I’m getting the classical education I never had. That’s only partly true, because I’m really only doing the Western Civ. portion of the education. But it’s been so fun this year.
And I don’t think people generally equate the fall of Rome to “fun,” but I can honestly say I have thoroughly enjoyed reading these books. (The full list of “these books” can be found here Reading List for High School Freshman Western Civilization and Literature.)
Perhaps not the biggest, but definitely a very important thing I have learned during my freshmom year is that I love to read and I love to read fast, but I hate taking notes. I think if I actually owned all of these books, I would have just written in all the margins and highlighted and underlined like crazy. But I was dealing with library books and I hear librarians are kind of averse to that. (My library already has it out for me.) Additionally, many of these books and documents are no longer in print and the libraries don’t even carry them.
I know! I was shocked! The libraries don’t even have the foundational texts of our entire civilization?
But libraries buy and keep books that people read, and sadly very few people understand the importance of knowing and understanding our past in order to know and understand ourselves, our relationships, and have the knowledge to make better decisions for our future.
They do read a lot of morally questionable material, though.
(Don’t worry too much. You can get many of these works free as kindle editions via Amazon. Not as satisfying as a physical book – and I have a harder time taking notes on a kindle – but at least the wisdom and beauty is still out there for those who are looking.)
If you care to be updated on all my book reviews for this school year, check out
Here is the list of my final list of books for the year – with a little review of each.
Livy – The History of Rome – This was just straight history. There are SO many names, but thankfully Plutarch prepared me for a lot of this. I would almost suggest reading Livy before Plutarch, just because he writes it all in chronological order while Plutarch jumps around a lot. The author of my reading list suggested only reading the sections on early Rome, so I read until Book IV and figured that was pretty good. I don’t know, if there were time – and maybe I will just come back to this a little later – it would be beneficial to read the entire thing. I read from Romulus and Remus, through the kings, and right up to the Republic.
Cicero – De Officiis – This was a really interesting book. I would read Cicero’s opening statements on any certain issue and think to myself, “No, I think you’re off on this one,” but then upon continued reading his arguments would persuade me and I would admit in the end he was right after all. I’m not that fickle, it’s just his arguments required deeper explanations. I know it shouldn’t surprise any of us, but these men and women of antiquity were such deep thinkers. It is so wrong to say their writings are not applicable to modern times simply because they are old and nobody values them anymore. The world would be in a much better place if our leading men and women had such moral compasses and intelligence as Cicero did. In fact, I don’t want to sound harsh against millennials or anything, but I honestly think this should be a required reading for basic life skills classes. Some people call Cicero the “pagan apostle” and by reading this book, you will definitely understand why.
I did read the Cataline Oration, but I think I need help with that one. I would like to say I was just so tired those nights, but really, I think I just completely missed the boat there. There is probably a book somewhere that can let me know what I am supposed to get out of that one. Maybe after a good study of rhetoric I will be able to appreciate it more.
Julius Caesar – The Complete Works – Caesar not only defeated the Gauls, but he almost defeated me in the process. There are just a lot of different groups of people getting beaten, and a nice map would have been helpful. (I’m not interested in making one of those myself this time. I KNOW there has got to be plenty of them out there. I just haven’t found one yet.) For the student reading his works, I would definitely encourage finding a good map beforehand. This book was easy to read and fun to follow. Having studied a lot about Caesar already, I could picture what was going on and knew enough of what was going to come next, but hearing it in his own words (that is debatable, actually) was thrilling in a way. The author of my reading list suggested reading selections, but I just read the whole thing. I think it was time well spent.
Augustus – Res Gestae Divi Augusti – I really hope I read the right thing! This is not really a book but more so a list of Augustus’ accomplishments he either wrote himself for had written. Technically, like the book above mentioned by Caesar, it’s really just kind of a propaganda piece. You can do a quick google search and find the entire thing. In fact, here, I will just do it for you. Res Gestae Divi Augusti. You’re welcome.
Tacitus – The Histories – I read this one right after The Complete Works of Caesar. Boy, if you didn’t have a reason to hate the emperors already! But Tacitus’ writing is so engaging! It was so entertaining to read and I felt like I could hear him telling the story – with his snarky sarcasm and all. Here is just a quote from the introduction of the version I read. “History to a Roman was opus oratorium, a work of literary art. Truth is a great but not a sufficient merit. The historian must be not only narrator but ornator rerum. He must carefully select and arrange the incidents, compose them into an effective group, and by the power of language make them memorable and alive. In these books Tacitus has little but horrors to describe; his art makes them unforgettably horrible. The same art is ready to display the beauty of courage and self-sacrifice. But these were rarer phenomena than cowardice and greed.” Above all, I was in awe of Tacitus’ style and voice. What a depressing topic, though.
Seutonius – The Twelve Emperors – But then things go from bad to worse! Tacitus was a joy to read speaking strictly literarily. But Seutonius was downright X rated! There was quite a bit of detail I promise I could have done without. The history was fascinating; the lifestyle section was filthy. If you really want your teenager to read this – and I really think they should read at least the clean parts – just make sure you know what sections to have them skip. Seriously. On a lighter note, I downloaded the version produced by Poetry in Translation and translated by A. S. Kline because it had a in-depth name index which was very, very helpful! So that is a good kindle edition to get. It was also probably free, which does a lot to tip the scales in it’s favor.
Marcus Aurelius – Meditations – Finally, a GOOD guy! This book was not what I expected it to be. It is basically just the musings of a good guy doing his best to navigate and manage the largest and most powerful empire in the known world. His book has no narrative at all, but a lot of philosophical reflection and stoic pondering. He must have been kind of worried about dying – because he almost seems like he is talking himself into not worrying about it all the time.
Look! You can get this one free, too! Marcus Aurelius – Meditations.
Adrian Goldsworthy – How Rome Fell – This was my “bonus” book. The original reading list has some major gaps. (Granted, maybe some of these gaps are filled up with Polybius’ The Histories, Book VI which I just saw on my paper that I forgot to read! Oops!). I had a good grasp of the mythical history of Rome – meaning The Aeniad. And the early years with the rule of kings was covered pretty well via Plutarch and Livy. There is A LOT of information on the Republic, especially if you are mostly interested in the era right before it’s downfall. But then there is a huge gap when learning about the emperors. Everyone likes to talk about Augustus. Suetonius’ Twelve Emperors covers Julius Caesar – not technically an emperor – through Domitian. Tacitus starts right at the death of Nero and ends with Titus. (Well, he wrote more but quoting the very last words of the book… “the rest is lost.”) This is all a time period already covered by Seutonius. You get double duty, there. But besides the musings of Marcus Aurelius, I didn’t have anything to read about anything after the building of the Coliseum and the sacking of Jerusalem. Some pretty big names pop up on that missing list, too. You know, like, Hadrian? I hear he is pretty important. 😉
Anyway’s I picked up a book about the fall of Rome. The empire seemed to be in pretty bad shape during all those emperors anyway. I checked out two books but only read one of them and can only recommend that one. It is the book “How Rome Fell” by Adrian Goldsworthy. I knew I would love the book after just reading the introduction. This is the kind of historian I can relate to. The fall of Rome has been applied to basically every powerful nation or empire since it’s time. When you read and study it, especially the end of the Republic, it feels just like reading the current internet headlines. I seriously just shook my head and thought, “this is just like today,” many more times than once. But Goldsworthy is quick to point out that just because a nation is big, prosperous, and powerful (and maybe is experiencing decades long corruption and self-interested politicians), it does not mean it is following in the paths of Rome. His biggest criticism has to do with those predicting the fall of the United States – this guy is British – which he thinks is absurd considering the many, many differences between the old empire and the very young nation – one glaringly obvious one being that the United States is NOT an empire. Anyway, he just seemed honest, fresh, and annoyed with those turning history into politics.
I really liked this guy.
I also really liked his book!
But boy, there were a lot of emperors to keep track of. What I enjoyed most was his emphasis on the change of the government from being run by senators in Rome accountable to the people to emperors in various parts of the empire building huge bureaucracies of non Romans and Romans of equestrian status. Whereas the senators who became consuls (like a co-president with a term of one year) were educated, elite rhetoricians with impressive military skill and successful leadership backgrounds, these emperors had little or no impressive qualities to bring to the table, except an army loyal to them (sometimes not loyal for very long) and a lot of people working under them. The emperors spent the majority of their time trying to stay alive from threats of assassination. Most of them weren’t very good at that, either. The empire seemed destined to implode.
Anyway, the book was fabulous. This is an era of history that everyone knows exists but very few know anything about. If you want to learn more about it, start right here!
The book you’ll find if you google “The Fall of Rome” is by Peter Heather. I checked that book out, too, hoping to gain a slightly different perspective. Heather focuses more on the pressures put on Rome by the barbarian tribes outside of it and credits the barbarians with the ultimate fall (this is opposite of Goldsworthy’s thesis) but I just couldn’t get into it.
It may have something to do with the fact that I had just read over a gazillion pages about ancient Rome and all the emperors and I was ready for a break – so no offense, Peter. I’ll probably read it all the way through someday.
Are you kind of tired of ancient Rome yet?
But I bought bunch of DVDs from The Great Courses (on major sale, obviously) about Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome that I get to watch now. Like I said, I did a non existent job of taking any real notes. I’m hoping that watching all these courses on the history, literature, and famous people of the time will be repetition enough to make the history sticky enough.
But for my purposes, freshmom year is over! Wohoo! I feel like I accomplished a lot, but more importantly (maybe) I made a huge goal and stuck with it.
And I LIKED it!
(Please, nobody mention the fact that I didn’t read any of the essays suggested for the 9th grade composition course. I did put a bunch on my kindle and read a few, but I just can’t do it right now. Mom school is out for summer!)