By Greg Woolf
Each age finds new questions to ask about the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon, the English historian dedicated to the study of the Roman Empire, chose to entitle his seminal masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire because for him, as for others at the end of the eighteenth century, it was decline and fall that was the real puzzle. The Romans had, so it seemed, achieved so much of the what European states of the day still strived to create. There was peace, the rule of law, and some measure of religious toleration. He documented economic progress too, noting advances in navigation and agriculture and the growth of commerce. Gibbon and his peers knew very well that the authors of the Greek and Roman classics on which they have been brought up were not Enlightenment scholars. But they felt some affinity for the spirit of the age. “The love of letters, almost inseparable from peace and refinement, was fashionable among the subjects of Hadrian and the Antonines, who were themselves men of learning and curiosity.” So for the subjects of the last generation of European monarchs who did not quake before the French and American Revolutions, the real question was: “Where did it all go wrong?” What brought ancient Rome to its knees and let in the barbarians?
Things look different today. It’s not just that we are less confident about those Enlightenment values, and more sceptical about Roman toleration and the quality of Rome’s emperors. We live amidst the ruins of European and Soviet Empires, empires that rose and fell in the blink of a Roman eye. Most historians consider the British Empire was in its infancy in Gibbon’s lifetime which gives it a lifespan of two and half centuries at best. Depending on how you count it the Roman Empire lasted between one and half and two millennia. Our question today is not ‘why did it fall?’ but ‘why did it last so long?’
The Romans, of course, had no idea. Or rather their answers no longer convince us. Most saw their success as resting on the virtue of men and the favour of the gods (and so their decline on the growth of vices and the loss of that favour). The first analyst of Roman imperialism — the Greek general and historian Polybius — thought the answer might lie in the comparative advantage given by the Roman constitution. Rome was a Goldilocks city, not too democratic, not too monarchical, with a well-ordered military system and a religion in which the right people were firmly in control. That sort of analysis appeals more to modern political science with its interest in institutions. Yet every single institution changed in the course of Rome’s long history.
One new approach to the question is to follow Polybius’ comparative instinct but cast our net more widely. Rome was just one of a number of vast empires that appeared around the globe in antiquity. It seems astonishing at first that Persian, Chinese, Indian, Macedonian, Arab, Inka and Aztec conquerors, to name just the most famous cases, could create imperial states thousands of miles across and sustain them for centuries. The European empires of the nineteenth century had gunpowder and telegraphs, ships that could cross the oceans and were powered by dynamic economies back home. Yet they began to collapse almost before they reached their greatest extent. Early empires in Europe and Asia depended on iron technology and animal traction. All their documents were painstakingly written out by hand. In the New World they even lacked iron, ploughs, and writing! Seeing the Roman Empire against this backdrop does not make it less remarkable, but it helps us understand better what went right for it.
To take just one example: every early empire had to survive the end of expansion. Many early empires – that of the Mongols for instance – expanded fantastically rapidly but failed to stabilize their rule and collapse almost at once. China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin, lasted just one generation. The Persian Empire of Cyrus nearly collapsed in the second, until Darius the Mede seized power. In all the success stories we see the same basic strategies played out. Conquerors form alliances with elements of the defeated peoples, share some power and some profits, and bind them into the new empire with a cosmological vision that made their own self-interest seem in some sense noble. And suddenly the emperor Augustus’ investment in creating a tax system and filling the empire with monuments makes sense. Successful conquerors invest in infrastructure: the Persian Royal Road, the Great Canal of China….and the Roman roads. Fast communications meant knowing the enemy’s moves earlier, making the most of a smaller army, and provisioning the great capitals that arose at the heart of every empire.
There are differences of course between the early empires. Almost no other empire made the use (as Romans did) of slavery or citizenship; many had much less use for cities; some cultivated the scholars Gibbon identified with; some did without. Those contrasts too are revealing, helping explain some of Rome’s genuinely unique features. The trick, as always in comparative history, is picking the right comparisons. Rome in the Antonine Age was not quite like Enlightenment Europe, and it was not very like the British Empire either, for all that it was admired and taken as a model by both.
Greg Woolf is Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews. His research specialities include ancient literacy, the Roman economy, the sociology of ancient empires, ancient science, and Roman religion. His latest book, Rome: An Empire’s Story, publishes this month. See Greg Woolf discussing what’s new in Roman studies via our YouTube channel.