Monday, 23 November 2009

Horrible Histories: The Rotten Romans

I don't usually cover actual history books on this blog, because I'm generally more interested in fictionalised versions of the ancient world, though there are many "factual" (to a greater or lesser extent) programmes and books that are undoubtedly designed to be "popular". I'm making an exception for these books though, because they were my first ever exposure to ancient history.

Back when I was in primary school and thought Romans were boring, two new books came out and were advertised to us via the book club the school subscribed to. Several people bought The Terrible Tudors, including me - I was always very interested in the Tudors, especially Henry VIII and his six wives. I enjoyed it a lot, so I started collecting the books (I continued to try to own all of them for years, until eventually I had to give up as the cost of children's books started to skyrocket). The Rotten Romans was the third book to come out, in 1994 (The Awesome Egyptians was released at the same time as The Terrible Tudors, in 1993).

The books consist of lots of different written elements - quizzes, cartoon strips, pretend newspaper articles and diaries, timelines and other bits and pieces - and cartoon illustrations. I loved them, and repeated their jokes ad infinitum (still do - one of my favourites was The 20th Century (published 1996)'s prediction that we would all drown in fridge suits in the year 2000, at least, those of us who survived Mad Treacle Disease). This is where I first learned that Caligula made his favourite horse a senator (which, actually he didn't - Dio Cassius only says that he thought about making his horse a senator consul but died before he got the chance), that Boudicca is buried under Platform 10 of King's Cross Station (no idea if that's true, though I suspect not - and according to Bonekickers, she's in Bath!) and that, when he caught her plotting against him, the emperor Claudius had not only his wife Messalina executed but hundreds of her 'party friends' as well.

(Edited to add: It has been pointed out to me that both Dio Cassius and Suetonius write that Caligula intended to make Incitatus a consul, not a senator - see comments. This is entirely true - but I have a feeling The Rotten Romans, I, Claudius or both say 'senator', which is why I always make that mistake. When I can get hold of them, I will return with the answer).

You can see some of the problems with the books from the examples above - there are the sort of inaccuracies you get with broad generalisations, as in the Caligula's horse story, the books rely a lot on 'fun' trivia regardless of likliehood, like the Boudicca story, and they have to be censored for a young audience - those 'friends' were Messalina's lovers. They also focus, as the title suggests, on the gory side of things, on the assumpion that kids love gore, though some children (like me - I used to cry all through assemblies where upsetting stories were told) don't actually like gore or enjoy hearing nasty stories. (Not that I think things aimed at children should be censored or have all the scary stuff taken out, it's only a problem if they're treated as an educational tool and children are forced to endure something that upsets them).

Overall, though, I think the books are a great introduction to history for children. They try to introduce the concept of historical enquiry - I remember one which explained the controversy over the death of Christopher Marlowe - and they get children interested in history. For years, all I knew about the Romans was gleaned from The Rotten Romans. I still enjoy the books and find them hilariously funny, and one of these days, when I win the lottery, I'll collect them all...

The image at the top of the page is the original 1994 book cover, which I have to say, I much prefer. This is the new cover, and apparently there's some new content in this edition as well.


  1. I loved these books! Oh, talking of childhood nostalgia, I asked my flatmates what everyone waxed lyrical about in Italy and they told me they used to watch a Japanese cartoon called Pollon, about the (mis)adventures of Apollo's 'daughter'. Possibly the most awesome and inappropriate anachronism is that she seems to have cocaine, which she uses to solve problems. She gets out her 'magic powder' and she does a dance ( with the words: it looks like talcum powder, but it's not; it serves to make you cheerful! Whether you eat it or inhale it, it'll cheer you up straight away!
    Um, yes.

  2. :O Wow, that's interesting....! That's even worse than the Rupert story with magic pills (I collect Rupert annuals, so Mum and Dad got me a facsimilie of a 1950s annual for Christmas a couple of years ago, and in it was a story in which Rupert and Bill found a strange purse with white pills in it and took the pills. It didn't work out well!).

    I'll have to see if I can track down this cartoon... (preferbaly in English, but my Mum speaks Italian so Italian will do!)

  3. Good point about Dio on Caligula's horse as senator (Loeb has consul rather than senator. What is it in the Greek text?), but he does list that he had already made him a priest. How many duties does one horse need??

    I never read these books. As an aside, Rupert the Bear on pills would be amazing.


  4. I don't have my Greek dictionary on me and I can't remember the Greek word for 'consul' - soterian, possibly? Suetonius’ Life of Gaius, says 'consulatum quoque traditur destinasse', ‘it is said that he also intended to appoint [Incitatus] as consul’. Anyway, it is indeed 'concul', not 'senator' - when I have moved and all my stuff is in one place again, I will have to check whether The Rotten Romans and I, Claudius say senator or consul, as that will have been what I was remembering!

  5. I loved this book too way back when. I'd love to get my hands on a copy just to see what's what.

    Suetonius and Dio have Consul in the now rather old Loeb translations available on the web.

    In the original I believe Suetonius also says Consul, and the same goes for Dio.

  6. Hello Julz. Hello people! :)

    σύμβουλος=consulate (pronounced sim-voο-los)

  7. I also wonder if the guy in the picture, with 6 knives stack on his back, is dead, or very dead... lol He looks a bit confused. Love it!


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