Many of those interested in the history of Rome and late antiquity will love Rome: An Empire's Story, by Greg Woolf, a professor of ancient history at the University of St. Andrews, in Fife, Scotland, since the perspective is multi-faceted, unique, and explores important areas that rarely get such attention by serious ancient history scholars writing for the public.
Have you ever wondered how geography played a fate in Rome's history? Woolf shows you possibilities for why Rome and Greece were able to prosper before the more northerly areas:
"Agriculture spread more rapidly in the Mediterranean world than in temperate Europe for two reasons: First, communications were easier across the islands and coastal settlements of the inland sea than through the forests and mountains of Europe. Second, the aridity of the Fertile Crescent meant the ecological distance was less to the dry Mediterranean than to colder and wetter regions. These two factors together explain why population growth, cities, and states came to Mediterranean Europe before they reached the continental interior. But the Mediterranean only had a head start."
Wolf then goes to the logical conclusion. If they were so great then, why are they in such poor straits now, making up the majority of the EU PIGS (not directly referred to by Woolf)? The more northerly areas may have had a late start, but developed their resources and these were inherently richer.
In the early years, Rome was just one of many Italian cities fighting with its neighbors. It could have lost at any time, but it kept winning, enjoying the booty and making alliances favorable to Rome. By the time of the wars outside Italy, the stakes were higher and Rome had to win to keep the booty and indemnities it was growing attached to, especially for its capital-glorification building projects, because they also supplied what was needed for a new system of waging war: soldiers could no longer expect to go back home to their farms after a quick set of battles and the two annual consuls, whose presence was needed at Rome, had to appoint deputies to supervise their legions. Then there was the need for provincial tax-collecting, a plum job rented out to a newly grown important entrepreneurial middle class. That led to corruption, litigation, etc. and ended in imperial bureaucracy.
Woolf's history of the late Republic (note: the book is about the Roman Empire, a topic that includes the pre-Augustan expansion) is brilliant. He looks at the history of Roman taxation and the shift from empire building based on expansion to the Empire that consisted of tributary states. The Roman Empire can't reasonably be compared with 19th century empires because of different levels of technology. Woolf's brief look at contemporary religions reveals that the new religion of Christianity was less of an anomaly than it seemed. He persuasively argues that what made Rome great was its ability to continually adapt -- at least I think he is trying to show that.
The volume deals in metaphors. Likening Rome to the customary -- biological organism, machine, epidemic, etc., Woolf argues that an ice age and glacier metaphor fits best. As he writes, "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." While this makes for thought-provoking, enlightening well-reasoned reading, I found myself at many points wondering what I had just read. I figured by the end of the book I would know when Woolf counts the fall of Rome, but I don't. The last date he uses is 711, when Arabs invaded Visigothic Spain [see Battle of Guadalete], a topic he touches only lightly, which is unfortunate, since it is not an aspect of history students of only the classical period would necessarily know. Yet in the first chapter, I thought he said he counted the fall of the Byzantine Empire (which is generally counted as 1453 and, at any rate, has nothing to do with Spain) as the best date. I wondered what the point was of an entire chapter and major sections of others, but then, I do tend to like things spelled out, rather than flowery and poetic. I quite like the very basic timelines before any chapter that went forward in time from the preceding chapter, and the further reading suggestions of recent scholarship at chapter ends. He gratifyingly ties in monuments from start to finish. Economics and the Persian Empire also make regular appearances. He succinctly captures the uniqueness of Sulla and Augustus. Quotations at chapter starts fit the context neatly. In all, I enjoyed the insightful sections and comments -- like the one about the lack of a good story in the first two centuries of the imperial period -- but frequently found the narrative frustrating, especially chapters where he summarized scholarship rather than providing his unique, but well-founded insights.
Rome: An Empire's Story
Oxford University Press 2012
- The Whole Story (753 B.C. - A.D. 711)
This chapter is a summary from the Regal Period to the later empire when cities were tiny walled areas built of old monuments with a capital at Constantinople, a new religion and currency. Then came the Arabs. Rome became a Balkan state and Persia was defeated.
- Empires of the Mind
Different significances of "empire," which is epitomized by competition. Rome was different from 19th century empires. It had no equals and perhaps no predecessors. Technology and scale mean it is comparable with the Achaemenid and Sassanian Persian Empires, the Mauryan Empire in India, and the empire in China after the Qin. Roman citizenship was unusual, but empire as god worship was not.
- Rulers of Italy (753-275 B.C.)
Rome became important in the third to second centuries B.C. because of the Pyrrhic War.
- Imperial Ecology
Fifty generations is a blink geologically. The coastline remains just about the same; same with volcanoes. Climate is similar in an east-west axis, but not north-south. Warming may have made norther areas' adaptation of agricultural techniques easier Roman expansion followed agricultural changes and brought new technologies.
- Mediterranean Hegemony (272-133 B.C.)
A century and a half past Pyrrhus, Roman rule was informal and indirect, but Rome had no regional rival. Rome acquired Carthage's empire, part of Gaul and the Hellenistic empire. Rome was locked into a cycle of urban growth and imperial expansion.
- Slavery and Empire
Woolf denies the power of the pater familias. Patronage of Rome made allies anxious during civil war, but ended with the emperor. Slavery and the family increased in importance. Markets grew. The growth of slavery for use in the agriculture to produce wine grew quickly enough to be noticed.
- Crisis (146-89 B.C.)
Rome almost lost everything in war against Italian allies while fighting new enemies in Africa, Spain, Gaul, and Germany, plus pirates, and handling internal crisis.
- At Heaven's Command?
By the time of Augustus, the idea emerged that Romans were divinely ordained to rule. Emperor worship was a watershed of Roman religion.
- The Generals (89-31 B.C.)
Sulla was the first Roman general to attack Rome with a Roman army. He made the dictatorship a tool to suspend civil society and invented proscription. Politics became personal and the army depended on the general. Governors were appointed, not elected. Armies became enormous. Revenue was needed, and so techniques were improvised to raise it.
- The Enjoyment of Empire
- Emperors (31 B.C. - A.D. 235)
How the Romans stopped worrying and came to love their new kings. With the legacy of aristocracy, dynastic continuation for the position of emperor was preferred. Between Augustus and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, almost every Roman institution was transformed and disappeared, while the monarchs (known as emperors) endured. Monarchs are an essential element of empire. The Roman emperors served as a capstone, even when they moved out of Rome.
- Resourcing Empire
The cost of running an empire is borne by subjects. Rome used tax-gatherers, then local elites. Later, the system was based on a tributary empire with a centralized bureaucracy. We know little of Rome's early tax system. It did use rent from public land, then indemnities from the losers in the wars. Rome took over the prevailing tax systems of the peoples they conquered. They also acquired wealth from silver mines. Augustus reformed the taxes. He realized expansion had limits and introduced a military treasury funded by sales and inheritance taxes. Confiscation was another means to acquire wealth for building.
- War (15 B.C. - A.D. 284)
Expansion pretty much ended with the emperors. It's hard to find a good story in the first two centuries of emperors. There was no grand strategy. Legions developed in response to immediate needs. The army was stationed at the frontiers. Mobile enemies were a problem. Walls provided security. Emperors who couldn't defend their people were in trouble. This resulted in the crisis.
- Imperial Identities
Roman citizenship was prized. Woolf looks at theories on the process of globalization.
- Recovery and Collapse (284-476)
Historians of the era were divided in their allegiances. Pagans liked Diocletian; Christians, Constantine. Both were like their predecessors in many ways, including being soldier emperors, but they excelled in the management of empire. Persia and Rome were also similar and Rome almost fell to the Arabs, too. Borders of the Empire had had long contact with the Romans until the advent of the Huns. Systems changed, modifications were made based on situations. Senators became courtiers and ceremony increased. Barbarian kingdoms replaced provinces.
- A Christian Empire
Christianity was not the only salvation-offering religion. Some of these religions failed. Christianity survived despite persecution, schisms and heresies.
- Things Fall Apart (527-711)
During the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, Rome suffered invasion, fragmentation and downsizing. Change was gradual. They survived many crises. The Empire became like a city-state and no other empire emerged to take over.
- The Roman Past and the Roman Future
The metaphor for Rome that fits best is glacier. Monuments survived, albeit, sometimes reused, and are still standing today. Once Rome realized it wanted monuments, it started writing literature. We continue to ask questions about the Romans and the traces they deliberately and no so deliberately left behind.