, incest, pageantry, decadence—the tale of these five Caesars continues to cast a mesmerizing spell across the millennia.
Augustine: Conversions to Confessions
Author: Robin Lane Fox
Publisher: Basic Books (November 3, 2015)
Saint Augustine is one of the most influential figures in all of Christianity, yet his path to sainthood was by no means assured. Born in AD 354 to a pagan father and a Christian mother, Augustine spent the first thirty years of his life struggling to understand the nature of God and his world. He learned about Christianity as a child but was never baptized, choosing instead to immerse himself in the study of rhetoric, Manicheanism, and then Neoplatonism—all the while indulging in a life of lust and greed.
In Augustine, the acclaimed historian Robin Lane Fox re-creates Augustine’s early life with unparalleled insight, showing how Augustine’s quest for knowledge and faith finally brought him to Christianity and a life of celibacy. Augustine’s Confessions, a vivid description of his journey toward conversion and baptism, still serves as a model of spirituality for Christians around the world.
Magisterial and beautifully written, Augustine will be the definitive biography of this colossal figure for decades to come.
Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World
Author: Tim Whitmarsh
Publisher: Knopf (November 10, 2015)
How new is atheism? Although adherents and opponents alike today present it as an invention of the European Enlightenment, when the forces of science and secularism broadly challenged those of faith, disbelief in the gods, in fact, originated in a far more remote past. In Battling the Gods, Tim Whitmarsh journeys into the ancient Mediterranean, a world almost unimaginably different from our own, to recover the stories and voices of those who first refused the divinities.
Homer’s epic poems of human striving, journeying, and passion were ancient Greece’s only “sacred texts,” but no ancient Greek thought twice about questioning or mocking his stories of the gods. Priests were functionaries rather than sources of moral or cosmological wisdom. The absence of centralized religious authority made for an extraordinary variety of perspectives on sacred matters, from the devotional to the atheos, or “godless.” Whitmarsh explores this kaleidoscopic range of ideas about the gods, focusing on the colorful individuals who challenged their existence. Among these were some of the greatest ancient poets and philosophers and writers, as well as the less well known: Diagoras of Melos, perhaps the first self-professed atheist; Democritus, the first materialist; Socrates, executed for rejecting the gods of the Athenian state; Epicurus and his followers, who thought gods could not intervene in human affairs; the brilliantly mischievous satirist Lucian of Samosata.
Before the revolutions of late antiquity, which saw the scriptural religions of Christianity and Islam enforced by imperial might, there were few constraints on belief. Everything changed, however, in the millennium between the appearance of the Homeric poems and Christianity’s establishment as Rome’s state religion in the fourth century AD. As successive Greco-Roman empires grew in size and complexity, and power was increasingly concentrated in central capitals, states sought to impose collective religious adherence, first to cults devoted to individual rulers, and ultimately to monotheism. In this new world, there was no room for outright disbelief: the label “atheist” was used now to demonize anyone who merely disagreed with the orthodoxy—and so it would remain for centuries.
As the twenty-first century shapes up into a time of mass information, but also, paradoxically, of collective amnesia concerning the tangled histories of religions, Whitmarsh provides a bracing antidote to our assumptions about the roots of freethinking. By shining a light on atheism’s first thousand years, Battling the Gods offers a timely reminder that nonbelief has a wealth of tradition of its own, and, indeed, its own heroes.
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta: The Persian Challenge
Author: Paul Anthony Rahe
Publisher:Yale University Press (November 24, 2015)
More than 2500 years ago a confederation of small Greek city-states defeated the invading armies of Persia, the most powerful empire in the world. In this meticulously researched study, historian Paul Rahe argues that Sparta was responsible for the initial establishment of the Hellenic defensive coalition and was, in fact, the most essential player in its ultimate victory.
Drawing from an impressive range of ancient sources, including Herodotus and Plutarch, the author veers from the traditional Atheno-centric view of the Greco-Persian Wars to examine from a Spartan perspective the grand strategy that halted the Persian juggernaut. Rahe provides a fascinating, detailed picture of life in Sparta circa 480 B.C., revealing how the Spartans’ form of government and the regimen to which they subjected themselves instilled within them the pride, confidence, discipline, and discernment necessary to forge an alliance that would stand firm against a great empire, driven by religious fervor, that held sway over two-fifths of the human race.