Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, The Sunday Telegraph, November 2 03

The [superbly illustrated] book's main virtue is its success in representing old orthodoxies with especial clarity, while bringing new orthodoxies into the public domain. Of the former, for example, Christopher Mackay crisply identifies a number of reasons for the collapse of the Roman republic, e.g. the recruitment of landless soldiers loyal only to their leader and not to any idea of Rome; and the legitimisation of violence for political ends. Perhaps he might have added something about the sheer competitiveness of the big beasts in the cursus honorum, 'race for honours'. The result was that dynasts like Pompey and Caesar ended up scrapping with each other like Afghanistan warlords, bringing the republican system down with them.

Likewise, everyone knows that, to paraphrase the poet Horace, Rome conquered Greece militarily but was conquered by it culturally. But in an excellent chapter introducing a new orthodoxy, Greg Woolf shows the many ways in which Romans and Greeks both accepted and resisted each other (though he is uncertain why the Romans were so hooked on the Greeks - intellectual and aesthetic pleasure, I'd say).

Then again, Rebecca Flemming explores new territory by discussing how empire opened up different intellectual worlds for the Romans. When, for example, the Eastern leader Mithridates, an expert on medicine and natural history, was conquered by Pompey, his treatises were translated into Latin and his collections moved to Rome. Encyclopaedias began to be written, to organise all the new learning that was pouring in. The 37-book Natural History of Pliny the Elder (who died investigating the explosion of Vesuvius in AD 79) is one such enterprise, concentrating on useful knowledge, especially medical, technical and agricultural, that would serve the interests of Roman power.

Flemming's chapter is a good example of the way this book resists donning the breastplate of sanctimony when the word 'empire' is mentioned, as if it were a dirty word. Neville Morley is equally even- handed when he discusses the economic impact of empire, reckoning it brought stability, growth and higher standards of living till about AD 200, when the economy ground to a halt. A pre-industrial economy, he argues, could not hope to keep on expanding demand. Eventually, local production in the provinces began to satisfy all needs, and inter- regional distribution dried up. Gaul, for example, once imported Italian wine on a huge scale; but by the 2ndC AD such imports had almost entirely stopped.

Ian Haynes, however, is less certain about the Roman army as an instrument of peace. Its military strategy was mercilessly effective - never capitulate, exploit manpower reserves, learn from your enemies and show mercy only when it suits you - but the same strategy was also frequently applied in keeping the pax Romana, with unhappy results in e.g. Judaea.

This is an ambitious book. It covers a thousand years of history - though, strangely, not the end of the Roman empire in the West - with topics ranging from religion to warfare, from the city of Rome to law and slavery, and from literature to the principles of urbanisation (Penelope Allison writes fascinatingly on Roman buildings in Athens - all, naturally, Greek in style). For anyone with a serious interest in the Roman world, this is the book to get for Christmas.

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