Book Review: The Borgias by Paul Strathern

The Borgias…

About the Book:

The sensational story of the rise and fall of one of the most notorious families in history, by the author of The Medici.

The Borgia family have become a byword for evil. Corruption, incest, ruthless megalomania, avarice and vicious cruelty – all have been associated with their name. But the story of this remarkable family is far more than a tale of sensational depravities, it also marks a decisive stage in European history.

During this crucial period when the Renaissance was coming into its own, it was the rise and fall of the Borgia dynasty which held centre stage. These were leading players at the very moment when our modern world was creating itself. By relating this influential family to their time, together with the world which enabled them to flourish, Paul Strathern tells the story of this great dynasty as never before.


My Thoughts:

I’m quite fascinated by 15th and 16th century history, I always have been. I find that the further back I go, the more inclined I am to read non-fiction about the era. Paul Strathern writes with such evocation; this truly was a compelling read. This book is not written in the style of narrative non-fiction; there’s no imagined dialogue or recreated scenes of drama. The Borgias is a history book, written in chronological order, charting the rise and fall of the Borgias family. On the surface, this may seem like a dense (boring) read, but far from it. Paul Strathern recounts the history of this family within the context of the history of Europe at the time. This is what sets this book apart and gives it that readable quality; honestly, it was as engrossing as a novel.

The Borgias were indeed corrupt and depraved, villainous and ambitious. I was quite shocked at times, the lengths that were gone to in order to achieve power; even more so when it came to maintaining it. They stole from the Catholic church, used its power structure for their own gain; the corruption was rife. A Pope with nine children, two of which were born during his papal reign; Cardinals who weren’t even ordained as priests; sex scandals; thievery; blackmail; murder. One can’t help but think that this was the starting point for the state of affairs the Catholic church still finds itself dealing with today. As well as a history of the Borgia family, this is also a history of the church to a certain degree; at least, within this time frame with a focus on the papal hierarchy and reigns in the decades either side of that of Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo Borgia. I was gripped whilst reading, both with fascination and horror.

This family was not sowing the seeds of their evil in isolation though. They were in fact enabled. The depravity and corruption throughout the ruling families, not just in Italy, but beyond, in France and Spain, was not above reproach. There were some really insane people in power during the 15th century – inbreeding to preserve the bloodlines really coming through in more ways than one. Megalomaniacs on a mission to retain their own powerbase were only all too willing to trade favours with the Borgias; everything was for sale, morality a mere hindrance.

I’m definitely going to be reading more from Paul Strathern. His writing style is very much to my taste and the way in which he demonstrates historical context takes his work beyond the biographical. I didn’t just learn about the Borgias from this book, I learnt about Italy, Spain and France during this era, the volatility of their relations, the Catholic church and papal reigns, the Renaissance, military campaigns, and even the Pope’s influence on early exploration and colonisation of the New World. It was fascinating, shocking, but above all, entertaining. The most readable non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.

☕☕☕☕

Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Borgias for review.


About the Author:

Paul Strathern studied philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin. He is a Somerset Maugham Award-winning novelist; author of two series of books – Philosophers in 90 Minutes and The Big Idea: Scientists who Changed the World – and several works of non-fiction, including The Medici, The Artist, the Philosopher and the Warrior, Spirit of Venice and Death in Florence.


The Borgias
Published by Atlantic
Released July 2019

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Borgias by Paul Strathern

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