Hindsight may be 20/20, but it’s so difficult for modern readers to really envision the ancient world. We perceive its inhabitants as unenlightened, even brutish, and influenced by outdated cultural expectations we can hardly grasp. While we may distance ourselves from ancient peoples, truth be told, their motives, beliefs, and desires aren’t as unknowable as we may believe, or want to believe. That dissonance is made clear with Yale University Press’s new series Ancient Lives, which sheds new light on historical figures from the distant past.
The authors of this series have chosen various historical figures and analyzed the known details of their lives in order to get closer to an understanding of who they were as people. James Romm, Senior Editor of the series and Professor of Classics at Bard College, compares the objective of Ancient Lives to the work of specialists who analyze marble busts. Much like the art historian who “keeps to the contours of the white marble busts but adds back in the colors that give them life,” these authors use the historical record to fill in the missing gaps of their subjects' lives. Keep reading to discover five biographies of ancient figures whose fascinating stories shouldn’t be forgotten.
Julian: Rome's Last Pagan Emperor
Vergil: The Poet's Life
The Aeneid is widely considered a foundational work of Western literature. Composed over 2,000 years ago, the epic poem and foundational myth traces the journey of Aeneas, a refugee of the Trojan War who wanders to Italy, where his descendants will establish the city of Rome. Despite the poem’s significance, relatively little is known for certain about its author, Vergil. But what we do know raises even more questions. Why was Vergil’s dying wish that the Aeneid be destroyed? Find out in Sarah Ruden’s impeccably researched biography about the towering poet who’s been shrouded in mystery, until now.
Ramesses the Great: Egypt's King of Kings
Immortalized in Percy Shelley's poem "Ozymandias", Ramesses II was arguably the most celebrated pharaoh of the New Kingdom, which in itself was ancient Egypt’s most influential period. A cultural innovator and powerful warrior feared by his enemies, he also went down in history as a tyrant. Acclaimed Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson relentlessly combed through the historical record in his quest to reconcile Ramesses’ contradictory reputation and “succeeds in bringing this distant age to life through telling detail and insightful analysis” (The Economist).
Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth
Cleopatra is undeniably one of the most compelling historical figures of the ancient world, with her beauty and mystery drawing curiosity throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, her own perspective is obscure to us. None of her own writings survive, and most of what we know about her was written through the lens of male historians with their own biases and agendas. This feminist reinterpretation of Cleopatra’s life and legacy by New York Times bestselling author Francine Prose challenges our one-dimensional understanding of the powerful Egyptian queen.
Crassus: The First Tycoon
General Marcus Licinius Crassus was “the richest man in Rome,” and something of a celebrity in the ancient world. He amassed his fortune through real estate speculation and helped transform the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. For a man with such a dramatic life, an equally memorable death was only fitting. Crassus died during his invasion of the neighboring state Parthia, which was an utter failure. While Crassus may be unknown to modern readers, this true tale of greed and unchecked ambition is startlingly familiar. The Times Literary Supplement calls this account of the statesman “a perfectly paced biography.”
Demetrius: Sacker of Cities
Demetrius the Besieger saw his good fortune wax and wane throughout his lifetime. He sought to reconquer territories lost during Alexander the Great’s reign, with mixed success, and later died in exile. This biography of the king’s spectacular rise and fall will appeal to anyone interested in not just the fascinating period of his rule, but his relationships and rich inner life.
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