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17 january 2013

Rome: An Empire's Story is Greg Woolf's sweepingly general, in some ways introductory, but never patronizing overall history of the Roman polity as an empire. Woolf's approach is comparative in spirit, but never dwells very long on Rome's affinities to other historical empires (Persia, India, China). He touches on modern analogies still more sparingly, lest he dwell too much on pointed but limited parallels between, say, Jugurtha of Numidia and the Taliban (101). Firmly grounded in the best recent scholarship, Rome is above all a gateway to further reading. Woolf rarely says that something simply is or was a certain way. Instead, he'll say that scholars debate an issue. Knowledge, for Woolf, is sculpted by the "tooth of disputation."

Among the controversial issues touched on in Woolf's book are slavery, the environment, geopolitical and military strategy, urbanization, and religion. I learned much new about each of these topics while reading Rome – of course having said that, I realize it's faint praise, coming from someone as ignorant as I am. But learning has to start somewhere.

Woolf manages to touch on all those issues in the course of a more-or-less narrative history that stretches from the early Republic to early Byzantine times. As I said, it's not really an introductory book, despite its surveyish scope. Woolf assumes you know where things are and what general order events happened in. (It has good timelines, and OK historical maps of the Mediterranean – but lacks any of the city of Rome itself, a shame because Woolf so often refers to sites in the city. And [standard peeve of mine] though its footnotes are meticulous, it does not have running headers telling you what pages the footnotes apply to; it doesn't even have chapter titles in the footnote section, and this for a book of 18 chapters! Hey, Oxford University Press, that was 2012: footnotes keyed to page numbers were no longer the equivalent of building Hadrian's Wall.)

The Roman Empire was inseparable from slavery. As slave states go, Rome was not perhaps the worst (and there is a hierarchy of evil to these things). Roman slaves were often allowed, even encouraged, to buy or win their freedom. If you were a slave of an aristocrat, or better yet, of an emperor, you were in a higher social position than most imperial citizens, even while still in slavery; as a well-connected freedman, you could be influential and rich. In fact, there are far more monuments to illustrious freedmen than to ordinary freeborn people. Still, slavery was slavery. Roman slaves were always chattel, often captives from abroad forced to abandon home forever and learn a new language and culture. The Dream Act, this wasn't.

Woolf is wary of ecological explanations for the rise, decline, or fall of the Roman empire. Such theories circulate not only in contemporary eco-tinged scholarship, but in the popular imagination: if there's anything most people sort of know about the Roman empire, it's that its fall was brought about by copper or lead poisoning, or the plague, or (naturally) global warming. Or cooling – it hardly matters, seeing as the moral of such theories is that we are at the mercy of the environment, and we will be repaid in kind for the damage we do it.

Woolf simply doesn't see any evidence that the Romans could or did upset their ecological context to the point of destroying their empire. With the classical historian Polybius, he observes that human institutions were responsible for Rome's success, and he concludes that human institutions were responsible for its downfall. Urbanization, integration of economies, and population growth occured between 200 BCE and 200 CE on an unprecdented scale, at least for Europe. But ecologically speaking, the whole vast feat was done with Iron Age technology, and was eminently sustainable. The Roman Empire started and ended as a vast organic agricultural network worked by slaves. It was cruel, but it was green.

Rome also fails to see any sustained higher-order thinking going on among the Roman brain trust. The Romans were obviously smart people, but they thought in terms of short-range solutions and personal aggrandizement. When their aims and methods abetted the success of empire, the empire flourished. But they didn't plan to achieve what they achieved. In a way that neglect was part of their genius; it made them very adaptable. Alexander, Charlemagne, and Napoleon were grander planners: and their empires barely survived them (if at all).

The heyday of the Roman empire was marked by urban living. Rome grew under Augustus to a population of a million; his subjects and successors built or expanded cities all over the Roman world along the Roman model. Everywhere you turn in Europe, except in the very north, you see ruins of aqueducts, amphitheatres, baths. When people left the cities, the empire fell – not always, or at least not only, because the Goths or Huns came marching in, but because still-wealthy imperial elites, starting around the year 400, concentrated on building country villas. Cassiodorus commented on this historical dynamic, and Woolf is fascinated by it.

The deurbanization of the Roman world is more symptom than explanatory cause of imperial decline, however. Other late-antique writers like Zosimus blamed Christianity for the fall of the Empire, and since the Renaissance, modernity in the persons of Gibbon and other commentators has tended to follow their lead. Woolf agrees. But he doesn't scorn or mock Christianity, or regret its corrosion of imperial values. For Woolf, Christianity was just extremely different from classical religion. He's not sure that Greek and Roman religions really deserve that appellation, at least not in the same sense that we now mean "religion" after two millennia of Christianity.

Roman piety, like that of most Mediterranean cults 2,000 years ago, was bound up with accurate rituals, the erecting of statues, omens & oracles, and sacrifice – lots of sacrifice, thankfully of animals, not of slaves or virgins. (Vestal virgins who didn't behave in a ritually accurate way might be sacrificed, but not gratuitously.) In other words, belief and spirituality, Woolf argues, were not really part of the picture, even among the unusually monotheistic Jews (who also abhorred statues). Christians, however, deployed minimal rituals, and emphasized private meditation. More important, they were not much interested in divination for policy purposes. Where Roman cultists were flying blind, depending on the entrails of the next sacrificial animal for direction, Christians had the whole of cosmic history open in front of them. As Augustine put it, Christians were citizens of a heavenly city, not an earthly empire. Coincidentally, their temporal leaders happened to be bishops of the very imperial city they were not much interested in.

But Roman emperors had been even less interested in the capital on the Tiber, for centuries, than later Popes would be. The emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries ruled at Constantinople in the East, of course, but at Milan and Trier in the West; Rome, huge, wealthy, and politically marginalized, was turning into the City of God anyway. Christendom is beyond Woolf's scope, but he gets the reader as far as the enormous changes it portended, and offers a great deal to think about along the way.

Woolf, Greg. Rome: An empire's story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.