Book Review: Caesar Rules: The Emperor in the Changing Roman World (c. 50 BC – AD 565)


by Olivier Hekster

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. xxiv, 400. Illus., maps, graphics, appends., stemma, gloss., notes, biblio,. indices. $39.99. ISBN:1009226797

Conducting the Business of Empire

The great Oxford historian Sir Fergus Millar (1935-2019) famously wrote “The emperor was what the emperor did” (The Emperor in the Roman World, 1977). Olivier Hekster, who was one of Millar’s students, develops this theme at length in this splendid new book.

Hekster’s Introduction begins (p. 1):

Roman emperors ruled their world. They did so from the moment that emperorship was established in Rome up to the fall of the Roman empire. This seems self-evident, but almost everything in the previous two sentences is subject to debate.”

The Contents are,

Introduction: Emperors and Expectations
1. Portraying the Roman Emperor
2. Playing Imperial Roles
3. Being Around the Emperor
4. The Emperor in the Capital and the Provinces

The span of history covered is generous, beginning with the decay of the Republic under Julius Caesar and ending with the death of Justinian the Great. This reflects the modern understanding that the “Fall of Rome” was not a discrete event, but a process of transformation that unfolded over the course of centuries.

The emperor generally was expected to perform three basic roles: supreme commander of the army, high priest of the state religion, and lawgiver or source of Justice. For some emperors (often the crazy ones), the religious role came to include a claim of divine origin, or even godhood. After Christianity became established as the state religion, the role of high priest shifted to something like “Defender of the Faith,” or protector of the Church.

Because the army was usually the most important (and most expensive) state institution, emperors were often depicted in military garb as victorious conquerors; even the most timid emperors, who never left the comfort of their palaces, and whose “victories” were merely boastful propaganda.

“A story recorded by the historian Cassius Dio (lived c. 165 - 235) about Hadrian emphasizes how Romans viewed the emperor as a source of Justice:
“…once, when a woman made a request of him as he passed by on a journey he at first said to her “I haven’t time,” but afterwards when she cried out, “Stop, then being emperor,” he turned about and granted her a hearing. (p. 160)

For an academic publication, the book is a good value for the price: well-designed, on quality paper, with generous margins, notes at the bottom of the page (a great convenience for the reader), and richly illustrated in color, with pictures in line with the text. The author makes extensive use of coin photos, which (to the delight of this numismatist!) are all fully and correctly attributed. The only complaint is that on some of the colorful graphs the text is so small that some readers may need a magnifying lens.

Olivier Hekster is Professor of Ancient History at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands (a town that will be familiar to readers here as the location of the bridge that was Not Too Far.)


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWeek.Com and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian, Bohemond of Taranto, The Last Viking: The True Story of King Harald Hardrada, Ancient Rome: Infographics, Byzantium and the Crusades, A Short History of the Byzantine Empire, Theoderic the Great, The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, Battle for the Island Kingdom, Vandal Heaven, The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome, and Herod the Great: Jewish King in a Roman World.




Note: Caesar Rules is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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