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Birley: well-read but not an author
on April 2, 2011
Short review: Birley gives an unexceptional overview of Marcus' life but is himself a poor author. I recommend reading a biography on Marcus, especially if you like learning about philosophy at the same time, but not this one.
Long review: I am an amateur Roman history buff. Having read many biographies on Rome's leading characters throughout time, I've come across both good and bad books. I think that Birley's book is the worst-written biography (whether about Rome or anything else) that I have ever read. This is the only biography that I've ever read where it was a chore to finish it- I had to force myself to do it mostly so that I can know I completed the book and will never have to read it again.
Birley needed a strong editor and he obviously did not have it. He commonly moves from one thought to another at the switch of a paragraph with no transition or tie between the ideas at all. It makes the narrative hard to follow. Although this can be fine when teaching a class and using Powerpoint, it does not work when there is no obvious "slide change" as there can be in a lecture hall.
But far worse is that Birley tends to have extensive sections that is simply him quoting ancient sources. He seemed to especially love quoting Fronto (a teacher of Marcus). Whereas good author would give a summary of the quote and possibly provide the key part of the quote (to both show that they aren't inventing something out of nothing and because of excellent phrasing), Birley will just quote entire paragraphs or letters. I'd estimate that at least 1/3 (and quite possibly more) of the book is simply Birley quoting other [ancient] authors. Perhaps Birley wanted the reader to draw their own conclusions based on the sources, but that still doesn't justify including whole sections of letters that are Fronto, Marcus, or someone else just greeting the other party.
I felt that Birley also did a poor job of explaining battles. There were precious few maps in the book and most of them were very high level maps of the entire empire. Birley went into some details regarding the battles but not enough to really understand what was happening. Yet, it was enough so that it couldn't be entirely glossed over and skipped by the reader. Thus, maps of where the battles were, the routes of the legions, etc. would have been very helpful in understanding everything.
It is true though that Marcus was not an exceptional commander- as Birley points out Marcus had no military experience during any of his extensive training. Although this helped to ensure that Marcus was the "philosopher emperor" it wasn't very helpful when Marcus had to overcome Gauls attacking Rome and rebellions. For this reason, it is possible that Birley didn't go into detail in order to focus on Marcus- since Marcus wasn't actually leading from the front as Caesar did, the battles were not discussed as much. But if that was the reasoning, it was not clearly explained.
Birley also had a tendency to mention that certain sources should be completely discounted. While partially ignoring some sources is a good idea - if the author had a personal grudge or no way in which to have valid knowledge of what he/she was writing about then anything written is certainly suspect - I don't think that it's ever a good idea to complete throw out any sources. In such cases I think that the sources should be taken into account but tempered with sources that have the opposite point-of-view. Simply because an author is biased doesn't necessarily mean that what they right is useless. I am not a historian, but I doubt that such a policy is what should be done. If for no other reason, biased sources cannot be thrown out simply because there is a limited number of ancient sources and if only "unbiased" ones are used then we would have few to no sources for any given event.
Overall, I do not recommend this book to anyone. There are better biographies on Marcus out there, you don't need to try to slog through this mess. Perhaps Birley is an excellent teacher or lecturer, but he is not an author. And for that reason, this book is quite poor.