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Great book, but with predictable writing style, and major gaps
on 14 January 2013
All in all, this is an excellent book. The author seems to understand Rome better than most others do, or at the very least, better than most others can explain. For example, I was never aware that the Senate was not actually a political body, but a think tank. Also, I did not know that the Christians that rejected the Holy Trinity, the Arians, were called so due to the "renegade" bishop called Arius. To cite one more example, Baker is the only author to refer to the ousting of the Etruscan king by Brutus as a "coup d'etat". But, push come to shove, Baker only had 400 pages to work with, and he had to pick only the most pivotal moments in Roman history, and focus on them. This causes three problems: there are important things left out, there are useless details just thrown in there, and finally the pivotal moments are not what I would have chosen.
The first problem becomes apparent when Baker goes from Augustus in chapter II to Nero in chapter III. Although later briefly mentioned, not discussed are the purges of Tiberius and Caligula, the bribing into office of Claudius, and the insane excesses of Caligula. Another case is with the description of the fall of Rome. Baker dedicates 40 pages of the last chapter describing the plight of the Vandals and how their general Alaric essentially defeated the Western Empire, and then a measly three and a half paragraphs on Atila the Hun, who defeated both the Eastern and Western Empires.
The first case of useless details is Tiberius Grachus, famous for being a tribune who fought for the common people, and for this, the Senators killed him. Baker, spends 50 pages on this, and it makes for an extremely boring read. Baker follows this guy all the way across Spain and then during the sack of Carthage, just to tell us what I just told you. Context is good, but not when you have a limited amount of time, which leads in to my third criticism.
Finally, I actually disagree with some of the "pivotal moments" Baker chose. For example, he prescribes the decline into the Dominate to Nero, when it is generally accredited to Diocletion, given that this is essentially the only reason for going into so much detail regarding Nero, it's a huge blunder. There is also a whole chapter dedicated to the uprising in Jerusalem. This is one of my favorite chapters, but it doesn't change the fact that it is not a "pivotal moment" in the decline of Rome. Granted, it led to Vespasian becoming emperor, but that does not warrant 50 pages of in depth analysis on Titus' military tactics. Then there's the Hadrian chapter. Personally, I would not at all call Hadrian an emperor pivotal to the decline of the empire. Also, this had to be the most boring of all chapters, which leads to, my final criticism, the actual writing and pacing.
The pacing is all over the place: Caesar is action packed but Grachus is the anachronistic drying of paint, Titus and Vespasian are are action heroes, but Hadrian's only contribution is a wall, Nero plotting to kill his mother or executing people for their money is interesting, but hearing about how he liked to sing and play the flute is extremely boring. It does not help that Baker's predictable conclusion get really dry by the time the second chapter rolls around. Here is one example paragraph which shows Baker's amazing ability to pad the heck out of anything:
"Were the wars they had waged really defensive and just, as many had claimed, or were they simply naked expressions of the desire for gain? Who really benefited from that gain? The Roman Republic as a whole, or just a few aristocrats who had profited while holding office? Above all, what effect did winning an empire have on the moral character of Rome? Was it encouraging virtue in its soldiers and leaders, or simply greed and corruption? Indeed, were personal ambition and the pursuit of glory now being set above the interests of the Republic and the Roman people? This was the great debate that the conquest of the Mediterranean had ignited. In 146 BC one event would fan its flames to a roaring blaze."
Putting aside the fact that Baker must have been on speed when he wrote out that stream of thought, he employs that same transition tactic to link two chapters, "In 146 BC one event would fan its flames to a roaring blaze", in this case the first punic war, and it gets so predictable that it starts to get under your skin. It's like those old TV shows, "will Batman escape the Riddler's diabolical machine? Stay tuned to find out".