A Singular Empire
Mini Teaser: In his excellent study of the Roman Empire, Greg Woolf provides sharp insights while wisely avoiding simplistic comparisons, instead mixing a broad perspective with telling details to provide a fascinating picture of the empire par excellence.
Greg Woolf, Rome: An Empire’s Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 384 pp., $29.95.
[amazon 019977529X full]THE ROMAN Empire casts a long shadow. It may not have been the largest empire ever to exist, but it was one of the largest, and few if any can match its longevity. The Romans ruled Italy by the end of the fourth century BC, dominated the entire Mediterranean world by the middle of the second century BC and in the years to come ruled from the Atlantic coast in the west to the Euphrates in the east, from what is now Scotland in the north to the Sahara desert in the south. This achievement was all the more remarkable in an age when no person or idea could travel faster than a ship could sail or a horse gallop. The last emperor to rule in the western provinces was deposed in 476. The last to rule from Constantinople—established in the fourth century AD as a new Rome, with its own seven hills and senate—lost his city to the Turks in 1453.
Greg Woolf, a professor at the University of St. Andrews, opens his excellent new book with the statement, “All histories of Rome are histories of empire.” This states a truth that should be obvious, although it is surprisingly often neglected by some scholars working on the period. That is not the case here, and Woolf’s focus “is empire itself,” and within that he explores many of the great questions—how and why the empire was created, how it changed the world, how the empire itself changed and, ultimately, why it failed. This is a vast topic, and any of his chapters could readily be expanded into a book in its own right. His focus is on some fifteen hundred years, from the creation of the republic to the end of the sixth century AD, when the eastern empire made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to regain Italy and some of the western provinces. Moderns usually refer to the eastern emperors as Byzantine, but they saw themselves as Romans. Nevertheless, by this time the eastern empire was sufficiently different to make this a good stopping point. In the eighth century, the Arab conquests would strip the eastern empire of the bulk of its territory, leaving it merely one state among many and no longer by any stretch of the imagination the dominant superpower in the world.
Traces of the western empire survived. For scholars, the orthodox view now stresses these continuities and speaks of the creation of the barbarian kingdoms that replaced them as transforming the ancient into the early medieval world—a label giving a more positive spin to what used to be called the Dark Ages. At times, this is accompanied by a somewhat naive tendency to play down the violence and upheaval of this process. However, even these commentators don’t pretend that change did not occur. An immense and coherent empire was replaced by many smaller kingdoms and states, and the world became less stable, much less literate, technologically less sophisticated and far more local in its focus. The Roman Empire had been powerful and was gone, even if traces remained in law or the structure of a Catholic Church centered on Rome. These remain to this day, without altering the basic fact that the Roman Empire is long gone.
THE SUCCESS of Rome’s empire—the republic was already an imperial power even before the emperors—is obvious from its size and longevity. Its sophistication and apparent modernity impress us, as do its legacies. Christianity began under Rome’s rule, and together with the Greco-Roman culture of that empire, the Judeo-Christian tradition provides the main bedrock of Western culture. Roman monuments still inspire awe, even in their ruined state. Woolf notes that if the Pantheon or the Baths of Caracalla in Rome were still covered in their original marble and decoration, they would rival the Taj Mahal in beauty as well as in sheer grandeur.
The bathhouse was one of the most sophisticated pieces of engineering ever created by the Romans, and it is significant that so much ingenuity was devoted simply to make life more comfortable. A society has to be wealthy to afford such luxury—and even small communities and modest army bases had their public bathhouses, for this was not simply an indulgence for the rich. The vast cost of the grand public entertainments and the amphitheaters and circuses built to stage them is a similar indicator of priorities. The cruelty of gladiators and beast fights shock us as something utterly alien to modern sensibilities, but the simple fact that a society could afford to lavish money on such spectacles is a sign of its wealth. (Gladiators still make good box-office material, and in Hollywood’s Rome, all roads still lead to the arena.) Modern analyses of samples taken from the polar ice caps also appear to bring the Roman world close to our own, for we now know that industrial activity during the first and second centuries AD generated levels of pollution not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.
Rome—successful and sophisticated for a very long time (if also at times appallingly cruel)—offers a dream of power and success. Roman symbols—the eagle, wide and straight roads, columns and triumphal arches, laurel wreaths, the title of caesar or kaiser or tsar, and the fasces that gave their name to Mussolini’s party—have often been invoked by ambitious leaders and states. Eighteenth-century education drew heavily on the classical past, and America’s Founding Fathers looked to Roman models as they sought to craft a better version of Rome’s republic that would not decay into monarchy. For Rome had suffered several serious crises during its long history, and the one that tore its republic apart in political violence and civil war was so grim that by the end many Romans were eager to accept the rule of an emperor instead of elected magistrates as long as it brought peace.
The empire flourished in the first two centuries AD, the period when the vast majority of its great monuments were built. It also survived subsequent crises, but ultimately it still collapsed. The dream of Rome’s success cannot avoid the nightmare of its fall—or almost inevitably its “decline and fall,” for the title of Edward Gibbon’s great work is firmly established in our minds. Whether called the Dark Ages or the early medieval period, the world that followed was a lot less sophisticated. The lesson appears to be that progress is not inevitable and success rarely permanent. Yet that has not stopped successive generations from looking to Rome in the hope of matching its success and avoiding its failure.
Woolf’s book is not about learning lessons for the modern world or comparing our society and states to Rome. Instead, this is history as it should be written and studied—looking at the past on its own terms in an attempt to understand it. This is a worthwhile end in itself, but it is also essential before making any attempt to draw lessons for the modern world. Drawing hasty analogies from the past often reveals no more than the author’s own preoccupations.
For Woolf, there is little point in comparing the Roman experience to that of more recent empires, and parallels are only drawn with other preindustrial empires. The approach is both refreshing and illuminating. Julius Caesar was granted honors very close to divinity during his dictatorship and was formally deified two years after his assassination. His heir—the future emperor Augustus—then became divi filius, the “son of the god.” He was worshipped in his own right in some provinces during his lifetime and deified when he died in AD 14. Only the mad and bad emperors tried to be gods while they were alive, and only such unpopular rulers were not made gods by the Senate after their deaths. The process became so routine that Emperor Vespasian’s final words were a grim joke—“I think I am becoming a god.” By looking at the divine or semidivine rulers of other ancient empires, Woolf shows that this should not surprise us. It would have been odd if the Romans had not thought of their rulers as more than mortal.
It is a considerable challenge to survey such a broad period and extensive topic as Rome and its empire. To do it well requires both a familiarity with the details and a capacity to stand back and ask big questions, as well as the ability to connect the two. Woolf succeeds at both. He mixes discussion of the underlying ecology and geology of what became the Roman world with consideration of telling details. He explains that “there are no chickens in the Iliad, but Socrates’ last words were that he owed a cockerel to the god Asclepius.” Woolf notes that chickens appeared in the Mediterranean world sometime in the middle of the last millennium BC. Quick to breed and relatively easy to maintain, they provided eggs and a source of conveniently small quantities of meat—an important attribute in a world without refrigeration. The same is true in much of Africa today, where you will often see roadside signs advertising “live chickens” for sale. Such small points help build a picture of everyday life. Neither the little details nor the new approaches to understanding the past are allowed to dominate.
MANY OF Woolf’s questions are very old ones, which does not mean they are easy to answer. No one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation of why Rome expanded as it did. This question isn’t as widely addressed in popular works as the cause of Rome’s fall, but in both instances, it is easier to explain how it happened than to explain why. Thankfully, no one suggests that the pre-Roman world simply transformed itself into the Roman Empire, but a good deal of work has been done to show that some regions were already changing in ways that made it easier for them to plug into the Roman system. In Gaul, for instance, some tribes were developing into something not too dissimilar from the city-states of the Mediterranean world, and many were producing a substantial agricultural surplus, encouraging trade while incidentally providing sufficient food for the conquering legions when they did arrive. Yet the Romans also conquered areas where this was not true, and it is too facile to claim that the empire stopped expanding when it reached communities too undeveloped to absorb.
Trade usually long predated military contact, as Rome’s flourishing economy influenced markets far beyond the provinces it physically controlled. Roman merchants were active in most areas long before the legions arrived. Caesar found them in the towns of Gaul, but more often, we only hear of their presence when they were massacred by the locals. Under the republic, Roman senators were forbidden by law from investing in large-scale trade or the companies fulfilling government contracts—the publicani or publicans of the King James Bible. They got around this in various ways, mainly through using freed slaves as agents. Former owners had considerable legal and social control over their freedmen and freedwomen, and many aristocrats were involved in numerous projects to spread the risks they took—the closest the Romans came to the idea of limited companies.
Yet, unlike more recent empires, trade did not in itself drive Roman conquest. Glory and plunder were at least as important, feeding political competition, and the leaders in Rome’s wars became fabulously wealthy and increasingly powerful as the empire emerged. In the longer run, this intensified the competitive nature of the republic’s public life and helped to make it violent. Men like Pompey and Caesar conquered great swathes of territory but also doomed the republican system with their civil wars. Emperors feared internal rivals far more than foreign enemies and were reluctant to let senators gain too much glory or win the loyalty of the legions. With a few exceptions, the rule of the emperors brought expansion to a standstill, at least after a final surge under Augustus.
The frontiers were static, but merchants still traveled far beyond them. They brought back amber from the Baltic and exploited the monsoon winds to sail to India and back. Some may even have reached China during the second century AD; the two great empires in the world were dimly aware of the other’s existence, even if most contact was through intermediaries. Roman goods often turn up far beyond the frontiers. Indeed, more Roman swords have been found outside the empire than within its borders, the bulk of them in Scandinavia. Some of this resulted from simple trade and some from open warfare. A few finds were clearly seized in raids on the empire. Other contact was a mixture of commerce and diplomacy. Spectacular finds of silver, gold and glass ornaments suggest gifts to tribal leaders, quite possibly sponsored by the state to keep them peaceful. Rome’s influence stretched far beyond its frontiers.
The empire’s great market had, at times, a drastic impact on peoples outside of Rome’s confines, and intertribal warfare may well have increased simply because of the proximity to the empire. Raiding intensified to provide slaves for sale within the empire in return for luxury goods—just as some African communities turned to warfare to supply the demands of Arab and European slavers in later centuries. Gifts of money and weapons to friendly leaders led to some carving out great kingdoms for themselves. A few became so powerful that they were seen as threats to the empire. Changes in Roman subsidies—or equally the movement away of frontier garrisons that had formerly provided a market—could create hardship and desperation in external communities and might well prompt them to raid the empire instead. Frontier relations were a delicate balancing act.
ROMAN WARFARE was always accompanied by diplomacy, and the formal submission of an enemy was as glorious a success as beating him by force. Yet ultimately military force made the empire possible. The Romans often went to war, but then so did almost every people and state in the ancient world. Greek city-states almost seem to have considered hostility a natural condition of interstate relations. The Romans liked to see all of their wars as just, defending themselves or their allies from real or threatened attack. Sometimes the allies were acquired only a very short time before the war commenced by militant Roman leaders eager for glory.
Julius Caesar took great pains in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars to show that all of his campaigns in Gaul—and across the Rhine into Germany and over the sea to Britain—were for the good of the republic, and by Roman standards they probably were. He casually talked of pacifying—the Latin verb is pacare—the tribes of northwestern Gaul who had little prior contact with Rome but who had not treated his envoys with suitable respect. The Romans did not grant other peoples any rights even vaguely equal to their own, although Caesar would remark that it was natural for all men to fight for freedom. Rome’s freedom and advantage simply trumped the interests of others.
Yet none of this thinking was probably unique. We are simply better informed about Roman attitudes than those of other ancient peoples. As Woolf points out, the Romans considered pietas—a far stronger word than our piety—to be a characteristically Roman virtue. The Romans took care to worship the gods correctly and reliably, on the whole respecting and even adopting foreign deities. There was a formal rite performed outside a besieged city to invite the gods of that community to leave and come to new homes prepared by the Romans. Rome’s success was seen as coming from this divine approval, but Woolf shows that this does not explain Roman expansion, and there was certainly no sense of a crusade. Virgil’s Jupiter announced that it was the Romans’ destiny to “spare the conquered and overcome the proud in war”—parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. This neatly divided the world into those who had already submitted and acknowledged Roman might, thus deserving a degree of mercy, and those yet to be defeated. Yet this, like the promised dream of imperium sine fine, or “power without limit,” did not produce constant or consistent expansion.
The Romans certainly took warfare seriously, almost personally, and in this, they were unusual. The Roman Republic devoted itself to war in a way unmatched by any of the rival great powers, whether the mercantile empire of Carthage or the kingdoms of the Greek world. The fleet that won the final battle in the twenty-three-year First Punic War was paid for by voluntary contributions made by individual Roman aristocrats. The Romans accepted staggeringly high casualties—a third of their three hundred senators between 218 and 216 BC died at the hands of Hannibal, and fifty thousand soldiers were killed and twenty thousand captured in a single day at the Battle of Cannae. Yet Rome would not concede defeat in the face of these grim totals. The Romans did not give in, kept fighting and learned from their mistakes. In the end, it was the enemy who gave up and sought peace. Rome had the resources of manpower to absorb such appalling losses, and that was rare. But the determination to persist in a conflict until either the Roman state was destroyed or the enemy threat was permanently removed—by becoming a clearly subordinate ally or ceasing to exist as a political entity—was unique. The Romans expected victory to be permanent. A piece of graffiti scratched onto a cave wall in Jordan reads: “The Romans always win. I, Lauricius write this, Zeno.” The context is as unclear as the identities of the two men, but it was not a bad summary of Roman warfare.
The Romans were good at winning wars and even better at creating lasting peace on their own terms—the losers permanently pacified. Rome had the manpower to survive Hannibal’s onslaught because by this time, it had absorbed almost all of Italy and its various cities and peoples. Some became citizens, and all were allies who willingly fought for Rome and had a share in the rewards of victory. It was rare at any period for a Roman army to consist of more than 50 percent Roman citizens, and often the percentage was much lower. The bulk of the population throughout the empire was descendants of the peoples conquered by Rome, many of whom became citizens and adopted Roman lifestyles. The senator and historian Tacitus wrote of British aristocrats wearing togas, learning Latin, and building basilicas and villas, calling such things “‘civilization,’ when in fact they were only a feature of their enslavement.” The cynicism veils the truth that the Romans excelled at making conquered people into Romans.
Cultural identity could still be complex, and being Roman did not mean abandoning all prior connections and loyalties. Woolf cites an incident that the author of the book of Acts clearly did not expect his readers to find strange, which provides an interesting insight into the cultural mix. After disturbances in the Temple, Paul—a Jew from Tarsus educated in Jerusalem and also a Roman citizen—was arrested by Roman troops. He asked (in Greek) for permission to speak to the angry crowd, was given this and addressed it (in Aramaic, more common than Hebrew for everyday conversation in Judaea in this period). Afterwards, the centurion decided to have him beaten as a disturber of the peace. Paul protested that he was a Roman citizen and so exempt from such a casual and demeaning punishment. There were no equivalents of passports or identity cards, and it is clear that it could be difficult to get some legal rights recognized. A person’s status might well not be obvious from their dress or ethnicity. Not wanting to make a mistake, the centurion summoned the tribune in charge of the cohort, who spoke to Paul in Greek. (There is no direct evidence that Paul spoke Latin. It is possible that he did, although since so many educated Romans also spoke Greek it would not have been essential.) The tribune was a former slave who had bought his freedom—a common enough process, as some slaves were allowed to earn a wage or run a business on their owner’s behalf, saving until they could purchase their freedom. The slave of a citizen who was freed became a citizen, if one with slightly reduced rights and continued obligations to the former owner. That freed slave’s children were citizens with exactly the same legal status as anyone else. The stigma of slavery was another matter. In Acts, Paul emphasized that, in contrast to the Roman army officer, he had been born a citizen.
In AD 212, the Emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to almost every free person in the empire, most probably to make them liable to certain imperial taxes. Over time, the privileges of citizenship were eroded, and legally they were divided into the better-off honestiores, or “more honest men,” and the disadvantaged humiliores, or “more humble men.” Being Roman was in itself no longer quite such an advantage, but perhaps the most striking sign of Rome’s success is that scarcely anyone wanted to be anything else. Within a few generations of Roman occupation, little sense of a strong identity predating Roman rule tended to remain. The Jews were an exception, although even in their case, after Hadrian’s reign there were no more rebellions aimed at creating an independent Jewish state, as had existed briefly in AD 66–70 and 132–135. Elsewhere, even when the empire crumbled in the late fourth and fifth centuries, there were no regional or national independence movements. People in Spain or Syria or Britain did not want to free themselves from Rome and be Spanish, Syrian or British. There were no Washingtons or Bolívars in the fifth century AD. Instead, each province wanted to remain Roman and simply have an emperor who dealt with its problems and rewarded local leaders with honors and posts in the imperial administration. They rebelled to proclaim a new emperor but not to overthrow the system. Even the “barbarian” warlords who carved up the western provinces into new kingdoms wanted to be part of the Roman system. Many had served in the Roman army—including Alaric, the Goth who sacked Rome itself in AD 410.
Augustine wrote his City of God in the aftermath of this shocking event, for even Christians struggled to imagine a world without Rome. The rise of Christianity from Jewish sect, via a distinct and sometimes persecuted religion, to the faith of emperors and the empire as a whole is one of the most dramatic stories from the Roman era and surely its most profound legacy. Gibbon is often seen as blaming the collapse of the empire on Christianity, although for all his acidic comments about many church leaders, he did not actually argue this. Woolf sees the consequences of Constantine’s conversation to Christianity as politically mixed. On the one hand, it helped to bolster imperial power. But the degree of unity it brought to the empire was constantly challenged by the repeated doctrinal schisms within the church.
Gibbon felt that
the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of enquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.
Woolf makes no attempt to give a simple answer to why the Roman Empire eventually collapsed, but in some ways his attitude is similar. Comparisons with other ancient empires show that it is the Romans who were peculiar simply because their empire lasted so long and was not supplanted by another rival power. Throughout, Woolf emphasizes change in so many aspects of institutions and life. Little remained unchanged in fifteen hundred years and over such a wide area. The striking thing is that there were such recognizable links between the society and state at different stages in this great sweep of history.
IF INSTEAD of asking why Rome ultimately failed, we should ask how it managed to survive so long, then we would not find the answer to this question any easier. It is difficult to believe that the creation and long survival of the empire were merely matters of chance and of an environment favorable to such an immense state—uniquely favorable, since it has not been repeated. Nor does it explain variations in the Roman experience itself. In the first and second centuries AD, there were only two civil wars. In the century before and the ones that followed, civil war was endemic. In the later period, such conflict was so common that scholars rarely think about it and merely accept it as background noise. Explanations tend to invoke increased external pressure, although the evidence for this is actually poor, or still less satisfactorily imply it was simply chance that led to some two hundred years of stability and prosperity. We still have far more questions than convincing answers.
Understanding the history of Rome is not a simple task, and so much remains uncertain, for the Roman experience is not neatly comparable to the rise and fall of any other empire. Learning lessons from the past is always a precarious task. That does not mean that we shall ever stop trying or that Roman history will not continue to fascinate us. For those already with such an interest, Woolf’s book will be a joy to read. For those not yet intrigued by Rome, it may well set them on that path.
Adrian Goldsworthy is a British historian who has written extensively on ancient Roman history. Educated at Oxford, he has taught at Cardiff University, King’s College London and the University of Notre Dame.Pullquote: Many of Woolf’s questions are very old ones, which does not mean they are easy to answer. No one has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation of why Rome expanded as it did.Image: Essay Types: Book Review