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.”