*Rome: An Empire’s Story*

by on July 9, 2012 at 3:28 pm in Books, History, Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new book by Greg Woolf.  Could it now be the best single-volume introduction to the history of ancient Rome?  It is conceptual yet avoids the pitfalls of overgeneralizing, a difficult balance to strike.  It also has a superb (useful rather than exhaustive) bibliography.  A good measure of books such as this is whether they induce you to read or order other books on the same topic and this one did.

A sure thing to make my “Best Books of 2012” list.

1 otto July 9, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Woolf had the reputation of being a great tutor in Roman history back in his Oxford days.

2 Adrian Ratnapala July 9, 2012 at 4:33 pm

The very idea of empire was created in ancient Rome…

No it was not. The word was created there, and words are important. But they are not the same thing as ideas.

3 doctorpat July 10, 2012 at 12:19 am

The Persian Empire springs to mind as an instant disproof.

4 Lorenzo from Oz July 10, 2012 at 1:53 am

When revenue was based on control of farmers and trade, then imperialism was what all rulerships did to the limit to they could control and which generated a positive return. It was about optimising expropriation both intensively and extensively. What else would one have expected?

5 Alex' July 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

I feel there’s an insightful comment there, but a few grammar errors make it difficult to parse.

6 Scout July 9, 2012 at 4:50 pm
7 Andreas Moser July 9, 2012 at 5:17 pm

How does this compare to Boris Johnson’s “The Dream of Rome”?

8 dearieme July 9, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I have a one-volume abridgement of Gibbon which is pretty wonderful as literature. How much worse it is as history I don’t know. Given how approximate and incomplete even the best history must be, I’m not sure how important that is.

9 Thor July 10, 2012 at 10:08 pm

I have that one too — it’s a Penguin edition, as I recall. As I also have several non-abridged editions (i.e., all three volumes), I can report that what gets cut is pretty easily cuttable / skippable boring stuff. It’s a great work, considered to be the finest prose in the history of writing in the English language.

10 TheCrankyProfessor July 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Dearieme – Gibbon is a great prose stylist, but he thought and wrote before the invention of archaeology. To the extent that modern historians rely on literary sources, he is quite good. To the extent that we have learned something from archaeology, he is useless.

Interestingly, though, his apprehension that the rise of Christianity* had something important and causative to do with the big change (we don’t usually call it a “Fall” nowadays) is back in intellectual fashion – especially the rise of monastic chastity driving the declining birth rate among elites. But even that shift is largely based on archaeological evidence of the conversion of great villas to monasteries!

*not to mention that Gibbon had a great big ol’ axe to grind against the Catholic Church. Gibbon converted to Catholicism at 16. His father shipped him off to Switzerland for what we nowadays call deprogramming. It worked – but left him a tad hostile about things like the conversion of Constantine.

11 dearieme July 10, 2012 at 4:10 am

“we don’t usually call it a “Fall” nowadays”: then what a bunch of lying shitbags “we” are.

12 So Much For Subtlety July 10, 2012 at 6:47 am


They weren’t barbarians. They were differently civilized.

13 Slocum July 10, 2012 at 7:05 am
14 Peter A July 11, 2012 at 6:03 am

It wasn’t a “Fall”. The Roman Empire didn’t really end until Islam swept through the Eastern Empire in the 7th century basically destroying it, even though Constantinople limped on for a few more centuries. Up until that point even the Western Empire, although ruled by German invaders, still had a fair amount of continuity with the past. It was very likely Islam, and the economic and political disruption caused by Arabic conquerors, that ushered in the dark ages in Europe.

15 Guy Fulton July 10, 2012 at 7:34 am

There are infinite amounts of short introductions to popular episodes in history, Nazi Germany, Rome, The Crusades, French Revolution, etc. However there are really very few huge, exhaustive multi-volume histories of these things. Why? Does nobody have time to read them? Why waste time with a short intro when you can read 6000 pages and get the whole thing? I just don’t understand. One of my favorite reads were some of the 8 volumes of History of the University of Oxford.

At least Gibbon wrote perhaps 500 more pages than this guy but if you really like roman history I recommend reading Josephus. On the other hand Tyler does mention that Woolfe has a supremo bibliography so perhaps this would be a good jumping off point.

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