I decided to use my Christmas break to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the Roman Empire. So, I picked up Veni, Vidi, Vici by Peter Jones. It is my new favorite book about the Roman Empire (I may have only read three). I enjoyed the fact that the author did not take himself or his subject too seriously. It was informative, but I did not feel like I was doing work as I read it.
The organization was easy to follow. Each chapter began with a timeline that summarized the key events to be chronicled in the chapter. Each chapter also had a good mix of larger narrative progression and smaller points of detail. Here is his description of role of the pontifex maximus (This was a position held by all Roman Emperors from Julius Caesar onward). Their duties included:
determining the time of a public sacrifice, its location and cost the proper conduct of all religious observances, public and private; proper ways of burying the dead and propitiating spirits; and deciding what portents (such as lighting) should be acted upon. Note that the pontifex maximus was not like an archbishop, more like a lawyer of ritual procedure…Julius Caesar, a virtual atheist… gave no moral or spiritual guidance…He just performed the rituals for all to see (pg 24).
I will leave it to the preachers to figure out all the ways in which the activities of the “spiritual leader” of Rome might be contrasted with those of the Messiah.
I read one review that complained about the book’s imbalance. About 220 pages of it dealt with the events surrounding the end of the republic and the first 100 years of the empire. Since my field is the New Testament, this did not bother me. I have to admit that I did not read the material after AD 100 with the same enthusiasm.
The book is not perfect. There are times when I wished that there was more discussion of the life of the “common Roman.” Jones shows an awareness of the various strata of society at points in his narrative, but I often found myself so caught up in the intrigues of the throne that it felt as if the only people alive where emperors and senators. This is not all Jones’ fault; slaves do not often write memoirs.
There was also an occasion when he was a little too dismissive of Luke’s account of the birth of Christ. That gave the budding New Testament scholar in me pause, but I do not come to my Roman History books expecting a nuanced discussion of Lukan Scholarship. If one wants a good overview of the Roman Empire that is fun to read and informative, Veni, Vidi, Veni is a good place to start.