Anthony Blond in his book A Scandalous History of the Roman Emperors (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000), a book originally published in 1994, the author seems to have written a history of Rome for the current tabloid age, though in truth, the Roman Emperors lived that sort of life and were not shy about letting the world know it. The book is both a history of the Emperors and a characterization of the age, and the author manages to create a picture of the Roman era against which to set the stories he then tells of the Emperors from Julius Caesar to Nero. This is followed by a discussion of Rome as a city and an empire. The book covers the subject in a shorter space than many other books have done, and the tone taken by the author is less reverent than many other authors have used. The author himself states in the Apology that there is nothing original in his book, but in truth there is -- the approach he takes to the material is original, even though he may have borrowed stories and other material from many other historical writers.
The stories of the Emperors are clearly a selling point for the book, but of even greater interest are the chapters concerning Roman society, which really explain why the Emperors behaved as they did. They were not simply rogue individuals imposing their will on the populace but instead drew inspiration from the people and reflected the prevailing attitudes and ideas of the age. While the scandalous behavior of the Emperors make for colorful stories, it is also clear that Roman society created many institutions, concepts, and ideas that remain fresh to this day and that showed what a high degree of civilization had been achieved in the formation of the Empire.
The section on Roman Law maintains the rather flip attitude of the rest of the book but also manages to offer considerable information on the nature and structure of Roman Law. Blond begins with the statement, "Roman Law bound Rome like Roman cement" (34), and he then shows just how pervasive and strong Roman law was. He also shows interesting paradoxes in the social structure of Rome. For instance, it is noted that the law in the beginning was based on the authority of the paterfamilias, "the head of the family, who had the right, until the end of the Empire, to sell his children" (35). The head of the family could and did insist on certain virtues, such as dutiful service, chastity, and respect for superiors. His control was absolute on certain matters:
He could and did punish adultery in his children with death. The Romans were always monogamous, though later divorce was easy (36).
In some ways, this contrasts with the chapter on "Sex," which also pointed out the power of the paterfamilias, which seems at odds with the prevailing temper of the age which was "randy, permissive and tolerant of fairly bad behavior," though "not vicious or orgiastic" (2). Again, while the paterfamilias could and did punish adultery in his children with death, Blond notes that in Roman society, the "husband was not expected to be faithful and there is no reference in Roman literature to 'cheating on the wife'" (6). Does this mean that the paterfamilias was only punishing daughters, or that he punished his children in this harsh manner in spite of the spirit of the age and the way husbands were viewed? Blond refers to the ready availability of prostitutes and concubines, which also raises the question of whether dalliance with these was considered adultery or not. These interesting questions are not answered here, making it difficult to be certain whether these seemingly different ways of behaving were paradoxical or simply reflected a more complex view of the meaning of words like "adultery."
There were two levels of law in Rome, with one level being the laws governing debt and certain obvious crimes, laws which came from the original twelve tables and which "could be chanted by schoolboys" (17). The second level of laws consisted of those which required study in law schools, along with the art of rhetoric, with Cicero a prime example of such a student. This level involves the more complex laws and the later legislation passed to supplement the basic law of the twelve tables. The law was invoked for political changes as well, such as the decision to institute the triumvirate, which Blond says was "enacted by the Senate with 400 centurions and soldiers hovering around to help them make up their minds" (35). Blond also notes that the five Emperors he discusses all respected the laws of Rome, at least in their fashion, though we might think otherwise in reading these stories without guidance. Blond notes how Augustus "followed the forms of the Republic and in being elected consul thirteen times demonstrated that his authority came from the senate and the People of Rome" (38). This statement gives a clear view of the way the people of Rome viewed their leadership as representative of them, as gaining power because they give him power. Blond also says that when compared to real dictators like Hitler, "Roman Emperors were restrained in their treatment of conspirators, having no secret police and only rarely holding trials in camera" (39). The picture that emerges from this book is of a society based on law and adhering to law to a great extent, with only some lapses on the part of the leadership. As Blond writes,
The Roman Empire could not have lasted so long had its subjects not believed in the efficacy and eventual justice of Roman Law (39).
While the Romans may have been a law-abiding people, many of their laws and customs separate them from us today and so make them seem more primitive and less law-abiding than they are. For instance, the practice of slavery is something which our age sees as contrary to a deeper human law, just as the bloody games in which the Romans indulged, with and without slaves as participants, also place them outside the pale in terms of our view of how human being should behave. Blond shows that our assessment is based in part on our more complex and nuanced view of human nature, while many of the concepts by which we would judge the Romans were unknown to them and therefore meaningless. As Blond writes,
The joy in cruelty, the cruel joy wafting up from this hostile telling of the Romans at play, shows that the crowd was sadistic, like many crowds, though that concept, with its sexual undertones and subsequent possible feelings of guilt, would have been, like masochism, unknown (59-60).
Blond also notes how significant the Games were for Roman society at all levels, for they provided an opportunity for citizens "to voice with impunity their grievances to officials and to the emperor" (61). This gives the Games a political dimension that is interesting. Of course, the Games were also and perhaps primarily a form of entertainment and were important for this reason, given that many roman citizens had no regular employment and little else to do unless they were wealthy.
Another interesting element in Blond's discussion of Roman society is his description of the city and how the city was built. He notes how the city was "marblized" by Augustus, which is probably most people's vision of what Rome was like, though most of the citizens lived in "tenements" and spent their time "parading the splendid public parts of the city in the day and retreating to their private squalor only for sleep" (167).
Living conditions differed greatly between the poor and the wealthy, as might be expected, and Blond describes both. The rich family would live in a domus or own the ground floor of an insula. They would be more likely to have access to running water and have hot-air heating. The practices of landlords at the time seemed to be similar to what we know today, with ground floors in buildings being rented out to businesses while residences were stacked on top. Where today we have regulations to protect the public and assure safety, Rome had nothing like this:
No regulations inhibited the avarice and irresponsibility of the speculators and jerry builders who put up these buildings, often financed by magnates, senators and 'new men' like Cicero (167).
This changed somewhat under Augustus, who set out to regularize the city and who called for laws to set maximum height for buildings, organize fire brigades, and begin the process of town-planning.
Rome had been built out of concrete poured onto wooden slates, the same processed used today. On this was placed travertine, a creamy white stone which was laid horizontally, and tufa, "which could not stand fire" (170). The roads were made of silex, "a dark gray volcanic rock from the Alban Hills" (170). Finer buildings might have a coating of stucco and…