BMCR 2003.10.08

Rome and Her Empire

, Rome and her Empire. Recovering the past. London: Routledge, 2014. 1 online resource (464 pages).. ISBN 9781317881421. £19.99.

David Shotter’s Rome and Her Empire surveys Roman political history from the hazy outlines of the regal period to the disintegration of the Western Empire. S. offers this survey to the “new public” that has acquired an interest in Rome, not by way of a classical education but by touring the ancient sites, reading historical fiction, and watching Hollywood’s reconstructions. It is meant to be “an introductory taste of the history of Rome and her empire for readers who are approaching the subject along a variety of routes and from a variety of standpoints” (p. viii). For the most part, S. delivers on this proposition. Though his survey poses some obstacles for the inexperienced student of Rome and is better suited for a reader already possessing a basic familiarity with Roman history, Rome and Her Empire is generally a sound and readable survey for the beginning student of Roman history.

The book focuses on political narrative and, accordingly, is organized chronologically into eleven chapters. Chapter one deals with the monarchy, chapters two and three cover the political institutions of the Republic and the phenomenon of Roman imperialism, while chapter four handles the disintegration of the Republic. Chapters five through seven survey the Julio-Claudian emperors and the civil wars that brought Vespasian and the Flavian dynasty to power. A lengthy eighth chapter deals with the emperors from Nerva to Commodus, while the remaining three chapters chronicle the Severan dynasty, the crises of the third century, the recovery under Diocletian and Constantine, and the end of the Empire in the West. The narrative and topics flow as one would expect of a Roman political history and there are few gaps. One significant omission from the narrative, however, is the fifth century Empire. The period from Valens’ defeat at Adrianople (378 CE) to the dissolution of the Western Empire is treated in a meager two paragraphs, and the reader is left to conclude that the Empire ended with the sack of Rome in 410 (pp. 433-4). The clear and misleading implication is that nothing worthy of discussion occurred in Roman political history after the Battle of Adrianople. S. includes a fair amount of material evidence in his survey. Archaeology, art, and architecture are worked into the narrative, and there are a number of black and white images accompanying the text. Of the various kinds of material evidence, Rome and Her Empire is strongest in its inclusion of numismatic evidence. S. not only uses coins to help illustrate economic downturns in the later empire, he also refers the reader to the coin issues of most emperors as illustrations of their policies and propaganda. One of many examples of this latter practice occurs during his account of the civil wars of 68-9 C.E. (pp. 273-8). We are reminded that coins served as potent vehicles of propaganda for the largely illiterate population of the empire and are exposed to relevant coins that help illustrate the public positions of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. It is a salutary practice in an introductory book to demonstrate to the reader the variety of evidence that can and should be drawn upon when reconstructing Roman history. In addition to images of art, architecture, and coins, Rome and Her Empire includes a number of supplemental materials that will enrich the reader’s perusal of the text. Charts help illustrate conceptual arrangements including the powers of Roman voting assemblies in the Republic, the family ties of Tiberius Gracchus and Augustus, and the deployment of legions under the Julio-Claudian emperors. On a few occasions, S. has included translations of pertinent sources: Suetonius’ description of Nero’s palace, Tacitus’ account of the speech Galba gave to his adopted son Piso, and Marcus Aurelius’ characterization of Antoninus Pius. Chapter bibliographies contain a substantial number of accessible major works in English as well as suggestions for appropriate ancient sources in translation. Finally, the index is thorough and divided into three parts: subjects and locations in Rome, places and locations in the Empire, and Names. Collectively, these supplements to the text offer the reader helpful aids to decipher Roman political history and pursue further inquiries.

S. generally discusses the main issues of Roman political history in a balanced fashion. He alerts the reader to differences in historical opinion by using the approach of “some say this, while others say that”. Shotter’s characterization of politics in the late Republic, however, seems both out of line with this balanced approach and out of date. Although S. offers no explicit model of Roman politics, a variety of references suggests that he understands Roman politics in the late Republic essentially to have been a series of clashes between powerful and durable factions based on ties of family and friendship. S. implies, therefore, that the political behavior of individuals is largely to be understood as motivated by their factional allegiances. This “factional” model has been strongly and effectively challenged over the past several decades for its lack of correspondence with the evidence, which suggests that politicians were flexible, often highly individualistic, and did not generally form alliances as cohesive or as long lasting as the model supposed. By adopting this model, intentionally or not, S. tends to simplify the complexity of motives for individual political action in the late Republic and, in the process of doing so, promotes without comment a view that runs counter to a great deal of weighty scholarship.

There are some errors in the text concerning the monarchy and Republic. Where the text reads that the rape of the Sabine Women led to the fall of Tarquinius Superbus, it should be amended to the rape of Lucretia (p. 19). S. suggests that during the Second Punic War it became possible for consular and praetorian commands to be extended by prorogation (p. 47); in reality the first instance of prorogation happened late in the fourth century BCE.1 S. notes the two defeated Roman legions at the Caudine Forks (321 BCE) were “forced to pass into slavery under the Samnite yoke” (p. 58), but certainly Livy makes no mention of the enslavement of these soldiers.2 Capua is included as one of the Latin colonies that revolted from Rome during the Second Punic war (p. 80). It was not a Roman colony at all but a city nearly as old, if not older than, Rome.3

These errors are few and not as important as the issue of the book’s audience, a central issue when evaluating any book intended as an introduction. Based on the preface I understand the target reader of Rome and Her Empire to include not only one who took a couple of undergraduate courses in Roman history and perhaps some Latin in high school, but also one who may have taken no classes on Roman history, has not read any historical works on Rome, and has acquired her or his knowledge of and interest in Rome from Gladiator, Spartacus, and Cleopatra. S. keeps pace with the former reader, but his writing sometimes outstrips the latter. S. at times uses terms or references to people or events without explaining or defining them: patrician and plebeian (p. 26), Struggle of the Orders (p. 44), Prefect of Praetorian Guard (p. 168), Varus’ disaster in AD 9 (p. 217). S. also, at times, refers to events or documents as evidence without providing the supporting details necessary for the reader to understand why the events or documents are, in fact, useful as evidence. The following are the most notable examples. S. asserts the apprehension some Romans felt about the affects of foreign traditions on Rome “is clearly demonstrated in the surviving senatus consultum of 186 BC concerning the worship of the Greek God, Dionysius” (p. 75), but he does quote the decree, paraphrase the contents of the decree, or explain how the decree demonstrated apprehension. On the next page S. notes a senatorial ambivalence about the initial Roman involvement in Sicily and suggests that, for the Roman aristocracy, “the real problem lay with the illogicality of the actual casus belli — that is, helping a group of Italian mercenaries who, to the Roman mind, did not have right on their side” (p. 76). This is a general reference to the Mamertines who occupied Messana, but S. does not explain this reference or give sufficient sufficient details for the inexperienced reader to understand why the casus belli might have been considered illogical. As a final example, S. says “such was the suspiciousness of Domitian’s temperament in these later years that not even informers could feel safe, as the cases of Arrecinus Clemens and Baebius Massa show” (p. 303). S. does not narrate the cases of Clemens and Massa, and this is the only reference to these two men in the book. Other instances are less conspicuous but still indicate a presumption of basic knowledge of Roman history on the part of the reader. There is no reason to suppose, however, that the introductory reader would have any knowledge of the specific events referred to in these instances. On a similar note, the novice student of Roman history may be daunted by those instances, although infrequent, where S. does not define the Latin terms he uses: censor perpetuus (p. 291), capax imperii , nisi imperasset (p. 298), REX PARTHIS DATUS (p. 320), Hadrian as Graeculus (p. 331). For the reader with some knowledge of Latin these might pass unnoticed; they may, however, frustrate the reader with no knowledge of Latin.

The importance of these issues depends largely on what one understands to be the appropriate audience for an introductory book. A reader who has had some exposure (and remembers that exposure) at the university level to Roman history will have little difficulty with and substantial benefit from this book. It will reinforce her or his knowledge and understanding of Roman political development, offer a range of visual evidence, a number of charts and maps, and provide apt suggestions for further reading. What about the true novice, one who knows very little about Roman history? Such a reader might well be daunted by some references in the book. If that reader persevered through these issues, however, he or she would find the book generally accessible. This book, therefore, could prove useful as a text in an introductory course where the teacher would provide some additional background material to students.

In short, S. offers a largely balanced treatment of Roman history that incorporates a variety of source materials and makes a reasonable effort to draw the reader’s attention to uncertainties and differences of opinion among historians. Rome and Her Empire is a useful survey of Roman history for the reader who has some basic knowledge of Roman history and wishes to increase his or her understanding not only of the main political narrative of Roman history but of some of the challenges that historians of this period face.


1. Q. Publilius Philo’s extended command in 326 is the first example of a prorogation of imperium. Liv. 8.23.

2. Liv. 9.6.1-13.

3. See M.W. Frederiksen, “Campanian Cavalry: a Question of Origins,” Dialoghi di Archeologia 2 (1968), 3-31, esp. 20.