Oneworld Publication (2023) h/b 416pp £18.88 (ISBN 9780861542307)
The stated remit of this book is to provide ‘a revisionist history of the Roman Empire with Important Things relegated to the background,’ instead fore-fronting what is ‘domestic, feminine, boring and worthless’ in male eyes (p. 2). But it is noteworthy that, despite the author’s evident distaste for politics and wars, the contextualising introductions to all her women’s biographies rely heavily on the framework of politics and wars provided by male political historians, documented in the scholarly notes. Nor should it come as a surprise that these men, with their exclusive access to higher education, chose to write about subjects that interested themselves rather than about the domestic and social concerns of women.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as merely aiming ‘to amuse and entertain rather than to teach accurate information’ like the Historia Augusta and the Sharpe novels (p. 287) because of its overtly feminist agenda and highly colloquial style (it is described by the writer in terms of ‘a chat’ with her reader p. 8). It is certainly a very personal take on Roman history by a writer who stamps a vivid impression of her own likes and dislikes on her pages. But that would be to miss what is really striking about it, which are the interesting perspectives that result from S.’s light-hearted and readable re-evaluation of what it is to be Roman throughout the centuries.
Certainly, the book undertakes to paint a huge historical canvas with broad brushstrokes, as it deals with the entire span of 753 BC-AD 476 in a single volume. Because it is intentionally provocative, it suffers from a tendency to overstatement, employing imprecise emotive language and unhelpful generalisations such as ‘Romulus was bloody awful obviously, but then Roman men all were’ (p.12) and witty over-simplifications, e.g. comparing Catullus’ Lesbia and her set to ‘a kind of Roman Bloomsbury Group’ (p.112). It is very much of the moment with its liberal use of modern references, which will rapidly date as time moves on, and there is also a tendency to regard historical Roman customs from the wholly modern perspective of 21st century sensibilities, e.g. attitudes toward the deaths of children (p.74) and the account of Roman religious practices (pp.68-9). All this merely reinforces non-specialist stereotypes rather than helping readers to understand Roman behaviour and beliefs.
Many traditional stories are told with great verve, such as the tales of Lucretia (pp.42ff.) and Elagabalus (p.268f.), although this does lead to a habit of dwelling on the sensational, e.g. the ritual entombment of a Vestal Virgin for impurity (pp.71ff.) or hysterical Bacchic orgies (pp.83ff.). However, information given is largely well-documented from sources, the author being willing to speculate, but reluctant to condone pure imagination (p.125).
More interesting are the fresh perspectives on being Roman which the book offers from the point of view of outsiders or underlings. S. shows how using a greater variety of sources like letters, speeches and poems (p.113) can give access to the lives of ordinary women like Hispala Faecenia, who reluctantly told the consul Postumius the truth about the Bacchic Mysteries. S. sympathetically fleshes out how it might feel to have been Augustus’ daughter, Julia, and vividly pictures the complex of Julia Felix in Pompeii with its bar, baths and landscaped gardens. She emphasises the wide range of women’s experiences and the complexity of evolving Roman identity with the stories of Julia Balbilla carving herself into history with poems inscribed on the leg of the singing statue of Memnon in Egypt, Perpetua’s first-person perspective on Roman motherhood, or Zenobia’s bid for imperial power. She also highlights what is likely to have gone on behind the official façade of Roman male power, the ‘low-key diplomacy over lunches among the women who were related to powerful men’ (p.89). Pointing out that ‘no one is just one story’ (p.113) encourages different perspectives beyond the merely traditional ones.
This lively book is written primarily for non-specialists interested in social history and is broadly informative for a general reader. It fulfils its intention of making the story of Rome bigger, richer and more realistic through the experiences of women (p.354), although very few of these could claim to have actually ‘transformed the empire.’