A Singular Empire

April 25, 2012 Topics: DemocracyHistory Regions: Italy

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.

by Author(s): Adrian Goldsworthy

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