Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.06

Josiah Osgood, Rome and the Making of a World State, 150 BCE—20 CE.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. x, 274.  ISBN 9781139342698.  £21.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Katheryn Whitcomb, Gettysburg College (


In this book, Josiah Osgood offers a survey of Roman history from approximately the destruction of Carthage to the death of Germanicus, with a focus on developments that impacted Rome’s growth into a world state in the century preceding the rule of Augustus. The book is intended for a general audience, but provides many helpful insights for the expert reader as well. Chapters are generally organized in a chronological framework, with some more thematically-organized chapters interspersed throughout. Suggestions for further reading included at the end of each chapter are limited to scholarship in English, presumably to keep the book accessible to a general audience.

This book has many strengths, not the least of which is Osgood’s ability to construct an engaging and insightful narrative. Each chapter begins with a vignette that grabs the reader’s attention while also providing a useful illustration of major themes that will be the focus of the chapter. Osgood’s skill at drawing out apparently minor details or events that have broad and important implications is also praiseworthy. There are also a number of helpful tables and figures that condense or illustrate information discussed in the text of the chapter. In addition, the book as a whole makes good use of a variety of evidence including literature, inscriptions, and material evidence such as coins and architecture.

There are, however, also some aspects of the book that detract from its function and utility. Most of these, in the opinion of this reviewer, can be ascribed to the production of the book. For example, quotations from primary sources are cited in one section at the back of the book. There is no indication in the main body of the text when something will be cited; citations in the back are grouped by chapter, but do not include page numbers corresponding to where the quotations occur in the main body. This is disorienting and difficult to follow, particularly where there are many such quotations. Further, the maps imbedded throughout the book are not particularly useful. They are infrequently referenced in the text, and the captions and labeling of the maps do little to explain their significance to the reader.

Although this book does not offer much that is new in terms of argumentation or interpretation of the evidence, it does provide an excellent overview for the student of Roman history, including nuanced discussions of some of the major scholarly debates surrounding the late Republic and early Principate.

As Osgood notes in Chapter One, much attention has been devoted to the “fall” of the Roman Republic in popular culture as well as in scholarship. This attention obscures the fact that the transformation from Republic to Empire took place over the course of decades, beginning in the Late Republic and continuing after the traditional founding of the Principate. Osgood addresses this imbalance in attention paid to the end of the Republic by focusing on developments that happened both within the broad context of Rome’s empire and the narrower context of the city of Rome from 150BCE onward. The argument that there is no definitive “fall” of the Republic, and that the transition to the Principate took place over the course of decades is not new, but may provide the general reader with a sense of why this period of Roman history is an important one to survey.1

Chapter Two discusses Rome’s approach to administering overseas territories in the pivotal period between 150 and 139 BCE, which witnessed the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. Osgood emphasizes the lack of imperial structure in the mid-second century, noting in particular that the term provincia established the area in which a magistrate exercised his temporary imperium, but did not suggest a claim to continued possession of a territory. Importantly, Osgood also notes that while Roman foreign policy may have seemed arbitrary to outsiders, decisions of the Senate and its representatives were predictably governed by certain principles such as the desire to commit as little resources as possible and to seem always to be acting justly.

Chapter Three focuses on the political systems in the city of Rome in the second century. Osgood incorporates a very useful discussion of several aspects of Roman political life including the fundamental elements of voting, the chief magistracies and their functions, the role that public spectacles played in politics, and the intersection of religion and politics. This chapter provides an excellent foundation for any student of Roman political systems.

Chapter Four examines the rise and fall of the Gracchi, a period that Osgood identifies as laying the foundation for the Principate. The late second century is characterized by the rising power of the tribunes, crystallized in the tribunes’ growing willingness to challenge the authority of the Senate, and the increased use of violence to achieve political goals. This chapter nicely demonstrates one of the main strengths of the book as a whole: the presentation of traditional scholarly views on major issues (in this case the issue of land reform and the presumed decrease in small land-holders during the course of the second century), followed by a discussion of more nuanced interpretations found in recent scholarship. The end of the chapter examines the rise of Marius and the growing tension between Marius and Sulla that will foreshadow the violence and divisive politics characteristic of the first half of the next century.

Chapter Five covers the years 104-80 BCE, focusing on the ways in which aristocratic rivalry contributed to the outbreak of the Social War and instability in the east, including the Mithridatic Wars. Osgood illustrates how continuing rivalries among the elite in Rome complicated the issue of enfranchising Italian groups, eventually leading Italian communities to declare an independent federated state. Similar rivalries prolonged the war against Mithridates in Asia Minor and contribute to the breakdown of stability within Rome itself. In particular, the contest between Marius and Sulla led to severe violence in Rome and an undermining of the traditional republican government. The ability of these two men to command the obedience of armies by virtue of their own charisma further eroded the foundation of Rome’s Republic by demonstrating that personal loyalty could trump traditional politics. In this chapter and elsewhere throughout the book Osgood points out that modern readers must be cautious when assessing the merits of ancient evidence and, whenever possible, to consider the limitations of surviving evidence.

Chapter Six examines how pacification of the Italian peninsula and the conclusion of the Social War brought about significant changes in Italy that also had dramatic effects on the development of Rome as a world state. Increasing wealth and prosperity in Italian communities, decreasing colonization of Italy, and increasing trade across the Mediterranean all contributed to an embracing of Roman institutions on the one hand and growing resentment at a lack of representative government on the other. Through the process of incorporating Italians into its growing state, Rome gained valuable experience in how to create a more integrated world state.

Chapter Seven centers around the career of Pompey and the precedent that his success set for Augustus. Pompey’s military victories, the power he was able to parlay from them, and the administrative results he achieved demonstrated to other aristocrats what one man acting alone could accomplish. Pompey’s conquests and administrative reforms suggest a changed conception of empire from the previous century: provinces henceforth became conceived as permanent administrative districts rather than active military zones.

Chapter Eight examines the further undermining of republican principles in the period between 66 and 50 BCE. The increasing use of violence, the alliance of the “Gang of Three” (i.e. the “First Triumvirate”), and the repeated special commands granted to Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus all served to weaken the Republic. Osgood pointedly notes that Cicero provides the most comprehensive account for this period, but that Cicero also had a keen self-interest in directing the narrative.

Chapter Nine discusses the administration of the provinces during the early first century BCE. Cicero provides a lens through which historians can better understand the duties of the provincial governor, the enormous power that he held over provincial populations, and characteristics of good and bad governors. As more Romans took up residence and participated in commercial enterprises in the provinces, the burgeoning empire became more symbiotic. Roman institutions such as the publicani provided infrastructure in the provinces, enhancing the physical connectedness of the empire, while provincial populations vied with each other to express loyalty to Rome, creating a shared vision of empire encompassing Rome and the provinces.

Chapter Ten explores Rome’s transformation into a cultural and intellectual hub during the mid-first century BCE. Cultural developments in Rome are tied to the growth of Rome’s empire and its status as the capital of that empire. A growing interest in returning to the idealized past helped Romans define and redefine their place in the broader world. While this chapter and other thematically themed chapters are useful for placing political developments in context, the interruption of the historical narrative may be disorienting for the amateur reader.

Chapter Eleven examines the traumatic period between 49 and 30 BCE, when prolonged civil wars dealt a death blow to the traditional government. A standing army loyal to one man became a hallmark of the period, prefiguring a significant characteristic of the Principate, while the necessity of choosing to follow one leader or another rendered the republican system irrelevant. Overall, this chapter provides a lucid narrative of the civil wars, clearly explaining shifting alliances and motivations and including often-overlooked details such the political undertones of Octavian’s marriage to Scribonia. As elsewhere in the book, Osgood carefully reminds his reader of the one-sidedness of our sources for these conflicts (e.g., only Octavian’s account of the wars with Sextus and Antony survive).

The next two chapters examine Augustus’ careful transition to sole rule of the empire and the cultural and societal changes that take place during his rule. In a manner that will be appreciated by non-experts and experts alike, Osgood skillfully breaks down the varied mechanisms by which Octavian manipulated established political and cultural traditions to create an innovative space for himself in the government and psyche of the Roman people. With this new governing structure came more efficient administration of the provinces as well as a measured construction of a system of succession. The increased sense of peace and security during Augustus’ tenure became a driving force behind cultural and societal changes and helped to build a sense of collective identity.

Chapter Fourteen carries the narrative through to 20 CE, the year after Germanicus’ death. In Osgood’s view, this is a pivotal point in the fledgling Principate because it illustrates both how potentially fragile, and yet how enduring, stability under the house of Augustus can be. Tragedy and scandal rocked Augustus’ household towards the end of his life. Through this turmoil, however, the Principate remained firm and reinforced the perception that a stable imperial household was essential for a stable empire.

Although this book does not offer new arguments or interpretations of this transitional period in Rome’s history, Osgood does construct a comprehensive and insightful narrative in a writing style that is engaging and clear. In addition, he provides a level of detail and precision that can be appreciated by fellow Roman historians while also being accessible to a general audience. This book is a pleasure to read.


1.   See, for example, the excellent discussion of the problem of assigning a date to the “fall” of the Republic in R. Morstein-Marx and N. Rosenstein, “The Transformation of the Republic,” in N. Rosenstein and R. Morstein-Marx (eds) A Companion to the Roman Republic (Malden, MA, Wiley-Blackwell: 2010), 625-637.

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