The book “Ancient Rome. Infographics” is a novelty in the Polish publishing market, which is to tell the history of ancient Rome in an unusual way – based on data visualization – infographics. The authors of the book’s content are John Scheid and Milan Melocco, and Nicolas Guillerat is responsible for the graphic design.
Needless to say, I read the book with great interest. An innovative way of presenting history always gives hope, but it can also be associated with the risk of a misguided approach. Unfortunately, I think that in this case, the authors did not live up to the task.
But let’s start with the positives. Definitely, the release is really impressive. The book was printed in A4 format with beautiful graphics, diagrams, charts and drawings, on paper that is pleasant to the touch. Certainly, from the graphic side, the position should only be praised; Nicolas Guillerat did a great job. From what I was able to find on the Internet, the book is a print of an identical edition from France “Infographie de la Rome antique”.
Now, on to the cons. It seems to me that in terms of content, there is chaos in the book, and the knowledge is not well organized. I do not mean here to divide the content into three main chapters: territory and population; power, religion, economy; military. The problem lies in presenting subsequent issues. Often the charts have nothing to do with the content, and the given phrases are not translated to the reader. I suspect that the recipient group of the items were certainly people who are not necessarily closely related to the history of ancient Rome, hence, in my opinion, the discussion of history and terms should be approached more carefully. Many issues are also treated superficially, which is probably due to the desire to shorten the publication and adjust it to the number of charts. For example, the authors describe the wars very randomly, focusing only on the civil, Punic, Gallic wars and the Spartacus uprising.
However, what surprised me the most was the large number of factual errors. Below are examples:
- the Servian walls were not built in the 6th century BCE, but in the 4th century; the name is still misunderstood/used to this day;
- cognomen is not a surname, but a nickname;
- a mention of the “reform of Augustus” in 19 BCE – 301 CE, when Augustus lived until 14 CE;
- specifying the term sesterce instead of sesterce.
Unfortunately, the key elements of the book – infographics – also have an impact on the disadvantage of the title. They are, in my opinion, not very understandable and often have only a visual aspect. It seems as if the author of the graphics wanted to shock the Reader at all costs with another possibility of presenting data with a graph or diagram; sometimes there are so many arrows that it’s hard to find what is related to what. For me personally, the most tiring thing was reading the details about the legions on pages 98-99. Moreover, the aforementioned presentation of history oversimplifies the facts – for example, on page 55, cults were divided into state and private ones, and Genius was assigned only to the private sphere when he also performed for the Roman people and personification was placed on the reverses of Roman coins.
From the graphics, I personally really liked the depiction of Caesar’s defensive trenches near Alesia.
Maybe I’m being too harsh, but I think this book is simply an excess of form over substance. Personally, I like charts and diagrams, but when in reality they can show data in a meaningful way and encourage drawing conclusions. The diagrams show very detailed data on e.g. population or earnings, which in my opinion should be properly marked, what source the authors use. The bibliography at the end of the publication is useful, but not sufficient.
Overall, the book did not live up to my expectations. I was hoping for a substantive story about the history of Rome, which would be enriched with hit and nice graphics and diagrams. I received a beautifully published book, with colorful charts and illustrations that dominated the content. There were also factual errors and chaos in the descriptions.
Of course, I do not rule out that many people may like this presentation of history because the illustrations are really impressive. I encourage you to form your own opinion after reading it.