There is a good reason Michael Grant has established himself as one of the leading classical historians of all time. His books are well researched and enjoyable to read, easy to understand, helpful to scholars and beginners alike, and invariably foster a desire to read more on some aspect of the subject he so ably explains. And, unlike so many historians, his reasoned analysis and judicious conclusions avoid sensationalism. Perhaps all this explains why some modern writers denigrate his accomplishments by labeling his work "introductory" or "sophomoric." These critics are, by and large, a stuffy bunch of academics who either wish they could write, or labor over inscrutable articles that are about as easy to decipher as ancient Hebrew and published in a journal perused by 15 other academics. Grant has chiseled his place in classical history because tens of thousands of people read his books and learn a lot from them.
The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, 31 B.C. - A.D. 476 (reprint edition, B&N, 1997) is no exception. It was recognized and hailed as a major contribution when it first hit the shelves in 1985, and nothing has supplanted it yet; and in all probability, nothing will.
Who among us has not pondered the true character and personal lives of the men who oversaw the greatest multi-ethnic empire the world has ever seen? At its peak the Roman Empire spanned from the interior of Britain to the desert sands of north Africa; from the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the cradle of civilization deep in what we know today as the Middle East. Her powerful armies, feared by enemies and allies alike, tramped over most of the known world. Although early historians have left us fascinating descriptions of the lives and tenures of the men who exercised dominion over this empire, many (indeed, most) of these accounts are biased and unbalanced, often exaggerating faults or personality quirks to some personal end (Claudius, for example, was not mentally retarded as some authors have claimed). Grant, naturally, bases his biographical sketches on these ancient writers, but supplements them with archaeological evidence, coins, inscriptions from the four corners of the empire, and reasoned analysis. The end product reconstructs not only the lives of the 92 men who served as emperors, from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus, but also the often turmoil-filled times in which they lived and ruled. Whenever possible, physical descriptions of each man are included, which helps flesh out (no pun intended) his subjects.
To those just beginning to dabble into the lives of this rather exclusive group of men, several facts will stand out above others when they close the book. First, more often than not the emperors owed their purple-shrouded positions (and lives) to the army, which just as often murdered emperors to elevate another more generous with the state's purse; second, most of the emperors were ruthless killers by today's standards, and had very little or no compunction about eliminating potential rivals, be they relatives or otherwise (Nero killed his own mother); last, given the often mediocre or worse abilities of two score or more of the men who affixed the prefix IMPERATOR to their names, it is remarkable the empire lasted as long as it did.
These biographical cameos offer compelling snapshots of the humans elevated to the purple (usually with the assistance or support of the sword). Each sketch averages a few pages in length, which varies depending on the time each spent in office and his accomplishments, and is accompanied by an image of the subject from either coinage or statues. Grant's inimitable ability to pithily turn a phrase is evident in each entry, and the depth of information found in each is remarkable given their relative brevity. A few examples:
Augustus (31 B.C. - 14 A. D.): The first emperor, Augustus (Gaius Octavius, better known as Octavian), writes Grant, "was one of the most talented, energetic and skillful administrators the world has ever known. . . . Augustus was a man of some literary ability, the author of a number of books . . . . All these works are lost, though the subtlety of his Res Gestae suggests what he was capable of achieving." (15)
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Claudius (41 - 54): Often referred to by other historians as mentally retarded, or worse, Claudius was in reality a fairly bright man and diligent administrator, though with mixed success. "His mind was evidently seething with good ideas," explains Grant. "But he found it difficult to coordinate them in a concisely expressed form, and was easily thrown off course by the suspicion, timidity and fear which were among his most conspicuous characteristics." And yet Pliny the Elder, "himself phenomenally learned, numbered [Claudius] among the hundred foremost scholarly writers of the day." (33-34) How many students of Roman history knew that?
Vespasian (69-79): One of my favorite emperor stories has to do with Titus, Vespasian's son and successor to the purple, and his supposed revulsion at one of the ways his father rose money for the state--by taxing urinals. The clever and witty Vespasian handed his son a coin and asked, "Does it smell bad?" Titus, of course, responded in the negative, to which his father answered, "Yet it comes from urine." (55) Vespasian even uttered a joke at the moment of his death.
Valerian (253-260): This most unfortunate of emperors was captured by the Persians in 260 A.D. Although tradition holds he was tricked into captivity, Grant explains that "it is also not impossible that he was deliberately taking refuge from his own army, which may have turned mutinous." (165) Gibbon (among others) has helped perpetuate the stories that the emperor, when he finally died, was stuffed and put on display for years in the Persian capital. "The tale is moral and pathetic," writes Gibbon, "but the truth of it may very well be called into question." Grant's response to Gibbon's observation: "Even so, the solemn moralizing is scarcely out of place; for the capture of an emperor by a foreign foe was an unparalleled catastrophe, the nadir of Roman disgrace." (165) There was a good reason Grant titled this section of his book "The Age of Crisis."
The Roman Emperors: A Biographical Guide to the Rulers of Imperial Rome, 31 B.C. - A.D. 476 concludes with a glossary of Latin terms, and two separate indexes, one of Latin and Greek authors, and another of maps and plans. There is no standard name and place index. This would have been helpful, although its absence is not overly noteworthy.
This is a extraordinary collection of biographical essays. It is the standard study on the subject, and one you will want to keep close at hand for quick reference. Indeed, I pick it up to read something in it almost every day. If you want deeper investigations into the lives of these gentlemen, Grant accommodates with several other titles, including The Twelve Caesars and The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition, both of which are still in print. And of course, many of these men are the subjects of remarkably good biographies, including Grant's book Constantine The Great. Make no mistake about it: every author writing about emperors after 1985 is covering ground plowed by Grant (either in this book or another), and they all owe him a debt of gratitude.
If you have enough interest to read this review in its entirety, then you should locate and purchase a copy of The Roman Emperors. Your efforts will land a book on your shelf that actually deserves to be there.
This report prepared by Ted Savas