Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring

The Reach of Rome, By Alberto Angela

A Book Review

If you’ve been following my blogs, you’ll know I’m a history buff. This blog, ‘Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring’, was inspired by Alberto Angela’s book The Reach of Rome.

You’re not fascinated by history? That’s okay. Before you relegate this blog to the annals of unread words, bear with me. You may be pleasantly surprised.

I’ve never formally studied history – unless taking Greek History 101 as an elective at uni as part of my languages degree counts.

Sadly, the classics department at my university has long since been laid to rest. Yet we can learn so much from history.

I might have got my fascination with history from our dear old dad. In his retirement, he joined U3A (University of the Third Age) and every week, trotted off to Roman history classes.

How Does the Author Present Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring?

Alberto Angela is, as described in his book, ‘an Italian palaeontologist and scientific populariser’. He’s, ‘Admired in his native Italy for his ability to bring history to life through narrative.’

Ah. In the same way that Carl Sagan popularised science and the cosmos, Alberto Angela popularises ancient history.

I was attracted by (a) The cover – covers do sell books! (b) The subtitle of his book, especially the final three words (I’ve italicised them): ‘A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire, Following a Coin’ and (c) The fact that this is Roman history … that’s actually not boring.

cover of Alberto Angela's book The Reach of Rome

Historical Fiction

Here’s my shameful secret. Up until a couple of years ago, despite my fascination with history, I’ve only ever enjoyed it by reading historical fiction.

But … getting an insight into the Roman Empire by following the journey of an ancient coin? Peeking into the daily lives of ordinary people who lived during that time? That really got my attention. Angela constantly ‘translates’ the details of life then with life now, bringing it to life.

A Bit of History

The book is set during the time of the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, Emperor Trajan, and begins at the end of the second century CE.

The first chapter includes the ‘birthing’ of the coin we are to follow on its journey, a sestertius. While it’s very difficult to know the value of the sestertius in today’s currency, it’s likely to have been worth around $3US.

The coin we will follow on its journey is forged in the Roman mint. According to Angela, the ‘mint’ looked more like this …

Dante's inferno
Dante’s Inferno

than this …

photo of Royal Australian Mint
Royal Australian Mint

Operated by sweat-soaked slaves working half-naked in oppressive heat, enduring the constant clang of metal and thick smoke billowing from the furnace, the mint looks like a scene from Dante’s Inferno.

The slaves are forging ‘our’ sestertius, a bronze coin that has a defect, a crack, caused by the damaged die that stamped it. Thanks to this defect, we are able to follow its journey throughout the Empire as it changes hands from soldiers to merchants to prostitutes to slaves – until it is revealed in the 21st century on an archaeological dig, 1,896 years after it was forged.

Yes, it is a real coin that actually exists and now resides in a museum in Rome.

While the author has had to use poetic licence in many of the stories that surround the coin’s journey – after all, it’s impossible to know every detail of Ancient Rome – he includes stories that feature real people who lived during those times. These stories are backed up by archaeological evidence.

Are you fascinated yet?

Did You Know…?

Did you know that tourism was popular during the time of the Roman Empire? Egypt was part of the empire, and tourists visited the Nile and the pyramids, just as we do today.

Did you know that Roman roads were built with three layers of stones, from large to small, so that rainwater filtered off the surface of the road? Engineering ingenuity.

Did you know that for the Romans, the colour purple was highly prized? And that it was extracted from a mollusc? Each mollusc contained just a drop of the pigment, and so the Romans took the production of the dye to an industrial level. Then, like now, their globalisation had a devastating impact on the environment. The prized little mollusc was wiped out from whole areas of the Mediterranean.

Did you know that while the Roman Empire was brutally efficient at conquering lands and peoples by force of arms, they also ‘conquered’ peacefully? In the interior of North Africa, the Empire founded a city in the desert (a place that’s now called Timgad). Angela compares it to the modern-day desert city, Las Vegas. The goal of Timgad was to conquer the foreign population through luxury, as it were. Imagine, then, travelling days through the heat of the desert landscape, and then coming upon a vision: a city with twenty-seven baths, aqueducts, public buildings, streets, temples and markets. Culture.

Did you know that very few people who lived during this era knew how to swim? About the only people who did were sailors (hopefully for them) and people who lived near the sea. Most people then were deathly afraid of the sea. Their fear was well founded. Unless you travelled overland, you had no choice but to board a ship. The Roman Empire stretched from Britain to Egypt, so if you were a soldier at the beck and call of the Empire, or a merchant selling your products far and wide, you had to go by ship. Further, Angela tells us that a conservative, hypothetical estimate for the Mediterranean alone is that there were three shipwrecks a day. A veritable underwater museum of ancient buildings and monuments exists in the Mediterranean.

Did you know that if you’d lived during the Roman Empire, you’d have been crazy not to make a will before strolling the streets of Rome at night? Rome was a violent place where street gangs and thieves roamed, alcohol led to brawls and violence and domestic violence was widespread. Nevertheless, unlike in the Middle Ages, when private vendettas were commonplace – remember the Montagues and the Capulets in good ole Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio, a friend of Romeo’s and neither a Montague nor a Capulet, cries ‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ as he is dying? – the Romans during the Empire were a civilised lot who relied not on their fists or their weapons but on their justice system. They took their grievances to court.

Monty Python and the Roman Empire

Roman history is humorously presented in Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ In The Life of Brian, they parody the very real debt that modern society owes to the Romans. So apart from roads, aqueducts – the means to carry lifegiving water to cities from faraway points, irrigation, medicine, sanitation, public baths, education, law and order, wine, and yes, they even brought peace, what did the Romans ever do for us?

Honorary Degree

In June this year, Alberto Angela was awarded an honorary degree in archaeology by the University of Naples. This was mainly for his ‘extraordinary capacity of synthesis between competence and communication, or between the values ​​of scientific knowledge and the methods of transmission of knowledge in the age of new media’ (napolike.it) – in plain English, for telling Roman history … that’s actually not boring.

Acknowledgements for Roman History … that’s Actually not Boring

Alberto Angela, The Reach of Rome: A Journey Through the Lands of the Ancient Empire, Following a Coin, 2013, Rizzoli Ex Libris, New York (411 pages).

Monty Python https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7tvauOJMHo

Napolike.it https://www.napolike.com/alberto-angela-degree-honoris-causa-in-archeology-in-naples, 19 June 2019, Accessed 26 September 2019.


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