Augustus Caesar’s World by Genevieve Foster is a history book written in more of a story form and introduced the concept of “horizontal history”. The book itself covers the various time periods in Augustus Caesar’s life not just detailing his life biographically, but also people and events that happened in the wider world through different periods of his life from his boyhood to his death. This relatively new concept at the time the book was written (in 1947), was not just to present an event in history in only one narrow view, but also look at the wider world context around the event. The book is not “historical fiction” and does not go over the line into becoming a full fledged story, but also does not present the history as dry facts and figures like mainstream textbooks, but blends the two. Foster uses what I think of as a semi-story format, where the facts are presented in a more story-like manner, but not too embellished so that it becomes a story with a historical setting! This writing style really captivated me, and kept my interest peaked the whole time, a rare thing for most readers! There was very seldom a “dry area” in the book where it seemed to drone on, as all the facts were presented in an interesting story-like way. I feel the book is intended for younger readers, yet it does not dumb down the material or use simple vocabulary or concepts. I feel a lot of children’s non-fiction books are becoming less sophisticated in the material covered and more censored in many regards too.
One specific aspect of the book I enjoyed yet is the most criticized was how Foster wrote about the different religions covered. Foster wrote from a notably secular viewpoint on all the religions, remaining objective and neither endorsing or denouncing any particular faith. She was not afraid to point out the syncretic ties between Christianity and Mirthraism, and presented the historical view of how certain things in Christianity and
Judaism sprung up. Many reviews of this book I have read criticize Foster’s tone in those passages, saying that she was giving an anti Judaeo-Christian bias. When I read the passages, I hadn’t gotten any sense that she was denouncing those beliefs, but she did not present them in a pro Judaeo-Christian way either, as they weren’t being written as anything more special than any of the other religious beliefs covered. This is actually good authorship, as it is inappropriate for a history book to be endorsing or denouncing the veracity of anyone’s beliefs outside a strictly historical context. Foster merely points out the historical context surrounding the early Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices. Granted, many of the critics were religious Christians, and many secular reviewers did not sense an issue, the criticisms about those passages seem to have a religious bias to them. I feel too, in general, many modern day history books tip toe around religion and other topics too, most likely to be “politically correct”. Luckily, this author talks about them frankly, which is a surprise for the religion part as it was written in the 1940’s!
The story-like format I think has its pros and cons. The pros in my mind are, it engages the reader and doesn’t just make it dry facts. It really “brings history to life”, as they say. I loved reading the narratives and feeling like Foster really fleshed out the people she wrote about so the reader could make a deeper connection. However, some cons are that if embellished too much into a story, one has to take some “artistic license” and it loses some objectivity and its nonfiction quality. The format is obviously too casual to be used in a formal scholarly way, and it detracts from more of a scholarly tone to the book. The book could not work as a formal textbook for a class, as it does leave a lot of gaps as to information about other people, but it is a good start as an introduction to history. I think while the book has too much of an informal tone to be a scholarly source, it is a great way to introduce a love of history to children as it presents it in a casual and fun way to learn some of the facts. There is great value in casually introducing these topics in this way, as that is how I have grown to love history so much. It was once I got a bit older then I started to study it in a more formalized and academic way, but the foundation that got me there was the desire to know more about what I had casually learned.
Lastly, I want to point out how great the illustration were! I loved the detailed line drawings, that foster made herself! It is obvious
she did a lot of historical research to get much of the clothing right. Basically no modern books have that level of artistic detail, instead mostly cheaply drawn cartoons or real photos. Overall, Augustus Caesar’s World is quite the enjoyable read, and I was impressed at the detail Foster presented to a younger audience. Too many children’s history books today do not cover half as much or are half as interesting. While this is not a fully formal history book that could be used in a formal classroom setting, it is none the less important for getting kids engaged in history!