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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An impressive and interesting work, 4 Jan. 2011
This review is from: The First Ladies of Rome: The Women Behind the Caesars (Hardcover)
Annelise Freisenbruch studied Classics at Cambridge University. Her (unpublished) PhD about the correspondence of Marcus Cornelius Fronto is from 2004. This account about the first ladies of Rome is her first book. It is an impressive debut (although there are a few unfortunate mistakes).

The main text is divided into nine chapters which follow a chronological line from the Julio-Claudian dynasty founded by Augustus and Livia in the first century BC until the Theodosian dynasty in the fifth century AD. At the end of the book we find notes with references, a bibliography and an index.

What about illustrations? In the beginning of the book we have a map of the Roman Empire and some useful charts (family trees of six imperial dynasties). In the middle of the book we have 34 photos, most of which are in colour. Each object in the photos is mentioned in the main text. Unfortunately, there is no cross reference from the main text to the photo (or the other way: from the photo caption to the main text).

The book is well written. It is based on ancient literary sources and modern scholarship. Archaeological evidence - such as coins, statues and portraits - is also used extensively.

The author presents a large number of persons, both men and women, but the focus is on the women, as far as this is possible. Here are some examples:

** In chapters 1-4 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Julio-Claudian dynasty: Livia, Octavia, Julia, Antonia Minor, Agrippina Minor, Livilla, Messalina, and Poppaea.

** In chapter 5 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Flavian dynasty: Julia Flavia, Domitia Longina, and Berenice.

** In chapter 6 we meet some of the women who are connected with the adoptive emperors: Plotina, Vibia Sabina, Annia Galeria Faustina (married to Antoninus Pius), and Faustina (married to Marcus Aurelius).

** In chapter 7 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Severan dynasty: Julia Domna, Julia Maesa, and Plautilla.

** In chapter 8 we meet some of the women who are connected with Constantine's dynasty: Helena and Fausta.

** In chapter 9 we meet some of the women who are connected with the Theodosian dynasty: Galla Placidia and Eudocia.

Freisenbruch got some good reviews. On the U.S. edition of the Amazon website there are excerpts from several highly positive reviews. But one of them, Publishers Weekly, includes a negative observation. It says the book is:

"Weakened only by a slight tendency to compare and contrast events with the modern media versions of Rome."

Actually, I think it is a good idea to explain how the history of ancient Rome has been - and is being - used by modern media such as film, television, and books. I am more annoyed with the modern parallels which pop up from time to time. They are not necessary and sometimes rather far fetched. Thus we hear about:

* Martha Washington (page 8)

* Nancy Reagan (page 85)

* Traditions in the White House (page 94)

We even hear about "the cookie-bake-off competition held every four years between potential American presidential spouses" (page 50).

These modern parallels cannot be described as a big problem. In my opinion they are just a case of poor judgement. But there are other problems. And, as far as I can see, they have not been mentioned by any other reviewer. Let me explain:

# 1: Several times the author reports a rumour that a member of an imperial family was murdered (e.g. by poison). Each time the reader must raise the question: what about this case? Is it true? What is the answer? Is it yes? Is it no? Is it maybe? But the author never gives a clear answer. On page 196 she tries to deal with this matter in the following way:

"Given the regularity with which such episodes recur in both ancient and later historiography and with such convenient similarities, the case for treating them with caution would seem particularly strong."

[There is an almost identical passage on page 85.]

To say we must proceed with caution is just to state the obvious. By saying this and no more than this she simply evades the question, which is not fair.

# 2: On page 195 we hear about Trajan's death in 117:

"... he fell seriously ill off the coast of southern Turkey, was forced to draw into harbour at Selinus on the south-west coast of Sicily, and died there on 8 August..."

There is indeed a Sicilian town Selinus. The Greek name is Selinunte. But Trajan did not die there. The Selinus where he died is in Cilicia in modern Turkey.

# 3: On page 196 we hear about the birth of Hadrian: "Born in the late 70s in the same region of Spain as his predecessor..."

Hadrian was born on 24 January 76, so the phrase "in the late 70s" is not quite accurate. His as well as Trajan's family came from the Spanish town Italica, located around 10 km north of modern Seville, but we do not know where he was born.

Thorsten Opper, whose book Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is listed in the bibliography, says Hadrian was born in Rome (pp. 32 & 34). Opper quotes the Historia Augusta. But as Freisenbruch explains several times, this ancient source is not always reliable (pp. 189, 201, and 214).

For the modern historian the only safe option is to say we do not know where Hadrian was born.

# 4: On page 218 we hear about Septimius Severus who was born in 145 in the Libyan town Lepcis Magna (sometimes spelled Leptis Magna):

"Septimius Severus was to be the first emperor to celebrate his provincial origin in public building projects."

This is not true. As emperor from 117, Hadrian organised a huge building project in Italica. He built a new town next to the old one. Today most of the old town (urbs vetus) is covered by the modern village Santiponce (except for the theatre). But the remains of the new town (urbs nova) are still visible.

[For more information on this topic see Mary Boatwright, Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp 162-167.]

[Boatwright appears in Freisenbruch's bibliography with two articles. But the book about the cities of the Roman Empire is not listed.]

# 5: On page 228 we hear about Caracalla's wedding to Plautilla in 202:

"The wedding took place in April as part of the celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of Severus's rule..."

Severus's rule began in 193, so he could not celebrate his tenth anniversary in 202. He could (and did) celebrate the beginning of his tenth year as emperor.

[This mistake is repeated on page 231.]

In spite of these unfortunate mistakes I have to say this is an impressive and interesting book which is highly recommended.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 20 Feb 2011 04:39:25 GMT
greyollie says:
Toeben Retboll has given us an excellent, scholarly review. I really appreciate the efforts involved in writing such an insightful review. It is reviews of such detail in both comment and proividing references to substantiate the reviewer's comments are invaluable in overcoming the one great drawback of online book shops - a potential buyer cannot leaf through the book before deciding to buy. Thank you very much Ms/Mr Retboll for such a thoughtful review. Your review helped me to decide to purchase the book.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Feb 2011 14:19:49 GMT
To greyollie:

Thank you for your comment. I am glad to hear that you like my review.

[By the way: my title is Mr.]

Torben Retboll
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