Thursday, May 3, 2012

Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak – Review

The Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak presents the lives and times of Roman rulers from Romulus to Augustus, in an accessible and colorful way. The book is part of the Chronicle Series, published by Thames & Hudson, which also includes the Chronicle of the Roman Emperors, of the Popes, of the Old Testament Kings, of the Russian Tsars, and so on – with the obvious goal of making history accessible and easy to understand.

Truth is, this is the kind of book you'd never think of buying until you run out of gift ideas for a friend with an interest in history. It's rather a coffee table book than one you can take with you in the bathtub to enhance your knowledge while relaxing in lavender bubbles. It has hundreds of nice illustrations, inserts and text boxes that describe various aspects of the daily life in ancient Rome, serving as explanations for the main events.

Thus, the book is awesome for quick references, when you don't have your smartphone to check something on the net, but it doesn't get you a smooth reading experience, which is a pity, since history is supposed to be a story after all. The format would be better suited for hypertext rather than printed text, but I have yet to find a website that's organized with so much care and attention to details. The main problem is that the format of the Chronicles series doesn't really suit the topic. The author has to break down the time-line by the lives of the rulers, so he can't always follow through each event in its logical unfolding. The format works great for the imperial period, but the history of the Republic is a mixture of legends, confusion, and taunting archaeological evidence, which doesn't always make sense. Probably the Romans themselves, despite being used to the annals, would have been confused by the system as well: their first history of Rome purposely mentioned no names; people weren't relevant, the City was.

Once you get over the initial disappointment that you have a pretty book that can't be read like a normal book, you'll find that the Chronicle of the Roman Republic has actually a lot of substance. Philip Matyszak does not compromise accuracy for the appeal of the text, but he does have a sense of selecting trivia and amusing details to keep the reader entertained. If you've already read all the primary, ancient sources, and one or two other books about the period, you may not find a lot of new information in the Chronicle – but it's still a pretty thing to have. If you're new to the topic, and you're looking for a good overview, it makes a great resource, because the Republic is otherwise rather dull, and many other materials that have been published on the topic are not easy to swallow by casual readers.