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The best books on Ancient Rome

recommended by Harry Sidebottom

From the first book he recommends to students coming up to Oxford to read ancient history, to a short, popular book that weaves together all the scholarly research on the fall of the Roman Empire and the terrible things that happened as Rome was sacked by the Vandals, Oxford historian Harry Sidebottom talks us through five must-read books on Ancient Rome.

Interview by Anna Blundy

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Tell me about the first book you’ve chosen, Atlas of the Roman World

I chose Tim Cornell and John Matthews because this is one of the books I wish had been around for me to read when I first started studying in the late 70s. It’s incredibly accessible, very scholarly, very succinct and it’s got beautiful maps and pictures. I never realised until I read it how important geography is in shaping the classical world.

In what sense?

If I give an example it’s probably easier. The Roman Social War was fought in the early first century BC. I knew a lot about it before I read this book, about its causes and its effects, but it had never really been brought home to me that it was in many ways a war of the people of the plains against the people of the mountains. Then, in the middle of this book, there is this wonderful map of Italy, with all the areas of the rebellion and which places revolted, and it suddenly just struck me that the heart of the rebellion was in the Apennine Mountains and it had never come home to me before.

Is this a huge great big thing covering the whole period?

Well, it’s got a huge scope, from the founding of Rome to the fall of the Empire in the west in the fifth century, but somehow it sort of does it in a not-big-fat-frightening-book way. It actually just rattles along. I always recommend my students read it as their first book on ancient history before they come up to Oxford.

What is enticing about it? 

What makes it so good is that it’s very readable and clear and yet it manages to be clear without dumbing down, and it manages to construct a popular history narrative underpinned by deep scholarship. It doesn’t just deal with political and military history. It deals with languages and artistic movements and things like that and it pulls them all together.

Tell me about a Roman artistic movement?

OK. Portrait sculpture. In the last century BC the rich upper-class senators decided, for some reason, that they wanted their portraits immortalised in stone looking incredibly old, ugly, care-worn, heavily-lined, warts, creases and all.


Good question. We don’t really know the answer, but probably they are making themselves look old and shattered because it’s something to do with the Roman concept of dignitas, and that comes with age. It’s also bound up with negotium, hard work in the cause of the Republic – ‘Here’s my public image – I’m not a Greek pretty boy. I’m a careworn figure and I’ve been out in the snow and sun and I’ve devoted my life to the republic so give me respect.’

Presumably women weren’t doing this?

No. Romans had a weird thing with this though. They liked to couple it up with Greek heroic sculpture. To our eyes, this is ludicrous mismatching. The old wizened face slapped on top of the beautiful body of a man of about 20 – heavily ripped, heavily muscled.

How long did this movement last?

It actually never totally goes away. It’s the dominant one in the last century BC but they moved to a slightly more, not pretty boy, but idealised middle-aged standard portrait. Some do go for the youthful look, but even in the fourth century AD, you do find Romans who like to show themselves in this way. Of course, they are also doing another thing at that point. They are saying: ‘I’m the sort of man who harks back to the free Republic, as well as being a careworn man.’

Where are these things?


Where’s my nearest one? 

Where are you?

North London.

British Museum. But outside Rome, the best place to find them is actually Copenhagen. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek. I went there almost by mistake and it’s an absolutely breathtaking collection.

The Roman Revolution by Ronald Syme. 

It’s about the fall of the Republic, the overthrow of the Republic and the re-establishment of the monarchy. It’s centred on the life and career of Octavian, who becomes the first emperor, Augustus. It’s a strange and distinctive book, self-consciously literary. Syme, who was something of an old poseur, said his main influence when writing the book was Stendhal, Le Rouge et Le Noir. He employs a method that scholars call prosopography, which is basically the study of marriage links between people, geographic origins of upper-class people, office holdings and stuff. From that, he started making patterns of faction politics in the late Republic. It may not be right, but it almost reads like a novel and it’s absolutely fascinating. You get the feeling of going beneath the surface of the straightforward story of the great man Octavian, and you start wondering who the powerbrokers were. Who were the behind-the-scenes men? Who were his backers and opponents? It’s a classic of modern scholarship and it’s also about the rise of fascism – he uses Octavian as an allegory of the rise of Mussolini. It’s an incredible book. Slightly daunting because it’s very long. I read it just before I did finals and I’m convinced I got a first in that paper because I’d just read that. It’s got a lovely literary style. As he got older his literary style became a parody of itself. It was always quite brief and Tacitean, but by the end of his life he was writing bizarre sentences like ‘But. Not to men of understanding.’ I’m a Roman historian and I’ve read his later books and thought: I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re arguing.

Now we’ve got Enemies of the Roman Order

This is written by Ramsey MacMullen, an American scholar and one of my heroes. What’s really cool about this is that it’s so different from most modern books on ancient history. Most start with the basic premise that I’m going to study x period of ancient history, y geographic area, z war. This one starts with an idea. He wonders what, if the Romans had had something similar to the House Un-American Activities Committee, would that committee have investigated and persecuted. It’s a brilliant idea and it’s superbly written. It sheds light on how Rome was governed by looking at the flip side, at the people who undermined the empire, the rebels. He uncovered a strange pattern which was the rebels, just like the people who held power, progressively moved down the social scale, so in the early first century AD the men holding the real power and the revolutionaries tend to come from the very élite noble families, but by the fourth century, they don’t. They tend to come from obscure provincial backgrounds, strange geographic places, the Danube, the Balkans, the Near East. Why is something he never actually answers but it’s a fascinating insight.

Why were they trying to overthrow Rome? Top three reasons.

Either they want to restore the Republic or they want to overthrow Rome and re-establish their own ethnic independence, and others are Christians wanting to overthrow paganism.

We’ve got an interview on the site about the enemies of Rome, with Adrienne Mayor.

I know of her! I did read one of her books. Its basic drift was an attempt to prove that the ancient world had chemical and biological weapons.

Did it? 

No. But it had things that could almost be called that. Like putting snakes in a jar and throwing it at your enemies.

Paul Zanker, The Power of Images.

The only time I’ve actually met Professor Zanker he mistook me for a wine waiter. I was wearing a very sharp black suit and white shirt and he came up to me and said: ‘Mineral water.’ And lacking any dignitas at all I went and got him one. This is an odd choice because I disagree with almost all his conclusions. He argues that the reign of Augustus sees the Roman élite finally dealing with the problems of the Greek culture that they love and the nasty Greeks they rule. He’s just wrong. They don’t. They carry on loving the culture and despising Greeks. I don’t agree with his methods. He doesn’t argue things. He just tells you stuff. He’s obsessed with the shock of the new. He imagines the ordinary Romans in the forum looking up at the new buildings and wonders what effect it has on them. He never speculates about the big old buildings that were also there and what would be the effect of the new building in its context with the old buildings. That’s my main problem with it.

But you’ve chosen it.

Yes. It is one of those rare books that changes a whole field of study. Before Zanker art history was just for aesthetes like Brian Sewell and obscure art history departments. If you studied the ancient world you didn’t really have to engage with visual images. But he brought art history back where it should be – connected to political power, social history, economic history. Now you can’t write about Rome or any part of the ancient world without drawing on visual imagery, architecture, town planning.

So, it’s quite generous of you. 

I think so. Even though I don’t like being mistaken for a wine waiter and I don’t like his methods. It’s one of those books you half enjoy and half hate.

Tell me about a piece of art he mentions. 

My favourite is Aeneas. So, one of the key images promoted by the new order of Augustus’s new monarchy, dressed up as a return to the Republic, is a sculpture group, a big sculpture group of Aeneas, the sort of founder of Rome, escaping from the ruins of Troy, carrying his aged father on his shoulders, leading his small son by the hand. It’s meant to symbolise a lot of concepts: piety, familial duty and being a warrior too. We don’t have the original but it was replicated again and again by private patrons. They had terracottas of it, paintings of it. One image in the book that Zanker reproduces is a wall painting from a villa outside Rome and it has this standard image, very recognisable, except that Aeneas and his father and son have been turned into apes with dogs’ heads and huge penises. This is, clearly to my mind, a patron of art, a well-off man who has commissioned a work of subversive art. He’s asked for something that is deliberately mocking the autocracy and its ideology. They weren’t all swallowing what the new leader was telling them. Zanker isn’t interested in possible objections to the party line. Also, he never considers the possibility of the average man just ignoring these things. It might be because he’s German and of an age when Albert Speer redesigning Berlin probably kind of mattered.

The Fall of Rome. 

Probably the most exciting new book on ancient history for years. Unbelievably readable, in a popular style. It takes very complicated scholarly ideas published in obscure places in a range of languages and makes them clear, accessible, understandable and interesting.

Like what?

There has been a trend for about 25 years among American and British scholars arguing that the fall of the Roman Empire was all about compromise, diplomacy and accommodation. It wasn’t about burning and raping and pillaging. It was all actually quite nice. They just said: ‘Come on in you hairy Germans and rule us.’ Perkins has driven a horse and cart through this and shown that it’s not true. The kind of negotiation that went on was the kind that happens after a huge Vandal army has conquered you. Of course, the leaders who remained had to reach some kind of rapprochement.

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And he’s wonderfully anecdotal. He starts with this bit from one of the church fathers discussing the problem of the number of nuns raped by Barbarians and whether or not they still count as virgins. I forget now what the answer was. It also has the virtue of being rather short.

Unlike that huge thing about the fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon? Yes. Unlike that. And it’s got really nice pictures, maps and plans. It’s 183 pages long. Some books are too long to read. I can’t say that. It’s the end of my career.

Interview by Anna Blundy

October 4, 2010

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Harry Sidebottom

Harry Sidebottom

Harry Sidebottom teaches Ancient History at Oxford University. His scholarly interests include Greek culture under the Roman empire and warfare in classical antiquity and he is the author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction. His historical novels include the Warrior of Rome series, which starts off in 255 with Fire in the East—where Romans are fighting off the Persian Sassanid Empire—and centre on a Roman soldier called Ballista. He is also the author of The Throne of the Caesars trilogy, also set in the 3rd century, as six men lay claim to the emperorship in a single year.

Harry Sidebottom

Harry Sidebottom

Harry Sidebottom teaches Ancient History at Oxford University. His scholarly interests include Greek culture under the Roman empire and warfare in classical antiquity and he is the author of Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction. His historical novels include the Warrior of Rome series, which starts off in 255 with Fire in the East—where Romans are fighting off the Persian Sassanid Empire—and centre on a Roman soldier called Ballista. He is also the author of The Throne of the Caesars trilogy, also set in the 3rd century, as six men lay claim to the emperorship in a single year.