Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.09

B. D. Hoyos, Rome Victorious: The Irresistible Rise of the Roman Empire.   London; New York:  I.B. Tauris, 2019.  Pp. xiv, 256; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9781780762746.  £25.00.  

Reviewed by Georgina Longley (


In his opening paragraph, Hoyos speaks of ‘the power of Rome’s memory’ (p. 1), later noting how it ‘remains an eventful and instructive theme of study’ (p. 5). Not only does it remain a topic full of questions, it also remains one that fascinates. Investigation into the nature of the Roman empire has been a prominent trend in recent scholarship, for example Woolf’s Rome: An Empire’s Story and The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture.1 Rome Victorious: The Irresistible Rise of the Roman Empire makes a detailed, insightful, and informative contribution to the field. Like Woolf, Hoyos does not focus on a single period, but is narrower in scope, ending in AD 212. The choice is an interesting one. Not only had the empire reached its greatest extent by this point, but the year also saw the enfranchisement of the majority of the empire’s freeborn population by Caracalla. Hoyos even questions whether the term ‘empire’ can really be used from this point, as Rome effectively ceased to rule subject peoples (p. 199).

Hoyos does justice to the complexity of the topic. Chapters 1-6 combine chronological narrative with analysis and chapters 7-10 draw together wider themes. Chapter 1, ‘Rome Before Empire: Hegemony Over Italy’ explores Rome’s rise to power over Italy down to 264 BC. Chapters 2-4 deal with the empire under the Republic. Chapter 2, ‘Mediterranean Hegemony and the First Provinces’ explores the expansion of Rome across the Mediterranean, and beyond, down to Caesar’s death. Chapter 3, ‘The Provinces of the Republic’ discusses the development of the provincial system and its implications for both Rome and her subjects. Chapter 4 ‘The Political Impoverishment of the Imperial Republic’ looks at the more negative consequences of empire for Rome, including how issues of empire sharpened the internal conflicts of the late Republic. Chapter 5 is devoted to Augustus, looking at the challenges he faced internally and externally, and his own policy regarding the empire. Chapter 6, ‘Imperial Takings and Leavings, AD 14-212’ examines how the empire fared under the different emperors after Augustus down to Caracalla. Chapter 7, ‘The New Romans’ focuses on how citizenship was used to secure and spread Roman influence throughout the empire. Chapter 8, ‘Governing and Misgoverning’ describes the nature of Roman government of the empire, painting an ambivalent image of life under Rome. Chapter 9, ‘Judging the Empire: Romans and Others’ looks at perceptions of the Romans and their empire from both sides. Chapter 10, ‘Resistance’ more closely explores the different types of resistance Rome encountered. Chapter 11, ‘How Roman was the Roman Empire?’ describes how Roman culture spread and how diverse the empire remained. The Conclusion draws together Hoyos’ observations and makes a brief comparison between Rome and later empires. The book also contains maps of Rome under the Republic and under the Caesars (pp. x-xiv) and a useful Appendix on the literary and material sources of the period. Hoyos' use of evidence is very good throughout, citing ancient sources appropriately, particularly when discussing peoples’ perceptions of the empire or portrayals of Roman rule or the Romans.

Five key themes are central to Hoyos’ investigation: (1) the motives that lay behind the empire’s formation, (2) the inextricable tie between the difficulties that arose from governing the empire and internal politics, (3) the perceptions held by Romans and provincials of the empire, (4) modes of expansion, (5) the challenges Roman rule faced and the consequences of governing so vast an empire for both Romans and provincial subjects.

(1) ‘Roman motives for expansion, like the circumstances and the personalities, surely varied over the centuries’ (p. 3). Hoyos sees individual striving for gloria and the lust for booty on the part of the elite and ordinary Romans as a key driving force in the early days of expansion, a picture similar to W. V. Harris’. 2 The Romans may not have set out to gain their huge empire, but they in no way acquired it passively (p. 193). In chapter 1, Hoyos draws a connection between Rome’s military drive and the competitive elite that emerged with Rome’s new Republican system of government. Military gloria was the key to achieving popularity. Nor did gloria disappear as a motive among the emperors, as he shows in chapters 5 and 6. For Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, and Septimius Severus, gloria served to legitimize their power. However, Hoyos gives a nuanced analysis of Roman motives. Strategic and defensive concerns could govern their actions. He argues that the aim of the First Punic War was to keep a check on Carthaginian power (p. 40). Hoyos argues that a more aggressive expansionist drive appeared with Pompey’s campaigns in the 60s, continuing into the 50s. The first century AD saw a greater shift towards consolidation and development, although expansion continued (p. 111; p. 199). Chapter 5 gives a complex view of Augustus’ motives which included gloria and expansion, as well as securing Roman imperial power.

(2) Hoyos importantly emphasises the link between Rome’s internal politics and problems related to governing and maintaining the empire, particularly under the Republic. Towards the end of chapter 2, Hoyos describes how Rome’s Eastern wars had brought great riches to victorious generals, which they used to strengthen their power back in Rome (p.38). The link between empire and politics went deeper. He argues that issue over the empire’s revenues and their deployment fuelled and sharpened the conflict between the optimates and populares that escalated from 133 BC onwards, when Tiberius Gracchus directly challenged the senate by using the Attalid bequest to fund his land grants, raising the question of who should benefit from the rewards of empire. Nevertheless, it was members of the elite who amassed vast fortunes (pp. 66-67), while ordinary soldiers could find themselves dispossessed or crushed by debt (p. 77). Hoyos rejects the traditional view that the conflicts of the late Republic revealed the inadequacy of Rome’s city-state government, arguing rather that excessively wealthy individuals ‘lacked willingness to abide by the norms under which they had grown up’ (p. 81). Struggles between these wealthy individuals eventually culminated in Augustus. Hoyos shows how as Roman politics and government came to focus on the power and person of Augustus, so did the empire. Senatorial control over senatorial provinces ‘went as far as the emperor wished’ (p. 89).

(3) Throughout Hoyos keeps a consistent focus on the perceptions of the Romans and their empire from both sides. An ambivalent picture emerges; Rome appears as both exploitative, yet at times benevolent. The Romans perceived their empire as justified and Hoyos concedes that some conflicts could be perceived as such, for example, the Aetolians in 192 BC. However, he in no way depicts the Romans as defensive or reluctant in their imperialism. He rightly observes a sense of entitlement which became part of Roman self-identity early on, accompanied with a belief in divine favour, using literary and epigraphic sources in support (pp. 160-163).3 Roman extortion of the provinces reflected Roman belief that the revenues of empire were for their benefit (p. 69). Attempts to establish a system of redress under the Republic largely failed. Hoyos points out how this led to feelings of resentment among Rome’s allies, resulting in serious conflicts, such as the wars with Mithridates that followed the Asiatic vespers (p. 36). Corruption did not completely disappear under the emperors, as Nero’s extortions for his building project show (p. 147). Nevertheless, the image is not completely gloomy. In chapter 8, Hoyos shows how some areas saw an improvement in urban infrastructure (pp. 149-153) and that scrupulous governors did exist, citing examples of more conscientious individuals (pp. 155-157).

(4) Hoyos’ definition of expansion is significantly not confined simply to increasing territorial gains, but also includes the spread of Greco-Roman culture and conferral of statuses, such as citizenship. Expansion could be achieved in several ways. ‘It was through influence, though, not control’ writes Hoyos about the nature of Rome’s early power. Rome would further use that influence to enrich those that favoured her hegemony, for example, Pergamum (p. 26). The Romans were initially reluctant to take on direct control through annexation, but Hoyos notes an increasing harshness in Rome’s approach during the 160s-140s BC, starting with the Third Macedonian War (pp. 27-32).4 However, he also shows that expansion did not occur only through military action or diplomatic interventions. As the empire grew territorially, Roman control was spread and strengthened in other ways. Migration and colonies were one, planting Roman influence directly in the provinces (pp. 56-60). He sees citizenship as an important way the empire ‘expanded’, and grants increased during the late Republic and under the emperors. An important consequence was the widening participation and integration of provincials in Roman society; they became consuls, emperor’s staff, and even emperors. Provincial citizens even came to outnumber Italians in the army (p. 138). In chapter 11, Hoyos shows that, although locals were actively encouraged to adopt Roman ways as Tacitus’ Agricola shows; Roman culture could, nevertheless, be adopted willingly at the local level. He also points to the religious and linguistic diversity of the empire. Religions were generally left alone unless perceived as a threat, for example, Christianity (pp. 188-190). Hoyos also shows the imperial cult to have been important in affirming Roman power: ‘Across the vast empire … the worship of the ruler … constituted one of the key bonds of overt loyalty’ (p. 192).

(5) The final theme ‘Resistance’ is explored throughout the narrative of chapters 1-6 and forms the focus of chapter 10. Chapter 10 recounts the different forms of resistance Rome encountered. ‘With its mix of virtues and vices, Roman imperial rule was never free from challenge or defiance’ (p. 170). New conquest often met with resistance, for example, in Spain, Gaul, Pannonia and Dalmatia, and it would resurface. Resistance could be a reaction to Rome’s own conduct, for example, extortion, excessive demands, or border encroachments (pp. 171-172). The chapter goes on to focus on particularly serious revolts: the revolt under Boudicca AD 61, the revolts in the Rhineland and Gaul in AD 69, and the Jewish revolt in AD 66. All these saw a period of relative quiet following successful suppression by Rome. Despite their success, funding the army was a strain for the later emperors and Hoyos implies this was why legion numbers rose only slightly after Augustus, although these numbers made fighting on different fronts simultaneously a risky venture (p. 115).5

The reviewer has only two criticisms which by no means hamper the overall success of the book. Chapter 6 feels rather compressed, covering all the remaining emperors after Augustus down to Caracalla. Individual emperors cannot be discussed in the same detail as Augustus’ in chapter 5. Nevertheless, the point and focus of the chapter is clear, namely the victories and struggles of the empire, the differing motivations and abilities of different emperors, and their impact on the empire. This may in fact be Hoyos’ point in dealing with them all in one chapter, to make the contrast between the different personalities and approaches clear. Secondly, although Hoyos describes the varying opinions of modern scholars on key issues, these scholars could more usefully have been named in the main body of the text, footnotes, or in bibliographic sections at the end of chapters. However, Hoyos, as the above shows, has achieved a rich account of the rise of the Roman empire, both chronologically and thematically. The book offers an excellent introduction to and overview of the subject. His lucid style also makes this a highly enjoyable read.


1.   Woolf, G., Rome: An Empire’s Story (Oxford, 2013); Garnsey, P., Saller, R., et al., The Roman Empire: Economy, Society, and Culture (Oakland, California, 2014 edition).
2.   See Harris, W. V., War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 BC (Oxford, 1985).
3.   On this issue, see Brunt, ‘Laus Imperii’ repr. in P. A. Brunt Roman Imperial Themes (Oxford, 1990): 288-323.
4.   Traditionally dubbed Rome’s nova sapientia. See for example, Briscoe, ‘Q. Marcus Philippus and Nova Sapientia’, JRS vol.54 (1964): 66-77.
5.   For more detail, see Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century CE to the Third (Johns Hopkins, 2016 edition): 94-98.

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