Saturday, October 24, 2015

Book Review: The Twelve Caesars by Matthew Dennison

     Since Rome: An Empire's Story didn't quite satisfy me, I decided to pick up The Twelve Caesars. I thought it looked quite interesting, as it combined the original Twelve Caesars, along with some other sources, with modern scholarship. I would say overall it achieved its purpose, but at the same time, I once again feel like I didn't quite get the whole story.

     Part of the problem is that we once again have stories that skip back and forth. Is this part of modern literature now? One of my creative writing professor's critiques was that my stories were entirely chronological, as though you have to have flash backs and time skips to be interesting. Sometimes that works, but sometimes that doesn't, and to be honest my mind works chronologically. Dennison writes engaging stories regarding the emperors, but we wander back and forth through their lives, referencing things that happened years before the emperor becomes, well, an emperor. Sometimes this works out, such as the chapter taking on a "how did we get to the point of the Praetorian guard murdering another emperor?", but other times it seems arbitrary.

     The other problem is that Dennison, bless his heart, tries to be a wacky, comedic British bawd, and it just doesn't work. I don't need snide remarks on the emperor's decadent sex lives, thank you very much. I don't care if Suetonius and Tacitus did it, you don't need to do it too. I'm here for the history. If I want bawdy comedy I'd read Shakespeare.

     What this amounts to is that, while informative and engaging, it's hard to tell how much you're reading is based on scholarship and how much is Dennison cracking jokes about some of the ancient scholars' more exaggerated stories of the emperors. Dennison also tries to make the book chatty by using sentence fragments a lot, which just really bothers me. When did "make a book interesting" become "make a book stupid"? Look, I love history, but I don't like the stuffy, droning books any more than other people do. But that doesn't mean I don't want complete sentences and serious scholarship. This isn't to say that Dennison isn't a serious scholar. But it doesn't come across that way in the book.

     Anyways, all that is water under the bridge. I've left the Roman empire behind, and I'm now reading about the Middle Ages, because we can all use more Charlemagne in our lives.

1 comment:

  1. I read "Roman Realities" by Finley Hooper this year, and it was really good. It covers all of Roman history in one volume, and it's actually chronological!