Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Not what I expected. I’d always thought the Meditations was a set of philosophical aphorisms. Instead, it’s something between a diary and a daily “deep thought”, a recording of a conversation an Emperor of Rome was having with himself.

As such, it’s repetitive and very personal, and yet somehow still relevant, hundreds of years after it was written.

Three things I found useful:

  • Try to learn from everyone, even (especially) the ones you disagree with.
  • If you know someone’s a jerk, don’t expect them to treat you fairly. And definitely don’t get angry with them for it, since you knew who they were from the start.
  • Success and failure happen to everyone, over and over again. So there shouldn’t be pride in the former, or shame in the latter.

Augustus by Anthony Everitt

Illuminating. Everitt makes Augustus a sympathetic figure, but without hiding any of his flaws: his hypocritical championing of family values, his slaughtering of competing Roman families, his unforgiving behavior towards his own family and friends. And he shows how Augustus’ life was often a series of serious mistakes followed by lucky victories, not a steady calculated rise to power.

Three things I learned:

  • The idea of having two “co-emperors” of Rome goes back to Augustus. He often had at least one trusted friend or family member invested with equal power and sent to rule different regions of the empire.
  • Augustus’ first official post was religious: his great-uncle Caesar, got him appointed to the College of Pontiffs, who were in charge of performing public sacrifices
  • Augustus was called “Princeps”, not Emperor. He was careful to keep his powers legal, renewed periodically via legislation, and to act humble while in Rome

SPQR by Mary Beard

Fascinating. Covers the first Roman millennium, from ~750 BCE to 212 CE, but with the specific goal of highlighting where our common conceptions of ancient Rome are wrong, and how many of our current political and cultural debates go back to the days of the Republic.

This means the chapters aren’t strictly chronological, and sometimes double-back on the same period to illuminate a different side of it. Each is written well, though, and offers interesting facts of its own.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Many of the things that make us squeamish about the Romans (gladiator fights, Caesar’s brutality during the wars in Gaul) were criticized at the time by the Romans themselves
  • Unlike most ancient empires, Rome was welcoming to immigrants and former slaves (in fact, their system of manumission was the first of its kind)
  • Ancient Romans were clean-shaven, going back as far as 300 BCE