Sunday, May 26, 2013


James Renshaw, In Search of the Romans. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 376. ISBN 9781853997488. $27.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Amy K. Bosworth, Muskingum University (

Version at BMCR home site


James Renshaw's In Search of the Romans presents an introduction to the Roman world from the traditions leading to its foundation in 753 BCE to the empire's disintegration in the fourth century CE. The work, geared toward students, explores in broad strokes the political, social, and religious aspects of Rome over the course of its existence, while highlighting specific events, places, and personages of particular note. It also includes a more detailed look at the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both made famous in the popular imagination through their destruction during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Renshaw organizes the complex and lengthy history of Rome thematically into six chapters, each suitable for reading as a stand-alone text. He also provides a chronology of major events and writers and five appendices (the city of Rome, governance, currency, clothing, and timekeeping) that complement and expand upon the material included in the chapters.

Chapter 1 contains a concise chronology of Rome from c.753 BCE to 476 CE. Renshaw begins by briefly outlining the earliest centuries, in particular summarizing Rome's history under its first seven kings and the influence of the Etruscans on the peninsula. The majority of this section focuses on a nuanced discussion of the foundation myths surrounding the city, contrasting the written sources with the archaeological evidence. He asks readers to consider history as malleable and subject to interpretation, a valuable exercise for any student. Renshaw's discussion of the republic concentrates on growth within the Italian peninsula and beyond, focusing primarily on major military engagements and the key players in Rome's expansion. He then devotes a number of pages to the tensions and conflicts that led to the fall of the republic in 31 BCE. Imperial Rome receives the most detailed analysis, with a description of the reigns of each emperor from Augustus (r. 31 BCE -14 CE) to Severus Alexander (r. 222-235 CE). This section concludes with a terse mention of the third and fourth centuries followed by "The Fall of the Roman Empire," a brief and one-dimensional account of a weak and destitute western empire overrun by greedy barbarians in the fifth century. (This treatment of such a complex and still-debated topic contrasts sharply with the detailed analysis of Rome's foundation myths earlier in the chapter.)

Chapter 2 highlights the religious practices of the Romans. It begins by comparing and contrasting the religion of the Romans with modern practices, looking at themes such as scripture, morality, the afterlife, and conversion. This helps the reader place the beliefs of ancient men and women into a more familiar context, making them more accessible to a modern audience. Renshaw then covers in detail the Olympian gods and goddesses, their attributes, and notes the influence of other cultures on shaping the practices of the Romans. He also describes the cycle and nature of festivals (with particular attention paid to Lupercalia and Saturnalia), temples and religious spaces, and the priesthood. The chapter concludes with a look at the emergence of other belief systems in the empire such as Greek philosophy, mystery cults, Christianity, and the ascendance of the last as the empire's only licit religion.

The next two chapters provide a detailed account of the Roman society, how men and women worked, played, and loved. Chapter 3: Roman Society draws mainly from the abundance of evidence dating from the first century BCE to the first century CE, although Renshaw asks the reader to keep in mind the actual variety of practice over both time and space. The opening paragraphs describe the structure of the household, including both the organization of the familia and the buildings they resided in. Living spaces of the wealthy and poor both receive treatment. The remainder of the chapter focuses on life in the empire, the narrative following the lifecycle from birth to death. Here the reader learns about childhood, education, marriage, work, and funeral practices. Elements of daily life, including what Romans ate and the importance of hospitality, also emerge. Renshaw successfully recreates both the lives of the wealthy and the poor, providing a glimpse at the extremes present in the Roman world. He also devotes attention to those in society often underrepresented in the sources (at least in their own voices), women and slaves.

Chapter 4 focuses on a specific element of Roman society – entertainment. Gladiators, of course, appear here, but the author also includes lengthy descriptions of chariot racing, theater, and baths. He looks at the participants themselves (athletes, actors, or bathers), venues, and experiences of the audience on a typical day. These elements of Roman society all come to life through a vivid narrative and generous use of images, reconstructions, and schematics. Throughout the chapter Renshaw emphasizes the importance of entertainment beyond simply recreation and pleasure. He demonstrates the links between pastimes and politics and never allows fun to overshadow the influence of government and/or religion in theses activities. Chapters 3 and 4 capture the diversity and complexity of Roman society, in work and at play.

In Search of the Romans concludes by looking separately at the communities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both destroyed during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Renshaw organizes each chapter identically, first reviewing the location and history of the settlement, the impact of the eruption and subsequent volcanic events, and the results of and concerns over modern excavations. (History students also interested in science will appreciate the lengthy description of the various stages of the eruption and their impacts.) He then describes the community itself as it looked just prior to its destruction, highlighting the major buildings and roadways, types of homes, and daily life. Here one gets a glimpse of a Roman city in action. Evidence of a vibrant culture, thriving commerce, and mundane daily activities all remain. Readers with previous knowledge of Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as those unfamiliar with these places will appreciate the author's painstaking reconstructions and breadth of knowledge. These chapters also complement the previous ones by "giving us extraordinary insights into the lives – and deaths – of many ordinary people who lived during the highpoint of the Roman empire"(255). The discussion of graffiti, decorative art in homes, and the reconstruction of the last moments of those left in the cities (human and canine) also humanize the Romans and bring this ancient civilization closer to the modern reader.

Although In Search of the Romans presents a fine introduction to the Roman world, at times the organizational structure of the book causes frustration. Renshaw includes within each chapter a number of side conversations, set off in boxes, in which he explains in greater detail a particular event, personage, place, etc. Although complementary to and often enhancing the narrative, the placement of these sidebars mid-sentence or in the middle of a discussion often feels jarring. Likewise, the frequent use of "see p." requires the reader to jump back and forth between chapters in order to better understand key concepts. The author has also chosen to relegate to the Appendices an explanation of Roman government. (It sits alongside discussions of clothing, currency values, and the keeping of time.) Such an important topic, especially for students unfamiliar with this era, deserves inclusion within one of the existing chapters or a chapter of its own. Also found in the Appendices, a description of the city of Rome and its expansion over the centuries might fit better in the main body of the work, especially since it complements the existing discussions of the expansion on Rome, its religious landscape, and society. Designating these topics supplementary material ultimately allows for shorter, more easily-digestible chapters, something students welcome. Yet it also risks that this information might be deemed peripheral or ignored outright by the reader.

In Search of the Romans would also benefit from the addition of a stand-alone conclusion, especially since its target audience probably has no previous knowledge of the material. In the Introduction Renshaw argues "no ancient civilization has had a greater influence on the modern world than that of Rome" and asks "what is the legacy of Rome?"(vii). He takes time to emphasize this civilization's influence on the modern world and the relevance of the history of Rome to the modern student. Yet the work ends without returning to these themes. A stand-alone conclusion would also allow the author to place into the larger narrative the events on Pompeii and Herculaneum, described in Chapters 5 and 6. Finally, the work benefit from a glossary of key terms (the author already highlights many important terms in bold throughout the chapters), a lengthier Index, and the inclusion of suggested readings (primary and secondary sources). The latter would be especially helpful as Renshaw often includes in the review activities a question or questions requiring one to read and comment on a specific primary source.

Conversely, Renshaw's work presents the history of Rome and its people in an accessible, student-friendly package. The language, although by no means simplistic, never becomes too technical and English translations always accompany Latin terms. He intersperses into the main body of the text a generous number of maps and images. These enhance, rather than detract from, the narrative as all visual sources appear on the same page as their description. The book is particularly strong in its use of Roman-era art and artifacts, along with modern reconstructions and schematics to complement the author's description of spaces and places such as sports venues, baths, and the city of Pompeii. Students will appreciate the charts highlighting key concepts such as the pantheon of major Roman deities, their roles, and symbols in Chapter Two and the rooms of a house and their uses in Chapter Three. In Search of the Romans will also appeal to instructors. The organization of the book thematically, rather than chronologically, lends itself to use as the core textbook for a survey-level course on Rome or Western Civilization. Renshaw utilizes a variety of primary sources throughout, seamlessly incorporating Roman voices into the narrative, introducing influential writers such as Livy. Both provide plenty of jumping off points that could easily translate into more focused discussions in the classroom. He also includes in each chapter contains several sets of review questions that highlight the major concepts addressed over the course of the chapter, ask students to consider larger themes, and suggest further reading and research. Instructors will find these particularly useful. Ultimately, the author succeeds in his goal of creating "a strong and broad foundation for students embarking on Classical Civilization courses" (vi). Both students and instructors will benefit from this text.

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