Inside the Emperors’ Clothes

Emperor Nero; painting by Abraham Janssens, 1618
Jagdschloss Grunewald, Berlin/bpk/Art Resource
Emperor Nero; painting by Abraham Janssens, 1618

The empire of ancient Rome spanned the entire Mediterranean world. It included two of the world’s great monotheist religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it provided the environment for the creation of a third, Islam. Historians from antiquity to the present have struggled to comprehend how a small Italian town grew from modest beginnings into a republic and then, after a succession of civil wars, into a great empire. Edward Gibbon was not the only one to recognize that the market for Roman history was huge. It still is, not least because of its colorful and larger-than-life rulers but above all because it embraced so many different and yet interconnected peoples. From the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from the Rhine and the Danube to the edge of the Sahara, Rome transformed and refashioned the cultures it absorbed, and we live today with the aftermath of its conquests.

Rome’s achievement was as paradoxical as it was immense. It seems to have happened without any design or master plan. Gibbon was the first to see that this global transformation could be explained neither by listing dates and sources nor by appealing to divine intervention. The antiquarians who preceded Gibbon not only failed to explain Rome’s rise but failed to perceive, as he conspicuously did, that Roman history had all the ingredients for a great work of literature. Gibbon set the gold standard for literary history, which not even Johann Gustav Droysen on Alexander the Great or Francis Parkman on France and England in America could match. His success was arguably due as much to his great theme as to his tireless industry in composing his work. The three books under review prove that the appetite for Roman history continues unabated to this day.

Anglophone readers have every reason to rejoice that Gibbon, the first and greatest of modern Roman historians, wrote in their language. Theodor Mommsen, who won the Nobel Prize for writing about ancient Rome in German, knew perfectly well that he was no Gibbon. He steadfastly refused to bring his Roman history into the imperial period, where he would have had to compete with his admired eighteenth-century English predecessor. Apart from Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution of 1939, which distilled the irony and insight of Tacitus’s Latin into lapidary English prose, no histories of Rome in English have achieved Gibbon’s unique combination of deep scholarship and literary style.

Yet by an astonishing coincidence two contemporary English authors who write often and well about ancient Rome, Mary Beard and Tom Holland, have simultaneously produced readable histories of Rome. It would be patronizing and wrong to speak of their work as popularization, but there can be little doubt that both writers are deservedly popular. Between them they have done more to promote classical studies than all the professors who try to reach thousands…

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