As a keen consumer of history books, both fiction and non, I’ve bought a few of Holland’s works now. On each occasion I’ve stood at the book shop till, hope having narrowly triumphed over experience.
They promise, and largely deliver, an insider’s guide to the received narrative of the ancient past, knitting together the stories with the author’s take on the psychology of the participants and using his expansive knowledge of the sources to bring dusty or dislocated accounts into a sharp, modern focus. Holland is a gifted historian and an adroit wielder of words.
However, there’s a chance you may find his style deeply annoying, or at the very least unhelpfully abstruse. I certainly do.
Almost every paragraph is linked inextricably to the last, meaning that if you’re the type of person who typically reads a couple of pages in bed each night, you’d better have a superb memory for the nuances of what you read 24 hours ago… or start the chapter again. What I mean is that you can’t just start reading where you left off – you need to trace back the ideas and references being made, often quite a long way. Seriously, there can be pages and pages of inter-related prose which cannot be deciphered easily without finding the beginning. I swear I read the same three page section on some dastardly palace plot in Caligula’s reign five or six times before I could divine what was going on.
Secondly, there is an assumption that the reader has a fair bit of knowledge of classical Rome – the main stories and characters – to the extent to which Holland feels able (freed?) to ignore some of the obvious plot points in all but inference. Some readers will be baffled by what’s going on and will object to the absence of the standard stories, but others will relish the opportunity to explore beyond the well-trodden paths.
If you can devote solid hours of reading to this book, it will reward you in turn, but as a time-poor casual reader, I found it a somewhat alienating slog. Other opinions are available, clearly.