Posted: June 3, 2013
After 24 centuries, the remnants of Rome still dominate the landscape of the Western mind. Like the ruined temples, arenas, theaters, and aqueducts spread across the lands of the Mediterranean, the literature, political institutions, philosophers, heroes, and words of the Romans permeate our culture both high and low, from the columns and architraves of the Capitol in Washington to the lurid fantasies of the cable-television series Spartacus. As the Roman poet Horace bragged of his poetry, a great part of Rome has escaped death.
The improbable story of Rome's rise to preeminence is fascinating, as these three new histories ably demonstrate. Rome began as poor, small clusters of thatch-roofed huts surrounded by scores of ethnically related but differing tribal settlements jostling each other on the plains of central Italy. As Brian Campbell, a professor of Roman history at Queen's University in Belfast, notes, around 40 separate Italic languages and dialects such as Oscan, Volscian, Venetic, and Umbrian were spoken by Rome's neighbors until Latin became the dominant dialect of this region on the heels of Rome's military success. In addition to these Italian rivals, Celtic Gauls dominated the Po River valley to the north, and closer to Rome in Tuscany the mysterious Etruscans developed a sophisticated civilization that according to myth dominated early Rome. Greek colonies commanded Southern Italy as far north as modern Naples, and Phoenician colonists in North Africa, western Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica sparred with the Greek cities for control of Mediterranean trade. As Greg Woolf, who teaches ancient history at the University of St. Andrews, writes, "Rome emerged from Italy into a hostile world." Given these formidable competitors, we can share in the wonder of the Greek historian Polybius when he wrote that only the "worthless or lazy" would not want to know "how and under what government the Romans have brought under their sole rule almost the whole of the inhabited world."
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Polybius was writing after the destruction of Carthage and the domination of Greece in 146 B.C. gave Rome control of almost the whole Mediterranean littoral. Before that triumph, Rome had to subdue its neighbors in Italy and create the Republic in 509 B.C. This uneasy mixture of patrician clan dominance in the Senate and most magistracies, and grudgingly bestowed plebeian political institutions and rights, created the political structure in which great men and families competing for status, glory, and wealth won all three through constant warfare and the expansion of Rome's power and territory. Yet the true genius of Rome lay in its policy of "teaching the ways of peace to those they conquer," as Anchises says to Aeneas in Vergil's Aeneid. Through absorption of conquered peoples or alliances with them, the Romans could "make outsiders into Romans, or cooperate with them on mutual defense," argues Thomas Martin, a professor of Classics at Holy Cross. This "unique and innovative policy of taking in outsiders to increase the number of its citizens and thereby strengthen itself," along with requiring allies to provide troops to the army, and the establishment of strategically placed Roman colonies linked by roads, proved essential to Rome's greatness and the spread of its culture throughout the Mediterranean.
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The disruptive social changes caused by Rome's incessant wars, and the plunder and slaves that flowed from these conquests, ultimately strained republican institutions, leaving them vulnerable to a series of generalissimos whose control of the legions and wealth from war gave them inordinate power over the government and its resources. As Woolf writes of this period, "A destructive feedback loop was created between competition at home and aggressive warfare abroad." Thus began nearly a century of civil war and political violence that turned Republican Rome into what the orator Cicero called the "sewer of Romulus" before finishing it off forever. In this bloody game of political musical chairs, the primal sin of Rome's mythical founding—Romulus's murder of his brother Remus—was serially repeated in the careers of Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and finally the brilliant and ruthless Octavian, who at first was called "boy" by his contemptuous rivals. The last man standing after Antony's defeat at Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian created the Empire not in a fit of absent-mindedness, but as a calculated mechanism for maintaining his power under the camouflage of republican institutions and offices now stripped of their political and civic autonomy, their functions eventually replaced by imperial bureaucracies. Romans were transformed from self-governing citizens into the clients of their imperial patron, now named Augustus, who disguised his absolute power with the titles "first citizen" and "the father of the fatherland."
Augustus brought an end to the civil wars, turned Rome into a city of marble, and solidified the territorial gains that paradoxically had increased during Rome's civic self-mutilation. Thus the Romans seemingly fulfilled Jupiter's promise in theAeneid to give them "empire without end" in space and time. But after Augustus, Rome was marked by corrupt, weak, or insane emperors, barbarian inroads into the empire's border-lands, rapacious taxation to pay an army increasingly recruited from foreigners, and bloody wars of succession in which the very qualities that could make a general successful at repelling foreign invasion also made him a dangerous rival to the emperor. These evils became as common as the weather: as a Roman general (quoted by Tacitus, cited by Martin) advised some rebellious provincials, "Endure the passions and rapacity of your masters, just as you bear barren seasons and excessive rains and other natural evils." But these periods of economic and military crises were punctuated by the ascension of able emperors who halted the seeming decline and gave the empire new life. During roughly the second century A.D., a series of competent rulers created the imperial Golden Age extolled by Edward Gibbon as "the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous." The most historically important of these later emperors was Constantine, who began the transformation of Rome into a Christian civilization, thus ensuring the survival of much of Roman civilization even after formal Roman rule collapsed in the West.
Rome, however, is more than the political history these three volumes trace from Romulus to the "Christian Empire." Each discusses as well geography, social life, slavery, family structure, trade and taxation, religion, the consolidation and administration of the empire, and the organization and functioning of Rome's armies. Religion is particularly important for understanding the Romans, as they were a deeply religious people, whose religiosity, as Polybius noted, was a powerful element in creating social cohesion and solidarity. This unifying power was enhanced by the fact that the Romans recognized an astonishing plethora of deities, from the famous gods like Jupiter, Venus, and Mars, to what Saint Augustine sarcastically called the "crowd of plebeian gods" overseeing the minutiae of daily life. Indeed, Augustine identifies over a dozen gods concerned just with childbirth and infancy. Every Roman family had its own household gods, the Penates who guarded the pantry, and the Lares who reminded the present generation "of their responsibility to live up to the ancient and virtuous ideals of their ancestors," Martin writes. But less elevated areas of human life also had their own deities. Cloacina ruled over Rome's main sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, and Sterculinus was the god of manure. Even foreign gods were respected. Before sacking a city, the Romans would conduct the ritual of evocatio, the invitation to the enemy's tutelary gods to forsake the city and enjoy worship among the Romans. In this way, Woolf writes, "The history of religion...became a way of telling imperial history." Most importantly, the performance and overseeing of ritual necessitated powerful priestly offices dominated by elites. These functions were thoroughly political, as Campbell observes, for the actions of the ruling class "could always be presented as being for the benefit of the state and permitting the expression of the divine will."
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Roman success, however, would not have been possible without the innovative organization and devastating lethality of the army. The main unit was the 5,000-man legion, the important subdivision of which was the maniple, led by seasoned veterans called centurions. This organization, Martin writes, provided "tactical flexibility and maneuverability," and "greater mobility to react swiftly to new situations in the heat of battle." Usually armed with better swords, armor, and spears than their enemies', the Roman army was a killing machine, utterly ruthless in its violence. Polybius described the usual tactics of the Romans when they sacked a city, in this case, New Carthage in Spain: to "kill everyone they met and spare no one," in order "to strike terror" into the defenders. "So you can often see in cities captured by the Romans not only people who have been butchered, but even dogs hacked in two and the limbs of other animals cut off," Polybius observed. Years later Tacitus witnessed the same brutality: the Romans "devastated the country with fire and sword for fifty miles around. No pity was shown to age or sex." Another winning tactic, Campbell writes, was to brandish severed heads at the enemy. The Spanish swords wielded by the Romans—Spain was the source of the hardest steel—were themselves a source of terror. The Roman historian Livy, describing a Roman defeat of the Macedonians, writes of "bodies cut in pieces by the Spanish sword, arms hacked off along with the shoulder, or heads severed from the body with the neck entirely sliced through, or entrails hanging out, or other appalling wounds, and there was a total panic when they found out what kind of weapons and what kind of men they had to fight against."
What most of all made the Romans seem invincible was their fierce belief in the superiority of their way of life and the virtues they professed, all the things that made them Romans: "They were prepared," Martin writes, "to sacrifice as many lives, to spend as much money, and to keep fighting as long as necessary. Staying loyal to their traditional values, they never gave up, whatever the costs." There is no better example of the cohesive power of Roman national identity than the second Punic War. Hannibal invaded Italy, killed nearly 100,000 Roman soldiers, and devastated the country from the Alps to Calabria. Yet the Romans just kept creating more legions and battling the Carthaginians in Spain; eventually, the Roman invasion of Carthage forced Hannibal to leave Italy and suffer his only defeat at the battle of Zama in 202 B.C. The decay of Roman self-confidence and virtue partially explains why six centuries later, relatively small bands of barbarian invaders could bring about the collapse of Roman rule in the West. Those later Romans had simply forgotten what it meant to be Roman.
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As Greg Woolf argues, however, it is Rome's "persistence and survival that needs to be explained, not decline and fall." Although the Roman Empire in the West, he notes, succumbed to "invasion, fragmentation, and a dramatic downsizing," Rome did not disappear, as did other empires like those of the Aztecs or the Incas. In Woolf's perceptive simile, the Roman Empire's influence on the Western tradition was a consequence of how Rome expanded:
The empire grew like an ice cap, sending glaciers down in all directions. When those glaciers retreated, back to Byzantium rather than Rome, they left entirely new landscapes gouged out, and great moraines of boulders around which their new inhabitants had to accommodate themselves. Those peoples were no longer those Rome had originally conquered.
Modern Europeans and Americans are the descendants of those new peoples Rome had created.
These three books all explain the growth of Rome with narrative clarity and a skillful balance of generalization and illustrative detail. They are amply provided with maps, illustrations and, most important for grand history, timelines that help the reader keep track of things. Written for the interested non-specialist, they are entirely free of the postmodernism and identity-politics cant that mars so much contemporary history. Each in its own way seems to have taken to heart Martin's salutary warning against the besetting sin of modern history, "the arrogance in judgment that modernity sometimes ignorantly assumes in comparing the contemporary world's moral scorecard of good and evil to that of the ancient world."
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All three books are worthy, but Woolf's stands out for the illuminating framework through which he understands Roman history—the nature and legacy of its empire. Rome became "the archetypal empire," and the "Romans created a set of ideas and symbols that exercised a fascination over many subsequent generations." From the Islamic Ottomans to Mussolini, Woolf observes, "The history of the idea of empire in the west is largely the history of successive imitations of Rome." Equally instructive are his comparisons to other large-scale ancient empires like those in Persia, north India, and China, which reveal that Rome alone was an empire of citizens rather than subjects. Woolf does not pursue this insight further, but from our perspective today, when the United States's unprecedented military and economic power have made it the guarantor of global order some describe as an American Empire, it is important to consider how the expectations of a liberal democracy founded on notions of universal liberal rights must necessarily clash with the often brutal exigencies of imperial rule. Whether we consider the United States today an empire or not, the compromises imposed on our ideals by our foreign commitments have led to a loss of nerve that never afflicted the Romans. For them, as Woolf writes, "empire was written into [their] DNA. But America has never been comfortable venturing beyond our two shores."
As comprehensive as these works are, they necessarily give short shrift to issues some readers might want to explore in more detail, particularly literature. The great poets of the late Republic and early Empire, for example, are important resources for understanding the gradual collapse of faith in republican institutions, and the ways many Romans made sense of that sea change. There is no greater commentary on the tragic costs of empire and civilization than Vergil'sAeneid. But anyone interested in learning more about the Romans and their influence on Western civilization will find these books to be excellent guides.