A modern historian fills in the gaps left by previous accounts of the Roman Empire’s most politically chaotic year.
The period between June 68 and December 69 saw four different men claim the imperial throne, aided by murders, suicides, conspiracies, mutinies, civil war and no small amount of happenstance. Five ancient historians recorded these events, chief among them Tacitus, Suetonius and Plutarch. Since their accounts do not always agree, it falls to their present-day counterparts to adjudicate fact from fiction and history from invention. Morgan (Classics and History/Univ. of Texas, Austin) does an admirably thorough job of guiding his readers through the minutiae of political intrigue and the conflicting chronicles that have come to define the year 69. Few details escape his purview: A precise account of the emperor Galba’s incongruously pompous march into Rome is representative of the narrative’s tenor, as is the patient sifting through different versions of the suicide of Galba’s usurper, Otho. In addition to supplying a near-forensic level of detail, the author also considers how contemporary historians have misunderstood their predecessors. Literary conventions shaped the ancient historical method, he argues. Failing to acknowledge this, 20th-century studies of 69 A.D. in general and Tacitus in particular have drawn erroneous conclusions about both the facts of the period and Tacitus’ opinion of them. Famous for his curt and epigrammatic style, the senator and orator emerges here not so much as disdainful or obscure but rather as a literary stylist of the first order. Unfortunately, Morgan’s dedication to fleshing out the ambiguous moments in the lives of Tacitus and others slows the book’s pace considerably. Only scholars and the most diehard Roman aficionados will feel compelled to read it cover to cover.
Informative, but heavy as a sack of Roman coins.