One of the problems in studying Roman history is that there is rather a lot of it. The Roman Empire, depending on how one defines it, existed for more than a thousand years. Actors such as Caesar, Pompey and a succession of Emperors tend to blur together into a critical and confusing mass.
Kershaw attempts to make order out of what seems like chaos in writing this short guide to the Roman Empire’s long and bloody history. Starting from the collapse of the Roman Republic, he takes us through a long period of history that only ended with the disposition of Romulus Augustus, the final Emperor of Rome. I rather doubted this could be done in such a small volume and, as I expected, Kershaw compromised quite badly.
This book does provide a good overview of the history of the Empire. Unfortunately, it skims over vast and interesting periods of history; if you want details, you would need to examine more focused books. This glossing over leads to some mistaken impressions. For example, Cicero is portrayed as Pompey’s devoted follower in some places, while the truth is that Cicero fought hard to maintain his independence as well as trying to forge ties to Pompey. Pompey himself was not impressed by the orator, who possessed no real power base. By that point, the only true source of power was military might.
Furthermore, the author’s tone is sometimes snide, sarcastic and dismissive. At one point, he observes that a particular Emperor didn’t have an exit strategy. In others, he sneers at the losers or snidely wonders just what they were thinking. The darker actors among the Roman Emperors are treated as perverts, libertines and worse.
The author also resists the temptation to draw lessons from the collapse of Rome. As he does note, correctly, there was more than one factor involved in bringing the Roman Empire to an end. However, he doesn’t identify them clearly, nor does he try to draw lessons from the Roman experience for our modern age. This may be a step too far for the book’s concept, but it would still have been interesting.
Overall, this book does give a good outline of Roman history. However, it is short on detail and interested readers will have to look elsewhere for specifics.