on July 23, 2012
Rome: An Empire's Story is a thoughtful and engaging rumination on the longevity and durability of the Roman Empire. Guiding the reader on a whirlwind tour from the days of the mythical kings to the Republic and then the Empire, Woolf spends every other chapter examining in more depth some specific topics that might explain the historical events he covers - e.g. changes in culture, political institutions, and even the ecology of the Mediterranean basin. What emerges is less a specific thesis and more a variety of first steps towards an explanation of why Rome persisted as long as it did. With an excellent bibliography and a section at the end of each chapter presenting further reading, Woolf leaves it up to the reader to make his own inquiries into the matter. For that reason this makes for a great introduction to classical study.
However, this book is seriously hampered by a myriad of copy editing mistakes. I can't think of another book I have read recently that is more harmed by the obviousness and number of so many mistakes. It smacks of being rushed to print. Comma splicing and dropped articles are the most prevalent errors. I found one or more of these on almost every other page. There are also quite a few words that should be pluralized but for some reason are not. And while Woolf's style is very easy to read, at times he takes on long-winded sentences which are in themselves not an issue, save that they are very often poorly punctuated. I had to reread many, many sentences to grasp their meaning - and I'm a graduate student versed in continental philosophy! Other sentences were just half-finished phrases. Together all of these slips can make it seem as if portions of the book had been lifted directly from the author's notes without any revising. I considered putting it down because of the shoddy editing - a first for me.
By all means read the book if you are interested in the topic. But proceed with caution if mechanical errors make you cringe.
on September 21, 2012
"Rome: An Empire's Story" is two books in one. The odd numbered chapters begin with a timeline and quickly present historical events in chronological fashion. The even numbered chapters drop the timeline and chronological structure in favor of a topical approach such as "Imperial Ecology", "Slavery and Empire", "Enjoyment of Empire", etc. By combining these two styles of history in one book, and attempting the cover the entire history of Rome from kings to collapse in 300 pages, Wolff probably set himself an impossible task. The book is just not thorough enough to satisfy most readers and the topical chapters can be uninteresting. I do not consider the book as grammatically unreadable as do the other 3-star reviewers, but the rapidity with which Wolff addresses each topic diminishes the story's quality.
Wolff does conclude each chapter with suggested further reading, and I expect most readers will discover books they may not have found otherwise. Although "Rome: An Empire's Story" was at times engaging, I could not help but skip some pages to get to hasten the end. My favorite books on Rome remain Tom Holland's "Rubicon" and Adrian Goldsworthy's "In the Name of Rome."
on February 24, 2013
I used this book this semseter in a class I taught on western history/religion. An understanding of the Roman Empire is essential for understanding the history of Christianity. This book is divided into different sections all of which deal with a different aspect of the empire in an accessible way. While for my purposes I would have preferred a little more emphasis on Rome and Christianity, it did a great job of giving a lot of information on intriguing topics about the empire. Also every chapter ends with suggestion of other readings for more in depth works on each topic.
One thing I would recommend however, is to make sure you have some background knowledge about the Roman Empire. You should know the basic content of the story because Woolf assumes it. If you don't know who Sulla or Marcius (to name just two) you will get lost. For my class, I told the students to read H.A. Grueber's "the story of the Romans (yesterday's classics)" which you can get from amazon as a $4 ebook. It's actually a children's book and a quick read but if your grasp of roman history is weak, it will give you the background to make woolfs book much more helpful.
on December 22, 2012
I enjoyed Greg Woolf's "Rome: An Empire's Story", and I feel that I learned quite a bit. Woolf's book is strongest in the questions it poses: primarily, what were the reasons for Rome's phenomenal success and long life? Also interesting are the questions of how Romans themselves answered this question, as well as outsiders, particularly Greeks.
I was disappointed, however, by chapter XIII, "War", which covers Rome's crisis in the 3rd century AD. Earlier chapters alluded to this critical juncture in Rome's history, and the concluding passages suggested that, although Rome largely recovered and the Western empire continued for another two centuries, things were never the same afterwards. But the chapter itself is frustratingly vague; apparently, there was an unprecedented number of barbarian invasions, and these invasions managed first to overrun the heavily defended frontiers and next to run amok in the soft inner territories. But the chapter fails to describe how these pressures were unique.
The lack of substance in chapter 13 was so noticeable that, after finishing the book, I went back and reread it, thinking I must have been inattentive during the first pass. But even with the rereading, there seemed to be "no there, there". I'll probably pursue this topic further with some of the sources that Woolf recommends.
on August 20, 2012
This is not a history in the typical sense of being a chronological recitation of events. The book attempts to comment on topics within its chapters such as "Emperors," "War," "The Generals." etc. Woolf's writing style may bore some to distraction while wading through extended sentences, dropped verbs, lost subjects, and page-long paragraphs.
That being said, the book is informative in the sense of a more philosophical interpretation of events surrounding Rome's birth, growth, and demise. Nevertheless, there are better and more interesting histories and three stars is a stretch. Noticed one historical error (page 141) where Woolf has Crassus getting bumped off at Cannae rather than at Carrhae. There may be more burried in the rather congested prose.
on July 27, 2014
Woolf sets himself a very ambitious goal. He states (please pardon the long quote, but it is necessary): "My subject, however, is empire itself. How did it grow? What enabled it to resist defeats and capitalize on victories? Why did Rome succeed when its rivals failed? How did empire survive crisis, dig itself in, and replace chaotic campaigns of conquest with stability? How did empire come to coordinate the great flows of wealth and populations on which it depended? How did it evolve to face new needs and new threats? Why did it falter, regain its balance, and then shrink under a series of military blows until it was, once again, a city-state? What circumstances and technologies made the creation and maintenance of an empire possible, in just this place and just at that time? What institutions, habits, and beliefs suited Rome for the role? And what did the fact of empire do to all the beliefs, habits, and institutions with which the world had been conquered? What part did chance play in its successes and its failures?"
Very ambitious indeed, and unfortunately not accomplished. Woolf wanders from his thesis and loses focus throughout the book. He does not investigate any of the questions above in depth and fails to develop insightful answers. The book is more an introduction to ancient Roman history rather than an analysis of the concept of empire as a sociological and geopolitical entity or of how Rome does or does not meet that concept.
In addition, there are errors / omissions scattered throughout. A few examples:
Page 88: "At all stages of this economic growth the propertied classes led the way. No new commercial classes emerged, as the capital came from the social elites and they entrusted the management of these enterprises to their clients, freedmen, and slaves." Without doubt, wealthy landowners were the elites in Roman society; however, as Rome grew, the Equestrian Order (Knights) grew in wealth and influence, and were found at the highest levels of government. True, they were not a "new commercial class" per se, but as Rome grew, the Knights grew from a group with limited power to one with wealth and power to equal the landowning elite. Of course with this newfound wealth, they often became landowners themselves. I feel Woolf's failure to recognize this group's development and contributions misleads the reader.
- "There were no easy frontiers before the Atlantic, and it took until the reign of Augustus to reach it." Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in the 50s BCE and not only reached the Atlantic, but crossed it to Britain.
- "The major tribal confederacies of temperate Europe could marshal armies numbered in the hundreds of thousands, were technologically on a par with Roman troops, and had impressive fortified sites, even if they did not possess an infrastructure of cities and roads." The tribes of temperate Europe were not as technologically advanced as Roman troops. They were amazed at the siege engines, fortifications (including nightly marching camps), etc. that Caesar's legionaries built quickly and almost effortlessly.
- "Despite granting amnesties to most of his [Caesar's] former enemies, and lavishing games and monumental building on the city of Rome, he failed to rally Rome around him." On the contrary, Caesar never lost the love of the great majority of the people, as evidenced by their horror at his murder and their overwhelming anger at the assassins. There was only one group who never "rallied" to Caesar: his enemies in the Civil War who he had pardoned and in many cases, awarded titles and recognition.
One final word: the editing is atrocious. On just about any given page, the reader can find noun-verb disagreement, incorrect verb tense, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and more. I felt as though I was reading a freshman paper wherein the freshman did not even run a spelling / grammar check. This seriously detracts from the book.
For those readers who may wonder, my credentials are a Master's Degree in history, decades of research into ancient Rome, and almost as many years as an editor.
on April 3, 2014
The title of this book may lead one to expect a fairly comprehensive and chronological history of the Roman Empire. The short timelines denoting important dates from the early days of the small city on the Tiber to the overrunning of Western provinces by the Arabs in the early 8th century that precede most of the chapters reinforce that idea.
But that's not the case, here--not even close. And I think we may be better for it.
Rather than take on such a momentous task, one clearly not amenable to a 300 page volume, Professor Woolf takes another route. Each of the main chapters focuses on a topic that is more or less associated with the timeline for that chapter, and then provides an essay about that subject matter. The traditional approach of a 'event A leads to event B', gives way to some thoughtful and well-written writing about that topic, with an eye toward exploring it not just in the context of associated dates for the chapter, but for the history of the Empire as a whole. Indeed, I found his several chapters devoted to how we think about Rome and the place it holds in our general impression of history to be among the book's best.
Woolf knows his stuff, and thankfully, is also able to communicate it in an engaging manner. Anyone interested in more details on, say, the Roman military system, the economics of the Empire, or the personal stories of any of the colorful individuals who ran Rome will need to look elsewhere. Wolfe aids in that with an extensive bibliography and very useful 'for further reading' suggestions at the conclusion of each chapter.
I can't say I would recommend this book to someone just starting their exploration of ancient Rome. While certainly accessible, I think the book rewards those who come to it with some grounding in the general course of Roman history. Woolf's insights are perhaps best appreciated by those who already have a basic understanding of what's going on. Myself, I have long had an interest in ancient history and read a fair amount about subject. I found this volume both fascinating and a nice addition to my library on ancient Rome.
This book tells the whole story of the Roman Empire from the beginning of the town of Rome until the fall of Constantinople (although it really doesn't go until 1453 AD but ends in the early 700s AD when it was in decline). The book does this at a very high level in terms of telling the story of Rome, the overthrow of the Etruscan kings, the republic, the civil wars (Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, etc.), the early empire and the late empire. What is excellent about this book is the analysis of each segment of Rome's history - why things occurred the way that they did. It accomplishes this using primary sources and excellent secondary sources that evaluate these primary sources.
Although it can be dry at times due to the analytical approach, I agree with the other evaluation that this book is a must have for any reader interested in the Roman Empire, its growth, the primary period and its decline. In my opinion, there is no book out there that covers the whole story of Rome with such detailed analysis and scholarly review. This book is highly recommended for individuals who are interested in the Roman Empire. However, for those readers who have a casual interest in the Roman Empire, beware because you may not be happy with this book.
"Even now the Roman World feels like a vast sandpit in which I can play..." says the author in the preface to this work; it is a pleasure to join him.
Like ancient astrologers scanning the heavens for answers and warnings, contemporary man studies Rome's past for clues to the problems they face. Most of us look for warnings in the end of the Roman Republic, or the Empire's fall; but after reading this superb analysis, to me the closest parallel to our times is Rome in the 2nd century BC. Like Rome, we have seen the termination of older imperial states and with our withdrawal, their replacement with weaker, semi-chaotic successor states that often turn against us, even the rise of piracy as the navies of the world seem impotent to deal with the problem.
Other similarities are economic dislocation at home, with the decline in economic viability of "productive" small producers, and the inward migration of "subject peoples" which further displace these small producers. Internal politics seem to encourage bitterness and hostility among the ruling classes as domestic affairs become more chaotic and violent. Foreign policy is in disarray as client states openly try to manipulate policy makers thru thinly disguised bribes and gifts. Even an over-stretched citizen based military that was never designed for conflicts that seem to last for generations in distant lands is paralleled today.
This is a fascinating analysis, which you don't always have to agree with. I found one minor error on page 274 where Antiochus III is mentioned as a Persian emperor. His take on the current historical debate over the nature of the changes that took place with the fall of the Roman Empire makes a lot of sense; while there may have been "continuity and transformation" at the bottom of the social scale, the change was catastrophic at the top and "Measured in terms of territory, population, influence, and military power there is no doubt at all about the fact of collapse. Ancients recognized this, and so should we." He gives no reason for the Empire's fall, but believes the fact that no other empire rapidly arose to succeed would argue against the fall being due to systemic reasons or were the emperors to blame.
This is not a work for the novice, as it is truly speaking not a detailed history, but rather an analytical work. The book is at its best in its brief discussions of the latest theories of Roman history. This is buttressed by extensive footnotes and recommended reading selections for each chapter. Unfortunately, the academic presses that publish most of these works do not price them for the individual reader to purchase.
on September 7, 2013
To cover more than a thousand years of history in less than 300 pages is no easy task. The author's argument is that it is persistence and survival which needs to be explained, not the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
In this he is successful. Rome's genius lay in the ability to recover from crisis after crisis. Its' success rested on the synergies engineered between imperialism on the one hand and aristocracy, slavery, family, and city on the other.
Rome's history ends with the emergence of its three heirs: western Christendom, Islam and Byzantium in the 7th century.