Behind the glory that was Rome



20, Nov 2016

The mystery of how the Roman Empire gained its phenomenal stature from a small non-descript village is often explained away as a combination of military prowess and one-sided barbarianism. Professor Mary Beard re-examines this notion and points to another reason. She explores the remains of the Empire to point out the extent of emphasis on integration and inclusiveness in a way that was unique in the ancient world.

What was the extent of the Roman Empire?

The Roman Empire existed as a single entity from 27 BC to 395 CE but most of the expansion happened under the Roman Republic that preceded the Empire. The Republic reigned from 509 BC to 27 BC.

  • From a nondescript hamlet on the banks of the Tiber, what went on become one of the largest empires in World History encompassed England, the entire portion of the European Continent west of the river Rhine and south of the river Danube, a major portion of Asia west of the River Euphrates, and the Mediterranean islands.
  • At its vastest, the Roman Empire is believed to have extended over an area of 5 million square kilometers. As of 2009, this area consisted of 40 modern countries. Its population is estimated to have been more than 15 percent and up to 25 percent of the global population.
  • As Professor Mary Beard, a classicist, puts it “The Roman empire at its height, in the second century AD, stretched from the Sahara to Scotland, from Syria to Spain, and was home to well over 50 million inhabitants.

Why does the rise of Rome come as a surprise?

The words ancient Rome would likely be connected with are magnificence, be it the buildings that were impressive externally and internally, or famed personalities such as Hercules and Julius Caesar. These images are symbolic of Rome at its zeniths.

But where did all this greatness come from

  • Rome had its origins in a village of the Latini tribe in the ninth century BC. Over few centuries, it went from being an insignificant mosquito-ridden area to a stupendous Empire.
  • More powerful neighbors in the North and South meant that the stages prior to the rise of Rome saw its members under the control of well placed neighbors. With such a background “what gave it within just a few centuries control over the whole Italian peninsula, and soon over all of the Mediterranean world ” asks Mary Beard. She observes that such an accomplishment was unprecedented.

While active debates over the fall of the Empire are important and useful, equally important is an updated understanding of its rise. Beard, by her take on this relevant facet of Roman history, contends the conventional widespread theories about how Rome conquered its way to the top.

When do some of the popular theories appear to fall short?

When we realize that these theories can be applied to the enemy Empires as well, we are unable to explain what set the Roman Empire apart.

Ambition and luck provide convenient reasons and no doubt played an important role. But ambition was not exclusive to the Romans in that period. And if one fails to build on luck, just how long would it last For the four-hundred-and-eighty-two years under the Republic when most of the expansion happened And then for the 1,500 years the Empire furthered its dominance and was able to stand

  • The Romans reveled in glorifying their conquests – the celebration parade of looted valuables and vanquished prisoners following the greatest victories or the most bloodshed stood out like no other celebration. In addition, the earliest epitaphs of Romans of eminence make it a point to highlight their conquests. Their ambition bordering on obsession, superior military hardware and clever military strategies seems to be the perfect combination to explain why they won.
  • But these characteristics were not unique to the Romans and history for its part has highlighted them to the point of conveying erroneous assumptions. These assumptions are that the enemies and neighbors of Romans were pacifist in nature and were no match to the well-trained Roman soldiers.
  • Beard points to evidence that contradict these assumptions. She refers to the Gaul region and Greece to illustrate her point. Gaul, contrary to the popular assumption, reveled in trophies from conquests in its own way. Beard mentions an account of a traveler who arrives in Gaul in the early first century BC (before Caesar conquered the region) and is shocked to find so many severed enemy heads pinned up outside those pretty little Gallic huts. She also points out that the “intellectual Greeks” defeated by Romans had been tough descendants of Alexander the Great.

As Beard puts it, “Roman conquest undoubtedly was vicious. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul has not unfairly been compared to genocide, and was criticised by some Romans at the time in those terms.” But she adds, “Rome expanded into a world not of communities living at peace with one another, but one of endemic violence, rival power bases backed up by military force (there was not really any alternative backing) and mini empires**. Most of Rome’s enemies were as militaristic as the Romans, and, in our terms, as sadistic.n” And this is often overlooked.**

Ancient Mediterranean was plagued by greed-and-power-driven war and the Romans were part of the norm. Also, the early Romans did not seem to have methodically planned their expansion in advance. Beard says, “Even Caesar’s conquest of Gaul seems to have been based on word of mouth not on geographic planning.

  • The Roman military force was innovative and possessed great skill. But moderate myths tend to present advanced arsenal as a chief reason. Beard counters this with the argument that most military victories were not decided by better weapons but by the army’s strength or by some variety of “going round the back” of the enemy and capturing them in a pincer movement.

Beard presents the argument that these theories are necessary but insufficient to explain the rise of Rome.

Where is the main reason for Rome's achievements?

  • Manpower generated from alliances. Rome raided and ravaged other nations but it went one step beyond that. It formed alliances with the vanquished nations – either by providing the inhabitants a Roman citizenship and the benefits that accompanied it or establishing a permanent relationship with them.
  • The advantage of alliances was immense manpower. Even as enemies vanquished Roman regiments one by one, they had to contend with those who took their place.
  • While empires like the neo-Assyrian empire did practice conversion of citizens and integration into the military, Beard infers from her study that with Rome, this was an ideology and hence unique in the ancient world.
  • Strategic use of media. Two mythological stories were often repeated to provide the context for the formation of Rome – that of the twins Romulus and Remus and of Aeneas. While these stories, as they progress, highlight barbarism, fratricide, rape. But there is another common element that Beard focuses on – the earliest Romans were from foreign lands.
  • Romulus had no citizens in his newly founded city. Therefore he opened it out as an asylum for criminals, runaway slaves, the dispossessed and the down and out. Contrast this with the Grecian tales that claimed their citizens were produced miraculously by the native soil.
  • And who was Aeneas This is where the mastery of Romans in writing themselves into the Greek story. In the ancient Greek classic Iliad, Aeneas was a minor character. The epic in part covered a few weeks of the Trojan War in which Aeneas was on the losing side. Romans re-imagined the fate of Aeneas; made him flee Troy and arrive in Italy to set the precedent for the Roman race.

These narratives conveyed a message – the earliest Romans were foreigners. Romans severed the connection between birth and citizenship; to be a Roman, you need not have to be born in Rome.

  • Some of their earliest gold coins have also conveyed how Romans viewed alliances – they would honor their side of the deal and their allies better do so as well, according to Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum.

This has been discussed as a reason but Beard shows how it could be a core component of the foundation of the Roman Empire.

Who are a few of the names preserved by history?

Pompey the Great

  • Pompey was an extremely successful general and this enabled him to attain his first consulship (member of the Roman consul, the highest political office of the Roman Republic).
  • His success as military commander in Sulla’s Second Civil War earned him the title Magnus (the Great). As military commander, he led Rome to three victories.
  • In 67 BC, he was given near-unlimited powers to save Rome from the terrifying pirates who struck on land and sea. He accomplished the job within three months and then turned his focus to the East.
  • In mid-60 BC, he formed an unofficial military and political alliance with Marcus Licinus Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar. This was known as the First Triumvirate. His marriage to Caesar’s daughter Julia laid the foundation for this alliance. The alliance became increasingly fractured and Crassus and Julia’s deaths were the last straws.
  • Pompey was defeated in the Civil War and assassinated in Egypt where he had tried to seek asylum. With Pompey, there is said to have been a shift in perspective of the Romans – from being opponents of the one-man rule, they came to realize that it was the best way to handle what had been achieved from conquests until then. In architecture too, Pompey is said to have set a precedent for the Imperial building style.

Julius Caesar

  • Pompey’s greatest rival whose strategy was to focus on the West while Pompey launched bloody wars in the East. Caesar snatched the limelight from Pompey because while both used swords to make their great conquests, Caesar went a major step ahead and wrote about his victories.
  • In his accounts of the conquest of Gaul, Caesar’s portrayal of his chief rival Vercingetorix and his claim of killing numerous Gauls had an impact that lasted down the centuries. While Vercingetorix is celebrated as a hero in modern France, all that is known of him can be traced back to Caesar’s depiction of this king.
  • The damage done at Gaul shocked even some Romans of that period and some of Caesar’s enemies said he should be tried for war crimes against a Gallic judge and jury.
  • His return to Rome after the defeat of Gaul sparked off a civil war the impact of which was widely felt. The changes to the Roman Government in this five-year-period removed the political practices of the Roman Republic and made way for the Roman Empire. The war ended in 45 BC.
  • On 14 February 44 BC, Caesar was made dictator for life. A few weeks later, a group of senators that included his friends assassinated him.
  • The most famous political assassination ever; Caesar’s death did not end tyranny. When the Republic fell 17 years later, Caesar’s nephew Octavius assumed the title of Emperor Augustus defining the beginning of the Roman Empire. In his self-composed lengthy epitaph, he lists the three chief guidelines of being a successful Emperor – be extremely generous to the Roman people, keep on building throughout your reign and most importantly, invest in conquestn. Augustus gives examples of how he implemented these guidelines, especially the third. He gives a detailed account of the expansions he accomplished, how he pacified Gaul, Spain and the Alps. The message as Beard sums it up is *“You want to be a Roman Emperor; you have to look like a conqueror.”*
  • But Beard looks at a monument he built to infer the underlying ideology. A symbol of peace (this is part of the monument’s message), this monument celebrates pacts. Peace, in that context meant not the absence of war but the result – a peace earned by victory or pacification.

Who is Mary Beard

She is an English classical scholar and is considered to be "Britain's best-known classicist". She is known for challenging ingrained opinions and doesn’t hesitate to oppose simplified or grossly misleading interpretations of the subjects she is passionate about.

  • She has been widely recognized for her academic expertise and contributions. She has been honored with the Order of the British Empire, is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London (among the select few recognized for their excellent knowledge and significant achievements in archaeology, antiquities, history and heritage.) and a Fellow of the British Academy.

Note: This is a fractional account of Mary Beard – it serves to present her expertise and constant spirit of inquiry as evidence that her perspective has a solid basis.

How can the world learn from this?

  • Be open to new evidence and interpretations of history. For history to be relevant, it needs to evolve with society. With Roman history, this has happened in the last 250 years. Advances in research and newer approaches driven by different priorities – gender role, subsidies etc. – have revealed the past in an old and new light. Like in science, one must constantly validate the firmest and most long-lasting of theories, if one wants a relevant and authentic connect to the past.
  • There are no direct lessons. One single example would be the migration crisis. In 4th century CE, Danube became a hub of migrants and refugees from northern Europe. This can be better related to as Rome’s Calais. The ancient Romans faced the same dilemmas now faced by Europe and Britain. And their reaction to the crisis – though probably less humane than the present – can be related to. It was worsened by the Romans in the east who directed the refugees to the West, thereby washing their hands off the problem. But the Roman Empire had itself been built on bringing in outsiders to form the demographic identity. Even as the current tendency to draw up firmer boundaries and treat refugees with indifference and hostility thrives, the origin of the biggest empire of the West is a lesson the West of today needs to read.

We don’t have a responsibility to the Romans. We have a responsibility to ourselves and the ongoing process of understanding ourselves.” – Mary Beard.

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Tags | Roman Empire Mary Beard Rome