Someone made a mess on the way to the Forum, bring a sponge!

bloodEver since the 6th grade, after a particularly enthralling section on ancient Egypt, I’ve been fascinated by the ancient Mediterranean.  Due to circumstance and good sense, I studied a “practical” subject in graduate school, but a work of Classical literature or history is always at my bedside. I am lucky enough to be able to indulge this vice during working hours by buying the new books in that subject area.  One such purchase was Blood in the Forum by Pamela Marin.  Don’t let the salacious title and blood spattered book-jacket fool you – this is a serious work of scholarship about the tumultuous last decades of the Republic.

The author, who studied at Oxford and University College in Dublin Ireland, organizes her research in a unique manner.  First she outlines what it meant to be a citizen during the last century of the Republic; then she traces the events year by year from the 80’s BCE to the Ides of March, 44 BCE (Julius Caesar’s death); grouping them by topic and correlating them so the reader gains a more complete understanding than is perhaps conveyed in other books on the subject.  Marin concludes her treatise with an examination of the repercussions of Caesar’s murder and the political situation inherited by Octavian.

This organizational scheme is excellent, making it easy to understand the socio-political landscape, mindset and actions of the major figures but what’s missing from Marin’s narrative are the juicy bits that hold the facts and analysis together and keep the pages turning.  Marin includes very few character observations from writers closer to the time such as Cicero, Plutarch or Sallust, and as a result, the major players seem flat, and well, dull! One’s life history, proclivities, and ambitions are what make us interesting and certainly the powerful men of Rome were colorful folks.  Sulla, rumor had it, was a notorious lover but had a bad complexion; Marius was tormented by jealousy, and we’ve all heard the nicknames bestowed on Caesar by his army buddies!  A full character sketch like something out of a Colleen McCullough novel is certainly not warranted in a work of scholarship but a whiff of scandal, juicy sex, and some background, factually true or not, helps the drama unfold and make sense.

Ultimately, this book clearly illustrates the political situation of the faltering Republic of Rome but it will not titillate the dilettante. However, all who love ancient history will gain something from this book.  To satisfy all, keep a copy of Cicero, Plutarch or Sallust by your side to fill in the gaps – sometimes an original source (or at least more contemporary source) is still the best.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Pamela
    Jul 1, 2014

    Many thanks for the positive review – sadly, all the lovely and interesting stories aren’t considered ‘acceptable’ in an ‘academic’ style book, but I do convey the stories about Sulla, et al, to my students. I always ask students to consider who they would invite to a dinner party: Cicero – drinks beforehand, but not to dinner as would monopolise the conversation and tell everyone how he saved the republic, Cato would pontificate on how glorious his illustrious great grandfather was, Caesar – not sure whether he would cross the threshold and my favourite – Pompey, after whom I named my pet hamster at Oxford.

    I did want to put the Cure lyrics in the chapter on Catiline, but was over-ruled, so hard to present a popular and academic history.

    best wishes

    ps. I wish I had done a chapter on Augustus and how he ‘really’ destroyed the republic, but alas, wasn’t thinking clearly at the time.

    • Taryn
      Jul 23, 2014

      Thanks so much your comment! I think the chapter on Augustus would make a fine popular history in its own right – go for it! The public has an insatiable appetite for books on ancient Rome, especially ones with juicy stories! Cheers!

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