Romans Without Laurels
© 1962 Indro Montanelli
In Romans Without Laurels, Indro Montanelli delivers an affectionate history of the Roman Republic and the empire which followed. Although a work in translation, it succeeds wonderfully as narrative history, reminding and entertaining the reader with stories from Rome’s rise and fall. The author declares at the beginning that his intention was to deliver a history of the Romans as people, warts and all, avoiding the temptation to put them on a pedestal. Their own historians depicted themselves as hysterically flawed at times; why should we not do the same? Politics is the main course here, of course, but Montanelli is never far from working in literature or economics. He works these in rather cleverly, too: after the chronological history arrives at the eruption of Pompeii, he pauses to write about daily life for ordinary Italians — their work, their habits, their passions. Similarly, when Rome is transitioning, he pauses to reflect on the evolving culture, as Rome passed from dicipline to decadence. Montaelli is a laudably fair author, one who can’t bring himself to demonize anyone — not even Nero or Caligula. He reflects sadly on their few virtues before recounting the ludricrous and obscene antics of both. Montanelli even appreciates the pre-republican kings of Rome, who (aside from the infamous Tarquins) had the same essential powers as Roman consuls. As he is operating from the original Roman histories, some stories are passed to the reader verbatim — including the rumor that Caligula made his horse consul. He does offer caution from time to time, however, reminding the reader that Roman historians had their biases just as modern writers do.
For a narrative history of Rome, this is hard to find but enjoyable reading for popular audiences. The popularity of Mary Beard’s SQPR indicates that Rome continues to fascinate us, and this has the additional attraction of having been written by an Italian.
Rubicon, Tom Holland