“Every one comes soon or late round by Rome,” wrote the poet Robert Browning a century and more ago, looking at the endless stream of tourists walking around the city’s ruins – and looking also at the rows of books about the city and its history on his bookshelves. It’s a number that grows all the time, spurred by the perennial appeal of the subject, the dramatic arc of a civilisation moving from republic to empire to eastern autocracy, an arc spanning centuries and leaving an indelible mark on the shape of the modern world.
The first part of that famous arc, Rome’s rise to Mediterranean domination after it threw off its primitive monarchy and became a republic in 509 BC, reaches a kind of apogee in the epic series of wars it fought with its erstwhile trading rival and sometime trading partner, the North African city of Carthage. These Punic Wars began in 264 BC and flamed back to life roughly every generation until 146 BC, with the First bringing initial hostilities to a close in 241 BC, the famous Second lasting from 218 to 201 BC, and the Third starting in 149 and ending in 146 with the total destruction of Carthage and the death or enslavement of its entire population. Ancient historians such as Livy and Polybius saw at once the immense dramatic and even moralising potential of such a conflict between two of the West’s most powerful cities, and this story – one “blended of calculation, and (just as often) miscalculation, heroism, cruelty, stubborn resolve, and the unexpected” – gets a lively retelling in Dexter Hoyos’s new book Mastering the West.
Hoyos has been a translator of Livy, and it shows in the vibrancy and speed of his narrative, which mirrors the master. He takes his readers through all the thrilling high points of these wars that “destroyed one empire and launched another”, naturally spending a good deal of effort on the meteoric career of Carthaginian general Hannibal, whose victories against a series of Roman armies from 218 to 216 BC formed the most glorious hour of Carthage, a civilisation whose shortcomings – military and social – Hoyos assesses with refreshingly stern even-handedness. He talks about the waste and occasional savagery of the empire’s social systems, and he mentions, on the military front, that although the Carthaginians enjoyed a high reputation for naval success, “in reality, they lost about as many sea battles as they won, even before their disastrous Roman clashes”.
Those clashes left Rome the dominant military and mercantile power in the West, a republic in control of a burgeoning empire. That empire required vast military forces to patrol and garrison, and vast military forces always present a temptation to would-be military dictators. A series of such men – able to bribe Rome’s vaunted legions and willing to subvert Rome’s laws in order to seize personal power – shook the republic to its foundations in the first century BC, bringing the entire history of Rome to a choke-point of institutional transformation. As Shakespeare’s Cassius asks with withering bitterness: “When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome,/ That her wide walls encompass’d but one man?”
That one man, of course, was Julius Caesar, whose life was a curious mixture of civil clemency and ruthless military autocracy and whose assassination in 44 BC ended all but the pretence of republicanism and set Rome on the path of a hereditary imperium. Barry Strauss, the author of several works of popular history about the ancient world, places that assassination at the heart of his new book The Death of Caesar, in which Caesar’s ambitions to be king in all but name move a large group of conspirators to murder him in what they believed was the people’s cause. “Hatred is one of the ruler’s greatest dangers, especially hatred from the common people,” Strauss writes. “Hatred stirs conspiracies, while hatred by the people makes conspirators think they can get away with their plans.”
Strauss is no apologist. He dramatises the incident in February 44 BC when Mark Antony three times offers Caesar a crown in public, noting that although Caesar theatrically refused it, the staginess of the moment raised nervous speculation that the real thing was in the offing. In three months, as Strauss puts it, “Caesar had disrespected the Senate, dispensed with the People’s Tribunes, and flirted with monarchy” – and all know the price he paid.
“History respects tradition but it is hard on institutions that don’t evolve with the times,” Strauss writes, and Rome did evolve in the wake of Caesar’s death. Emperors came and went, first expanding Rome’s military might and territorial reach to its zenith in the first century AD under Trajan, and then beginning a long and fitful contraction under his successor Hadrian. The empire remained fearfully strong, but it shape-shifted, concentrating more and more of its power and commerce farther and farther east, until finally the emperor Constantine established Byzantium as the new capital of the empire in AD 330. Historians have tended to view this as a radical new stage in Rome’s ongoing evolution, a third story-arc in which the old republic and empire became virtually unrecognisable under a thick patina of eastern theocratic emperor-worship – an arc in which Rome essentially became an Asian sultanate in all but name.
Ohio State University classics professor Anthony Kaldellis, in his exhilarating new work The Byzantine Republic, takes issue with this conception right from his book’s title. Rome, he contends, the old, recognisable Rome of Italy and the Mediterranean, is “written all over the Byzantine evidence” – and it evolved far more subtly and successfully than most previous historians have credited.
The typical view of the eastern Empire, in an eloquent line by Edward Gibbon elaborated by a legion of subsequent chroniclers, is of an all-powerful church increasingly taking over every aspect of government and transforming the emperor into a quasi-divine figure of eastern-style worship, rather than the more mundane “first citizen” he had styled himself as for centuries.
Kaldellis contends, in this genuinely groundbreaking synthesis, that the viewing glass of religion has obscured an eastern Rome that was far more Roman than eastern. “Byzantium,” he writes, “was in fact the continuation of the Roman res publica; and its politics, despite changes in institutions, continued to be dominated by the ideological modes and orders of the republican tradition.” His book looks concisely but energetically at all aspects of the Byzantine arc, studying a fascinating array of eastern sources in search of how the Byzantine Romans themselves conceived of their polity, and his account repeatedly suggests that, as he puts it, “we are dealing here with a political sphere whose fundamental and pre-existing ideological framework was republican, onto which had been superimposed a theocratic rhetoric”.
“It sounds,” he politely contends about the outmoded conceptions his book dispenses with, “as if a set of clichés is being recycled without ever having been tested fully against the evidence.”
Kaldellis does his new theorising against a terminal date carved in history: on May 29, 1453, the eastern capital, renamed Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Empire, and the long, winding process of Rome’s evolution shifted back west – and began again.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.
Mastering the West by Dexter Hoyos, Oxford University Press, Dh107 (Amazon); The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss, Simon & Schuster, Dh97 (Amazon); The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis, Harvard University Press, Dh140 (Amazon).
Updated: March 19, 2015 04:00 AM