A History of the Roman Empire in 21 WomenGenres: History
, Non-fiction Pages:
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.
Agrippina: Empress, Exile, Hustler, Whore, Emma Southon
I really enjoyed Emma Southon’s book on murder in Ancient Rome, so I was eager to pick this up. I didn’t know much about Agrippina to begin with, beyond the most common stories, so it took some work to orient myself to her family tree (and of course, with the way that Romans only had about two names available per family so it sometimes feels like everyone is called Julia or Agrippina). Once oriented (with the help of Southon’s explanations and supplementary material), it’s quite the story: Southon sees Agrippina as a very capable woman who tried to do things not considered suitable for a woman in her context, and nonetheless being fairly successful, on the whole.
Southon’s tone is irreverent, as in her other book, and that might put off people who are looking for “serious” history. Despite that, and the lack of direct sourcing, Southon makes it very clear when she’s speculating and what she thinks is possible, what she thinks is likely, and what she thinks is a certainty. Don’t let the tone fool you: she’s really quite careful about that, and many historians are not (or not always). Southon outright tells you that she’s imagining what Agrippina might have done, and based on what; other authors will look at the possibilities, pick their favourite, and present that as what happened because it’s what they think happened.
Southon’s book is pretty sympathetic to Agrippina, where generally I’ve seen her treated very critically, and she does good work in revealing where that came from and why. Overall, Agrippina was an enemy I wouldn’t have liked to make — and one who got the things she wanted from life, even if they then killed her. Southon’s interpretation is striking and refreshing.
I did actually find it a bit slow going at times, despite that, but I don’t think that’s the fault of Southon, or of the material. This just didn’t feel as fresh as A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — despite Southon’s irreverent tone, it’s still a biography, and those can kinda drag for me.
A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Emma Southon
I worried from the title and first few pages that this might prove too flippant and shallow from me, but I was wrong to worry. I quickly settled into it, and it’s obvious that Southon knows her stuff, takes deep joy in it, and knows where she can skimp on explanations a bit in order to get to the meat of things. She gives a lot of context without getting too bogged down in it, while telegraphing that the point is coming; if you really hate comments like “bear with me, we’re getting to the good stuff”, then it won’t work for you… but mostly, I thought she did a really good job.
The idea of a book about murder in Rome gave me a bit of pause, since I didn’t think they really had such a concept… and indeed, I was right, and Southon acknowledges that it’s a very modern way to interrogate these sources, and that in many of the cases described, no one batted an eyelid (the murder of slaves, particularly). As she says, though, the deaths and the attitudes to those deaths still tell us a lot about Roman society and the place of various people within it.
I was intrigued by the topic, but didn’t expect to find it a pageturner; that it was says something about how engaging Southon’s writing was. I found it deeply enjoyable — particularly as it was one of those books that had me turning to my wife to delightedly ask ‘did you know?’ and read bits out or wave my hands excitedly as I connected up bits and shared the fun.