Friday, April 24, 2009

A Dark History: The Roman Emperors

My wife says I'm weird. And she's probably right.

Now she could easily pick from a whole list of strange behavior on my part to support her declaration. But last night, the thing she zeroed in on is the fact that I was reading a history book. For fun.

Allow me to explain: I am fascinated by the Roman Empire. I don't know what it is about Rome, but I can't get enough. Perhaps it's because the Empire was the cradle into which Christianity was born. Perhaps it's because I see striking parallels between the Roman Empire and our current American Empire (and that's not really a good thing). Whatever the case, when I saw A Dark History: The Roman Emperors, I had this sudden urge to buy it and read it. And using some birthday money, I made the purchase and in the course of a day or two, devoured it.

On the whole, it's an okay book. Rather than deal with politics or warfare or anything like that, Michael Kerrigan (the book's author) spends his time detailing the lurid details of the early emperors' personal lives. Tales of gluttony, lust, betrayal, assassination, all those sorts of things fill the pages. If the details aren't salacious, they aren't here. For example, when we got to the Five Good Emperors, Kerrigan skipped half of them because they were too good and didn't have any tabloid-worthy exploits.

As much as I enjoy Roman history, this book left me kind of flat. For starters, there's the fact that I knew a lot of these stories already. I'm well acquainted with the tales of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, thanks to the historical novels of Paul Maier (namely Pontius Pilate and The Flames of Rome). The thing is, that's half of the book right there. So while I was reading half of this book, I kept thinking, "Yeah, I know, I know, I know."

Second, we have the little bit of "false advertising" in the title of this book. Kerrigan's book boldly declares that this is a history that goes through "the fall of Rome." Awesome. Like I said, I know the first century pretty well thanks to Dr. Maier. So I was looking forward to doing some reading of post-Constantine emperors.

Small problem there. Kerrigan stops telling full stories after the reign of Elagabalus, who died in 222 CE. Rome kept going for another 250 years. Kerrigan sprints through to that point through the epilogue. A better subscript for this book's title might have been: "From Julius Caesar through the third century," but I suspect that wouldn't have sold as well.

And finally, I was a little irked at some of the things that Kerrigan left out. For example, Nero's persecution of the Christians after the fire of Rome received a brief mention. Domitian's persecution wasn't mentioned at all. And when Kerrigan related the stories of the Bar Kokhba revolt, he made some historical errors regarding Bar Kokhba's name. Here's a hint to Mr. Kerrigan should he stumble into my blog at some point: that wasn't his real name. That was his nickname given to him by Rabbi Akiva.

So should you read this? If you haven't read Paul Maier's books, sure, why not? Or better, read Maier's books and leave this one on the clearance shelf like I should have.

1 comment:

Keanan Brand said...

A couple of the churches I attended as a teenager had some Maier books, and I read whatever was available, more than once. Biblical history has always interested me, as has history in general.

Thanks for the review of Kerrigan's volume, which I will probably avoid.