If western civilization looks to ancient Greece for the source of its philosophical and aesthetic inspiration, it is still the Romans who have most influenced the shape of our daily lives, our ideals of justic and honor, our forms of government and our strivings for a world of peace and order.
The Roman republic with its virtues of honest living, bravery, loyalty, and fair play remains the model of our own republic, and the stories of its courageous citizen-soldiers (vividly colored by late Roman historians) were very much a part of the education of our own founding fathers.
In this book, Isaac Asimov tells the history of a small semicivilized tribe who made a great deam of glory come true. Bold, fearless and supremely self-confident, the Romans outgrew their tiny domain on the Italian peninsuloa and in the space of 500 years created the most magnificent realm yet seen. For the only time in human history all the western world lived at peace.
The great drive to conquest makes a stirring tale of heroes and battles both on the plains and mountains of distant lands and in the Roman senate itself, for vigorous politics were as great a source of strength to Rome as her invincible armies.
Speaking of Dr. Asimov’s history of Greece, Horn Book said, “The author has a remarkable ability to breathe life into any subject he chooses to present, and his enthusiasm for all aspects of knowledge usually keeps high the level of interest. In its vitality this book is no exception, nor in its admirable simplicity and clarity.”
The same is true of his further explorations into the history of Rome. This book stops with Rome at her most triumphant. The story of the empire that followed yet remains to be told.
As with The Greeks: A Great Adventure, this is among my favorites of Asimov’s histories. Indeed, it has had rather more of an impact, since my own preference is for Roman history than Greek history and for Roman Republican history over Roman Imperial history.
The book is structurally a bit tighter than its predecessor. One of the main flaws in The Greeks: A Great Adventure is the fact that it peters out to an uncertain end. There Asimov was telling the entire history of Greece, up to the modern age, and so had no clear cut-off date. From the Hellenistic period onward, he gets sketchier and sketchier.
Here, however, we have a reasonably well-defined beginning—the foundation of Rome (traditionally) in 753 B.C.—and a reasonably well-defined end—Augustus’ becoming the first Roman Emperor in 30 B.C. or thereabouts.
The story of these two events Asimov tells dramatically and well, as with all between. The legends of early Rome are recounted (with a proviso that they’re almost certainly not true) in a vivid fashion—not quite as vividly, perhaps, as Livy told them, but well enough. And the dramatic story of the Roman rise to power, the determination of Rome during the Second Punic War, its moral collapse and the stories of Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero—all are recounted with the flair of a master story-teller telling a masterful story.
Asimov gives more lip service here to Roman culture and society than he had in The Greeks, perhaps, and apologizes at the beginning for his heavy recounting of military and political history over other forms of history, but these are relatively minor quibbles. I cannot think of a better way to introduce somebody to Roman history than to hand them this book and its successor.