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The TV Gladiators have got nothing on the Romans!!
Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans - Terry Deary
Member Name: CaptainD
Horrible Histories: Ruthless Romans - Terry Deary
Advantages: Shows the Romans in all their awful ruthlessness...
Disadvantages: ... a bit gruesome as a result!!
The “Horrible Histories” range of books is designed to get kids interested in history by… well, by telling them all the horrible bits as well. The intro to this particular books, “The Ruthless Romans”, actually starts out by telling us how teachers always go on about how wonderful the Romans were, and conveniently ignoring the more atrocious side of the Romans. Actually from what I remember of history lessons, there’s an element of truth in that. This book then focuses not on the “what the Romans did for us” philosophy, but on what made the Roman Empire so devastatingly powerful – their ruthlessness – and also the “entertainment” they enjoyed. So basically what we have here is a brief account of the rise of the Roman Empire, and a long account of the Games that the bloodthirsty Romans enjoyed. Like most cultural developments, at least part of the idea for the gladiatorial games was borrowed from an older culture (in the case the Etruscans), and the book goes into some detail about how this may have taken place. There is a little general information about the Romans in addition to specifically dealing with the Games.
Despite this being designed for kids, the average adult who isn’t a history professor will find this book both entertaining and educational. For instance, do you know why the famous Coliseum is so named? It has nothing to do with its size – in fact, it’s rather small for a Roman arena. Thought you knew a lot about the gladiators? It’s very likely that a lot of what you thought you knew isn’t actually true. There are a lot of accounts retold in this book from various people, including Caesars, gladiators, trainers, slaves, and Christians who were about to be thrown to the lions. The bloodthirstiness of the Romans seemed to know no bounds. Their methods of execution and cruelty were both savage and ingenious, and showed contempt for humans an animals alike. Not a bunch of people you’d like to invite home for tea…
The writing style is humorous and light-hearted, insofar as the material allows. Some of the scenes described are just too horrific (or the attitudes of the victims too noble) for jokes to be made of them, and there are a few appropriately more sombre parts in the book. (Most notably the author draws some undeniable but uncomfortable comparisons to our day.) That’s to say that some of the humour isn’t what some people might call “inappropriate” – given that it’s based on the Roman Games, most of the material is pretty awful if you actually think about it really having happened. Then again that’s what the “Horrible” part of the book’s title is all about… and kids are horrible, so they tend to like that sort of thing!
The text is accompanied by some cartoons (which are frequently very funny), and lots of techniques are employed to stop the book from becoming boring for kids, such as diary excerpts etc being presented on the page as if on a parchment. It’s visually very easy on the eye but the style doesn’t stop the points from getting across – in fact, if anything it enhances the impact of what you read (even, perhaps for an adult reading). Sometimes the visuals actually make more of a statement than the text does, and some of the stories are told in cartoon-strip form. Martin’ Brown’s illustrations really suit this down to the ground.
I find the Roman Empire particularly interesting because at no point in history before or since has there been anything quite like it. I already knew a fair bit about the Romans but definitely learned some interesting facts from this book. On the other hand, there were one or two points that I found to be somewhat spurious, though to be fair the book itself admits the fallibility of history books and they not everything in them should be trusted!
One of the other reasons that I found this book interesting was that I could see how much real history was included in the film Gladiator, or at least historical events that provided the inspiration for some things in the movie. Many of the events and characters in the movie were inspired by things that really happened, though not surprisingly a certain amount of creative licence was used in the film!
Though it’s designed for kids, adults with a passing interest in history will enjoy this book, and though it’s a quick, light read, there’s a lot of information packed into its 128 pages. Not necessarily a book to eat while having dinner though as it does get a little gory at times…
Text as always was by Terry Dreary
Illustrations this time were by Martin Brown
My copy is not going to win any prizes for production values, though I do wonder if part of the reason for the cheapness of the set I bought was because it had lower-quality printing than usual. It’s clear enough to read easily and see the detail however, so I’m not complaining.
I haven’t yet read all of the ten Horrible Histories I got from “The Book People” for £10, but of those I’ve read so far, this one is the most interesting, best written, and most visually appealing of them. Some history textbooks tend to be rather alienate the casual reader, giving the impression that you should already be a professor to understand them, but no-one would have any problem whatsoever picking up a Horrible History and reading though it. Plus, of course, they are great for kids – being designed for them – but they don’t talk down to the kids and for a bit of light yet informative reading, adults can enjoy them as well.
(Next Horrible History to be reviewed: “The Angry Aztecs” – look out for it soon on Dooyoo!)
If you want to buy “The Ruthless Romans” individually, it costs £2.99 on Amazon (new – RRP £4.99), which is better value than getting it second hand on the Marketplace. I’d still advise getting a set with at least 3 Horrible Histories books for better value though.
Summary: History horribly brought to life!
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