A Brief History of Rome!
Our book today is from 1885: the Brief History of Rome put out in New York as part of the old Barnes’ One-Term Series that was designed to put short, affordable one-volume introductions to then-staple subjects like history, science, and language into classrooms in the state of New York (and beyond – many’s the tiny Cape Cod schoolroom, for instance, that absolutely swore by how wonderful the Barnes series were).
The series was created by A.S. Barnes & Co, and it followed a fairly standard plan: First, there’d be a general introduction to the subject – in this case, a neatly ringing one:
While Greece was winning its freedom on the field of Marathon and Plataea, and building up the best civilization the world had then seen; while Alexander was carrying the Grecian arms and culture over the East; while the Conqueror’s successors were wrangling over the prize he had won; while the Ptolemies were transplanting Grecian thought, but not Grecian freedom, to Egyptian soil; – there was slowly growing up on the banks of the Tiber a city that was to found an empire wider than Alexander’s, and molding Grecian civilization, art, and literature into new forms, preserve them long after Greece had fallen.
Then the authors picked for the volume – in this case, Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Steele (although it was Mrs. Steele who here did the enormous majority of the work) – would take readers on a brisk but conscientiously footnoted tour of their subject, a tour composed mostly of quotes from authorities arranged to form a narrative. And the whole thing would be generously illustrated, of course.
About half the authors quoted at length in this Roman History volume are ancient Roman authors – Caesar, Sallust, Livy (about whom we’re sweetly – and accurately – told: “Livy would at a glance distinguish the bold strokes of the forgotten poet [Fabius Pictor] from the dull and feeble narrative by which they were surrounded, would retouch them with delicate and powerful pencil, and would make them immortal”) and such, and the other half are historians who were contemporary to the Steeles – figures like Macaulay (but not for his histories, of course – it’s the “Lays of Ancient Rome” that get lovingly quoted), Alfred Church (who wrote a book called Roman Life in the Days of Cicero that could easily have fit in this little triptych), AJ Froude, and Philip Smith, each of whom is quoted on some aspect of Roman life, from the games to the city government to the endless wars by which Rome grew for centuries.
The quotes are uniformly well-chosen, often preserving bits and pieces of the eloquence of historians (and the occasional novelist) who are now completely forgotten, like George Taylor on that enduringly enigmatic ancient pairing, Hadrian and a certain teenage boy:
This lonely man, who remained incomprehensible even to friends and favorites, was devoted for a long time to a beautiful Bithynian youth, whom he loved as Socrates loved Alcibiades, and Caesar Brutus. This was Antinous, with whose busts and statues Hadrian had filled the world, and whose innocent features contrast strangely with the passion-seamed visage of the master, to whom he was the dearest thing in life.
This Barnes volume, like all the others, ends with pages of ads – mainly descriptions of other Barnes One-Term Series volumes the reader (or teacher) might want to purchase, on subjects ranging from architecture to Medieval history. It was a packaging and a strategy that proved very successful, especially since it embraced both the burgeoning mail-order catalog tactic of reaching previously tough-to-reach customers but also the burgeoning urban bookstore business. In fact, in the decades after 1885, A.S. Barnes & Co was able to use those combined tactics to build one of the 20th century’s biggest and most successful retail bookselling companies under a slightly different name. Which shows how much is possible if you make good, useful products and don’t talk down to your readers, possibly. Or it might have more to do with Roman-style gradual conquests of unsuspecting rivals …