Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt


The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt is an engaging chronicle of the Republic’s rise to power in the ancient world. The author has written an extremely informative political, economic, military, religious, philosophical and social history of the first four hundred or so years subsequent to Rome’s founding. This book very effectively covers an enormous swath of time as well as topics.

One major problem that is symptomatic of many ancient histories is turned into an advantage in this book. That is, the historical record for the first two hundred years or so of Rome’s history ranges from the scant to the incomplete. For the early years, the author interspaces what is known and/or can be intelligently speculated with the numerous legends and stories that the Romans created concerning their own past. He writes,

The city's foundation myths and the events of its early centuries are almost entirely unhistorical, but they were what Romans believed of themselves. They are a rich and poetic feast that has nourished European civilization for two thousand years. It is only in the past few generations that our collective mind has begun to jettison them.”

Everitt encapsulates the fascinating though mostly fictional tales of such figures as Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, as well as accounts of possibly real people involved in actions and events that were likely wholly or in part apocryphal.  These legends are in of themselves engaging narratives. Everitt points out that while some of these stories do seem to have a basis in truth, they were often crafted to make political or philosophical points. As the centuries progress, accurate historical evidence becomes more plentiful and thus a more coherent chronological narrative is laid out.

Formed, more than founded, sometime around the 7th   or 8th century B.C., Rome was initially a monarchy. Established at a time when Greek culture was dominant in the region, the city developed a culture that was a variation upon the Greek. Sometime in the 4th century BC the monarchy was overthrown and replaced by a republic that Everitt describes as a mix of oligarchy, monarchy and democracy. The government was a complex mix of multiple legislative bodies and executives. The Senate was the most famous and at times the most powerful of these.


As the centuries passed, Rome both warred as well as practiced smart diplomacy and slowly grew to first encompass its near neighbors, then the Italian Peninsula. Later, major conflicts with Epirus, Macedonia, Pontus and Carthage resulted in Roman victories and enormous territorial and power gains throughout the Mediterranean region.

The book is full of engaging narratives of famous Romans and non -Romans who interacted with the Republic, such as Cato the Elder, Brutus the Elder, Hannibal, Pyrrhus of Epirus and many others. Everitt does not skimp on the common Roman either. Many pages are devoted to painting a picture as to what it was like being a member of various groups, including the wealthy, the poor, women, slaves, etc.


The author does not shy away from covering Roman brutality. Though to its credit, the nation often absorbed vanquished foes into the Republic; in other instances it carried out what today would be called genocidal campaigns of annihilation against defeated nations. The most famous example of this barbarity was the fate of Carthage. Romans also enslaved millions. According to Everitt the Roman slave system was particularly inhumane as compared to previous systems as the Republic worked hundreds of thousands of people to death in both agricultural pursuits and in mines. It is also well known that Rome spread savage gladiatorial combat throughout its territory.


 There are many points to this history worth pondering. Just one of several important threads here was just how important organization was to Rome’s success. In many ways, Rome was an extremely organized and efficient society in comparison to other states in existence at the time. Everitt argues that this efficiency and proficiency made the most difference when it came to laws, government and engineering.

This ordered legal system and government provided relative internal stability, sparing Rome some of the strife and chaos that was symptomatic of many other cities and peoples. To be sure, there was conflict between the powerful “Patricians” and the common “Plebeians.” This was mostly resolved through compromise, however. Everitt writes,

The remarkable story of how Rome’s class struggle was resolved is evidence that generation after generation of pragmatists were willing to give and take, to make do and mend, to strike deals with their political opponents.”

Furthermore, at least in the first few hundred years, a very organized government allowed Rome to effectively integrate, as opposed to rule over, peoples and territories that it conquered. Such assimilation of neighboring populations, rare in the ancient world, was integral to Rome’s success. Other states and empires were comprised of small core areas with limited populations attempting to hold on to larger conquered territories and peoples using limited resources. As Rome subsumed and merged more territories, it increased both its population as well as resources that were readily available to it. Thus, the Republic was able to outcompete its rivals.

As time passed, a large empire gave way to enormous empire. These legal and governmental systems, perfectly fashioned to govern a moderate sized ancient state, did not evolve with the times. Everitt explains how these institutions began to fail as the Republic turned into a behemoth. Civil strife and overambitious men led to the fall of the Republic and imperial dictatorship.

Likewise Rome’s engineering accomplishments were amazing and allowed for the development of an efficient and successful economic and military state. Everitt explains that by constructing technologically advanced roads, sewer systems and aqueducts, the Romans created a nation that was unbeatable both economically and militarily.

This work is a great source for anyone interested in ancient history, as well as the history of government, philosophy, economy and military. As Everitt points out, the earlier republican Roman years are less well known than those of the later empire. There are many lessons here for folks who want to gain a better understanding of the world. Understanding the Roman Republic is of key importance if one is to understand Western Civilization as well as the modern world. Thus I end with Everitt’s observations that,


The idea of Rome is imprinted on our genes.”

28 comments:

Sharon Henning said...

I love history and this sounds like another great source. I think I would especially enjoy learning more about the common Roma.n So much attention is given to the leaders. Thanks for the review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - One thing that I liked about this history was that it was fairly balanced in terms of covering the famous what life was like for most people.

Caroline said...

I have a weakness for biographies of Roman emperor and read quite a few. One I liked the most was Gore Vidal's Julian.
Rome is fascinating but I still think of it mainly as a huge colonization machine. It's so incredible how vast it once was.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I think that the colonization machine model for Rome is a valid and useful way of looking at the Roman State. I have not read Julian but have heard much about it.

The life stories of the Emperors are incredibly fascinating.

Dwight said...

I listened to the book and really enjoyed it--well organized and presented and, as you mention, very fair. Thanks for posting on this!

Book Dilettante said...

Those old Roman names remind me of Latin classes in high school. I was miserable in Latin as I was in math. I think the two go together. Luckily, I didn't try to major in either...

Guy Savage said...

Would you rather read this sort of history or a classic history?

Naida said...

This sounds fascinating Brian, reading about how the Roman the Republic was formed and continued to grow. When I think of ancient Rome, the gladiators are what come to mind first. Great ending statement too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Dwight - Thanks for stopping by.

I definitely agree that this was a really organized work. Everitt is also about as balanced as an historian gets.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Ha, Ha! I would actually thinks that folks into Latin would not be into math either. I suppose one reason to know Latin is to help with these Roman histories.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I would say that this was 50 - 60 % a Classic history and the remainder a social history. Though I find traditional history more interesting I think that this mix was about perfect.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - As per Everitt the gladiatorial games were begun in this period. They may have been borrowed from Rome's neighbors but the Republic spread them throughout the Mediterranean. These were of course savage barbarism and the Republic did no favor to Western Civilization with this practice.

....Petty Witter said...

What a wonderfully thorough review. A period in history I'm fascinated by but this sounds like a bit of a weighty tome ..... perhaps better in 2 parts?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - It was 512 pages and not that dense. As these types of books go I did not think that this was all that long. In terms of the early years of the Republic there is a limited amount that is know,

Richard said...

You can't go wrong with Greek or Roman history from an educational or entertainment standpoint, although I have to confess I haven't read as much about either since I started blogging for some reason. Anyway, thanks for bringing this volume to my attention (I'll keep it in mind for after I finish my Greek and Roman backlog, which is many books deep now). Have you ever read Tacitus' Annals or Histories, Brian? Amazing writing from my favorite Roman historian of them all!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard - There is so much history to read it is difficult to get to everything.

I must admit to not having read any of the histories written by the Romans or Greeks themselves such as Tacitus or Thucydides.

Suko said...

This sounds like a must-read book, Brian. Your bold new blog format seems perfect to highlight this book about Rome.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I would say this is a must read read if one is interested in ancient history. It really is a great book. I must admit however that when I try to discuss this with folks who are not into it, their eyes seem to glaze over.

bookaroundthecorner said...

It seems to be a fascinating book. The Romans were an incredible people and I always wonder how we managed to lose so much of their knowledge so quickly after the fall of the empire.

For me, this civilization seems "close" in a sense, as we still have in our cities amphitheaters, arenas, baths in more on less good shape. In my town, you can go to concerts in the Roman amphitheatre.

For those who, like me, aren't good at reading non-fiction, I highlt recommend the Gordianus series by Steven Saylor. It's crime fiction in Rome at the turning point between Republic and Empire. Saylor describes very well the society, the institutions and the politics of that time.

Heidi’sbooks said...

512 pages sounds doable. I was watching a TV show about how grain was a major reason that the Roman Empire developed. I was a little skeptical because there are so many threads to why and how an empire comes into being. This book sounds like it would answer my questions.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I think there really is something to your point about closeness. Though I do not live i9n a place where there are Roman ruins, in many ways we seem to have much more in common with the Romans then we do with Western Europe culture that existed a thousand years later.

The Gordianus series looks like a really neat bunch of books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Heidi - There is a little bit about the grain issue in this book. This book really did fill in lots of gaps for me about Rome's early years.

vb said...

I love anything that deal with Roman history ..But I have always wondered history is something written by people who win that would drastically affect the real facts is not!!!...But I think that would be just a minor problem..
Great review Brian and this I'm adding to my TBR list...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Good point about Points of view and history. Though there is definitely something to this, I do think that these days historians, with varying degrees of success, have attempted to look at history from alternate angles.

Maria Behar said...

I must confess that I don't know much about Roman history -- beyond the basics, that is. I should read this book, since it offers a fascinating, and very thorough, look at the culture of an empire that formed the bedrock of Western civilaziont. It's also a gret lesson on how the greed for conquest and domination brought about that empire's downfall.

I'm adding this to my Goodreads TBR shelf! Thanks for commenting on it!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - This was really a great read. It however ends when the Republic ends and the age of Emperors begin, so it is only part of the story.

JaneGS said...

Great review of what sounds like an excellent book.

>Everitt encapsulates the fascinating though mostly fictional tales of such figures as Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, as well as accounts of possibly real people involved in actions and events that were likely wholly or in part apocryphal.

I'm one of those people that believe many legends have kernal of truth in them, and so I know I would absolutely love this part of the book.

This is definitely one of my favorite periods of history--so much to learn about, imagine, etc.

>“The idea of Rome is imprinted on our genes.”

Yep! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - Thanks for the good word.

I do agree that many legends have some basis in fact. Everitt even explores that idea a little. However we have to be really careful to draw too many conclusions from these myths. We do not what parts are true and what parts or not. Often, as Everitt points out, the facts are changed to make a social, political or religious point. So a defeat is turned into a victory, a murderer turned into a hero, etc.