Friday, October 23, 2015

Book Review: Rome: An Empire's Story by Greg Woolf

Let's take a break from Doctor Who to talk about history-namely, Rome. And I don't mean that time the Doctor gave Nero the idea to burn the city down.

    I've always been rather interested in how Rome went from being a gung-ho republic to accepting an emperor and the figurehead nature of the Senate. Well, it didn't happen overnight (and, in my next review of a book about Rome, it will become apparent that republic ideals didn't entirely fade).

     I'll be honest, I went into this book expecting a chronological view of the process. As such, I felt a bit disoriented by how Woolf jumped from subject to subject. While there is some chronology, it is really about how each aspect of Roman identity altered over the course of hundreds of years. This was an interesting take on it, but I still think that it would have been better to go chronologically. It would have felt a little more seamless.

     Woolf starts by pointing out the obvious: the basis for empire was already there, in Roman thought. Rome was imperial long before there was an actual emperor. When Rome began to fracture from civil war, it revealed a power gap that one person could easily step into. The senate's power was fading long before the emperors took it entirely away.

     The book was a bit of a slow one. That said, it wasn't really long enough to give a good comprehensive view. Woolf hits some good points, but it covers such a long period that we get an overview of each aspect, such as war and slavery. Woolf maintains a neutral tone throughout the book.

     Until we get to the rise of Christianity. Quite suddenly, Woolf's even tone becomes a bit vicious toward the Christian emperors, and toward Christians in general. This was a huge turn off. Look, guys, we can say all we want that we need to keep an "open mind" about things we don't agree with, but you try reading a book that viciously criticizes everything you believe in. No one likes that. And that's what Woolf does. He takes jabs at saints "gleefully" chronicling martyrs' fates, showing a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian thought regarding martyrdom. If you're going to criticize someone, you need to understand how they think first. And Woolf doesn't. This is after he deals with various religious beliefs in the Roman empire with the same neutral tone that he uses for the rest of the book.

     Overall, this book was a good overview of the rise of the Roman empire and the impulses that led to it. But the incredibly long period makes it hard to hit nuances, and Woolf dropping his objective tone when speaking of Christianity shows either a hostility so innate he can't fight it, or a decision that he doesn't need to be objective on that one subject. Neither one speaks well of his objectivity as a historian.


  1. It sounds like now you need to read "Defending Constantine" by Peter Leithart!