The Magazine

Universal Empire

All roads, historically speaking, lead to Rome.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Athens and Jerusalem are not the sum of symbolic ancient cities. And in truth, they never have been. Even when Tertullian coined that distinction early in the third century—“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?”—he did so in the context of Rome: He was the son of a centurion, preaching and scribbling away in long-before-conquered Carthage. The Roman Empire was the ground on which he walked, so vast and omnipresent he could barely notice its existence.

The Emporer Claudius

The Emporer Claudius


The map remains the same, even for us today. We may still derive an intellectual and spiritual geography from such ideas as Athens and Jerusalem, from the contrasts of philosophy and religion, reason and faith. But we are able to do so only because they are nodes in the empire of Ancient Rome. The rivalry of those cities—like single, towering mountains, glowering at each other across the plain—is visible because the plain is real: the long Pax Romana that stretches between them. Somehow, in the political construction of reality, Rome endures as our eternal baseline, the universal empire that promised, for the majority of its citizens, the end of war.

Edward Gibbon stands as our most famous literary monument to the defining reality that was Rome. Writing in the midst of rising British power at the end of the 18th century, he sat down to explain how the world’s greatest empire came to an end. But the question his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire actually raises is why did it last so long? The fall of Rome, as we might put it, was overdetermined: In every empire, the natural entropy of politics drags the state down to imperial collapse.

When Genghis Khan took control in 1206, the Mongols began assembling the largest empire in the history of the world before Great Britain’s, but it was essentially gone by 1294. At the time of his death in 453, Attila the Hun had put together conquests that reached from Germany to the edge of China; by 469, most traces of his rule had disappeared. Even in the ancient world, empires tended not to have lives as long as one might think. The Romans, with their perpetual feeling of cultural inferiority to the Greeks, often looked to Alexander the Great as an ideal. But even Alexander hardly seems a model for Rome’s experience. At the time of his early death in 323 B.C., the Macedonian prince had an empire that stretched from Greece down to Egypt and across to India. And yet it barely outlasted him, dissolving within two years to decades of war among the successor states of his bitterly divided generals.

“All histories of Rome are histories of empire,” Greg Woolf writes at the beginning of this superb volume, and he is not only right but wise to see the reason why we cannot let the Roman story go. Throughout our history, we have come back to it again and again—trying to grasp it, trying to see ourselves in it, trying to understand why it remains the model of the West.

A professor of ancient history at the University of St. Andrews, Woolf sweeps through almost 1,500 years of Roman history—from the founding of the city in 753 B.C. to the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711 A.D. It’s a swift and easy read, filled with the kind of rich details designed to illustrate the major trends of Roman history for a general audience. As far as those trends go, Woolf points out the dual nature of the city.

On the one hand, Rome was profoundly suspicious of change and seemed—after the expulsion of the last king, Tarquin the Proud, in 509 B.C. and the founding of the republic—unwilling to abolish any institutional foible, no matter how absurd. By the time of the late republic, Rome had only one way for a proposal to become law, and dozens of ways to stop it, from the failure of a certain temple to raise a flag each morning to the judgments of the otherwise unimportant senate rulekeeper. In many ways, no matter what Cicero and Brutus thought, the republic had to give way to the empire—at Pompey’s hands, if not Caesar’s—simply because the senatorial system of temporarily delegated authority had become too unwieldy to manage the land area that Rome governed.

On the other hand, Woolf is at pains to demonstrate that the Romans were astonishingly quick to evolve new methods for survival, learning from their defeats and building on their victories. They certainly were not military geniuses: As generals, Pompey was good, Caesar was better, and Scipio was perhaps best of all. But the history of Roman warfare is a history of stumbles whenever the city faced a superior military mind, from Pyrrhus to Hannibal. And yet, after their lost fights, the Romans would return to the city, raise another army, and fight again.