Book Reviews

A Chronology of the Roman Empire

Timothy Venning. New York 2011-02-10

As noted in the “Introduction” by John Drinkwater, ancient Rome is well known in the Western world, as evidenced by its common use as a source for the film industry; however, few people can place important people and events to their proper chronological and historical context (p. 1). This is not helped by the blatant factual errors contained in most films. Thus “a detailed and solidly source-based timeline, such as this presented by Timothy Venning, is an indispensable handbook for all those wishing to gain a proper understanding of what occurred” (p. 1).

This excellent resource is actually misnamed. It is not a history of the Roman Empire only, which began in 30 BC and continued to AD 476 in the West (and continued for one thousand years more in the East). This volume is a history of ancient Rome, which begins with a discussion of its mythic beginnings in the eighth century BC (the traditional but uncertain founding date is 753 BC), followed by the monarchal period (to 509/508 BC), the republic (to 30 BC), and finally the empire (through AD 476). When the city fell in 476, the Western Empire was no more. After this, one could follow the Eastern empire, but this may be more accurately labeled the Byzantine Empire.

The twenty-three page introduction by Drinkwater gives an excellent discussion of the problems in establishing accurate chronology and the sources known for this task. His description of literary sources includes what is known to have been available and what is actually extant today (pp. 4–12). In addition to literary sources, he describes nonliterary sources such as inscriptions, papyri, coins, results of archaeology, and so forth (pp. 12–18).

The bulk of the volume is a chronology of ancient Roman history divided into seven sections (beginnings–265 BC; 264–146 BC; 145–30 BC; 30 BC–AD 68; AD 69–235; AD 235–330; AD 331–476). Beginning with 509/508 BC, the chronology is a year-by-year history. When sources permit, the years are broken up into geographical areas and more specific temporal units. One can read this straight through from beginning to end, choose a particular section to read over, and/or use it to look up specific years to see what was happening in the Roman world at that time. Here are brief descriptions of all important recorded events in Roman history with mention of the people involved in these events. Also more mundane developments are cataloged. In addition to the common Roman events, New Testament and early Christian history is also included. New Testament examples include optional dates for Jesus’ birth in 7 BC (p. 358), 5 BC (p. 360), or AD 5 (p. 367; possible Lukan date based on the census); the Sermon of the Mount was given in either AD 28 or 29 (p. 387); Jesus was crucified in either AD 30 (p. 388) or more likely AD 33 (p. 392); and a possible date for Paul’s conversion is given as AD 36 (p. 396). Early church history examples include a possible date for the beginning of Clement’s position as bishop of Rome in AD 91 (p. 496), Origin’s imprisonment and torture in AD 250 (p. 597), a debate between Augustine and Pelagius in AD 410 (p. 718), and the council at Carthage in AD 411 (p. 718). This format helps the reader see that these events did not occur in a vacuum but within a wider historical context.

Events and people are mentioned without much comment. This is a record of what was happening in a year-by-year manner. There are no grand overviews of wars or people—just historical facts determined by sources. This is why this volume is so valuable. One can read detailed books on various people and periods, but this book places them in their wider historical context.

The volume’s contents are enhanced by seventeen maps (pp. vii–xxiii); a listing of consuls beginning with the year 110 BC (consuls were leaders after whom years were named; pp. 755–60); a glossary including various words that may be unfamiliar to some readers (pp. 761–76); a bibliography including both ancient and modern secondary sources organized by small slices of time (pp. 777–801); and a lengthy index (pp. 803–50). The bibliography is useful because it allows the reader to access the ancient sources on which the chronology is based.

Venning’s Chronology is very well done. Two minor additions could have enhanced this volume. First, the ancient (“primary”) portion of the bibliography includes the name of an ancient book and often the specific book for each source in each chronological section (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities; Josephus, The Jewish War, Book II). However, making the reference more specific would have made this volume even more helpful (e.g., Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.111–325). Second, the index is an excellent resource for finding people mentioned in the book. It would have been enhanced by including events as well. This reference could benefit every Bible student, but its price prohibits many from owning it.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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