Sharp Blue: Were the Flavians really that boring?


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For someone who claims to be interested in Roman history, I’ve read remarkably few books on the subject. Over the last few days, I’ve decided to start putting together a reading programme to fix that flaw. I have this idea that when I first start learning about the history of some place in some era, I should first read a single overview, and then a handful of books that cover the same period in more detail, and so on. The books will form a tree and I’ll try not to skip to deeper levels without reading the shallow levels. (I know I won’t actually stick to this, but I’m a sucker for grandiose schemes, especially when they involve reading lots of books.) So at the root of my Roman history tree I have Michael Grant’s History of Rome. The next level of detail is proving a little problematic. The period from the founding of the city to the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the early Principate is covered well by Scullard’s History of the Roman World, 753 to 146BC and From the Gracchi to Nero. The history of the later Principate and the Dominate to the fall of the Western Empire is covered by Cameron’s The Later Roman Empire (AD284-430) and Bury’s two volume History of the Later Roman Empire (from Theodosius I to Justinian). Between Nero and the later third century, though, there is a huge gap that I can’t seem to fill. There’s a book by Parker that covers the period from the first Antonines through to Constantine, but it’s out of print. There are Grant’s books on The Antonines and The Severans, but they seem to be absurdly expensive and very short. I can’t find anything, in or out of print, covering the Flavian dynasty. It seems weird to me that there are so few books on the Empire at the height of its power. Maybe it was just a fundamentally dull period in history.

I haven't read any non-fiction on that period, but I have read the Lindsey Davis Falco series set in the first few years of Vespasian's reign, and dealing with all sorts of areas of the empire, and the politics. They're a fun read, but don't offer as much of the sort of analysis I suspect you want, though characters do give political commentary. The Silver Pigs is the first in the series, but you may be better with The Course of Honour which is less fun, but tells the story of Vespasian's long term mistress, and thus offers a greater political overview. But as I say, it's not as much fun to read.

If you can find one in a library, it's worth a read to give you a quick view of the time.

And the Flavians weren't boring. The first two didn't live long enough to get to do heaps, but Domitian was a rather nasty piece of work, and ruled for a good long time, doing all sorts of horrible things.

Thanks for the recommendations - I'll add them to my relevant wish list. Some further research has turned up a partial replacement for Parker's book: Southern's The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine which nicely covers the partial collapse and recovery of the Empire in the third century. There's still the Flavian/Antonine hole to plug though.

Alongside the Scullard, Syme's _Roman Revolution_ is god on the Principate. For some reason (possibly the fact that it is far more rarely examined in undergraduate papers) there is little available to pick up where _From the Gracchi to Nero_ leaves off. The Southern book you mention is good I believe. What is worth looking at is the Routledge series of biographies (very surprised if they aren't in Heffers). _Hadrian_, I remember is certainly good. Can't remember if they do Vespasian. As Claire says, Lindsey Davies is fun and reliable (and may even have a bibliography in the back, I haven't checked). Personally I was always more interested in the times when things fell apart and the centre fairly obviously didn't hold, so I tended to avoid the other bits.

My brother and I are arguing over whether Syme's _Roman Revolution_ is a good book. It is not very accessible to the general reader--it assumes that the reader knows much, much more about the Fasti than a general reader will. Sentences like ones I parody by, "Aha! The suffect consul for 34 B.C. is Quintus Flavius Gaius filius Marcus filius! We all know what to make of that!" are disturbing.

Basically, the _Roman Revolution_ is a political history of Augustus with the parts we don't know filled in by what we know of Mussolini. It's a book that couldn't have been written before Mussolini. It's a book that could only have been written in Rome under Mussolini. It is brilliant.

But is it true? Augustus was probably more like Mussolini than nineteenth-century British historians could have imagined. But writing the history of the reign of Augustus as if he were Mussolini is sure to get it wrong, just as you get it wrong when you use frog DNA to fill in the gaps in the partial dinosaur DNA you have recovered from the amber...

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