Famous Men of Rome

Book cover: 'Famous Men of Rome'
John Haaren
A.B. Poland
Greenleaf Press
Number of pages: 
154 pages
Grade / Age level: 

Our first year of homeschooling we used a dry textbook for American history. Well, we didn't really use it - we put it off as much as possible and the year passed with only the first few chapters read.

Our second year of homeschooling, we discovered Greenleaf's Famous Men series (through enrolling in the Kolbe Academy Home Study program). What a difference! It was our first exposure to literature-based history study, and the idea of studying time periods through "real books" was a formative one in our homeschool.

Famous Men of Rome was written very early in the 20th century and revised by Rob Shearer of Greenleaf Press. Its operating principle is that history is not primarily about dates and facts; it is about the lives and actions of people. Consequently, it is divided into a series of "Lives", chronologically arranged, simply and memorably telling of the lives and choices of leaders and great men in the history of Rome.

There are thirty chapters in the book, starting with Rome's origin according to legend: the story of Romulus and Remus and their upbringing by a wolf, which became the symbol of Rome's self-identity in its later years. The rest of the book focuses on one historical "famous man" per chapter, with approximate dates of their lives. The stories are told as tales of virtue and vice and how individual actions and characters can affect history, not as dry collections of historical facts to memorize. My highschooler still remembers, from fifth grade, Horatio at the bridge and Cicero ending every speech to the Senate with "And Carthage must be destroyed!" The chronological range of the book is from 753 BC, the estimated founding of Rome, to 476 AD, the end of the Western Empire as Italy became a barbarian kingdom under the rein of Odoacer.

Though the stories in Famous Men of Rome are almost always very interesting, the writing style is quite simple. This might be a drawback to some families who prefer a more literary, complex style. But it does mean that an average 5th grader can read with comprehension and focus on content and meaning. Another possible criticism might be that taken by themselves, the Lives give a sort of scattershot perspective of the course of history - like a slideshow compared to a video. However, in my view the biographical presentation gives history more meaning and interest, and also allows us to compare and contrast the characters of these great men and see how their actions influenced their times.

The book is probably targeted to a third to seventh grade level. It makes an excellent read aloud, but can also be read independently. Kolbe Academy uses it for the history spine in fourth grade. An older student could read the book as an informative supplement to primary source reading in junior high to high school.

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