BMCR 2001.03.29

A History of Rome

Marcel Le Glay, Jean-Louis Voisin, Yann Le Bohec, David Cherry, A history of Rome. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. xxiii, 563 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0631218580 $39.95.

This is an enlarged version of the original English edition (1996) with additions by David Cherry. The book aims to satisfy the need for a single volume survey of Roman history that enables undergraduate students to place textual studies in their historical context. By adopting a factual approach the authors examine the historical and cultural trends that underlie the history of the Republic (pp. 2-144), the age of Augustus (pp. 146-209) and the Roman empire to the establishment of the Ostrogothic kingdom in 493 (pp. 211-486). The result is an easily approachable volume that leaves the reader with an understanding of the broader processes of Roman history and fulfils the authors’ aim to engender interest in the wider Roman world.

The principal additions are an expanded treatment of the causes of the First Punic War, in particular examining the Mamertine appeal to Rome (pp. 72-73)—a topic conspicuous by its absence from the earlier edition. Similarly the causes of the Second Punic War—that merited only four lines in the original—are expanded to consider the Ebro treaty of 226 and Hannibal’s attack on Saguntum in the spring of 219 (pp. 74-76). Also added are discussions of Pompey’s annexation of Syria, the installation of Hyrcanus as high priest in Jerusalem, Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (pp. 94-95), and the Catilinarian conspiracy (p. 124). More substantial expansions are the excellent treatment of the first Triumvirate and the road to civil war in 49 BC (pp. 125-126), the second Triumvirate (the treaties of Brundisium and Misenum, the defeat of Sextus Pompeius and the deposition of Lepidus, pp. 135-136), and the lead up to Actium (p. 136). The use of the book as a text book for courses on Roman Culture will be helped by the addition of discussions of the role of women and the family (pp. 138-142) and the guide to Greek and Roman writers (pp. 513-523).

The archaeology of early Rome has revealed a melange of external influences: Greek, Phoenician and Etruscan, compounded by legends of Evander, Hercules, Aeneas and Romulus. Following a brief survey of pre-Roman and Etruscan Italy (pp. 5-18), the authors’ turn their attention to the literary and archaeological evidence for the origins of the city, examining the emergence of the social and political structure (pp. 24-31) and the religious pantheon (pp. 31-37). The discussion of this cultural interplay, for example the Phoenician influence on the Ara Maxima Herculis in the Forum Boarium (p. 15) and the Etruscan afterlife (p. 13) offer avenues for further study. In addition to the books cited in the bibliography, R. Ross Holloway’s The Archaeology of Early Rome and Latium (London, 1994) is recommended.

The creation of the constitution of the early Republic marks a period of internal conflict—the ‘Struggle of the Orders’ (pp. 43-58)—wars with Latium, Veii and Samnium that were interrupted by the Gallic sack of Rome in c. 390, and an increased hellenisation of Roman society through contact with the colonies of Magna Graecia (pp. 66-71).

The rationale behind Roman imperialism has proven to be a fertile topic for scholarly research. Were Roman motives essentially defensive, economic or expansionist? The book’s treatment of the Macedonian wars underlines the development of Rome’s imperial policies (pp. 84-91), culminating in the crucial period 149-133 that saw the appearance of a coherent attitude to imperialism with the annexation of Macedonia, the conquest of Achaea and the destruction of Corinth, the final defeat of Carthage and the bequeathing of the kingdom of Pergamum to Rome by Attalus III. In doing so we see a shift in policy from a system of ‘protectorates’ to direct annexation, bringing with it a vast influx of wealth and slaves (e.g. 50,000 from the fall of Carthage), that formed the basis of a trading economy. The social and political transformations brought about by conquest were no less important including the Gracchan crisis (pp. 96-103) and the rise of the municipal elites of Italy that found expression in the slave revolts and the Social war (pp. 103-107).

In contrast to the comparative brevity of the discussion of the Republic, much of the book is devoted to the empire during the age of Augustus and the Imperial period. Tibullus’ expression (p. 171): I do not want to die young and for nothing well reflects the decrepitude of Republican institutions; since the death of Cicero and the ‘Liberators’ only Octavian-Augustus offered an alternative based on an evolution of attitudes and philosophy that enabled an acceptance of monarchy (pp. 169-178). In the manner of the emperors themselves, the authors’ then seek to view the Julio-Claudian period (pp. 211-237) from the perspective of the influence of Augustus on his successors. The book provides a balanced portrayal of the reigns of the individual emperors together with thematic surveys of the state of Italy and the provinces during the Antonine (pp. 296-310) and Severan periods (pp. 375-390).

In line with current research, the authors’ see the ‘third century crisis’ focused on the period 235 to 260, examining the complex interrelationship of military, political, economic, social and moral crises together with the process of adaptation and reaction that takes place in the reign of Gallienus and his successors (pp. 391-404). The fourth century is discussed largely thematically; treatment of the military aspects (pp. 420-428), paganism (pp.455-465) and Christianity (pp. 465-474) deserving particular mention.

The collapse of the Western Empire—the East, of course, weathering the crisis to endure as the Byzantine Empire until 1453—is a story quickly told (pp. 475-486). Focusing on the personalities of Valentinian I, Theodosius and Stilicho, the collapse, if we can call it such, has been attributed to a variety of causes: the separation of east and west, the strength of the Barbarians and their ‘barbarization’ of the Roman army, the weakness of successive emperors, a growing economic crisis and the isolation of town and country.

Omissions are, of course, unavoidable in a book on this scale; however, several—particularly in the shorter discussion of the Republican period—are worth considering. The foundation of colonies at Ostia, Antium (338) and Tarracina (329), as well as earlier Latin colonies at Nepete (383) and Sutrium in the context of Etruria and the conquest of Veii, merit discussion both as garrisons and as vehicles of ‘Romanisation’, enabling the reader to better understand the mechanics of Rome’s conquest of Italy: for example, the status of Capua in 334 (p. 50), and the reduction of Cisalpine Gaul and the spread of colonies, for example, at Placentia and Cremona.

Although the invasions of the Cimbri and Teutones are well discussed (p. 113) the important war against Jugurtha is passed over in silence, a war that not only provided the immediate cause of Marius’ reforms in 107 BC (p. 114), but exposed the weaknesses of the Optimate government and provided Marius with the stepping stone upon which to reach a position of political pre-eminence.

There are some factual errors: contrary to page 402, Quintillus was not elevated in opposition to Claudius II Gothicus, but was proclaimed emperor by the troops in Italy in the aftermath of the death of his brother at Sirmium before being assassinated in c. September 270 following the elevation of Aurelian. Similarly (p. 403) M. Annius Florianus did not rebel against Tacitus, his half-brother, but was elevated on Tacitus’ death before being assassinated by his troops following defeat at Tarsus at the hands of M. Aurelius Probus in the autumn of 276.

My remaining comments are of a more pedantic nature: several typographic errors were noted (p. 171 anciet; p. 370 adances; p. 400 the death of Odenaethus occurred in 267 AD, not 167), and the lack of identifying captions of several maps (fig. 8.1, Augustan Rome; fig. 11.1, Imperial Rome; fig. 13.1, the Imperial forum; fig. 17.3, fourth century Rome; fig. 18.1, the palace of Diocletian at Salonae) is an unnecessary irritant.

Nonetheless this book fulfils a valuable function in providing, in a single volume, a history of the Roman world from its inception to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus. In view of its narrative and chronological format students pursuing a more cultural approach may be better served elsewhere, for example Peter Jones and Keith Sidwell’s The World of Rome (Cambridge, 1997); however, in offering a readable narrative elucidating the broader trends of Roman history Le Glay, Voisin and Le Bohec’s book is without parallel. By concentrating upon the periods of Rome’s greatest literary output and offering an extensive bibliography for further research (pp. 525-539) the book will be a valuable resource for students of Roman history and in doing so offers plentiful ground for further reflection on the enthralling history of a small town which became the capital of the greatest and most enduring empire history has known (p.xviii).