Do you know which Roman emperor liked to drink pearls dissolved in vinegar? Who fought in the arena 735 times? Who was captured by the Persians and flayed alive? In this book, Chris Scarre promises to reveal the answers to these and other questions about the men (and women) who ruled the ancient Mediterranean world. The approach is unashamedly oldfashioned, and the focus on the lives and scandalous behaviour of the emperors is entirely within the spirit of Suetonius and the book's most quoted source, the Historia Augusta. The tales they tell are treated with due scepticism, but are included nevertheless: this is "popular history" of the old school.
The birth and death dates, titles, wives and children of each emperor are listed at the beginning of each section, together with a timeline of each reign and box features on topics and incidents of special interest.
The whole format is bright and lively, but also has its drawbacks.
In some places the main text replicates information already given elsewhere, and in other places actually contradicts it. The name of Claudius's daughter by Messalina is given as Antonia in a box feature and (correctly) as Octavia in the text. Two different dates are given for Nerva's birth. The period of Gallus's reign is incorrectly recorded in the section heading. Decius's wife is both Herennia and Herannia, and his son is Herrenius. Diocletian's mausoleum at Split is both hexagonal and octagonal on the same page. This is just plain confusing, and there are also several other straightforward slips. Caligula's praetorian prefect was Sutorius not Sertorius Macro. Nero's father was Cnaeus not Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. Batavians were Germanic, not Gallic. Constantine did not rebuild Trajan's bridge across the Danube. All these errors are venial in themselves, but they are cumulatively worrying in a work that claims to be "an essential work of reference". Nor is Scarre's interpretation of developments always sure-footed: one is dismayed to read, for instance, that Augustus was trying to establish a frontier on the River Elbe, a view effectively exploded by Peter Brunt over 30 years ago.
Mostly, however, Scarre supplies simple character sketches and a narrative of events involving the emperors and their families. Imperial women are given their due, especially those of the Julio-Claudians and the matriarchs of the Severan dynasty. The fates of imperial children are also carefully documented.
Chronicle of the Roman Emperors delivers what the title promises, but not much more. The result is undoubtedly entertaining, although one needs some stamina to make it through the serial assassinations of the third century. The book also provides a basic chronology, but anyone seeking an understanding of the society, economy or even the politics of the Roman empire would look here in vain. Chronicle does not amount to the "single-volume history of imperial Rome" that is promised.
It was with mixed feelings that I saw a copy tucked under the arm of one of my students the other week. Was this what he thought Roman history was about after three years under my tutelage? On the other hand, he might now be able to locate Domitian's vines edict or Caracalla's extension of the citizenships in the right portion of the right century. Perhaps I will add it to my reading lists after all.
Boris Rankov is lecturer in ancient history, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Chronicle of the Roman Emperors: The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial Rome
Author - Chris Scarre
ISBN - 0 500 05077 5
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £17.95
Pages - 240