BMCR 2023.01.22

The Roman world from Romulus to Muhammad: a new history

, The Roman world from Romulus to Muhammad: a new history. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. xxiii, 704. ISBN 9780415842860.



Greg Fisher’s book aims to cover the whole of Roman history, from the foundation of the Urbs till her fall and—unconventionally—the arrival of the Arabs. It provides an overview of around 1400 years of events divided in fourteen chapters and supported by a very rich apparatus of figures and maps. This volume is in the vein of monographs such as Histoire romaine by Yann Le Bohec, Marcel Le Glay and Jean-Louis Voisin (Paris: PUF 1991), Roma Antica, edited by Andrea Giardina (Roma-Bari: Laterza 2000), SPQR by Mary Beard (London: Profile Books 2015), and, last but not least, Römische Geschichte: Von den Anfängen bis zum Untergang by Michael Sommer (Stuttgart: Kröner Verlag 2016).

What distinguishes this book from previous studies is, however, the willingness to go beyond the geographical and chronological boundaries established by previous historians, underlining instead the continuum between Roman history and what came after, as, for example, the Arab conquests.  The author pays special attention to the eastern borders of the empire and its inhabitants throughout the whole book, as will be shown more in depth later.

Fisher organises his monumental Roman history into what are perceived as three distinct periods: in the first seven chapters the author describes the most important events starting with the monarchy and ending with the fall of the Roman Republic; chapter eight works as pivotal moment, being entirely dedicated to the rise of Gaius Octavius (who took the name Augustus in 27 BCE) and the social, political, and cultural changes triggered by his decisions; the last part is covered by five chapters covering the imperial period from its start to “the end of antiquity”, namely, according to Fisher, the first “military-religious Arab leaderships” (p. 581).

The first moment—and so the first chapter about the origins of Rome—is introduced in medias res through the image of emperor Trajan as depicted by Cassius Dio in his Roman History. According to Fisher, this passage from Dio’s work is fundamental for our understanding of Roman history for two elements in particular that characterised the Romans: “the ethos of conquest and the militarised nature of political life”, which could be simplified as the naturalisation of violence and the normalisation of conquest, and “the importance of the broader Mediterranean world”, meaning the importance of the geographical scale of Roman expansion in comparison to Alexander the Great’s conquests (p. 1). A strong emphasis is therefore placed by the author on Roman violence and the Roman urge to conquer as the basis for the birth and growth of the Roman Empire. After this short introduction, the chapter goes on with a brief (maybe too brief) reminder of the foundation myth of Rome. In order to describe this highly problematic legend, only Livy is used as a source. This is an understandable choice for the nature of the book which surely cannot contain all events, but not entirely satisfactory because it sets aside the problematic nature of the legend of Rome’s foundation. What follows is a summary of the most relevant sources for studying Roman History in general and then the political and social context of early Rome and the Italic peninsula.

This first chapter offers something of a desultory structure, mixing and sometimes repeating information as when Fisher writes about the Etruscans: while one could expect some paragraphs dedicated exclusively to the Etruscans before writing about Rome’s foundation, the author starts explaining their culture on p. 18, then introduces other Italic populations before returning to Etruscans in more detail on p. 24. In this first chapter, Fisher appears to prefer concentrating his attention on specific facts, reducing, for example, the monarchic period solely to Romulus and Servius Tullius’ reforms. This structure seems to reveal the author’s choice to write a volume for an audience with a good prior knowledge of Roman history. The fact that the book is designed for advanced readers is also made evident by the numerous references to Greek and Etruscan politics, culture, and religion, assuming a good knowledge of both histories. The choices made by the author in this first chapter, however, are not an indicator for the rest of the book, but represent personal choices certainly related to the amount of information Fisher had to present in this chapter, which introduces the methodology he will use, but also summarizes briefly over two centuries of Roman History.

The volume then proceeds in a fluent, well-structured, and easy-to-read manner. Especially captivating is the choice Fisher made to delve into themes not always considered in works of this genre. Special attention is devoted to examining events that brought Rome into contact with peoples living to the southeast of the Empire. Striking are the examples of Mithridates, to whom the whole of chapter 6 is dedicated, and the Jewish revolt, which receives proper treatment in a book centred on Roman History (p. 317-31 and later about the Bar Kochba revolt at p. 392-7).

The person of C. Octavius also receives special attention from Fisher: Although the theme is by no means new, Fisher presents the character of Octavian/Augustus, including an evaluation of his political choices. He analyses many of the changes Roman society underwent before and after the civil wars. Attention is also paid to religion and culture, and especially to Augustan literature. Fisher provides a well-rounded analysis of Augustus, which proves very effective in explaining the transition from the Republic to the Empire.

Noteworthy too is Fisher’s decision to emphasize women, as revealed, for example, in his treatment of the younger Agrippina (p. 306-9): in this short discussion, the author restores dignity to a female character too often maligned through the incorrect and negative representations that she has received from ancient and modern historians. A briefer section is devoted to explaining the important role played by Helena, the mother of Constantine, who became crucial for her son and his choice to spread the Christian faith across the Empire (p. 513).

From this moment on and especially from the period after Constantine, Fisher introduces the collapse of the empire, writing that “the end of the late fourth century, and much of the fifth, was a period of ferment” (p. 527), full of violence and internal divisions in the emperor’s court as also in society in general, because of the complicated religious situation and the arrival of other peoples and ethnic groups within the borders of the Roman Empire (Ch. 13). Fisher is critical—as most historians rightly are nowadays—of identifying the arrival of the so-called “barbarians” as the cause of the fall of Rome: in fact, the author prefers to call them, using Peter Brown’s definition, “alternative Romans” (p. 579), as they had already been in contact with the Romans for centuries and were themselves interested in maintaining Roman administrative structures and certain Roman cultural traits.

In the last chapter Fisher faces the problems that began at the end of the 5th century and continued through the 6th century. By the early 7th century, while Bulgars were attacking Thrace and Constantinople, eastern emperors had to face at the same time the arrival of the Arabs. From this point of his narrative, the author discusses the history of the Eastern Roman Empire as it intersected with the history of the Arabs. The deeds of the various Byzantine emperors—from Justin I to Justinian, and from Justin II to Heraclius—are repeatedly compared to those of their Arab counterparts, such as Arethas, al-Harith, and al-Mundhir. In this way, the reader is finally able to look beyond the boundaries of Roman history and perceive the continuity of ancient history that did not stop with either the fall of the western Roman Empire or that of the Byzantine Empire. Fisher therefore deserves great credit for having broken down the wall between Roman history, wrongly perceived as just the history of Greeks and Romans, and the history of all the peoples east of the empire, included the Arabs. Fisher thus masterfully succeeds in highlighting the universal rule that from the ashes of one empire, another is born.