Review | Ten Caesars – Barry S. Strauss

About the Book

In this essential and “enlightening” (The New York Times Book Review) work, Barry Strauss tells the story of the Roman Empire from rise to reinvention, from Augustus, who founded the empire, to Constantine, who made it Christian and moved the capital east to Constantinople.

During these centuries Rome gained in splendor and territory, then lost both. By the fourth century, the time of Constantine, the Roman Empire had changed so dramatically in geography, ethnicity, religion, and culture that it would have been virtually unrecognizable to Augustus. Rome’s legacy remains today in so many ways, from language, law, and architecture to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Strauss examines this enduring heritage through the lives of the men who shaped it: Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine. Over the ages, they learned to maintain the family business—the government of an empire—by adapting when necessary and always persevering no matter the cost.

Ten Caesars is a “captivating narrative that breathes new life into a host of transformative figures” (Publishers Weekly). This “superb summation of four centuries of Roman history, a masterpiece of compression, confirms Barry Strauss as the foremost academic classicist writing for the general reader today”.

432 pages (hardcover)
March 5, 2019
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This is one of those books that I probably wouldn’t have read because I typically have a rather “meh” interest in all things Roman. However, I was browsing through Kindle books and saw that it was on sale and thought, why not.

So, going into this, you need to understand that I am very uh… ignorant of most of Roman history, except for the bullet points that just about everyone knows. I do think that impacts my reading. I think if you are really into Roman history, and this is your bread and butter, you’ll likely find this book to be an overview of information you already know. However, if you’re like me and you don’t know a whole lot about anything, then you’ll probably think this book is really interesting and incredibly engrossing. In fact, I liked it so much, it’s actually put me on a bit of a Roman Empire bender, which is something I never really thought I would say.

So yeah, be aware of that going into it. If you really enjoy this topic and you’ve already read a lot about it, you might want to skip this book because it’s not incredibly in depth, and I don’t think you’ll find much new information here.

This book tells the story of ten caesars, some of them are covered with more detail than others. What I probably noticed and enjoyed the most right off the bat, was how accessible this book was, as a whole. Each life story is succinct and cleanly written in a style that is easy to sink into, and the timeline is crystal clear (though I did sometimes have a hard time understanding who was tangentially related to who and oh my god a lot of women have the same name, which is zero help but that’s not the author’s fault.)

Understanding that I knew nothing much about any of these dudes except the facts like, Nero sang while Rome burned, for example, there was a whole lot in each story that really intrigued me, and Strauss does a really good job of showing popular lore, historical evidence, and what probably happened when you balance those two things. There were also a lot of cultural nuggets that I didn’t know before. While it is not covered in the book, one thing that I perhaps took away from this (which I’m not exactly sure I should have because again, it’s not covered) was how so many of the women attached to these men were extremely powerful, both politically and socially, though they had to sort of weld their power and manipulate in far more subtle ways. For example, Nero’s mother, who was extremely adept at manipulating public opinion, and truly became a threat to those ruling during her time.

In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore, not because of the topic, but because it’s a broad overview, much like The Romanovs, and some characters and historical time periods are covered more in depth than others. This book also very much feels like a jumping-off point for further research rather than a comprehensive book you read to fully understand a topic. Each of the ten caesars, starting with Agustus, are covered more like stepping stones than anything else, and while I did enjoy that treatment of them, I felt more like I was dipping my toe in the water rather than getting my whole foot wet. Since then, I have been tracking down books that cover specific time periods in more detail, and I will be honest, I do think the author could have spent a bit more time on some caesars.

However, despite the vignette nature of the lives of these people, the writing is so engrossing and engaging, I could hardly put it down, and maybe that’s what I appreciated the most about the book. This author took a period of history that doesn’t particularly do much for me, and managed to write it in such a way that now I’m just obsessed with not only learning more about the Roman Empire, but the larger world around the Roman Empire during that time. I think that’s the mark of a truly good nonfiction book, it doesn’t just inform and educate, but it makes you want to learn more and expand your horizons.

So, would I recommend this book to everyone? No. I think, by and large, having someone read this book who is already very well informed in these figures, their life and times, etc. would probably be a frustrating exercise rather than illuminating. It is so captivating, engrossing, and interesting because I don’t know much about it. The first time I read The Romanovs, I couldn’t put it down. I was so interested in it, I couldn’t pull myself out of it. However, since then, I have read a whole lot more about the Romanovs and Russian history as a whole. I tried to re-read that book, and it was interesting but it didn’t do much for me because I already knew all this stuff. An overview wasn’t really engaging anymore.

I think of Ten Caesars like that. It’s interesting, because I don’t know anything about it, and maybe if you do know something about this stuff, you’ll enjoy the writing and maybe glean some new information, but I feel like this is more of an introduction, more of a book you read when you want to dip your toe in. It’s full of great information, accessible and entertaining writing, and a whole bunch of jumping-off points for further research. For the tried-and-true Roman Empire fan, they likely won’t find much here that they didn’t already know.

4/5 stars

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