Editor’s note: William Harris’s Roman Power attracted a great deal of interest when it was published, and so BMCR decided to commission two reviews, in the hope that providing contrasting perspectives would enable richer conversation in the field at large. The other review is written by Charles Goldberg, BMCR 2017.03.41.
William Harris has written a bold and brisk overview of Roman history and imperialism, which spans from 400 BC to the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD (around AD 641). Painting with broad brushstrokes, Harris engages the reader in a lively dialogue about what was really at issue in power politics across a thousand year span. What was Roman power? How did it grow? How did it fail? How did internal political power relations shape and react to overseas expansion over time? Aimed at a general audience of students and anybody interested in ancient history, this book offers a synthesis of issues and scholarly approaches, while highlighting Harris’ own considerable contributions to the field. No modern work (in English) has attempted such a wide range or sharp analysis within so broad a framework. This book will be profitable for many kinds of readers and deserves to be read through for its general comparisons, rather than simply being mined for Harris’ treatment of individual issues.
Roman Power is divided into 8 chapters, of which six form the body of the text, framed by a shorter introduction and conclusion. Harris has deftly identified three broad time periods to articulate his discussion, namely: 400 BC to AD 16 (early in the reign of Tiberius, at the end of Germanicus’ war in Germany); AD 16 to 337 (the death of Constantine); and 337 to 641 (in the aftermath of the Battle of Yarmuk in 636). Each time-period is discussed in two chapters, the first one dealing with external struggles and ambitions, then the other examining society internally but with an eye on imperial themes. Harris builds especially well on the world-history project of Polybius. This organizational format works effectively and allows Harris to make comparisons across wide stretches of time and space, which are further sharpened and nuanced in his final retrospective reflections. The text includes a number of fine illustrations, although some are small and a bit hard to read if one is not already familiar with the image. Seven maps help to situate events and shifts in the geopolitical balance of influence. The summaries at the end of sections and chapters work well to keep the range of issues in view.
The choice of AD 16 is more unconventional than the other two chronological markers, which are familiar watershed points, and does have the effect of putting significant emphasis on the emperor Tiberius as the key figure in the developing narrative of Rome’s imperial project. In order to achieve this effect, Harris discounts the notion (p. 130), already voiced by ancient sources, that Augustus envisioned a finite empire in his last years and had even left instructions that Rome’s overseas holdings should not be expanded beyond the borders as they existed at the time of his death in AD 14. However one views this particular historical question, Harris shows that he has thought carefully about periodization as a tool of analysis in itself, rather than just a set of random hooks on which to hang his discussion.
Harris is very ambitious in painting a unified picture across time, a picture that, nevertheless, remains vivid and fresh in its detail. His discussion is based on a genuine and profound familiarity with the ancient sources, although the scale of this text does not allow for much detailed analysis of the ancient evidence and the challenges of interpreting what different sources really tell us. He is sharply critical of political scientists and other theorists whose research is divorced from our ancient evidence (p. 13). Harris employs a robust and expansive concept of empire. Using the term “power” instead of the more commonly cited “hegemony” or “empire” allows him to look at Roman politics and policies more broadly, while bypassing at least some of the debates about terminology that have tended to become increasingly circular and detached from the stark uncertainties of ancient Mediterranean warfare and economic exploitation. The paired analysis of internal and external opportunities and constraints also helps to refocus the discussion. Readers will mostly enjoy Harris’ characteristically combative stance towards a range of contemporary scholars, some of whom he has been disagreeing with for almost four decades. Meanwhile, the footnotes do tend to focus quite precisely on Harris’ own contributions, going back to 1971. His assertion that “the whole system of external power rested on terror” (p. 146) naturally tends to pass over diplomacy and alliance building by other means.
Roman Power is seeking to forge a new path between studying the realia of ancient societies (e.g. available resources and manpower, the limits of communication, economic effects of empire, the cost of continual warfare etc.) and analyzing the more abstract ideas, symbols, and attitudes that created or expressed a specifically Roman world view, not least to themselves. In this version, confidence and ambition are key factors at all levels of society. Harris works consistently to transcend a triumphalist narrative of continual Roman victory to capture at least some of the principal experiences of hardship and expressions of resilience that characterized Rome’s rapid expansion, both as a capital city and a vast, multicultural empire. At the same time, he does not take either the Romans or their friends and rivals for granted. He asks complex questions about parallel patterns of persistence and rupture across hundreds of years. Nor does he allow his focus on the big picture and the most telling questions about what shaped and constituted power to obscure the degree of violence and suffering on a more basic, human level. His repeated stress on the vital effect of local officials in individual interactions on the whole imperial system is illuminating.
Inevitably, some issues are treated in a summary fashion within such a broad discussion. A clear focus on the Romans themselves as actors and agents of change results in a less full consideration of external pressures, such as population migrations caused by severe weather (e.g. the Cimbri and Teutoni of the late second century BC) or other factors located distinctly outside the Roman sphere of influence (e.g. the migration of the Helvetii that was probably a reaction to threats from German tribes to the north). Similarly, continual, sometimes extreme native resistance to Rome is cheerfully summarized throughout rather than being studied in its own right. The role of foreign soldiers across the ages is another theme suggestive of other possible focalizations of what was Roman about some of these moments of conquest.
Harris’ narrative has little to say of the role of women, especially in republican political culture during the key time of expansion. Arguably, it was precisely the rapidly expanding imperial project after the Second Punic War that allowed Roman women, at least amongst the more affluent sectors of society, to wield much greater legal, economic, and social influence than women in many other societies, notably those with which the Romans were in the habit of comparing themselves. The stunning scale of chattel slavery, one of the most important byproducts of Roman wars, is noted rather than being explored in detail (p. 151 “slavery is the water in which everything else floats”). But such narrative and editorial choices are inevitable in a book of this scale on a truly vast topic; nothing discussed here seems inconsequential.
The issue of religion is perhaps the exception that deserves to be mentioned. Harris takes seriously the effects, both psychological and practical, of new religious movements, notably Christianity and Islam. In his view, Christianity served to distract and to undermine traditional Roman imperial ambitions, educational standards, qualities of resilience and self-reliance, and combative lifestyles, especially amongst the elites, possibly contributing to the weakening of Roman power. By contrast, the rise of Islam was clearly accompanied by aggressive expansion, starting in the 630s and 640s in the decades immediately after the death of the prophet and with the formation of the Umayyad Caliphate, which at its height would (at least briefly) rival the Roman empire. Yet the discussion, in the second and third parts of the book, of these later historical phenomena is not matched with a similarly detailed evaluation of Roman traditional religion as an influential factor in the rise of Roman imperialism in the BC period, the key timeframe for the creation of Rome’s position in the Mediterranean. Harris certainly acknowledges that Romans thought the gods were on their side and helped them to win in battle. Yet this is not explored in more detail, despite his consistent interest in morale and in the ability of Romans to deal with defeats and other setbacks of various kinds during this period of expansion.
In sum, William Harris’ new discussion of Roman power provides a complex and colorful tapestry of multi-faceted change across a millennium, a period that arguably saw a succession of Roman empires, with very different objectives. He highlights the long and slow decline across several phases. Ultimately, Harris walks a fine line in comparing completely different times and places and peoples that had relatively little in common, either in their aims or their achievements. Few have attempted such a broad comparative project, perhaps for good reason. But Harris demonstrates how exhilarating and informative a broad view can be. The later Roman empires would have seemed completely alien worlds to a Scipio, Cicero, or Augustus. Bringing out these differences in lively prose in a succinct, fast-paced, and readable format is a signal achievement. This reader found many stimulating, new questions to think about.