Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.06

Craige B. Champion (ed.), Roman Imperialism: Readings and Sources.   Oxford:  Blackwell, 2004.  Pp. 324.  ISBN 0-631-23119-6.  $39.95 (pb).  

Contributors: P.A. Brunt, Craig B. Champion, Michael H. Crawford, Arthur M. Eckstein, Erich S. Gruen, W.V. Harris, Keith Hopkins, B. Isaac, E.N. Luttwak, John Rich, Ramsay MacMullen, Susan Mattern, G. Woolf, P.S. Wells

Reviewed by Lee L. Brice, History, Western Illinois University (
Word count: 2138 words

Study of Roman imperialism has profited from much scholarly activity in the last 30 years, but the breadth of work can easily overwhelm or elude the non-specialist reader. This book provides a useful survey of current scholarship on a number of vital issues connected with Roman imperialism. In creating this historiographical sourcebook, Champion (hereafter C.) provides faculty and advanced students with a practical textbook for a topically organized seminar and a resource for those already familiar with Roman history but seeking to grasp the state of modern scholarship on imperialism. The material is well organized into five chapters, each of which includes two or three scholarly discussions of a single theme, associated primary sources in translation, and supplemental notes. In some chapters, the selected articles and excerpts represent different views of the same issue, but in other cases are different approaches to related problems. In a book of this size and price it is not possible to cover every aspect of imperialism. Topics that some readers will be disappointed to find are missing include: the military and its institutional role in imperialism, administration as an element of imperialism, and the relationship between the countryside and urban centers. C. acknowledges these issues, admitting that the book, "can make no claims to being a comprehensive treatment of the subject" (1). He addresses the omissions in two ways: by providing the reader with lengthy footnotes of available material, and, more importantly, by focussing on the chapters on a single aspect of imperialism, "Rome's relations with foreign states and peoples" (1). Despite the omissions, the book is a useful resource for an audience seeking the current state of scholarship devoted to Roman imperialism. Since all the secondary selections have been previously published and (in most cases) previously reviewed, in the following review I will summarize the chapters and focus on the value of the selected material to the book.

In the introduction, Craig Champion and Arthur Eckstein focus on defining imperialism and discuss the approaches to it. Readers unfamiliar with debates on imperialism will find a brief discussion of definitions. The authors then proceed to demonstrate that traditional definitions are insufficient because of the complexities of Roman imperialism and the changes it went through geographically and chronologically. While some readers may be disappointed that the authors choose to avoid suggesting a new definition, others will be pleased to find that C. and Eckstein do not lose sight of the fact that defining imperialism is not the goal of the book. Instead of worrying over new definitions, they emphasize and discuss modern approaches to the study of imperialism: metrocentric, with its focus on the city of Rome; pericentric, which focuses on the periphery; and the systemic, which takes a broader view of imperialism, especially within the context of inter-state systems. This strategy is useful since it makes the material approachable for non-experts and easier to organize. The one shortcoming of the introduction is the lack of a more developed discussion of the pre-1971 historiography of Roman imperialism.

Chapter one, "The Growth of Roman Power and Imperial Motivations," is the longest and strongest chapter of the book. The three papers included in this chapter provide the reader with an opportunity to examine three different interpretations of imperial motivations. All three passages focus on Rome during a key period of imperialism in the middle Republic. Despite having the distinction of being the oldest selection in the book, W.V. Harris' seminal 1971 article, "On War and Greed in the Second Century BC," is an excellent starting point because it was in this discussion that Harris reinvigorated the debate over the motivation for imperialism. By making a case for considering economic motivations, Harris rejects the kind of mercantilist interpretations that had been soundly rejected by Frank earlier in the century, preferring instead to consider economic incentive on a more personal level such as greed and aggressive expansionist policies. In the second selection in this chapter, "Material Rewards and the Drive for Empire," Erich Gruen reacts to Harris' interpretation and the concomitant wave of discussions that tied economic considerations to imperialism. Gruen explicitly acknowledges the economic benefits of empire, but then goes on to argue that such gain was not the primary motivation for expansion. This article takes a more traditional view of Roman imperialism (defensive) and makes a strong case against Harris' position. After reaching the conclusion of this second selection the reader may wonder whether the positions of Harris and Gruen are not actually extremes that have left a more correct explanation somewhere in the middle. The final reading in this first chapter, John Rich's "Fear, Greed, and Glory: The Causes of Roman War Making in the Middle Republic," opens with a review and historiographical discussion of the 'imperial motivations debate'. Rich proceeds to argue that Harris provided an appropriate corrective to traditional "defensive imperialism," but that the aggressive, greed-based model of imperialism was also insufficient. He then takes a more middle-ground position, demonstrating that for the middle Republic, Roman imperialism was simply too complex to be explained by any limited approach.

Chapter two, "Political, Economic, and Social Consequences of Empire," presents two selections based on more systemic approaches to explaining imperialism. In these two discussions the authors try to shed light on aspects of imperialism by examining its consequences. In the first selection, "Rome and the Greek World: Economic Relationships," Michael Crawford examines the nature of economic exchanges between the Greek East and Rome during the middle and late Republic with the explicit goal of proving that Harris' interpretation of imperialism (see above) was correct. Among his conclusions he shows that during this period resources flowed out of the East as Italians displaced locals in some areas as large-scale property owners. Crawford's discussion of consciously aggressive imperialism demonstrates what can be accomplished through research focused on a limited area during a limited period. Keith Hopkins' "Conquerors and Slaves: The Impact of Conquering an Empire on the Political Economy of Italy," takes the opposite approach. Hopkins sets out to demonstrate the impact of imperialism on Rome. Such a goal necessitates a broad examination across place and time. His conclusion is that imperialism was devastating to the peasantry of Italy and led directly to the civil wars and collapse of the Republic in the first century BC. While some of his conclusions continue to withstand scrutiny, others have come under increasing criticism, especially for an over-broad treatment of the evidence.1 Regardless of whether readers are convinced by Hopkins' discussion, it remains a standard discussion for anyone reading on imperialism.

In chapter three, "Ideology and Government of Empire," two selections examine the ideology underlying Roman imperial expansion. In "Laus Imperii," P.A. Brunt focuses his examination on the imperial mentality in Cicero's day. He treats a variety of topics connected to how Romans of the late Republic conceived of and justified their empire: glory of empire, the will of the gods, conception of world empire, unlimited expansion, reluctance to annex territory, theory of the just war, Roman clemency, and justice for subjects. Brunt's metrocentric approach is well organized and valuable. The second selection in this chapter, "Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate," is excerpted from Susan Mattern's book of the same title. In this segment, she tackles issues of ideology during the principate. With its focus on the emperors' prestige and Roman discipline, the excerpt complements the article by Brunt. It is unfortunate that owing to space-constraints the entire chapter could not be included since the excerpt includes Mattern's original conclusion, which seems to have lost some of its spark as a result of the excised original material.

Readers seeking an alternative to the metrocentric approach will be pleased by chapter four, "'Romanization': Cultural Assimilation, Hybridization, and Resistance." The three selections focus on the periphery and the fundamental question of Romanization or acculturation during the late Republic and early Empire. In the first selection, "Romanization in the Time of Augustus," Ramsay MacMullen demonstrates the process of Romanization by focusing on the process of cultural replication from center to periphery. He concludes that Rome did not force or even "push" a particular Roman variety of acculturation on the provinces, but that Romanization occurred due to "pulling" by the periphery. MacMullen's discussion is clear and well-cited, and his conclusion is important in the context of this sourcebook. However, the complicated (and sometimes contentious) nature of the problem emerges as soon as readers engage the second selection in this chapter, "Becoming Roman: The origins of provincial Civilization in Gaul." In a particularly good discussion, Greg Woolf focuses on Roman Gaul during the Empire (especially the early Empire) and concludes that the process of acculturation was much more complex than 'pushing' or 'pulling.' "But imperialism, even understood in these terms, provides only a partial explanation for cultural change. Also important were the attitudes that accompanied it ..." (232). Woolf then proceeds to summarize his evidence and explain his conclusions. Since Woolf focuses much attention on Augustan Gaul, it is a valuable opportunity for readers to compare his conclusions to the previous section by MacMullen. The passage represents a different approach in analysis of acculturation and, although complicated at times, it is a significant addition to this sourcebook. In the final selection in this chapter, "The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe," Peter Wells discusses Roman perceptions of indigenous peoples. The editor's insertion of several notes at the end of Wells' passage is helpful, but also highlights the lack of citations within the original material. The inclusion of Wells' discussion is a surprise in an otherwise good chapter, but it provides advanced students with a chance to compare critically recent pericentric discussions.

The final chapter, "The Frontier: Imperial Strategy and Defense of Empire," provides coverage of frontier studies, drawing from two important selections. Nearly thirty years ago now, Edward Luttwak virtually created a cottage industry devoted to Roman Frontier studies. The first selection in this chapter, "The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire," is the introduction to his important study of the same title. Luttwak argued in favor of a grand imperial strategy by which emperors sought and then maintained stable, "scientific frontiers" until the third century (278). As C. acknowledges, most historians recognize that Luttwak's study contains errors of fact and analytical flaws, but it remains a work that anyone interested in imperialism must read and acknowledge. In the second selection, "The Limits of Empire: The Roman Army in the East," Benjamin Isaac responds directly to Luttwak's systematization of Roman imperialism. He sets out "to test the basic assumptions which underly [sic] the hypothesis by referring to ancient sources and archaeological material" (283). He concludes that Luttwak's hypothesis is unsupportable. The editor's additional notes at the end of the chapter are helpful, but it was a surprise that Everett Wheeler's spirited defense of Luttwak's efforts is missing.2 Otherwise, this chapter provides a strong close to this useful book.

In addition to the modern discussions, and equally important, are the primary source selections at the end of each chapter. The passages are well-chosen and well-translated and represent a variety of sources and viewpoints. Sources that provide evidence for the modern analysis are included as well as a variety of extra material necessary for readers to test assumptions and draw their own conclusions. Most of the primary sources are literary, but there are also some papyrological and epigraphical examples. Since most of the modern discussions focus on the late Republic and early Empire it is not surprising that most of the material represents that period. Later sources are best represented in chapter five. Within each chapter C. has organized the sources into related groups, each with a brief introduction and footnotes, with secondary discussion also provided for some passages. The primary sources are a necessary, well-integrated component of the book, not simply window dressing. As a final note, there is a full, useful index tied to the primary sources as well as to the modern passages.

There are only a couple points in which one might detect opportunities to improve future editions. Firstly, the title of chapter three, "Ideology and Government of Empire," is confusing. The reader expecting to find a selection focused on administration will be disappointed. Finally, instead of providing often repetitive reference lists at the end of some selections, it might be much more useful for the reader to provide one inclusive reference list for the entire book.

In conclusion, C's. textbook is a useful work that brings together some of the most important modern discussions on Roman imperialism with primary sources in translation. In addition to its other assets noted previously, it is (in the context of general textbooks) affordable in its paperback edition. While it cannot possibly cover every aspect of imperialism, given the limitations of space and cost, C. has struck a reasonable balance.


1.   Summarized in the most recent discussion, unavailable to C. at the time of writing, N. Rosenstein, Rome at War: Farms, Families, and Death in the Middle Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
2.   Everett Wheeler, "Methodological Limits and the Mirage of Roman Strategy", Journal of Military History (57) 1993: 7-41 and 215-40. For a response to Wheeler, see C.R. Whittaker, "Where are the frontiers now?" The Roman Army in the East. Edited by D.L. Kennedy JRA. suppl. 18. Ann Arbor, 1996: 25-41.

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