Book Review: The Origin Of Empire

The Origin Of Empire:  Rome From The Republic To Hadrian

What if empire was a bad thing?  This particular book deals with an interesting subject, the way that Rome acquainted itself with being an imperial power, and completely fumbles one of the most massively important parts of that discussion, and that is the possibility that it was right that Rome should be so ambivalent to hostile about becoming an imperial nation.  This is particularly relevant because both Rome and America are or were imperial republics and both have within them the same sort of ambivalence towards empire in that they acted in such a way as to get an empire but have not seemed to really know how to deal with it or how to enjoy it.  There is a massive tension between the sort of egalitarian culture that one tends to find in a healthy republic and the inegalitarian behavior that is required to run a successful empire.  And Rome never fully dealt with this tension, seeking at some points to spread the joys of Roman citizenship broadly to reduce the internal tensions of the empire while also promoting populist posers and corrupt grifters whose economic behavior required an expanding Roman world so as to reduce its negative effects on Roman citizens struggling with inflation and debt.

This book is a bit more than 400 pages and is divided into five parts and 31 chapters.  After beginning with maps, notes to the abbreviation in the text, and an introduction on the path to empire that Rome took starting in the 3rd century BC, the first part of the book looks at Rome’s experience in the Punic Wars and other conflicts from 264-201BC (I), including the invasion of Sicily by some “blockhead” (1), the first Punic war (2), Rome’s wars in Italy with the Gauls (3) after that, Hannibal (4) and Cannae (5), and victory (6) in 201BC.  After that the author looks at Rome’s awkward experience with empire from 200-146BC (II), with chapters on Macedon (7), victory in the East (8), the home front (9), and the Third Punic War (10).  This leads to a discussion of revolution at home from 146-88BC (III), with chapters on Tiberius (11) and Gaius (12) Gracchus, the view of critics (13), Marian politics (14), and the civil wars of the early 1st century BC (15).  After this comes a discussion of late Roman Republican dictatorship from 88-36BC (IV) with chapters on Sulla’s victory (16), the Rome (17) and legacies he left behind (18), politics after his death (19), 63BC (20), law and disorder (21), Pompey and Caesar (22), and the conflict among their supporters after their death (23).  Finally, the author explores the monarchy from 36BC-138AD (V), with chapters on Augustus (24) and his empire (25), eccentricity and bureaucracy (26), the emergence of an imperial society (27), the fall of dynasties (28), reimagining Rome (29), the view from Tivoli (30), and what happened after that (31), after which the book ends with notes on sources, a list of illustration, acknowledgments, and an index.

Perhaps most shocking of all, although this book spends a lot of time talking about Rome’s internal politics, especially in the late Republic, as well as the involvement of Rome in various imperial wars starting with the wars against Carthage and moving on from there, this book actually does not really address the question of the development of the Roman empire.  It occasionally touches upon this point, when looking at the economic trade-offs involved in determining whether this or that patch of earth became a part of Rome or in looking at the fleecing of provincials in Asia minor or looking very briefly at the difference between senatorial and imperial provinces, but the book shockingly does not do a good job at explaining how it was that Rome became imperial and handled the contradictions inherent in its position.  It is certainly an interesting book about Roman history, about which there is no shortage of materials.  To be sure, this is a book that is easy enough to read and enjoy, even if it does not quite do what it purports to do, but that means that the book simply needs a title that better reflects its granular look at Roman politics.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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