A detailed history of Rome’s transition from republic to empire, a disruptive, violent process.
Alston (Roman History/Royal Holloway, Univ. of London; The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt, 2001, etc.) begins with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Caesar’s power was a threat to the continuance of the republic and to the authority of the senate. But instead of ending the threat, the murder set loose forces that gave it new momentum. To put the story in context, Alston steps back more than 100 years, when tension between the power of the senate and the rights of the Roman people led to the murder of Tiberius Gracchus, a tribune. From that point, he follows the course of history through the death of Augustus in A.D. 14. The author argues that recent historians have misunderstood the dynamics of Roman political culture, causing them to underplay the violence of the revolution. He also emphasizes the paradoxes of Roman society that created the opportunities for charismatic leaders to seize absolute power. Most readers, though, will find the narrative more compelling than the thesis. This is an incredibly rich period full of great characters and world-shaking events. The careers of Caesar, Pompey, Antony, Cleopatra, and Augustus are set against the inexorable emergence of a monarchy, carefully marketed by Augustus as the restoration of the very republic he was overthrowing. Alston sets these events in the context of Roman society, examining the effects on the ordinary people and the role of the army. Along the way, even readers with some grounding in classical history are likely to learn a good deal about the era. But while the history is engaging, Alston is working in territory mined by the likes of Shakespeare and Plutarch, tough acts for anyone to follow. Readers not already interested in the history of Rome may find this solid treatment of the subject something less than a page-turner.
A touch on the dry side but a feast for classical scholars.