Friday, December 11, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Kevin M. McGeough, The Romans: An Introduction. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. ix, 380. ISBN 9780195379860. $34.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Hui-hua Chang, Elon University

Preview (ABC Clio edition, which is otherwise identical to the Oxford publication)

Originally published by ABC Clio in 2004, this identical edition was republished by Oxford University Press in 2009. The book is an introduction to Roman civilization for students in Classical Studies, History, and/or Roman Archaeology (see p. 9). There are eleven chapters, on topics ranging from advice and resources for students (Introduction) to overviews of the environment, history, economics, social organization and structure, politics, religions, material culture, and intellectual achievements of the Roman world. The final chapter presents controversies in the field of modern Roman historiography and the author's suggestions for directions in future research. Numerous black and white illustrations and some maps accompany the text, and each of the overview chapters contains a lengthy bibliography at the end for further reading on each topic. Occasional references by the author suggest that a mainly American student audience was expected. Although the book has the appearance of a comprehensive primer and reference work for beginning undergraduate-level students in Roman studies, closer assessment of the text reveals that the utility of much of the content, as well as the author's style, is problematical for several reasons. These difficulties render the work less suitable for use in undergraduate courses than other introductory books that are currently available.

Beginning with the more positive aspects, the chapter bibliographies are useful as research starting points. The organization of information makes the individual topics easy to access, and there is a lengthy glossary of Roman terms, a chronology, a final section of further modern sources, and an index, all in the back of the book. The Introduction contains helpful discussion and references on Roman academic journals, reference books, anthologies and primary sources; also cited are modern universities, research programs, and organizations for Roman studies; and also online resources. As a result, the Introduction is arguably the strongest chapter in the book in terms of the author's contribution to existing introductory textbooks. It could be useful as a resource for advanced undergraduate students and those considering graduate studies.

Following this promising beginning, however, many problems emerge in the remaining chapters. Chapter 2 (the Roman environment) opens the topical studies and immediately launches the reader into an unevenly detailed geographical survey of areas within the Roman Empire. The Roman provinces receive very little attention overall, and the chapter lacks a clear explanation of why the included descriptions are relevant to Roman historical developments. Some details seem pointless; for example, the size (in kilometers) and even the depth of the Mediterranean Sea is explained in minute detail (p. 26), without explaining that the Romans themselves would never have known (or needed) such information. The entire chapter seems unnecessary and slows the reader to a crawl at the very outset of the book.

Chapter 3 presents Roman studies from the period of Medieval Europe to the 20th century. This chapter poorly and unevenly summarizes historical periods, and the author fails to support statements such as "Scholars have assumed that Roman learning was lost at the hands of barbarian invaders who squandered it during the medieval period" (p. 32). In the following treatment, the role of medieval monasteries in preserving Roman literature is not discussed. The author also begins a trend of avoiding longer explanations: "It is impossible even to begin to summarize the achievements of the 20th century scholars in so little space" (p. 45), which appears to be a regular feature of later chapter introductions. From Chapter 3 onward the author frequently summarizes popular secondary sources to compile much of the content he presents. (These sources are noted in frequent inline citations within the author's text throughout the book.) Among the most commonly used works overall are Adkins and Adkins, Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (1994), and Moatti, The Search for Ancient Rome (Abrams, 1993). Later chapters also reveal the author's indebtedness to Grant and Kitzinger, Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome, which fills substantial portions of the end-chapter bibliographies; Anderson, The Roman World; and Crawford, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Roman World. The author's heavy dependence on these sources and his further summary of them, as opposed to more recent and specialized scholarly literature (which is mostly ignored, despite the occasional presence of specialized scholarly titles in the chapter bibliographies), begs the question of why readers should not simply refer to these other, and arguably more detailed and/or more readable, sources.

Chapter 4 presents a summary of Roman history, meant to serve as a reference tool for students (p. 53). What follows is a rapid survey from the period of the kings to 476 CE, which is accurate in its main points but does not focus on the significance of key events and themes in Rome's development. Examples of this include superficial discussions of the uniqueness of Rome's system of alliances during the Republic, of the importance of Rome's geographic location within Italy, and the significance of the Gallic sack of Rome. Another example of the author's overly quick summary is a sweeping statement about Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus: "Their efforts eventually led to the breakdown of the republican system," which is presented without adequate explanation or qualifications (p. 71). One is led to the conclusion that a fuller treatment in an historical outline would be more useful to students as a reference tool.

Chapter 5 (economics) describes different aspects of the economy in the Roman world, but only in vague detail and without reference to their impacts on historical developments. A particularly curious omission, considering the author's archaeological focus in much of the book, is the lack of discussion of the uses of Roman pottery for chronological dating. This is not later remedied despite a fuller treatment of pottery types in Chapter 9. Overall, the descriptions of farming, mining, metallurgy, the potter's craft, etc. lack detail, and generally, the author treats Roman civilization as an unchanging entity. Rome's material culture (further treated in Chapter 9) seems to lack life.

Chapter 6 (social organization and structure) also suffers from lack of data in the treatment of Roman colonies, incorporated cities, and military sites. There is little discussion of developments in social institutions over time. The Conflict of the Orders (pp. 139-40), is one section that does attempt to present developments over time, but this is poorly handled after the 4th century BCE and becomes confusing to readers. The author does insert an accurate critical warning about the small amount of data that can inform Roman population studies. But much of the discussion of Roman social stratification relies on Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome (1995), which readers would do well to refer to instead, due to over-summarization here (pp. 137-41).

The remaining chapters are simple surveys of Roman religion (lists of gods and cults), material culture (lists of types of Roman artifacts), and intellectual accomplishments. The final chapter reviews several older debates within Roman historiography, and the two "new directions" offered (inter-disciplinary approaches to Roman studies and comparisons of source materials across regions of the Roman world) are not in fact new at all. These chapters are not innovative compared to other available introductory books on Roman studies.

At the general level (especially compared to the work of Adkins and Adkins [1994], which is similar and is used extensively as a reference book), the prose in this book is dense while the content is often too light in detail. Discussion of historical developments over time and of the significance of the information provided is largely lacking. The author often focuses on Rome (the city) more than on other areas of the empire. Discussions of recent scholarship in the fields of history and Roman culture in particular are notably uninformed. As but one example of this, in Chapter 8 (Roman religion) the author writes "The study of Roman religion has not prospered in modern scholarship. Although much has been written on the subject, not much of it is very good" (p. 178). Recent specialist works on Roman religion (post 1980s) are barely surveyed or included in this chapter's bibliography. Finally, the illustrations should have been more carefully selected and integrated into the text. Some of the illustrations and pictures are only vaguely described, either in terms of their origin (pp. 155 and 165, for example) or in relation to the topics under discussion in their sections. Consequently, most of the illustrations seem random and often unnecessary, and many are line sketches of original period pieces or modern artistic images of Rome. Modern artistic or film depictions of selected aspects of Roman civilization and history are not necessarily objectionable, provided that their dates are made clear and the reason for their inclusion is given, but this is not regularly done in the book. One of the few maps in the book (p. 21) is also very dated, small, and printed in German. Considering the author's focus on geography early on (Ch. 2), more detailed and useful maps would be a welcome addition.

Regarding factual and typographical errors, these seem to be few and of relatively minor significance, though some are conspicuous and should be corrected. Examples are "Villanovan near Bologna" should be Villanova (p. 54); Maximian chose Constantius, not Constantine, as a fellow tetrarch (error, p. 91); b.c.e. should be c.e. (p. 127); "there were no major cities in Roman Gaul" needs explanation (p. 128); "somewhere between 80,000 and 1 million people" should read 800,000 (p. 131); and the discussion of slave marriages to Roman citizens seems contradictory, due to an awkward division of statements and explanations over three separate locations (pp. 141-44). One stylistic problem is the author's use of repeated inline text citations from the same source in particular sections (pp. 38-9 for example), and occasional uses of inline citations with only a date provided, which causes confusion (example, p. 61).

As a final summation, this book offers nothing innovative regarding scholarship in the field of Roman studies, and is in fact very dated in its selective use of older sources. With the noted exception of the reference sections offered in the Introduction, the problems in this book outbalance its benefits, even for use as an introductory textbook.

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