Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.14

Andrew Erskine, Roman Imperialism. Debates and Documents in Ancient History.   Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2010.  Pp. xxiv, 208.  ISBN 9780748619634.  £19.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael P. Fronda, McGill University (

This short book is part of Edinburgh University Press’ series Debates and Documents in Ancient History. It is divided into two nearly equal halves. Part I ("Debates," pp. 1-88) comprises five brief chapters that trace the expansion of Roman power and discuss several important issues related to the broad topic of Roman imperialism. Part II ("Documents," pp. 89-168) is an anthology of (by my count) over one hundred translated ancient texts, including short passages by dozens of ancient authors, inscriptions, and visual evidence (images of coins, monumental architecture, milestones, etc). The chapters in Part I cite both modern scholarship and ancient sources, including references keyed to the numerous excerpts of ancient texts in translation in Part II. The preface claims that the series is aimed at all those interested in the history of the Greek and Roman World" (p. ix), though it is clear from the format that this book is designed for use in the classroom.

It is always difficult to review a teaching text. Most tend not to stray far from scholarly consensus and rarely break new ground, and preference for one or another textbook usually has more to with emphasis or style or organization and presentation of material than with strong (dis)agreement with content. To be sure, Roman Imperialism is free from errors of fact, outmoded or egregiously implausible interpretations, poor production, etc. I found it very well written and clearly argued, and I agree with much of what Erskine says. But would the book work in the classroom? Or perhaps better: would I order this book for one of my courses on Roman history or my popular upper-division course on Ancient Warfare and Imperialism? I have to answer "no." I will discuss my reasons below, after summarizing the contents in a more detail.

The first three chapters focus mostly on Rome's rise to world power during the Republican period and scholars' attempts to explain the process. There is a good deal of overlap between these three chapters.1 Chapter One, “Approaching Roman Imperialism" (pp. 3-11), notes the far-reaching influence of the Roman Empire even on modern audiences. It is also noted that the term "imperialism" entered scholarly discourse only in the early twentieth century within the context of modern European territorial-colonial empires; this fact has perhaps clouded analysis of other less formal forms of control and domination, including the Roman Empire (at least before the Imperial era). The problematic nature of the sources are summarized: most of what we know about Roman imperialism comes from sources written from the perspectives of a tiny, usually Roman elite. Chapter Two, "From City to Empire" (pp. 12-32), is essentially a narrative of Roman expansion, focusing almost entirely on Rome’s Italian and Mediterranean conquests during the Republic. The Imperial period is barely commented on (pp. 35-6). Chapter Three, "Explanations" (pp. 33-49), is an historigraphic essay, synthesizing some of the main theories promoted to explain Roman expansion, from antiquity to the present. Polybius saw Rome as essentially aggressive and expansionistic, while Roman authors tended to justify their empire as the product of Rome's goodwill, its civilizing mission, or the defense of itself and/or its allies. Defensive imperialism was the preferred theory for many scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, until the sustained critique in the 1970s by Harris inter alia. Glory and wealth acquisition as motives for Roman war making are discussed in some detail. The question is raised whether Roman imperialism was driven by conscious or unconscious/structural factors.

Chapter Four ("The Subject," pp. 50-70), moves the discussion from Roman motives and perceptions to the experience of the conquered. A survey of ancient literary sources shows a tension, with Rome viewed either with animosity or adulation. Erskine cautions that often supposed alien views of Rome are themselves Roman constructs. The chapter discusses Romanization, noting that the older view of Romans-as-civilizers has given way to more nuanced ways of looking at cultural (ex)change. The imperial cult receives lengthy treatment (pp. 62-65), arguing it both highlighted Roman power and brought Rome and its subjects together. The chapter concludes with a section on rebellions and revolts.

Chapter Five ("The Ruler," pp. 71-87) looks at how the Romans viewed, ruled and exploited their empire, especially in the Late Republican and Early Imperial periods. The nature of Roman administration is considered, followed by two sections that look at the impact of empire on the urban topography and population of the city of Rome. Little of controversy is noted in these sections. The impact of the growth of empire on the Italian countryside is more controversial. Erskine lays out the traditional model (imperial expansion went hand-in-hand with rural displacement and a rise of a slave economy as the second century BC), and he mentions challenges that have been raised.

Turning to Part II, it would be impossible to mention all of the passages and pedantic to give a long list of omissions that "should have been included." Every anthology will have its strengths and gaps; on the whole the collection is reasonably comprehensive (though see below). The most interesting feature is the inclusion of less typical sources: several inscriptions and some more unusual visual evidence (e.g., a picture of Roman milemarker, in addition to the predictable images of the Arch of Titus). Since much of Part I is dedicated to the middle republic, it is unsurprising to find a lot of Polybius in Part II. My main criticism is that the introductory sections for each passage are too brief to provide adequate background and context.

There follows an annotated Further Readings (pp. 169-177), Internet Resources (pp. 178-180), Glossary (pp. 181-184), extensive and up-to-date Bibliography of publications in English (pp. 185-199), and Index (pp. 200-208). The Further Readings and Bibliography in particular would aid an advanced undergraduate working on a research paper.

So, on the whole, Roman Imperialism is readable, concise, largely persuasive, provides a solid narrative of Roman expansion during the Republic, offers a wide-ranging historiographic survey (albeit one that slants toward republican scholarship), and brings together an impressive number of ancient passages. Why, then, would I not order this book for one of my classes? To answer this, I will quote again from the Series Editors' Preface (p. ix):

"The works in the series are written by expert academics and provide up-to-date and accessible accounts of the historical issues and problems raised by each topic. They also contain the important evidence on which the arguments are based, including texts (in translation), archaeological data and visual material. This allows the readers to judge how convincing the arguments are and to enter the debates themselves."

This is what I try to do when teaching, especially upper-division and topics courses: present students with different interpretations to historical problems and expose them to the often-ambiguous evidence invoked in support of the various theories. On the whole, Roman Imperialism fails to fulfill this mission. Erskine frequently mentions that there is debate or controversy over some aspect of Roman imperialism yet provides primary sources to support only one side of the debate, or when evidence is presented for both sides, one position is discredited explicitly or implicitly. Take for example the debate that dominates the first few chapters: whether Roman imperialism was “defensive” or “aggressive.” The reader is given a few ancient passages (e.g. from Cicero, Caesar) that present Roman wars as necessary to secure peace or protect allies, but these are dismissed as “the language of justification rather than explanation” (p. 35). In his survey of modern proponents of defensive imperialism (pp.36-39),2 no supporting ancient passages are cited.3 Indeed, the tone of the section strongly suggests that the proponents of defensive imperialism are simply wrong. Meanwhile, the relationship between war and glory and war and wealth are laid out in much greater detail and keyed to numerous ancient passages. Even if one agrees that defense, security and obligation to allies cannot really explain Roman imperialism, how are lay readers and students supposed to enter into a debate when one side is so clearly set up as a straw man?

Sometimes no ancient evidence is provided at all for either side of a controversy. Thus, scholarly debate over the nature of Roman decision-making and foreign policy during the Republic is discussed briefly (pp.47-48), but this section is not keyed to any ancient passages.4 We are told (p. 24-25) that the Roman decision to go war against Philip V in 201 has inspired debate among ancient and modern authors, but no reference is made to the critical ancient evidence.5 Similarly, the outbreak of the Second Punic War is discussed at length and a few theories for the causes of the war are offered (pp. 19-20); a few ancient sources are cited but none provided in Part II. At other points, ancient passages keyed to Part II appear to be cited mainly to flesh out narrative, demonstrate a factual claim, or simply back up the author’s conclusion. Lastly, almost no archaeological evidence is provided outside of monumental architecture.6 Overall, the passages and other evidence included do not allow the readers to judge how convincing the competing arguments are. At the same time, much of the tone and argumentation does not encourage debate so much as steer the inexpert reader to specific interpretations.

So, is this a bad book? Not at all. As I mentioned above, I agree with most of the arguments presented. But if one is looking for a text to teach that presents students with competing scholarly interpretations of Roman imperialism, as well as a ancient evidence in support of each viewpoint, I suggest Craige Champion’s Roman Imperialism: Readings and Sources (Blackwell 2004). I recommend the book under review for a more expert reader who is better equipped to follow up bibliography and seek out the evidence necessary to judge the relative merits of different interpretations. Notes


1.   E.g.: the discussion of the meaning of imperium and provincia is found on pp. 5-6, 20, 35; the ancient sources are discussed on pp. 7-11, 33-36; the old debate between "defensive" and "aggressive" imperialism comes up repeatedly (pp. 18-19, 24-15, 33-39).
2.   Erskine defines “defensive imperialism” in very broad terms, including almost any explanation that invokes Roman fear or interest in security. This is an oversimplification that leads him to include among the theory’s adherents scholars who are not, in my view, proponents of defensive imperialism, e.g., Arthur Eckstein (see p. 38).
3.   In this discussion, the only keyed ancient passages (from Cicero and Livy) demonstrate the evolution of the fetial ritual; these are more descriptive and hardly constitute evidence for Roman defensive imperialism. Such evidence might include, for example, passages mentioning the supposed “secret treaty” between Antiochus IV and Phillip V.
4.   A striking omission: the account of Flamininus' negotiations with Philip and his attempt to rig the senatorial debate over his command (18.1-12, esp. 11-12) was not included in Part II. This is disappointing since it is one of the most valuable sources for the dynamics of Roman foreign policy-making, shedding light on the motives of Roman imperialism, the tension between senate and general, and the difficulty Rome faced in maintaining any sort of centrally-planned, coherent foreign policy.
5.   E.g., Livy’s lengthy account of the Rome’s decision to go to war, in which he lays out the competing arguments both for and against war, and suggests that the Roman people were, in this case at least, slow to fight.
6.   There is one architectural plan, of the temples in the Largo Argentina in Rome, which accompanies a photo of the excavated remains. Archaeological evidence is difficult to provide in a source anthology, but (for example) a table or maps with the location and occupation dates of rural sites identified by some field surveys (e.g., the Metaponto Field Survey or Cecina Valley Survey) could have allowed readers to compare the results to the ancient literary claims of rural depopulation of Italy during the second century BC.

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