The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire
In this book, one of my favourites of recent years, Anthony Everitt covers the early days of Rome, both fact and fiction, in a light conversational style. The title suggests a certain symmetry with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall but this work is nowhere near as weighty (or radical). There is a bit of symmetry however in the timeline; it goes from Rome’s earliest days to the end of the Republic – not quite to the start of Gibbon but perhaps close enough to show the authors intentions. It is the early Republic however that gets the most focus. For me this is a highlight as I’ve read plenty on the likes of Pompey and Caesar, but the earlier days with mythical figures like Coriolanus or Cincinnatius often seem to be neglected. His previous books had typically been biographies – Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian – and this one does keep an enjoyable focus on characters even if there’s very little to go on. It’s not that the wider social factors are neglected, but Everitt seems to understand that a focus on individual personalities and anecdotes can help draw the reader deeper into history. This love of characters and myths is tempered by plenty of caveats and disclaimers about the reliability of these early Roman myths but, being from a literary background, Everitt is happy to run through these stories nonetheless.
The founding of the city
The founding myth of Romulus and Remus is a well known one – twins prophesied to overthrow their great uncle (the king) who had himself overthrown their father Numitor. They were abandoned, rather than killed, by Numitor’s servants and instead found by a shepherd, suckled by a wolf, then eventually growing up to defeat their great uncle and restore their father. They then set out to create a city but fought and Romulus killed his brother; he then became the first king of Rome and set in motion its long journey to greatness.
Alternatively, the Trojan prince Aeneas banded together with a bunch of survivors from the fall of Troy and, after a detour to Carthage to meet Queen Dido, finished up in Italy to set up the kingdom of Alba Longa. From here there’s a bit of marking time until eventually his descendant Numitor came to power and was overthrown by his uncle …
Traditionally this is considered to have occurred around 753 B.C and the chronology of events set by Numa Pompilius, Romulus’ religious minded successor – chosen by the senate after the founder mysteriously disappeared in a storm (according to the senate who may have been getting bored of his form of authoritarian rule). Seen by the Romans as a wise and pious man, Pompilius set up institutions and sacred rites for the city, hence providing a mythical basis for more of the early development. He was then followed by Tulius Hostilius, a military man who defeated the kingdom of Alba Longa and incorporated it into Rome before being struck down by the gods (he was less religious than he predecessor). And so on … the stories continue providing heroic characters and dramatic scenes for the evolution of early Rome. Are they correct? Almost certainly not, and Everitt does examine the evidence and place these stories in their proper context. They’re great fun however and provide a great way of learning about the mindset and morals of Rome throughout its history.
Tarquin the Proud and political reform
From his name you can probably guess what sort of man Rome’s seventh king was – though he was even worse than that if the tales are believed. He murdered family members and the previous king to gain the throne, encouraged by his Lady Macbeth like wife. After more wars and autocratic rule, things eventually went too far when his son forced himself upon the wife of a Roman aristocrat. The aristocrat, Collatinus, along with famous names like Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius forced the king into exile and set up the republic. This would have two Consuls chosen from among the nobles for a single year at a time – a first step towards its later form of twisted democracy, but there was still a long way to go.
The peasants were still unrepresented and looking for ways to get in on the action – typically they found a critical moment, during a war or disaster, and went on strike until they were allowed powers and representation. Hence the roles of tribunes and aediles were created in 494 B.C (the plebs would still be barred from the Consul for some time) and later other magistrates like the censor or praetors. Finally this conflict between the plebians and patricians would build and build until the it was finally settled (in the plebians favour) in 287 B.C. This story of legal and political reform could be dry at times if presented too straight faced, and there are countless wars against other small time local powers (who are sometimes difficult to place or really get a sense of personality out of) but Everitt makes the most of the (not always reliable) myths and brings it to life with the characters and events around these issues.
And there are certainly some great characters to use in this early history – Marcus Furius Camillus (triumphed four times, chosen as dictator five times) who defeated the Veii after offering ten percent of the loot to the gods and subsequently was exiled for embezzling it (it’s not as dodgy as that sounds, but I’m trying to zip through here) before being recalled to fight the Gauls in Rome’s time of need. There’s also Marcus Manlius, who was a hero of Rome’s (failed) defence against the Gauls and a campaigner against debt relief before being condemned to death on the suspicion that he was setting himself up as a king. Or Cincinnatus the legendary statesman who resigned his power and dictatorship to go back to his farm, but was recalled from retirement to defeat the conspiracy of Spurius Maelius. Or the Horatii triplets who won a battle in single (or triple) combat against a set of triplets from the other side. Obviously some of them are a bit far fetched, but they are very exciting nonetheless.
Carthage and expansion
At the beginning of the third century, Rome had yet to really make its mark outside the local region of Italy. The real spotlight in the Mediterranean at the time was in the east on the successor states of Alexander, or even in Africa at the growing power of Carthage. Rome would soon step up though as a major conflict began with Pyrrhus, king of Epirus to the west of Macedon and an old ally of Alexander. He was a talented and renowned military figure who had been called in to support one of the greek cities in the south of Italy in their fight against Roman hegemony. The resulting war would give rise to the term Pyrrhic victory as Phyrrhus found himself winning battles but failing to dampen the Roman tenacity – knock them down and they’d just spring up with a new army as the “winning” side found themselves getting worn down (something that Hannibal would later find). He’d eventually throw in the towel and leave Rome to take full control of Italy.
This now left Sicily in a perilous position between the two great powers of Rome and Carthage. And thus the Punic Wars began. This series of wars against Carthage would take Rome to a low ebb – with Hannibal marching around their country, elephanting it up, and their army wiped out at Cannae. They’d show that old stubbornness however, and once again they’d win by sheer will to hold out – even fighting a naval war against the expert Cathaginians despite next to no previous naval tradition. It’s one of Rome’s defining moments and the author does a good job of contrasting the characters and views within Rome (and Carthage) through out this period – the flamboyant Scipio, the gruff Cato, the pragmatic Fabius etc. Needless to say that Rome end up victorious and continue on an unstoppable rise to dominate the Mediterranean. Surely nothing could get in their way? Except maybe Rome itself …
The Gracchi and the beginning of an end
From 287 on, the political system of Rome had remained more or less the same. An initially good settlements transitioned into a dangerous stalemate as a number of long military campaigns caused havoc with the Roman economy. The wars with Phyrrus and Carthage ended well and signaled Rome’s emergence as a major power, but the time on campaign meant that many small farmers struggled to cope leading to debt, bankruptcy and the reliance on some form of economic relief. Into this situation stepped first Tiberius Gracchus and then Gaius Gracchus, after using aggressive tactics to bring about reform in their role as tribune they were each in turn murdered by the senate. We then go through a series of escalating and ever more dangerous situations for the republic – The Social Wars, Marius and Sulla, Spartacus, Pompey and Crassus, the Catiline Conspiracy and finally Julius Caesar. Personally I felt this part had been covered better elsewhere (most notably Tom Holland’s Rubicon) but it is more of an extended epilogue here so that was to be expected.
Having said that, the coverage here certainly is by no means bad (it’s just a very well covered era) and Everitt does step beyond the standard narrative element and piece together the social and economic influences on this radicalism a bit more than the likes of Holland. That goes throughout the book as a whole, as much as we get the extravagant myths and legends, the author does provide plenty of caution about their reliability – you might not get away with that kind of ‘having your cake and eating it’ in a more scholarly book but the general tone here is educational yet casual – and does provide more modern and historically accurate (if less fanciful) explanations for the changes that Rome went through.
Personally I loved the chance to catch up on my early Roman history and I’d heartily recommend this book. It is definitely aimed at a popular audience, but a popular audience looking to learn in depth about the subject. Compared to some of the other ‘beginners’ books I’ve read it fits in nicely – not as specific or streamlined as Tom Holland’s Rubicon, but more extensive; and not quite as wide ranging as Robin Lane Fox’s Classical World but better at building a complete picture. Check it out if you get the chance.