The very essence of the Romans

“Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans” by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

You know that saying by Albert Einstein “if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself”? Well this book is kinda like that.

It is one of the clearest explanations about all things Roman Empire that I have come across, delivered with short and concise wordings, accompanied with cool illustrations and a British sense of humour (with sarcasm, puns, and some dad jokes every now and then). What’s not to like? And, oh, it is indeed intended to educate young readers.

At the very beginning, the book shows a glimpse of what to come with this neat summary of the Roman timeline:

“First there were Roman “kings” – war leaders who went around smashing other people. Then the seventh king started smashing his own Roman people so…

Kings were thrown out and the people ruled themselves – that’s called a ‘republic.’ But the Romans decided one strong leader was better for smashing other people so…

They created ‘emperors’ with an ‘empire’ which smashed everyone in sight… and many who were out of sight too. It all started back in the distant mists of time in Italy…”

The book then proceeded to cover everything you can imagined about the day-to-day Roman life, from festivals and wedding ceremonies, to the different types of gladiators and how the gladiator matches were organised, the “hooligans” supporters fighting between people from Pompeii and Nuceria (like in football culture today), to the class warfare between the posh Patricians and the working class Plebeians.

It also covers the more superstitious side such as how to get into a Roman heaven, the story of the first ghost buster, the deal with the God of cupboard, how to spell a curse on your enemy, fortune telling (and how to do it ourselves at home), some of the local beliefs such as lighting strike is caused by angry gods, the story of one particular Emperor who banned sausages, or why it is unlucky to have a cow stuck on the roof of your house.

Moreover, the book addresses the misconceptions about the Romans, such as the ability of the Roman soldiers. Sure, they’re good at swords and war battles, but the one thing that became their winning edge was their ruthlessness, with unbelievable cruelty as their war tactics as well as towards their own deserters. You know what they did to Jesus with the whipping and the nailing on the cross? Yeah that looks mild now in comparison with the stories in the book. But nothing compares with what the evil emperors did to their enemies, which are described pretty vividly in this supposedly children’s book.

Another example of misconception is about the gladiators. Contrary to popular belief gladiators don’t usually fight to the death, but it was criminals and prisoners of war who do. Also, not all gladiators are slaves as there were some freemen who became gladiators, did well, and retire rich. In fact, gladiators from many different walks of life train and fight like boxers today, complete with the bettings happening on the fight day.

Meanwhile, every once in a while the book tells amusing stories that portrays the human day to day lives. Such as one story where there was once an old senator Aponius that fell asleep in an auction with his head kept nodding (a custom that indicate you’re bidding), and when he woke up he found out that he had just bought 13 gladiators (that cost him 90,000 gold pieces!).

And of course, there’s the amusing long list of many things during Roman times, including the shocking [and sometimes hilarious] remedies for diseases.

In the end, I cannot believe that all of these rich information are covered in just under 136 pages, and even that already includes all the fun quizzes. Needless to say I am thoroughly entertained while learning a lot, and will definitely show this book to my kids.