Thursday, October 28, 2010

Book Review – The Sons of Caesar by Philip Matyszak

The Julio-Claudian dynasty is the darling of authors who write about ancient history – both fiction and non-fiction. There's so much drama, murders, backstabbing and gossiping, and at the same time, so many great achievements were recorded during this ages – the kind that changed Europe forever. In addition, the period is very well documented, both in surviving ancient texts and from the archaeological point of view.

So, one more history book about the Julio-Claudians? What for? We all know the basic plot, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Caligula made his horse a senator and Nero killed his mother while watching Rome burn... or something like that.

Well, that's the problem. There's too much unverified information about this period, there have been too many movies and fiction books, which managed to turn ancient gossip into modern day facts. So, I think it was time for a new book on the Julio-Claudians, one that takes into account the latest archaeological discoveries and the newest methods of interpretation, focuses on clear facts only and presents an overview of the period, without all the minor details that abound in books that focus on each of the family members separately.

And that's just what Philip Matyszak does in The Sons of Caesar.

General information:

Author: Philip Matyszak
ISBN-10: 0500251282
ISBN-13: 978-0500251287
Price range: starting from $1 (used) up to $35 (new, hardcover)

Philip Matyszak discusses the usual suspects, Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero in chronological order, including clear and detailed family trees to shed some light over the very complex family relations of the first Roman dynasty. The author has a coherent and well-presented view of the power transfer in ancient Rome, from Republic to a (more of less unofficial) ruling family, and then to other dynasties, stressing the key moments when the Republic could have been restored – and why the circumstances were never right for that move.

As always, Philip Matyszak has a clear, concise and enjoyable writing style, and his approach is very well documented, avoiding controversial and unverified claims. The book is well organized, so you can skip to the chapters about your favorite Julio-Claudian, though I would recommend reading it from the beginning to the end, in order to get a full image of the author's argumentation.

For those familiar with the period, The Sons of Caesar does not bring any new facts or epiphanies, but it sets the known details into the right sequence, with a moderate point of view, which avoids the common trap of starting to develop sympathies or antipathies for some of the characters. For those who know only what Hollywood had to share about the 1st century, it's a good place to start, since it's an easy read, without the tedious minor details of the over-documented accounts.

About the author

Philip Matyszak is a reputed author of history books on ancient Rome and ancient Greece. He teaches ancient history for Madingley Hall Institute of Continuing Education, Cambridge University and has a doctorate in Roman history from St John's College, Oxford. He has immersed himself into the ancient world so much, he admits feeling “a bit uncomfortable in the 21st Century” at times. You can also check out Philip Matyszak's blog.

Now what?

Have you read it already?
Try another book by the same author:

Legionary: The Roman Soldier's (Unofficial) Manual (Unofficial Manuals)
Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day (Traveling on 5)
Chronicle of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus (The Chronicles Series)