Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.41 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.41

W. V. Harris, Roman Power: A Thousand Years of Empire.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxi, 357.  ISBN 9781107152717.  $49.99.  

Reviewed by Charles Goldberg, Bethel University (

Editor's note: William Harris's Roman Power attracted a great deal of interest when it was published, and so BMCR decided to commission two reviews, in the hope that providing contrasting perspectives would enable richer conversation in the field at large. The other review is written by Harriet Flower, BMCR 2017.03.40.


Comprehensive modern accounts of the longue durée of Roman imperialism are few and far between (though note Greg Woolf’s Rome: An Empire’s Story, BMCR 2014.02.44). Roman Power provides a synthetic account of the growth and decline of Roman power from its early years as a middling Italian city-state in 400 BCE to the 7th-century CE Islamic invasions of the Byzantine East. Harris is concerned not only with the allocation of military or political force on external enemies, but with myriad forms of power—economic, legal, social, and the power of gender and ideas. The work is comparative in two respects, first by comparing the centuries of Roman expansion with those of its fall, and second by considering how the “soft” forms of power at work in the interior of the empire mentioned above affected and were affected by the external, “hard” application of imperial-military power.

After an introduction, Harris surveys the structural factors that encouraged territorial expansion and consolidation in the earlier republic (chapter 2). Borrowing the work of sociologist Michael Mann, Harris focuses on the use of “new organizational techniques that greatly enhanced the capacity to control peoples and territories” (29).1 By these, Harris means the mélange of strategies familiar to most students of Roman imperial history (29-33): unbalanced treaties that favored Rome; the transformation of enemy territory into ager publicus; the collaboration of local elites; and the extension of various forms of citizenship in exchange for military service. In addition to these, Harris continues the line of argumentation he first set forth in 1979’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, namely, that a singularly militaristic culture provided powerful incentives to elites and non-elites alike to view nearly continuous warfare as desirable.

Chapter three, “The Romans against each other, from republic to monarchy,” examines the aristocracy’s socio-political power, and how late republican challenges to it forced the reformulation of political legitimacy under Augustus. Harris takes a strong position against those who see a significant democratic element in the republican constitution, feeling that this scholarship has taken insufficient account of how elite authority permeated throughout society, despite the legal authority of the assemblies. Through war, elites acquired tremendous economic power via land and slaves (86). Many from the lower classes, who might have represented a threat to aristocratic political power at the assemblies, were instead settled in colonies far from Rome or situated within the patron-client relationship, which nullified their potential political influence. For Harris, the chief factor in the tumult of the late republic was not so much warring aristocratic factions nor a newly politicized military, but widespread popular discontent and aristocratic apathy. While others have stated similar objections to the “democratic Rome” argument, Harris’ rebuttal is a well-stated reminder of the material basis of both aristocratic hegemony in Rome and late republican lower class unrest.

Chapters four and five consider external and internal power from 16 to 337 CE, charting a shift in attitudes whereby both elites and non-elites (Italians, at any rate) ceased to view military service in positive terms, becoming more or less content with the extent of Roman territory (112-125). Factors cited in explanation include the emperor’s desire to maximize his own personal honores, as well as the fact that individual rulers often had little experience in war. Specious claims of impressive military accomplishments, such as Claudius’ boast to have subjugated Britain “without any losses” (ILS 216), “indicated both that the emperor could tell foolish lies and that the Roman people was losing its historical appetite for warfare…” (128). When facing external foes, the decision to fight was often rooted in financial calculus. And yet, despite significant internal unrest (68-9, 193-6, 235-84, and 205-24 CE were particularly volatile years), the empire abided. Harris attributes this long-lasting stability to impressive financial and manpower reserves, and to Rome’s ability to persuade provincial elites to contribute to governance. Harris pushes back against the widespread scholarly disuse of the term “Romanization,” finding it the most accurate descriptor of the process under consideration.

Chapters six and seven form a similar complement for the period from 337 to 641 CE and consider the causes for disintegration of the western and eastern empires. Harris isolates the period between 370 and 430 in the West as crucial decades of decline. The use of the word “decline” is purposeful, and Harris positions his analysis against those who have viewed late antiquity in terms of continuity or even prosperity. Decline in this context has an important financial dimension: Germanic invasions, even when repulsed, destabilized revenue collection, which meant fewer and less motivated soldiers. The eastern empire, though more prosperous and stable for a time, eventually succumbed to similar ailments. Justinian’s reunification of east and west was untenable and created an empire too large for successors to defend or tax adequately. The final wave, the “tsunami” (242) of Islamic invaders, proved irresistible. These external fissures corresponded to internal instability, chiefly caused by the rise of Christianity. The growing political and economic might of the Church weakened imperial control (clergy were exempt from taxes). Tensions between Christians and traditional polytheists sparked social unrest, as did doctrinal disagreements among Christians. All of this eroded societal bonds at the same time that outside threats fractured political ones.

Harris ultimately concludes that the later absence of the factors encouraging the growth of Roman power in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE—notably, the tremendous material benefits of warfare as well as elites and non-elites more or less united by ideals of patriotic citizenship and military service—brought about Roman decline. The strength of this book lies in the ambition of its approach. Syntheses of the entire span of the growth and decline of imperial rule are beyond the reach of scholars lacking Harris’ breadth of knowledge and intellectual inquisitiveness, and he is attentive to the appropriate primary and secondary sources throughout his study. Regarding the two comparative foci mentioned above, the book succeeds best when considering the interrelationship between the external and internal outlays of power at Rome, an approach that unites military-political and socio-cultural scholarly conversations that often take place independently of one another. The second comparison, that between the earlier and later years of imperial power, receives less treatment than it might have, and is mostly kept to the conclusion. Comparative empire is a popular approach throughout the Academy at the moment, and Harris is astute to note that the comparison that considers one Roman period against another has many merits. For that reason, one wished for greater exploration of this theme.

Additionally, the strength of the book—its ambition and scope—at times creates its own problems. The need to cover so much ground in so few pages results in occasionally dismissive comments on competing interpretations. I note in particular the remarks on the “realist” approach to Roman imperialism advanced by Eckstein (42-3), which Harris all-too-briefly labels a “silly historical falsehood.” Especially because he writes for an educated general audience, not only for specialists of Rome, such truncated remarks give an unfair appraisal of what has become a widely accepted understanding of Rome’s Mediterranean context. Furthermore, other interesting avenues are not pursued. To the rather familiar picture Harris paints of the end of the republic, he adds the novel suggestion that elite philhellenism contributed to unrest; namely, that sophisticated rhetorical educations encouraged speakers to rile up hostile crowds, and also that the widespread popularity of Epicureanism encouraged political indifference (109). This deserves further exploration, which I hope Harris undertakes in the future. Finally, I am sympathetic to the minefield Harris traverses regarding periodization, given the enormous swath of time he considers, but in the introduction we are told that the year 16 CE acts as a kind of lynchpin because of Tiberius’ decision to halt expansion, but Harris seems later to emphasize Hadrian’s reign instead (125).

All told, Harris has produced a comprehensive and learned account of the long arc of Roman rule that will interest Roman historians with disparate chronological and thematic interests. The book is attractively printed with numerous maps and images. Typographical errors are minimal.


1.   Quoting Mann, M., The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760, Cambridge, 1986.

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