by James Morwood
Bloomsbury (2013) p/b 147pp £15 (ISBN 9781849668866)
Hadrian is the first emperor to feature in Bloomsbury’s ‘Ancients in Action’ series. Morwood produces an excellent and highly readable account of this fascinating emperor and includes enough background for the story to be fully comprehensible to anyone new to Roman history.
One particular strength of this book is that M. has an excellent eye for anecdotes which bring history to life, while another is that he does not eschew personal touches. These strengths combine when, for example, he uses Monte Testaccio to illustrate the importance of olive oil to Rome and Hadrian’s family, while talking about scrambling up its slopes and the view from the top. Here and throughout, M.’s enthusiasm for the subject communicates itself readily to the reader.
As a consequence this book provides an introduction to Roman history and society that goes well beyond just the emperor Hadrian. On the way it addresses many topics of obvious popular interest, such as attitudes to homosexuality and Roman entertainment. Nor is it a sanitized view: M. juxtaposes his account of the beauty and sophisticated architecture of Hadrian’s Villa with a ‘digression’ on slavery illustrated with examples ranging from Cato the Elder to Apuleius, but oddly, in my view, without any mention of manumission. The broad view is emphasized by provision of text-boxes for digressions mostly of sources longer than could easily be fitted in the text (though the inclusion of Pericles’ Funeral Oration from Thucydides seems to be stretching a point).
M. writes very well, with aptly chosen examples, and in language accessible to sixth-formers (even if ‘irenic’ and ‘rodomontade’ were better avoided). Occasionally items are omitted: M.’s excellent description of the Pantheon gives the diameter of the oculus, but not the dome itself; more strangely, M. makes no use of any of the letters of Hadrian surviving in various inscriptions or legal sources, which could have provided prime examples of Hadrian in action.
Hadrian does not feature on the syllabus for school exams at present, but this would be an excellent book to give to a sixth-former who might be thinking of reading a classical subject at university.
M.G.L. Cooley—Warwick School