The Romans of the historical period believed that their city had been founded by Romulus at a date that corresponds to our 753 bc. Romulus was the first of seven kings. The earlier kings were honoured as founding fathers, the later ones reviled as tyrants. Eventually the last of the kings, Tarquin the Proud, was driven out of Rome and a Republic was founded. The conventional date for this was 509 bc. After Aeneas and Romulus, this was something like the third foundation of Rome. Its hero was a Brutus. When Julius Caesar made himself dictator for life nearly 500 years later, it was on the base of statues of this first Brutus that graffiti were scrawled, calling on his distant descendant to take up arms and slay the tyrant.
All the surviving accounts of the period of the Regal Period have this mythic quality. None was written less than three centuries after the supposed foundation of the Republic. Rome in the late sixth century was well below the radar of the Greeks, who would not begin to write even their own history for another century. Yet it is probable enough that Romans did have a monarchy. Many other Mediterranean cities had monarchs in the archaic age, including many of the cities of Etruria just north of Rome. Many of the later institutions of Rome seem best explained as relics of a monarchical state: there was a sacred house in the forum called the Regia, the base of the most senior priest the pontifex maximus. The official who conducted elections if there was a gap between magistrates was the interrex. But few of the details that have been passed down can be trusted. Individual kings were remembered as founders of specific parts of the Roman state. Romulus created the city, populated it, first by declaring it an asylum for criminals, and then by organizing the mass kidnapping of Sabine women to provide wives for his followers. Numa, the second king, invented Roman religion. Servius Tullius organized the army, the tribes, and the census and so on. Stories about the later rulers mostly recall tales told about tyrants across the ancient Mediterranean: they were arrogant rulers and cruel, sexual predators, and weak sons followed strong fathers. Charges of this kind were common in the aristocratic republics of the archaic Mediterranean and represent the emergence of new ethics of civil conduct. The Romans also remembered their last kings as foreigners, specifically as Etruscans. Stories about the kings added up to an account of what was central and unique to Rome, at least in the minds of those who told and heard them. Our only real control on these myths is archaeological.
The Republican period lasted nearly five centuries, from the early sixth until the final century bc. It was later remembered as an age of liberty and piety. Those who enjoyed that liberty were the wealthy, especially the aristocratic families which together monopolized political office and religious leadership. The nostalgia of their heirs colours all our history of that period.
Reproduced with permission by Oxford University Press © Greg Woolf, 2012
Review by Thomas R. Martin
In the spirit of Polybius, who famously wondered if anyone could be so bloodless as not to be interested in the amazing story of how Rome grew from an isolated village to the superpower of the Mediterranean world, Greg Woolf, in his own words, “felt the fascination of studying something so vast, an entity that stretched over so much time and space.” Telling the story of ancient Rome’s imperial growth and decay is for him “exhilarating,” and he conveys that sense of enthusiasm for his subject in the thought-provoking Rome: An Empire’s Story. He presents this story not as a survey proceeding strictly from earlier to later times, though the opening chapter offers an extremely concise summary of Rome’s history, from the founding in the eighth century BC to the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Woolf’s goal instead is to ask questions about the nature of the empire of the Romans; he therefore presents his search for answers by topics, enhanced through comparisons to empires in other times and places.
The topics offer multiple answers to the questions of how the originally poverty-stricken Romans grew strong enough to control so many lands and peoples around the Mediterranean, how they created institutions to govern their conquests, how they managed to keep their power for so long despite their violent internecine conflicts, and, especially, how they understood their place in the world through the lens of their ideas about human nature and the divine. With chapters such as “Imperial Ecology,” “Slavery and Empire,” “At Heaven’s Command,” “The Enjoyment of Empire,” “Imperial Identities,” and “War,” Woolf presents lively discussions of the range of scholarly opinion, as well as his own views, on subjects ranging from the emperors’ ideology of rule to their schemes of taxation. The author notes the complex mix of continuity and change in the religious beliefs and practices of the peoples of the Roman world under the Empire. The spiritedness of his take on things comes through in titles such as “The Laziness of the Caesars,” “Desperately Seeking the Romans,” and “Things Fall Apart.”
The concluding discussion is a wonderfully clear analysis of the possible reasons why the Roman Empire lost its strength and territory over time, eventually reduced to a bit player on the world stage. Woolf suggests that the most consequential changes came in the waning of the prosperity, security, and governance of the larger cities on which the Empire depended for stability, a development linked to the loss of the tradition of (self-interested) public service by the upper class that had long dominated these cities in symbiotic cooperation with the emperors. As he well shows, the fascinating search for explanations of the historical phenomenon that was Roman imperial history is far from done. I agree with him that “in our hands the future of the Roman Empire is an exciting one.”
Hardcover Book : 384 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press ( July 01, 2012 )
Item #: 13-620316
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 x 0.96inches
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