If I were to mention the Roman Empire in any sort of word association context, many people might respond with some variation of “decline and fall of”. It seems that every historian or history buff who is at all familiar with the history of the Roman Empire thinks largely in terms of its decline and fall and they all seem to have their favorite theories why the Empire fell; moral decay, economic collapse, climate change, etc. The impression seems to be that Rome was somehow doomed to fail and that the only lessons to learn from Roman history is what great powers ought not to do in order to avoid their own decline and fall.
Yet, Rome was an enormously successful state. For almost six hundred years, 146 BC to AD 410, Rome was uncontested ruler of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, a feat unmatched by any of the many great powers since, and even after the “fall” of the Empire in 476, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire manager to last for another thousand years. No other, more recent, great power has managed such longevity. Perhaps the question we need to ask about the Roman Empire is not how it fell, but how a small, Italian city-state rose to rule the known world, and how they managed to rule for so long.
This is the question which Anthony Everett seeks to answer in “The Rise of Rome”. In his book, Everett traces the history of Rome from its legendary, even mythical, beginnings to the generation before the rise of Caesar. Everett recounts the legends of Rome’s founder, Romulus, and its kings, the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Republic, and the wars in which the city fought for its life against its neighbors. Everett then considers what truth, if any, may be behind these legends based on the findings of archeology, while noting that the true events are less important than the fact that the Romans themselves believed the legends to be true and were influenced by them.
The Republic slowly came to dominate Italy, in part because of Rome’s military prowess, Rome was an aggressive, militaristic state, but also because the Romans repeatedly demonstrated a statesmanlike common sense in their relations with defeated enemies and in their own internal politics. Here we begin to have somewhat more reliable historical accounts and we can begin to understand what the Romans were doing right. The Romans did not seek to destroy their enemies once they were defeated, but to have their former enemies join them. Italians could become allies in league with Rome and perhaps even gain Roman citizenship. Rome suffered from the same sort of class conflicts as the Greek city-states, but while the Greek factions usually tried to destroy each other, the Roman ruling class generally managed to find some compromise which kept the city together. More than any thing else, it was the Roman refusal to accept defeat and determination to continue fighting, even when their cause seemed lost, that led to the many Roman victories, as such warlords as Pyrrhus and Hannibal discovered.
The Punic Wars were a turning point in Roman history. For the first time, Rome acquired territories outside of Italy, and by the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome had come to dominate the Mediterranean. Rome had become a wealthy superpower. This success was not altogether favorable to the development of the character of the Romans. The Republican customs and institutions which suited an Italian city-state did not scale all that well to a mighty empire and the traditional good sense and willingness to compromise that had been displayed by Rome’s ruling class began to falter in the newly affluent society. Everett ends his account of the rise of Rome with the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies, who, perhaps uniquely in history, did not seek to overthrow Roman leadership, but to be allow to become Roman citizens themselves, and rise and fall of the Roman generals and statesmen, Marius and Sulla, who set the precedents for Caesar’s dictatorship and the end of the Roman Republic.
I can highly recommend “The Rise of Rome” for anyone interested in the history of the Roman Republic, particularly the early centuries that do not get nearly so much attention time of Caesar and the early emperors. Maybe we could learn some lessons in how to manage an empire.
- 125-year mini ice age linked to the plague and fall of empires | New Scientist (scitechhawaiidigest.com)
- Review of How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Adrian Goldsworthy) (brothersjudd.com)
- The End of the Republic – Then and Now (nationalinterest.org)
- Meet Cato: Ancient Rome’s George Washington (thefederalist.com) Not really. Both the Elder and Younger Catos were jerks.