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 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.
If they were not really masters of politics, and not particularly masters of war, the Romans nonetheless had a genius for civics. Think of everything for which we really remember Rome: the aqueducts, the roads, the bathhouses, the circus stadiums—the brutally efficient military legions, for that matter, however unimaginatively they were led. Every one of them is a triumph of civil engineering and civil organization. The Romans got things done, and the things they got done were the things that needed imperial wealth, imperial manpower, and imperial expertise to accomplish. Rome behaved as an empire, even when it was only a hill town precariously perched above the Tiber River.
More than anything else, that strange new form of civitas defined and unified the empire. It could survive the regular bouts of civil war, the equally regular corruption of the emperor’s throne, the occasional Jewish revolt, the massive Christian conversion—and even, for hundreds of years, the pressure of wave after wave of barbarians sweeping out of the East. The sheer civic competence of the Romans became the base assumption underlying all subsequent Western political organization. Far off in Carthage, Tertullian could know of Athens and Jerusalem—could see them as opposing towers in his spirit-ual geography—because the Romans had built almost indestructible stone roads connecting them in the physical geography of the world.
Woolf tells this story with a scholar’s judicious sense of what conclusions the evidence will actually bear, and a writer’s eye for the key detail. Core samples taken from the polar ice cap, for instance, reveal levels of carbon from the first and second centuries not matched until the Industrial Revolution—which may be the best and most revealing proof of the power of Rome’s civil industry. But his most controversial claim is that the universal empire came to an end, beyond all repair, with the victory of Muslim troops in Spain in 711—rather than earlier, when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410, or the Germanic chieftain Odoacer deposed the emperor Romulus August-ulus in 476, or the Lombards overran Italy at the end of the sixth century.
In this, however, Woolf is only following the long tradition, begun by Gibbon, of an inability to find a clean end to the Roman definition of the Mediterranean world. Rome dribbles on and on, far past the point where any sensible empire would have packed it in and called it a day.
Woolf sees the Islamic suzerainty, the Byzantine East, and Charlemagne’s Western Christendom as Rome’s successors, each a new and distinct empire with its own imperial vision. Of course, Gibbon would have understood them more as Rome’s heirs, still shaped by the memory of Roman rule; and in this case, Gibbon seems right. Rome is the political idea that would not die, and the most obvious evidence is the fact that, no matter what their origin, most people reached by the often-brutal Roman touch quickly decided they wanted to be Roman. The defeated Jewish revolts of 66 and 132 A.D. were the exceptions that reveal how rare such rebellions were. The Ottoman and British empires are clear examples of states whose colonies and subject peoples were occasionally willing to go to war to break free and become independent countries.
The civil wars that first wracked Rome in the years of transition from republic to empire were never like that. They were, instead, wars to rule Rome. When they rebelled, the Spaniards and Egyptians and Gauls aimed to put a new emperor on the throne, not to set up new kingdoms. Even at the end of the empire, the new barbarian overlords (many of them trained as soldiers in the Roman legionary system) wanted to keep Rome’s administrative system in place—the Roman civil structure, in other words—even while they tried to supplant the Romans as actual political leaders.
Woolf makes much of the Roman virtue of pietas, but no more than the Romans themselves did. Piety was an admired (and politically necessary) personal virtue, of course; but in the Aeneid, the most systematic statement of the Romans’ religious sense, Virgil makes clear that Rome understood piety as also, and perhaps in its essence, a civic virtue. The empire exists because the city itself is pious. That kind of civil piety manifested itself in the Romans’ conservatism, in their unwillingness to shed such institutions as the senate and the priestly augurs even after they had clearly outgrown them. All ancient empires tended toward deifying their rulers, but the Romans never believed they were replacing the gods when, say, in 14 A.D., they added the recently deceased Augustus to the official pantheon. They were paying tribute to the success of the city.
Piety appeared, too, in the Romans’ way of war. At their best, the Romans displayed an utter commitment to the city: A hundred of Rome’s senators died in just two years, fighting Hannibal. When they marched to conquer new territory, they promised to keep the old gods alive and worshiped. They carried out into the world a staggering confidence in their eventual victory, even while they practiced a combination of tolerance and brutality. If you paid your taxes, supported the legions and road-building crews whenever they passed through, and were willing at least to pretend the emperor was divine, the Romans would leave you alone. Their governors, prefects, and tribunes would even aid your town, seeing construction of bathhouses, aqueducts, and public forums as the natural civic duty of an administrator.
Of course, if you didn’t do the minimum the Romans asked, they would destroy you, and with a ferocity only occasionally matched in the ancient world. It’s the sheer impersonal competence of Roman viciousness that strikes the reader today: Other ancient rulers had practiced torture, terror executions by crucifixion, and even mass murder; but they typically did it because they liked it. The Romans did it only because it worked. They were bloody-minded, in every sense of the word, and the combination of cruelty and calmness somehow made the Romans masters at turning subject peoples into Romans.
Indeed, of turning us all into Romans. Woolf treats the late civil wars as almost epiphenomenal, the interesting but ultimately unimportant background noise of politics in the Roman world. And he’s right, in many ways, to do so: A serious political theory of Rome—an attempt to answer the real question of how the Roman Empire survived rather than why it fell—would pay less attention to the partisan battles over who would rule. The suicide of Nero quickly led to the wars of the Year of the Four Emperors, with Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian jockeying each other for power. And yet, during that same year (69 A.D.), the Romans were laying their roads and increasing their industry and constructing their coliseums, building the civil infrastructure that would blossom in the next century under what Machiavelli dubbed the “Five Good Emperors,” from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius.
That promise of civil competence, born from civic piety, is what sold the idea of universal empire to the tribes and nations conquered by Rome. It created the vision of perpetual peace, even while bloody political war raged among rival emperors. It gave people the belief that they should be able to live their lives, build their wealth, and pass their estates on to their children, even while the Romans practiced the impersonal brutality of imperial rule. It laid the road between Athens and Jerusalem, and established the plain we still assume as the base of civilization.
Joseph Bottum, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author, most recently, of The Christmas Plains.