BMCR 2006.04.29

The Romans from Village to Empire

, , , The Romans, from village to empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xxvii, 516 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0195118758 $39.00.

Thanks to several recent publications, those who teach undergraduate Roman history surveys now have the advantage of selecting a textbook that will be best suited to their individual courses.1 The appearance of The Romans From Village to Empire (hereafter RVE) is a welcome addition to those already available. RVE is aimed at the college educated general reader and, presumably, undergraduates. It has considerable strengths, particularly in the abundant illustrations that accompany the text, including access to online versions of almost all of the maps via an agreement with the Ancient World Mapping Center.2 Moreover, now that the cost of textbooks seems always to be rising, the book’s $39.00 price tag should make it attractive to students.

This admirable and implicit goal of affordability has perhaps been the reason for some editorial decisions in scope and content, most notably the decision to conclude with the reign of Constantine rather than continue to the Empire’s demise in the West in the 5th century or to any number of still later turning points. The authors address this difficult choice in the Preface, arguing that political and administrative developments in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. would have required an extensive treatment that could not be accommodated without detracting from the quality of earlier chapters. The argument is a good one, and it might be added that writing a Roman history textbook that will appeal to everyone is surely an impossible task. Each instructor will doubtless have his or her own idea of the ‘perfect’ textbook. While RVE will be less suitable for those who wish to extend coverage of the Empire into Late Antiquity, it strikes a good balance between a basic introductory textbook and a more in-depth account of Roman history and should serve well for most Roman history courses.

The book is divided into 13 chapters, with greater attention given to Early Italy and the Republic (chs. 1-8) than the Principate. The reason for this emphasis on the Republican period is that the authors of RVE have designed the book as a history of the development of the Roman state; since most of Rome’s institutions and customs were products of the Republic, it is sensible that this book should take the time to stress the foundations of these institutions. Broadly speaking, the chapters are broken into manageable units of approximately 30 pages, although some of the more lavishly illustrated chapters are understandably longer. RVE proceeds chronologically, periodically inserting thematic sections either where our source material is weak in terms of historically verifiable details (such as for the Early Republic, ch. 2) or when developments in political and military history afford an opportunity to discuss the changing social and cultural climate (as in the sections on urban life in the 1st c. A.D., ch. 11). Each chapter has a section for suggested readings, which is a useful place for students to begin research in any particular area. The book’s end matter includes a Timeline, Glossary, a section on the Principal Ancient Authors, a detailed Index and a Gazetteer.

RVE’s chronological arrangement makes it readily apparent how the book proceeds. Rather than examining each chapter individually, this review offers a sampling of strengths and weaknesses of the work, divided roughly into two parts, the chapters on the Republic followed by those that deal with the Empire.

First, some general remarks. Despite being a multi-authored work, RVE maintains a consistent narrative voice throughout. The text is written in clear prose that offers a richly detailed (in some places too detailed) and comprehensive account of Roman history. The maps are excellent and frequent, as are, in general, the illustrations. There are substantive captions to accompany each illustration but relatively little connection to the text itself. The Timeline at the end of the book is divided into geographical columns that helpfully assist the reader in drawing connections to events that happen at the same time but in different regions. In terms of content, RVE offers a traditional and largely objective narrative of Roman history. This aspect has both positive and negative effects: while the narrative is free from polemical or, on the whole, controversial interpretations, it does not give readers a feel for the vigor of debate in some areas. For example, issues such as the question of Roman ‘imperialism’ in the third century B.C. receive carefully neutral treatment: in the section on the First Punic War (pp. 105-11) there is no mention of the Roman insistence that it was a defensive war, only that “the senate was divided on the issue” (105). To some extent this neutrality is remedied in the lists of suggested materials for further reading, but readers would benefit from a sentence or two in these sections that could give a sense of the major questions relevant to the chapter.

In chapters 1-8 the major focus is on the development of the institutions and politics of the Roman state. As such the treatment of the Regal period is sparse, especially on the topic of the literary or mythological accounts of the kings. Archaeological evidence and historiography are treated in chapters 1 and 2 respectively, and both discussions present a valuable account of the advantages and limitations of each class of evidence. RVE identifies the many cultural influences of the Etruscans on the development of early Rome and nicely conveys the point that, in the beginning, Rome was simply one of the numerous Latin towns. The structure of chapters 3-5 often allows for coverage of domestic affairs in the first half of each chapter, followed by an account of foreign wars in the latter part. Readers will emerge with a solid understanding of politics at Rome, since topics such as the cursus honorum, the assemblies, the concept of nobilitas and the growth of municipal elites all receive extensive treatment. Rome’s foreign wars are matter-of-factly treated, at times in meticulous detail. For example, under the rubric “Wars in Central and Northern Italy” readers are presented with the following list: “By 280, the Romans had made alliances with the Etruscan cities of Vulci, Volsinii, Rusellae, Vetulonia, Populonia, Volaterrae, and Tarquinii.” (p. 87) The point of the list is to note the different treatment that Caere received, but surely it would have sufficed to make a more generalized statement regarding the majority of Etruscan towns vel sim. None of these towns receives significant attention in the rest of the work. RVE’s treatment of the Late Republic (chs. 6-8) adequately covers the major events and topics of the 1st century B.C.: the Jugurthine War; the rise of Gaius Marius; Saturninus; Drusus’ tribunate; the Social War; Sulla; Spartacus; the rise of Pompey and Crassus; the Mithridatic Wars; the Catilinarian conspiracy; Caesar’s consulship and the so-called First Triumvirate; Cicero; Clodius; Caesar’s march into Italy; the Civil War and its aftermath. Still, it’s a bit of a whirlwind and some topics, such as the Catilinarian conspiracy, receive less attention — approximately two pages — than one might normally expect. The lead up to the civil war of 49-46 B.C. is framed primarily as a contest between Caesar and Pompey rather than between Caesar and the Optimate faction of the Senate.

Certain aspects of RVE’s coverage of the Republic are puzzling or problematic. Although the book is very well edited throughout, there is an unfortunate error in the name of the last king (Tarquinius Priscus for Tarquinius Superbus) on page 48. More generally, some sections seem disproportionately long at the expense of others. In chapter 3 for example one finds two full pages on the rule of Alexander the Great, apparently as a precursor to the history of Pyrrhus. There is again an overabundance of detail in the account of Roman activity in Spain; the full names of no less than nine consuls from the second century are given, along with numerous tribes and geographical names in the space of about three pages (123-27). Conversely, Hannibal’s epilogue after Zama is omitted. The arrangement of two topics in particular is especially puzzling. First, Sulla’s campaign against Mithridates VI of Pontus is partially discussed in its chronological place (p. 188) but the background to the war and its ultimate outcome are delayed until the next chapter, where it receives full (and somewhat repetitive) attention (pp. 213-19). It is perhaps understandable that the outcome of the wars against Mithridates should appear with the account of Pompey’s career in the East, but the background really belongs earlier. Second, a section on ‘Roman Women’ (pp. 209-11) appears between the narrative of Pompey and Crassus’ first consulship in 70 B.C. and Pompey’s command against the pirates. Why this section should be placed here is not immediately clear. It would be much more suitable in a later chapter, especially since one third of the discussion refers to Augustus’ marriage legislation. Given the extensive quotation of the Laudatio Turiae in Box 9.1 (p. 274), a possible solution might be to group these two sections together into a separate chapter on Roman Women.

Despite these quibbles, RVE’s presentation of Republican history is thorough and impressive. The history of the Roman Empire is also handled deftly. Chapter 9 is devoted exclusively to the impact of Augustus on the institutions of the Roman state. Particularly compelling is the discussion of the Augustan Settlement (pp. 291-93). Also worthy of mention are the illustrations here, especially the high quality images of coins and various types of portraiture. Chapters 10-11 examine the Julio-Claudians, Flavians and the early reigns of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ but also include substantive sections on administrative themes (e.g., “Economic and Social Change”; “Army”; “Economy”; “Intellectual Life”; “Cities and Provinces”; “Diversity: Women, Local Languages, and Culture”) and cultural activities (e.g., “Theaters and Processions”; “Circuses and Chariot Racing”; “The Amphitheater, and Gladiatorial Games”; “State Religion and Imperial Cult”). It is here that the authors’ intention of synthesizing social and cultural history with political history (p. xxii) is most apparent, and most successful. RVE both emphasizes the development of a unified and influential Roman culture in this period and reminds the reader that the common citizen’s contact with the upper echelons of imperial society was extremely rare. The Severans, the Third Century Crisis, the Tetrarchy and the rise of Constantine comprise the final two chapters (12-13). Like the chapter on Augustus, Chapter 12 is particularly strong, offering a lively and unencumbered account of the Antonine and Severan dynasties. The narrative emphasizes the increasing ‘globalization’ of the Empire under emperors such as Caracalla and Elagabalus. Long sections on Roman Law (pp. 416-20) and Roman Citizenship (pp. 421-425) also serve to stress the spread of Roman culture throughout the Mediterranean. The real gem of this chapter is the treatment of the development of Christianity in the first two centuries of the Empire. Readers are cautioned to beware of anachronistic assumptions about Romano-Christian relations in this period and the continued connection between religion and politics is stressed. RVE’s coverage of the complicated Third Century Crisis is clear and sensible.

RVE’s treatment of the Empire is comprehensive and on the whole satisfactory. A few items, however, call for comment. Space in such an ambitious textbook is always at a premium, but it would be desirable to have representative selections from the Res Gestae in a text box to accompany the discussion. In the chapter on the Julio-Claudians, Germanicus’ wife Agrippina makes no appearance; Sejanus’ wily ways receive only brief mention; and the circumstances that drove Tiberius to withdraw from Rome are narrated only after the fact of his move to Capri (pp. 321-22). The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the importance of Pompeii and Herculaneum to our understanding of Roman urban culture is mostly relegated to the captions that accompany some of the illustrations (e.g. Figures 7.1 and 10.5). A table showing the successive Augusti and Caesares under the Tetrarchy would help to clarify the often confusing string of similar-sounding names in this period.

The book is well produced and almost error-free. In addition to the error mentioned above, I noticed only one typographical error (p. 13 women for “woman”). The italics policy is puzzling, however, and there is no readily discernable indication of how it is supposed to work. It seems that a foreign word is italicized the first time appears in a chapter, but not thereafter. But even if this is so, the policy is applied inconsistently. Thus, for example, one finds equites on page 318 and 325, but “equites” and “eques” on pp. 332-33. The italicized terms appear to be those that are listed in the Glossary; a word or two that explains the policy would be helpful.

Such suggestions may increase the production costs of the book and thus detract from its value as an inexpensive but thorough treatment of Roman history; it is hoped, however, that in this way an already impressive undertaking might be made an outstanding one. RVE is a solid textbook that will satisfy most instructors and provide an excellent introduction to Roman history for the general reader.


1. Some that immediately come to mind are (1) Ward, Allen M., Fritz M. Heichelheim and Cedric A. Yeo, A History of the Roman People 4th ed., (Prentice-Hall, 2003); (2) Le Glay, Marcel, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec, A History of Rome, 3rd ed., (Blackwell, 2005) (BMCR 2005.06.04); (3) Christopher S. Mackay, Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History (Cambridge, 2005) (BMCR 2005.09.45).

2. It should be noted that the URL for the maps has changed from the one given in the “Notes to the Reader” section. The old site retains a pointer to the new one, however. In addition, it is not quite true that “free digital copies of each map” are available at the website. The two topographical maps (8.4 and 9.3) of Rome do not come up in the search results.