In Search of the Romans
James Renshaw modestly describes his interactive textbook, In Search of the Romans (Bloomsbury, 2019) as an attempt to bring his high school readers to a “base camp on Mount Everest and then hand them off to the Sherpas.” Renshaw explains that the “Sherpas” are historians who delve into a particular aspect of Roman history in greater detail.
But what a delightful base camp In Search of Romans is! Following on the success of the book’s companion piece, In Search of the Greeks (both published in their second edition by Bloomsbury Academic), Renshaw has created an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the history, politics, culture and everyday life of the Romans from their mythical beginnings to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
In clear and cogent prose, Renshaw leads us masterfully from the era of the Roman kings through the foundation of the Res Publica, Rome’s brutal civil wars, and the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. The reign of Emperor Augustus with its sweeping reforms of religion and politics is discussed in detail, as are the reigns of the “good,” and “bad” emperors who follow Augustus, including the infamous Nero, and Constantine, who gifted Christianity to Europe. Finally, Renshaw unpacks the role of the barbarian tribes who brought the Western Empire to its end in the 5th century.
James Renshaw approaches his subject with zeal and infectious enthusiasm, which no doubt resonates with his students at London’s Godolphin and Latymer secondary school. “In Search of the Romans” provides a broad overview of Rome’s history with plenty of recommendations for further reading by authors as diverse as Mary Beard and Tacitus. The book is filled with clear maps and photos, which bring the ancient world to life in vivid color and detail.
In Search of the Romans goes beyond the “I came, I saw, I conquered,” Tick-Tock of Roman history. With detailed chapters on everyday life, culture, and religion, and individual chapters on Pompeii and Herculaneum, the reader emerges with a well-rounded sense of the world of the ancients. Renshaw is particularly good on the cultural touchstones of Ancient Rome, including the enduring obsession with Greek culture and the ever-present yearning for “the good old days.”
For the past few months during the global pandemic, Renshaw has been teaching his students via Google Meet, which he believes the Romans — those masters of innovation — would have applauded. In Search of the Romans makes a compelling case that the classics are still very relevant for any curious about the march of civilization and humanity’s drive to innovate.
Though designed for high school seniors, In Search of the Romans is an excellent choice for college students looking for an easily digestible overview of Roman history, and, indeed for anyone embarking on a voyage of discovery of Ancient Rome by land, sea, or from an armchair.
James Renshaw was educated at the University of Oxford and has held teaching positions at St. Paul’s School and Westminster Under School. He currently teaches classics at London’s Godolphin and Latymer. He is the author of many manuals on Ancient History, and “In Search of the Greeks.” Find out more about James Renshaw by following him on Twitter or LinkedIn.
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor’s, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Pocket Guide to Russian History.
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