Taken At The Flood: The Roman Conquest Of Greece, by Robin Waterfield
This book is a rare achievement on several levels, one worthy of high praise as well as the praise of reading it and reflecting upon its eerie contemporary relevance. The author takes as his subject the somewhat obscure context of the Roman conquest of Greece between the First Illyrian War of 229BC and the destruction of Corinth in 146BC. Many readers will likely know little about the context of this period, with shifting alliances and the growing power of Rome over Greek affairs despite the reluctance of Rome to annex the area outright, but rather more interested in maintaining an indirect empire on the cheap where there are periodic interventions in local affairs with overwhelming military force, followed by a renegotiation of terms and increasing realization that areas have passed from a state of freedom into a form of imperial control. The writer, on several occasions, draws specific parallels between this rare historical case of an indirect empire with the imperialistic behavior of the United States, making some pointed commentary about recent wars and the similar reluctance of the United States to annex territories it nonetheless seeks to control remotely. The result is a work of history about an obscure but important area of history and also one that bears a startling contemporary relevance to American imperialism .
The book itself is organized generally chronologically and from a sober perspective of a historian who wishes to give full credit to obscure historical personages within the Roman Republic, various Greek leagues of city-states, and various Anatolian realms of importance like Rhodes, the Seleucid Empire, and Pergamum. The book starts with concerns about clouds in the West, such as the desire of the Antigonid rulers of Macedonia to regain their position of preeminence over Greece and the role of the Epirot leader Pyrrhus in seeking to stop Roman expansion. The author then examines the Roman turn east in seeking to stop the unification of Illyria under powerful leaders, the course of the Illyrian Wars that Rome fought to ensure the safety of the Adriatic Sea for its trade, the growing hostility of many Greeks to the presence of the “barbarian” Romans, the somewhat hypocritical support of the Romans for the supposed “freedom of the Greeks,” the behavior of both Rome and Philip V of Macedon to provoke warfare, the Romans through deliberately snubbing diplomacy to Philip upon their entrance into Greek affairs, Philip V through making an alliance with Hannibal during the Second Punic War and in his repeated attempts to increase Macedonian strength and regain previous losses due to Roman military strength. The author then examines the expansion of Rome’s periphery into Asia Minor, their efforts at remote control over Greek city-states, the choice of Perseus to resist increasing Roman domination, the end of Macedon as an independent state, the establishment of firm Roman rule over Greece, and the Greek World after the battle of Pydna and its long period under imperial domination to the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans before its relatively recent freedom in the 1820’s.
There are at least a few notable aspects to the achievements that Waterfield has in this book. One of them is sound attention to evidence, including the histories of Polybius, who was a participant in these matters on the Greek side, and a witness of some of the events he writes about, as well as attention to sculptural and numismatic evidence. Besides the attention to these matters, the author also shows a strong tendency to understand history in the context of contemporary events, pointing out that the remote control imperialism of the Romans for so long in Greece would have been less easy to conceive of without the example of contemporary American imperialism. This insight helps us to understand that we have significant barriers to understanding history unless we can see parallels that we can recognize in the present to allow us to better understand the past. For too long, the author reminds us, historians have generally followed the Roman line that their foreign expansion was haphazard and defensive in nature, rather than a conscious and deliberate attempt to gain the benefits of empire without putting forward the costly effort of occupation and direct rule. Contemporary imperialist powers like the United States, Russia, and China, would do well to recognize the way that previous efforts at such indirect rule via puppet states worked out in the Roman conquest of Greece. On the levels of both history and contemporary critique, this book works at shining a light on an area that is too little understood by many people.
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