A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women
by Emma SouthonGenres: History, Non-fiction
Here’s how the history of the Roman Empire usually goes… We start with Romulus, go on to Brutus overthrowing Tarquin, bounce through an appallingly tedious list of battles and generals and consuls, before emerging into the political stab-fest of the late Republic. From there, it runs through all the emperors, occasionally mentioning a wife or mother to show how bad things get when women get out of control, until Constantine invents Christianity and then Attila the Hun comes and ruins everything. But the history of Rome and empire is so much more than these Important Things.
In this alternative history, Emma Southon traces the story of the Roman Empire through women: Vestal Virgins and sex workers, business owners and poets, martyrs and saints. Each gives a different perspective on women’s lives and how they changed, across time and across class lines.
Received to review via Netgalley
Emma Southon has a particular style that I imagine some people really hate: conversational, chatty, often even flippant. When she doesn’t know something, because no one knows, she says so. When she’s painting a picture from imagination to fill in the gaps, or choosing one interpretation of many, she says so very frankly. I find it very readable, and I appreciate how clear she is about when she’s using sources, how she’s using sources, and when she’s just having to make things up — or choose one option above others because there’s nothing particular to tell them apart. She’s interested in telling a story here, and it shows.
That said, I can understand why those who are just looking for facts would rather she stop it; for all that she’s clear about sources vs imagination, it’s really not formalised. Don’t let that fool you, though: there’s an extensive bibliography at the back.
I really liked Southon’s plan to discuss events through women: I was kind of surprised Livia wasn’t a choice, for example, or Cleopatra, or Agrippina (who Southon has written a whole biography of!) — but instead Southon makes a harder decision, and often picks less well-known women.
I found it really enjoyable, though I still prefer her book on murder in Ancient Rome.