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Monday, December 8, 2014

“Rome: An Empire’s Story”, by Greg Woolf

384 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0199775293

“Even now the Roman World feels like a vast sandpit in which I can play…” says Greg Woolf, Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews and the author in the preface to this work, and it is a pleasure to join him in the box. Like ancient astrologers scanning the heavens for answers and warnings, contemporary man studies Rome’s past for clues to the problems they face. Most of us look for warnings in the end of the Roman Republic, or the Empire’s fall; but after reading this superb analysis, to me the closest parallel to our times is Rome in the 2nd Century BC. Like Rome, we have seen the termination of older imperial states and, with our withdrawal, their replacement with weaker, semi-chaotic successor states that often turn against us. Other similarities are economic dislocation at home, with the decline in economic viability of productive small producers, and the inward migration of subject peoples which further displace said small producers. Internal politics seem to encourage bitterness and hostility among the ruling classes as domestic affairs become more chaotic and violent. Foreign policy is in disarray as client states openly try to manipulate policy makers thru thinly disguised bribes and gifts. Even an over-stretched citizen based military that was never designed for conflicts that seem to last for generations in distant lands is paralleled today.

This is a fascinating analysis, which you don’t always have to agree with. I found one minor error on page 274 where Antiochus III is mentioned as a Persian emperor. His take on the current historical debate over the nature of the changes that took place with the fall of the Roman Empire makes a lot of sense; while there may have been “continuity and transformation” at the bottom of the social scale, the change was catastrophic at the top and “Measured in terms of territory, population, influence, and military power there is no doubt at all about the fact of collapse. Ancients recognized this, and so should we.” He gives no reason for the Empire’s fall, but believes the fact that no other empire rapidly arose to succeed would argue against the fall being due to systemic reasons – or were the emperors to blame?

This is not a work for the novice, as it is truly speaking not a detailed history, but rather an analytical work. It tells the whole story of the Roman Empire from the beginning of the town of Rome until the fall of Constantinople (although it really doesn't go until 1453 AD but ends in the early 700s AD when it was in decline). The book does this at a very high level in terms of telling the story of Rome, the overthrow of the Etruscan kings, the republic, the civil wars (Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, etc.), the early empire and the late empire. What is excellent about this book is the analysis of each segment of Rome's history – why things occurred the way that they did. It accomplishes this using primary sources and excellent secondary sources that evaluate these primary sources. The book is at its best in its brief discussions of the latest theories of Roman history. Although it can be dry at times due to the analytical approach, this book is a must have for any reader interested in the Roman Empire, its growth, the primary period, and its decline.

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