Thursday, July 16, 2015

History of Rome by Michael Grant.

Michael Grant’s History of Rome is as standard and scholarly a depiction on this subject as you will find anywhere. It is not highly original or challenging in its conclusions. But it is an interesting and easy read by a historian who mastered his topic and was a skilled, methodical writer. Using his consummate understanding and proficient writing ability, Grant leads the reader from the Etruscan Period through the fall of the Western Empire after the split between Rome and Constantinople. He accomplishes this task in approximately 500 pages. Given that such breadth of time is often covered in twenty volume enterprises, one must admire the author’s concision.

While the insights Grant offers are hardly original, they are beautifully expressed with all of the thoughtful complexity intended by the progenitors of these ideas:
“Hannibal was…one of the world’s most noble failures, an altogether exceptional man who took on, in deadly warfare, a nation empowered with rocklike resolution—and that nation proved too much for him. It emerged hardened from the supreme test, and ironically, his most lasting achievement was to confirm and magnify its confidence and power” (Grant, p. 127).
In a couple of short sentences, the historian conveys Hannibal’s character, Rome’s tenacity, and the fascinating paradox that Hannibal produced the opposite of his intention despite heroic efforts of genius.

One surprising feature of this book is the inadequacy of its endnotes. They exist primarily as a further discussion of events and issues; not as confirmation of the statements to which they refer. Sometimes, during the process of explication, Grant will reveal the name of an individual who is a source (as he does in discussion of the claim that Jesus was born earlier than 4 BC [Grant, p. 499]). But even in that instance, he does not tell the reader where he found that source. Most often, he simply offers no information to permit one to investigate his interpretation. It is understood that history is not a science. But the more evidence a work offers, the more accuracy it will contain. Statements and conclusions that are drawn from primary sources, and from the real science of archaeology, are the evidence of history. Notes are the documentation of that evidence. Without accurate documentation, historians cannot confirm or falsify each other’s findings. Consequently, it is impossible to tell how the writer arrived at a conclusion. Statements without evidence are no better than legend.

But this is the only major flaw in an otherwise exceptional synoptic history. It is a difficult task to present a brief account of an extensive time period, about which so much has been written. Among such projects, there is a tendency to over-generalize and present a bare-bones outline, leaving the reader without rich thought or detailed picture of life. Grant performs a superior service by elegantly balancing his subject’s flow and the Empire’s evolution, with instructive, personally relatable features in which history lives. If your goal is to obtain an overview of the Roman Empire, you could hardly do better than to pick-up this volume.

Grant, Michael. History of Rome. New York: History Book Club, 1997.