So much can be and has been said about one of history’s most formidable entities. Thankfully, Brian Campbell has distilled some of the critical times and personas that comprise historical Rome into a relatively brief (248 pages) introductory text that not only provides a chronological accounting of the beginnings of Rome, nor merely a discussion of the powers that built, sustained, and ultimately destroyed her, but provides a glimpse into the lives of its people. This was perhaps my favorite element of the book. I enjoy reading purely historical texts for the sake of learning about people, places, and events of the past, but it’s the stories and accounts of the people that make it most interesting—after all, what is history without people? Campbell provides ample references to the primary sources, though some sections are more amply noted than others. There are also a number of diagrams (mostly related to military issues; some are geographical) interspersed and a handful of photographs that illustrate some aspect of Roman life and culture (these are black and white).
This has served as an immensely helpful text, not only for getting a bird’s-eye view of the Romans, but also as a quick reference guide. Many times I would reach for this volume while reading something else that made a reference to some aspect of ancient Rome so that I could read a little more about it. Campbell’s book is great for such use—it’s not a cumbersome encyclopedia, but neither is it a miniscule handbook. It finds a middle ground between these two and is a perfect reference for those who need a slightly more detailed account or description than provided in a few general sentences. Also, as a student of the NT and its contexts, I found this book to be quite informative about the various exploits of Rome that had immediate impact upon the world of the NT.
In sum, Campbell’s volume will be a great introductory text for readers who want a foray into the illustrious history of Rome—deep enough to inform yet succinct enough to be accessible.
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The book never mentions Gibbon but seems to me an excellent modern substitute. It's very readable yet informative and complete, though each episode is short, whetting the reader's appetite for more.
As expected from this military historian, development of Roman military power is emphasized, but social developments are not neglected. The book covers history, sociology, law, art, literature, oratory, and poetry as well as religion, politics and economics. It's especially good at depicting the nebulous boundaries between Greek and Roman history and culture.
Campbell covers a complete succession between original kingdom, republic and empire. The book is divided into periods of original development, obtaining Italian hegemony, world conquest and decline and fall. It ends around 476 with the fall of the Western empire. It's generally very fast paced, though it devotes perhaps a chapter to each important transition period. For such a short history, it gives remarkable detail on important rulers such as Augustus, Diocletian and Constantine and their eras. Other rulers are given their due in shorter episodes.
There are many very interesting observations to contemplate. There was no coherent plan for conquest. Religion was used to control politics. The Senate served to represent the upper and equite classes, often against the interests of the general population. Optimates and Populares were class distinctions as there were no political parties. Apparently the harmful effects of party politics was recognized by the Romans and since forgotten. Reminiscent of the present time, he says that the reform of Pertinax was too quick and too austere. Requiring more explanation are a couple of curious statements referring to rapid success in Italy and the Punic war becoming a stalemate in 241BC. In a conclusion, Campbell asks why the Eastern portion of the empire survived while the West dissolved. He points out that was not a foregone conclusion before 476 in spite of military defeats during the prior century.
This works as an excellent synopsis for a contemplative review of Roman history.
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