An easy, enlightening read on Roman social psychology.
Very little that is not stereotypical is known about the Roman mind. What really brought a little huddle of hut-dwellers to the pinnacle power in ancient Europe? What mindset ran their economy, their politics, their families? Not the cold militaristic mask that most people think about. In every level of society men thought, and their thoughts shaped an empire.
As in his book The Mute Stones Speak, MacKendrick rarely addresses the issue of morality, opting rather to depict history as it came, warts and all. He makes occasional value judgments, such as the ruin that excessive slavery wrought on Roman economic structure, and looks favorably on the bravery of Christian martyrs as well as the support the growing Christian religion gave to the world as the Rome Empire fell apart.
While the Romans were a very practical lot, cults and religion found a place in their schemes. Gods are mentioned, as well as those who worked in the temples and those who worshiped the gods. Christianity is given a whole chapter to itself, and the author looks upon Christ, Heaven, and the whole Christian religion as truth — though, as he is dealing with history and not evangelism, he does no go into detail. In the excerpts from ancient writers he includes some stirring pieces of letters from those about to be martyred, and through letters, in brief, the author charts the course of eventual domination of the Christian faith.
Rome’s history is full of violence. MacKendrick touches on this many times, but rarely does he go into detail. The most stirring account is that of a man who chose to die for Rome rather than be ransomed, in order to save his city the shame of subjugation. The era of the Roman kings, as well as the century prior to Augustus Caesar, were full of blood-baths.
War was considered a type of practical art, and usually to move up in political ranks members of government found it necessary to serve in the army. As is well known, gladiatorial fights were a popular spectator sport among the Roman mass. Persecutions are mentioned, both of Christians and of the populace in general.
Drug and Alcohol Content
As usual, wine is made and consumed. A piece of a play is recorded in which the two main characters are completely intoxicated.
The abduction of Sabine women by Romulus and his followers is mentioned; the rape of the Lady Lucretia is also discussed in brief and an excerpt from Livy on the matter included. Songs of love are also included, but these do not go into detail. Juxtaposed to this is the refreshing account of the noblewoman "Turia," who avenged her parents’ deaths, bought her husband’s freedom, and defended her own home, among other feats of iron character.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
The great orators of Roman history were not always clean of speech. The famous orator Cicero is known to have said of a braggart, "If he were a cloaca, he would want to be the Cloaca Maxima." Cicero also calls another politician a list of scathing names, among which are "filthy boozer," "gelded hog," and "abandoned carcass." In general MacKendrick uses these quotes only to make a point and keeps them to a minimum.
Though this book is brief, smaller than a pocket Bible, MacKendrick manages to take the reader through the highlights of Roman social psychology, at the same time remaining engaging and, at times, even enchanting. He plumbs the Romans’ construction of their mythology, their religion, their military, art, politics, even agriculture, and manages to paint an intellectual picture of what it was like to think as a Roman. I found this book, full as it is of McKendrick's own insights and buttressed with excerpts from the ancient writers themselves, to be an easy and enlightening read. The drunken play, the love songs, and scathing passages by orators are not enough to make one squirm, and they are offset by such passages as Cato’s and Virgil’s pastoral excerpts, more philosophical paragraphs, and rousing accounts of the singular bravery of famous Roman citizens.