Having eventually finished Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the next significant period of history to look at was that of the rise of Rome. Some of this was covered in Virgil’s Aeneid, though I confess that I had a relative ignorance of anything to do with the Roman Republic. Or at least I thought I did.
As it turns out, much of what I thought related to the time of the Roman Empire was actually from the earlier period of the Republic. Gwynn starts off by asking where Rome’s origins lie. I would hope that anyone reading this blog is educated enough to be familiar with the myth of Romulus and Remus. Yet where did they come from? Was there any settlement at Rome prior to the founding of the city? Gwynn puts forward a hypothesis that those who became known as Romans were originally Etruscans, from further north. Though he acknowledges that it’s a little more complicated than that, but there is not enough room in this small volume to discuss the issue thoroughly.
In trying to look at the history of early Rome it is not as simple as one might hope to distinguish between historiography and mythology. Gwynn attempts briefly to sketch out the formation of the Republic from the early wars of Rome, though he admits he draws from a paucity of primary sources. From here, he goes on to paint a portrait of “everyday life” is such a generality can be reasonably made. Particular attention is paid the qualities of dignitas and gloria and their importance in the Roman worldview. This was a most illuminating section, as it gives a key context which so much of the rest of the history is set in.
Much of this is based on the writings of Livy, which I admit I haven’t read. Though having completed Herodotus and Thucydides, I am now thinking that Livy ought to be next on my list of great ancient historians to read. That’s the thing with these VSI books; they come with a great ‘further reading’ list that for each book I read, 3 more get added to my recommended future reading.
In examining the rise and characteristics of the Republic, Gwynn also points the reader to the seeds of the Republic’s demise and its ultimate transformation into the Roman Empire. This includes the warlike mentality that was driven by the gloria concept, with a whole chapter on the wars with Carthage.
As far as meeting the brief of ‘a very short introduction’, Gwynn has done an excellent job. There are many more aspects that could be explored and unpacked, but the book certainly left this reader with a better understanding of an overview of one of the most influential periods in European history.