Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in the BBC History Magazine, September 2005

This book does exactly what it says on the cover. Christopher Mackay concentrates remorselessly on what Roman politicians and soldiers did from the earliest beginnings around the 6thC BC, when tiny Rome became an independent town, to AD 476. This was when the German leader Odoacer pensioned off the last Roman emperor, ironically named Romulus Augustulus, and so pulled the curtain down on Rome's massive western empire, once stretching from Hadrian's Wall to Iraq, from the Rhine to the Atlas Mountains.

The book works well enough for the earliest periods, about which we know so little. As Mackay argues well, the literary tradition about the early history of Rome (exemplified by e.g. Livy's history) can be shown to be largely fiction, while the archaeological record simply indicates that by the 7thC BC the town was become wealthier, and impressive public and private buildings were being put up.

The history of the early Republic, established by tradition in 507 BC after the expulsion of Etruscan kings from Rome, also has its problems, but Mackay shows that the broad chronology, established through lists of consuls, looks fairly secure, as does the development of the senatorial system, with its annually elected executive officers ('magistrates', the top two of whom were the consuls), advisory Senate (consisting of all ex-magistrates), and various people's assemblies.

From the fifth to third centuries BC, wars, incorporations and alliances turned Rome from a small town into a powerful city controlling most of the Italian peninsula. After the Punic wars, Sicily, Spain and North Africa became Rome's first provinces, and the wealth that poured into Rome from further provincialisation over the next 200 years laid the foundations of its 700-year domination.

It is about now that Mackay's book seems to me to lose its grip. The reason is two-fold. First, the more we know about Roman history, the more Mackay - who certainly knows his stuff - needs to cram in. His intelligent interspersed overviews of the long list of events about who did what to whom just about rescue it. Second, the more we know about political motives, conditions and circumstances (as we do from e.g. Cicero's 800 personal letters), the less satisfactory for certain periods of Roman history his narrow remit becomes. For example, propaganda is surely 'political', and we know a great deal about Augustan propaganda. Mackay says nothing about it. He will argue that he cannot do everything - fair enough - but to treat 'war' and 'politics' as if they explained themselves runs the risk of doing justice to neither.

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