Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.13 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.13

Nathan Rosenstein, Rome and the Mediterranean 290 to 146 BC: The Imperial Republic. The Edinburgh history of ancient Rome.   Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 290.  ISBN 9780748623228.  $50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Fred K. Drogula, Providence College (


This text is the second volume of the Edinburgh History of Ancient Rome, an eight-volume series that is intended—in the words of the General Editor John Richardson—to bring “the changing shape of the entity that was Rome” to a broad audience (x). Nathan Rosenstein was an excellent choice to write this volume, and he has produced a book that will engage not only the general reader, but also students and professional historians of Rome. The scope of the book (290 to 146 BC) is well conceived: it embraces the transformation of the Republic from an Italian power to a Mediterranean superpower, but the examined period is short enough to permit Rosenstein to go into detailed discussions on major events and important controversies that bring tremendous richness to the book. This attention to detail makes the book particularly intriguing and useful, because Rosenstein brings into his discussion events, relationships, and political motivations that are frequently lost in historical surveys that cover the entire Republic.

In the first chapter, Rosenstein presents a concise-but-detailed discussion of the aristocracy of the middle Republic that sets the stage for the period he is to cover. He uses as his starting point Polybius’ famous description of the Roman ‘constitution’ as containing elements of monarchy (the magistrates), aristocracy (the senate), and democracy (the assemblies), but he points out Polybius’ errors and argues that the Republic during this period was really an aristocracy (5). To support this, Rosenstein gives significant attention to the ways in which Rome’s elite controlled the state through soft power and coercion using auctoritas, patronage, aristocratic lifestyles, and aristocratic competition. This chapter provides the necessary background for those readers who are unfamiliar with early Rome, but it also establishes a ‘baseline’ from which to measure and understand the evolution of Rome’s aristocracy in later chapters, and thus to show how the acquisition of empire effected the Romans.

The second chapter covers the period between 290 and 241 BC, with a particular focus on Rome’s wars with Pyrrhus and Carthage. In both cases, Rosenstein begins with important background information (Rome’s clash with Tarentum, and the conflict between Syracuse and the Mamertini), and then proceeds to discuss the stages of each conflict in considerable detail. Chapter Three examines the period between the First and Second Punic wars, but Rosenstein uses most of this chapter to discuss the growth of Rome’s military might, including its access to manpower, its control of its Italian allies, the development of its army and military practices, and the impact its war-making had on its agriculture and families. These are topics on which Rosenstein has published extensively, and his expertise gives this chapter great depth.

The first three chapters prepare the reader for Chapter Four, which examines the Second Punic War. This is the longest chapter in the book, and it presents both a narrative of the war and a nuanced discussion of the underlying forces that drove the major events in the conflict. In fifty-seven pages Rosenstein discusses every major stage of the war with full details and analysis, providing the introductory reader with a thorough understanding of this war and the toll it took on Rome. Professional historians will also find many interesting arguments to engage them. For example: Rosenstein argues (126) that—if anyone was to blame—it was the Saguntines who were most directly responsible for the start of the war because they attacked Carthage’s subjects; he points out (138) many problems with the Fabian tactics that draw into question their celebrated place in Roman military history; and he provides (152) a meticulous discussion of why very few of Rome’s allies defected to Hannibal.

Chapter Five continues with Rome’s military conquests in Northern Italy (Gaul), Spain, and Greece and Macedonia through the first quarter of the second century BC. As in previous chapters, Rosenstein gives a careful discussion of Roman expansion in each area, and draws out important distinctions that made each region a unique experience for the Romans. He frequently pauses to engage with interesting problems, such as the debate among modern scholars over the senate’s motives for starting the Second Macedonian War (180). The chapter ends with a long section studying the influence that these wars had on Rome, and in particular points out that the senate seems to have had little interest in running the empire it worked so hard to conquer. This provides a basis for his discussion of the nature of Roman imperialism, including a good treatment of the controversial topic of whether Rome acquired its empire accidentally or on purpose (208-10).

In the sixth chapter, Rosenstein examines Rome's methods for retaining control of its empire, while also exploring the curious fact that the Romans made little effort to govern it. This chapter covers the Third Macedonian War down to the destruction of Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC, and it focuses on Rome’s use of brutal methods to suppress insurrection; tribes, towns, and cities were annihilated in order to end revolts and provide a salutary example to any other peoples contemplating rebellion. The Romans could be arbitrary in their use of such brutal policies; the Numidian attacks against Carthage might be ignored, but Carthaginian attacks against Numidia (while unsuccessful) might be brutally punished (234-5). Although he covers all Roman theaters of war during this period, Rosenstein is particularly focused on Macedonia and the East, and the destruction of Carthage.

The final chapter examines how nearly one hundred and fifty years of conquest and rapid expansion changed Rome. Rosenstein discusses the sharp rise in aristocratic competition driven by the oversized successes and glory of Scipio Africanus, and he delves into Rome’s response to the tremendous wealth that flowed from its conquests into the state’s coffers and into the strongboxes of Rome’s elite. He explores how the combination of rapidly increasing wealth and personal ambition led to exceptional men like Scipio Aemilianus (who threatened the senate’s control over Rome) but also to men like Cato the Elder, who struggled against the changes he saw in Roman culture. Rosenstein draws upon his earlier research to argue (263-5) that Italy’s agricultural situation was not as dire as is often believed; aristocrats probably were not buying up all the farmland, so he sees general prosperity among the rural people between 200 and 146 BC. By the end of this chapter, Rosenstein has shown us a Roman aristocracy that is significantly different from their ancestors in Chapter One.

This is an excellent treatment of the middle Republic written by a leading scholar on the subject. In addition to supplying a clear description and nuanced discussion of the historical period, Rosenstein writes in a lively and engaging style that is easy and enjoyable to read. He is careful to discuss important scholarly debates when relevant or useful, but he handles these in a concise manner that lays out the problem without derailing his main discussion, which is perfect for students and general readers. Furthermore, because Rosenstein frequently pauses his narrative to offer insightful analyses of historical problems, this book will also be of great interest to historians who are already familiar with the history of the Republic. These analytical discussions give the book great depth and explore the complexities of the middle Republic. The book is usefully illustrated with photos and plans, and it concludes with a chronology, a guide to further reading, a bibliography, and an index. The book has been well edited and laid out, so that typographic errors are almost entirely absent. On the whole, Rosenstein has produced a very fine book that lays out the middle Republic for a broad audience, and offers experts many insights into Rome's development during this dynamic period.

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