Detailed descriptions of murder and executions are very much NOT my thing, so it is a testament to Emma Southon’s writing that I read (listened to) all of A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome. I had to stop and take a few days break several times, because while fascinating, it was also horrifying. It was also illuminating and informative. I highly recommend this, especially if you are weary of Roman histories that ponder the hotness of Cleopatra.
Emma Southon, as narrated by Sophie Ward, is chatty and casual, which both allowed me to listen to some pretty horrific stuff, and also really heightened the brutality. Rome was no place to be a woman, a slave, or poor. The combination of Sophie Ward’s almost laconic upper crust British accent and Emma Southon’s informal storytelling, listening to this history felt like sitting on a porch getting all the local gossip. As easy going and casual as it felt on occasion, Southon’s academic rigor is on full display. She’s explicit about the sources historians have of life in Ancient Rome and their limitations. She has Opinions about Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cicero and talks about their own biases and blindspots (women, usually women).
While I had to pause or fast forward when the descriptions of killings became more graphic than I can handle, I can’t say those descriptions were unnecessary. Ancient Rome and the Roman Empire are foundations of western culture. In listening to this, while also be alive in the world right now, I was struck by how much we are still deciding whose life counts. Some of us are doing a lot better than the Romans, while a few of us with a whole lot of money and power are good with valuing only certain classes of people.
I’m going to need a text copy of this book. Listening to it has led to several great conversations, including one about whether criminality can be hereditary. It cannot because criminality is, as they say, a social construct. Empires are bad and the Roman Empire was a bad place to be unless you were within a small class of people.
CW: murder, torture, execution, slaughter of many, mutilation, slavery. Lots of horrific ways to die or punish people. Death by animal and animal abuse.