Book covers: Lonely Planet Pocket Rome; Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard; A Rome of One's Own by Emma Southon; I am Rome by Santiago Posteguillo; Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn; The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough; The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder.

6 Degrees of Separation: Rome Through the Centuries

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

For this month’s starting point we were told to look on our shelves for a travel guide. I have a bunch of badly outdated travel guides, but the most recent one added to the shelf is Lonely Planet’s Pocket Rome: Top Experiences – Local Life

There’s a reason why this book is on the shelf: More than 50 years after the fact, this classics (Latin) major is finally going to Rome this summer (2024)! I have so many related books that I could have easily done a 24 Degrees of Separation post, but I’ve restrained myself and cut the list to six that (somewhat) represent the wide range of literature (both fiction and nonfiction) about the power that was Rome and our continuing fascination with it.

I recently listened to the audiobook of Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard, one of the foremost classical scholars in the U.K. Beard offers here not a chronological account of the Roman empire, but rather a thematic analysis of what life as emperor of Rome was like, both for the emperors themselves and for the people they governed. As Beard explains in an introductory section called “Welcome,” “Emperor Of Rome explores the fact and fiction of these rulers of the ancient Roman world, asking what they did, why they did it and why their stories have been told in the extravagant, sometimes lurid, ways that they have been.” She focuses throughout on what people surrounding a particular emperor thought of him (because all the emperors were men) and how he met or failed to meet their expectations. 

Because ancient Rome, both the republic and the empire, was very much a patriarchal society, most of the extant documents focus on men and their activities. In A Rome of One’s Own: The Forgotten Women of the Roman Empire, Emma Southon attempts to correct the omission of women by imagining what their lives might have been like. Giving voice to marginalized people who have been expunged from history is one aspect of the large concept of Life Stories in Literature.

(See also: The Forgotten Women Who Shaped the Roman Empire.)

Early last month, when the starting point for this month’s 6 Degrees post was announced, I learned about I Am Rome: A Novel of Julius Caesar by Santiago Posteguillo. This book was released in the U.S. on March 5, 2024.

Kate Quinn is a historical novelist I discovered through her World War II books.   When I found out she earlier had written a five-book series on the women of the Roman empire, I immediately put Daughters of Rome, the first in the series, on my TBR list.

Colleen McCullough is another novelist I discovered through a book unrelated to this chain. (OK, I admit it was The Thorn Birds, and I’ve read it twice.) But I was absolutely blown away by her 1990 novel The First Man in Rome, a meticulously researched and brilliantly executed novelization of the tumultuous era of Rome’s evolution from republic to autocracy. McCullough went on to write six more novels in the Masters of Rome series.  

While all the previous selections are relatively recent, my final entry, Thornton Wilder’s epistolary novel The Ides of March, came out in 1948. According to Goodreads: 

In this novel, the Caesar of history becomes Caesar the human being as he appeared to his family, his legions, his Rome, and his empire in the months just before his death. In Wilder’s inventive narrative, all Rome comes crowding through his pages. Romans of the slums, of the villas, of the palaces, brawling youths and noble ladies and prostitutes, and the spies and assassins stalking Caesar in his Rome.

And this novel brings us full circle: Just as Mary Beard does in her study Emperor of Rome, all the authors and books listed here attempt to bring to life for readers the history of living in the Eternal City. 

Books: Loeb Classical Library

(A shelf of books from the Loeb Classical Library, a collection published by Harvard University Press. Latin books sport red covers, while Greek ones are a pale green.)

© 2024 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 thoughts on “6 Degrees of Separation: Rome Through the Centuries”

  1. Interesting that you were a Latin major in college! I took four semesters of it; then my prof left the university to pursue a second PhD, this one in classical languages. 🙁

    Emperor of Rome, A Rome of One’s Own, and The Ides of March all appeal to me. I would add I, Claudius to your list!

  2. This is such an interesting chain. Like you, I didn’t know Kate Quinn had written about anything but WWII, so I may investigate this, though all your choices could go on the TBR.

  3. OMG… if you’ve read the McCullough books, you’re going to LOVE Rome. My first visit to Rome came after I’d read at least three of her books. Back then, the Forum was open for free on Sundays, so we went to see it. Well, we’re walking around and I start pointing at things and telling my husband what this was and what that was. He was totally shocked at how much I knew and he knew it was my first time there. It was all from her books. We went back several times over the years, and it never was dull. Enjoy your visit!

  4. It really took me back to see all those Loeb editions – we used to use them when we couldn’t do the translations in A-level Latin class! I distinctly remember quoting a whole wad of Loeb-translated Virgil when the very verses that none of us could understand came up in the exam, The examiners presumably couldn’t mark us down, as the translation must’ve been correct, and we certainly didn’t have the book in the exam room – but they must have noticed such a change in style and tone compared to our schoolgirl translations of the rest of the passages.

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