Then Romulus, proudly clad in the tawny pelt of the she-wolf who nursed him, will ensure the future of the race, will found the martial walls and from his own name call them ROMANS. I have fixed no boundaries to their dominions, no fixed term to their rule, I have given them EMPIRE WITHOUT END. Even harsh Juno, who at present fills land and sea and sky with fear, will in the end think better of them, and at my side will show her favour to the Romans, masters of the world, the people of the toga. This has been decreed.
(Virgil, Aeneid 1.275–83)
Empire came to bewitch the Roman imagination. Ours too. Every study of ancient Rome, whether of its love poetry or festivals, its monumental art or the routines of the family, now invokes empire as one—sometimes as the — crucial context. But what they understood and we understand by ‘empire’ is not always the same thing. This chapter explores some of different senses of empire that are entwined at the heart of our stories of Rome.
An Imperial People
Sometimes it feels as if empire was written into Roman DNA. The Romans of the classical period definitely believed something like this. When epic poets or historians imagined the very earliest days of the city’s history, they pictured it as already fixed on a course for greatness. The coming of empire was the central theme of the Aeneid, a great epic poem composed by Virgil in the court of Augustus.1 The epigraph of this chapter is taken from Jupiter’s prophecy of Rome’s future greatness that stands near the start of that epic. If at first it was designed to serve the immediate political needs of the poet and his patron, it had a much more influential afterlife. The Aeneid was the starting point of education in Italy and the western provinces for centuries to come. It occupied a place in Roman culture much like the Declaration of Independence and Constitution do in America, or Shakespeare does in Britain. Constantly quoted and instantly recognizable, lines of the Aeneid are even ubiquitous as graffiti across the empire. Most come from the first book of the epic, suggesting most pupils did not get very far. But the children of provincial notables will have read Jupiter’s famous lines as they struggled to learn Latin, and in the process learnt what it was to be Roman too.
The Aeneid does not tell the story of Augustus’ rise to power, nor even of Rome’s conquest of Italy and the Mediterranean. Instead, the story is set in the heroic age, the period immediately following that of Homer’s two great Greek epics, the Iliad and theOdyssey. It tells how Prince Aeneas led a band of refugees away from the blazing ruin of Troy, after it had been sacked by the Greeks. The first six books follow their wanderings further and further west, driven first by fear, then drawn on by destiny into a strange and strangely modern new world. Monsters, hostile natives, and angry gods try to frustrate their journey. Then there are temptations along the way. No berth is more alluring than Carthage, which the Trojans find under construction, and ruled by Dido, the beautiful Phoenician queen and another refugee from the eastern Mediterranean. Of course Dido and Aeneas fall in love, and of course their love is doomed: this is, after all, epic not romance, although it takes Aeneas a while to realize it. For the gods have a plan, and the plan is Rome. Aeneas leads his men, his father and his son, and the sacred cult objects of Troy to the coast of Latium in central Italy. There war, prophecy, and marriage will eventually allow them to settle in the town of Alba Longa. From there, Aeneas’ distant descendant—Romulus—will set out to found the city.
Aeneas was the son of a goddess, Venus, worshipped in Rome as Venus Genetrix, Venus our Ancestor. Julius Caesar built a temple to her at the heart of the new forum he paid for from the spoils of the Gallic War. After his assassination, his heir, the future Emperor Augustus, completed the project. The temple was finished not long before the composition of the Aeneid. Both of these monumental works mark stages in the process by which a single authorized version of Roman history was created out of a mass of contradictory traditions. One reason for this was the shift from a Republican form of government to a monarchy. Many traditions were linked to particular families, but now one family dominated the city. Julius Caesar, and so Augustus too, claimed to be direct descendants of Aeneas and Venus. Another reason was that Roman historians had only just begun to construct a reliable chronology of their own past. Scholars of the last generation of the free Republic, including Cicero’s friends Varro, Nepos, and Atticus, had worked hard to correlate events in Roman tradition and the datelines established by Greek historians. Their conclusions—although often based on what to us seem like very shaky arguments—were never seriously challenged in antiquity. It was more important that Rome had a genuine and agreed history, than that it was the right one. Augustus was equally concerned to fix the past. The historian Livy dryly records how Augustus himself engaged in research in ancient history to establish that no subordinate officer could be awarded the exceptional honour of the spolia opima awarded only to a general who killed his opponent in single combat.2 Less controversially, great bronze tablets were set up recording the fasti, the exact sequence of consuls from the start of the Republic to the present day. The consuls were the pair of annual magistrates after which each year was traditionally named. Caesar and Augustus promoted research into the calendar, and published it.3
Fig 1. The Prima Porta Augustus displayed in the Braccio Nuovo new wing of Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy
Fixed by Homer’s epic at the end of the heroic age, Aeneas lived far too early to found the city of Rome himself. Greek scholars had calculated that Troy had fallen in 1183 BC while the date of the foundation of Rome was calculated as 753 BC. That left quite a gap. But Virgil’s epic allowed Aeneas several visions of the future—Virgil’s present that is—as an imperial age in which, under Augustus’ rule, the Romans would rule the world according to the decrees of Jupiter. Most impressive was a descent into the Underworld where Aeneas’ dead father showed him the great Romans of history, waiting to be born, and gave him hints of their fates. Aeneas also took a trip up the Tiber to visit the future site of the city of Rome, still a pastoral idyll and settled by yet other refugees from the east, Greeks from Arcadia this time, who told him the story of how Hercules had passed by that very spot and defeated the terrifying monster Cacus there. Virgil wove together the many legends of ancient Rome, making out of them a narrative that could only culminate in Augustus.
The foundation of the city of Rome itself was left to one of Aeneas’ descendants, Romulus, who with his brother Remus was the son of a princess of Aeneas’ line and also of the god Mars, conveniently giving the Romans a second divine ancestor. When Augustus built his own forum and temple he dedicated the latter to Mars and set images of Venus, Mars, and Julius Caesar (now a god as well) on the pediment.4 Livy, who wrote not long after Virgil, opened his history From the Foundation of the City with the declaration that if any nation had the right to claim descent from Mars, the god of war, that nation was Rome.5 Romans found in the myths of early Rome more than simply a justification for their current greatness. The story of how Romulus killed his brother because he dared step over the wall he had just built for the new city was understood as a sign that civil war too was written into the Roman psyche. The Rome of Augustus was, after all, in recovery from nearly a century of civil wars. When Virgil describes the Africans rising against Dido after she chose a foreign prince, the Italians attacking the Trojans when Aeneas won the hand of the local princess, or when Livy tells how Romulus supplied his followers with women by kidnapping the wives and daughters of the neighbouring Sabines, we can see how Romans sought an explanation for their own apparently ingrained traditions of violence.6 That darker investigation runs alongside the repeated retellings of how much it had cost to found the Roman state and fulfil the city’s divine destiny. The atrocities of the end of the Republic—with its riots, lynchings, and cold-blooded political murders—must have made it impossible to tell a convincing story of Rome only in terms of successive acts of heroism and piety.
Myths of the deep past accumulated over time. Of course they were rewritten as Rome’s empire grew. If we compare stories like these to the foundation myths of other cities in the ancient Mediterranean, it becomes immediately clear that many of Rome’s traditions were not very unusual. A startling number of cities claimed descent from Trojan or Greek refugees.7 This was presumably because Homer’s epics had such great prestige, and because so little else was known about the early first millennium BC. Others claimed to be descended from wandering heroes, Hercules especially, but also Odysseus, Perseus, Antenor, and others. Most Greek colonies claimed divine sanction for their possession of the land, and the dispossession of the previous inhabitants. That sanction might take the form of signs, oracles, or miraculous events. Many paid cult to their founders, as the Romans in fact worshipped Romulus under the name Quirinus. Violent beginnings, battles with indigenous peoples, and marriages between incomers and native women, are also standard elements.8 Even the foundling turned founder has many parallels. Presumably these were the central elements of the first versions of Rome’s tales of origin. Only at a later stage can the prophecies have begun to include world dominion, and the legends started to explore the darker side of Roman nature.
Unfortunately, we know very little of how Romans thought about themselves before they became an imperial power. The first Latin literature was created at the end of the third century BC.9 By that time Rome was without question the major power in the western Mediterranean basin, and it had for generations dominated the Italian peninsula. The first Roman historians, Fabius Pictor writing in Greek and Cato the Elder in Latin, were already setting out to explain how Rome had overtaken Carthage. Fabius Pictor had taken part in the wars against the Gauls of north Italy in the late third century, and was one of a delegation of senior senators who visited the oracle at Delphi in Greece seeking advice after Hannibal’s great victory at Cannae in 216 BC. Cato (234–149 BC) saw the defeat of Hannibal, and also took part in the first wars against the great kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean. His book of Origins was the product of combing Greek scholarship for information about the prehistory of the peoples of Italy. Most of what he gathered must have been foundation legends similar to that of Rome. Earlier Greek historians of the classical period knew a little about Rome; but not much of what they had to say has survived. Rome seems to spring into history fully formed as an imperial power, spectacularly aggressive, with institutions well developed for surviving occasional defeats and converting military victories into lasting political dominion.10
The Romans of this period already had a sense of their history as a rise to greatness. A contemporary of Cato, Quintus Ennius (239–169 BC), wrote an epic poem that was in effect a history of Rome from the beginning until his own day. It was called the Annales, and was the basis of education in the late Republic in the same way the Aeneid was under the empire. Cicero adored it, but only fragments now survive. All the same we have a good sense of Ennius’ ‘plot’. The first three books told the story of Rome from the fall of Troy through the foundation of the city and the rule of its seven kings until the Republic was created. Then followed twelve books relating Rome’s wars against other Italian communities; against the Macedonian king Pyrrhus; against Carthage, culminating in the conquest of Greek cities in Italy and Sicily; and then the first wars in Spain; and those fought in the Balkans during the early second century BC against the great kingdoms of the east. Ennius then added three more books describing the victories of his patron, the general Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, whom he had accompanied on campaign in the northern Balkans in 189–188 BC. On their return Nobilior built a great temple on the Field of Mars, one dedicated to Hercules and the Muses. A prototype of Augustus’ Fasti was also displayed in it. From the beginning, then, war and poetry went hand in hand. And Roman history was the history of Roman imperialism. Roman power was extended, just war by just war, until the entire sequence came to seem to have been sanctioned by the gods of Rome.11 Their favour could never be taken for granted, but through repeated acts of piety the Roman people retained the divine mandate. Triumph after triumph proclaimed the support of the gods.12 And while these epics and histories (and dramas too, although few have survived) were composed, the city itself became filled with victory temples, many vowed in battle and funded by the spoils donated by individual generals. The same generals decorated their own homes with trophies.
This then gives us a Roman sense of empire. The rule of one people, the people of the toga, over those whom they had defeated in war; a rule sanctioned by the gods of Rome as a mark of their favour for a people who were uniquely pious. Only in the last century of the Republic did Romans develop means of describing the great political entity they had created.13 Our term ‘empire’ derives from the Latin imperium. Its fundamental meaning was ‘command’, and right up until the end of the Republic, this remained its primary sense. As late as Julius Caesar’s day the word imperator (the origin of our ‘emperor’) simply meant a general, someone invested with command. Soldiers on a battlefield might chant out the title after a battle as a way to honour their commander.Imperiumwas a temporary power and a personal one, granted him with solemn rituals for the duration of one campaign. Stepping back inside the city, which he had to do if he wanted to celebrate a triumph, meant relinquishing this power. Augustus was the first who never relinquished it. One sense that imperium acquired only very late in the process was the total territory controlled by Rome. Augustus’ account of his own life, inscribed on pillars before his tomb and disseminated as copies throughout the empire, proclaimed world hegemony and made clear that allied states and defeated enemies were all subject to Rome’s command.
The Archetypal Empire
The modern idea of empire has its own history. Yet Rome has a key place in the history of this idea. The Romans created a set of ideas and symbols that exercised a fascination over many subsequent generations. Other empires had touched the Mediterranean world before Rome, most recently those of the Persians and of Alexander. But their repertoire of ceremonials, titles, and images has had less of an afterlife, in part because Romans refused to acknowledge them as their equals, and invented their own language of world domination, in part because the Latin vocabulary of empire was the one adopted by later powers. The history of the idea of empire in the west is very largely the history of successive imitations of Rome. Each time Rome was copied, directly or indirectly, the idea of empire was modified. Yet Latin titles and imperial eagles lasted well into the twentieth century. ‘Empire’ plunges through European and finally world history, like a snowball rolling downhill.14
The Roman Empire had many imitators and would-be successors. The rulers of the medieval west lived among the ruins of Roman monuments. Roman coins were still to be found in the fields. Roman walls embraced the tiny towns of Europe, and the best roads remained for centuries those the Romans had built, roads that still crossed rivers on stone bridges that early medieval monarchs could not rival. Latin remained the main language of literature, and classical texts were widely read and treated with exaggerated awe. And knowing Rome was inseparable from knowing about its empire. When Frankish kings began to extend their power over other peoples, Rome was the only possible model. At the end of the twelfth century, the French king was nicknamed Philip Augustus, and his main rivals were the German emperor and the Angevin kings of England, who included lesser kings among their vassals. Emperor meant, for much of the Middle Ages, the supreme secular position of leadership. Ordinary kings ranked below him, popes on a par.
Besides, there were still live Roman emperors to admire and rival. They ruled in Constantinople on the Bosporus, the city we know as Istanbul and which had been Byzantium before. These emperors justifiably regarded themselves as Romans, the heirs of Justinian and Constantine at least as well as of their pagan predecessors. The language of their empire might now be Greek, and its domains had shrunk to the lands around the Aegean Sea, but the palace, the hippodrome, and the libraries of Byzantium, as well as the ceremonial and titulature of the court, proclaimed its authentic Roman imperial style. North and west of Byzantium a great penumbra of peoples were drawn into its cultural sphere. Viking adventurers travelled across the European rivers to Novgorod and then on to the city they called Miklagard, the Great City. One of them carved some runes, still visible today, into the balcony of the great imperial church of Haghia Sophia, built by the sixth-century emperor Justinian. Its dome provided the model for Islamic mosques,themselves often built on the site of Roman temples or churches and often employing Roman columns in their construction. After the Fourth Crusade (1202–4) there were Frankish emperors in Byzantium for a while, briefly drawing the western and eastern traditions together. Even when the restored Greek emperors finally lost the city to the Turks in the fifteenth century there was no total rupture. Various princes took the opportunity to declare their own states a ‘Third Rome’: Moscow is the most famous. For a while there had in any case been a sultanate of Rûm ruling former Byzantine possessions in Asia Minor, and the Ottomans staged grand ceremonies in the hippodrome and worshipped in Haghia Sophia, now a mosque, just like their Christian predecessors. Roman political models had been less influential elsewhere in the Islamic world. Other aspects of Roman civilization periodically fascinated. The cities of Byzantine Syria had a brief period of prosperity after the Arab conquest. During the ninth century the Abbasid caliphs employed some of their Christian subjects to trawl Greek literature and translate whatever was valuable. Many medical texts and some works of philosophy have survived only in Arabic translation.15
Empire had lasting resonance, then, as a set of symbols. From our distant vantage point we can watch the baton being passed down, generation to generation. The predominant dynamic seems to have been competition. Charlemagne employed the language of empire to consolidate Frankish hegemony: he and the papacy also found it a helpful tool in keeping the Byzantine emperor at bay. Four centuries later the author of the Chanson de Roland imagined Charlemagne as a great proto-crusader, who at God’s command would defend Christendom against the paien (the pagan). A few of the medieval German emperors took up this challenge. But mostly they employed the title of emperor to express their sense of being at the pinnacle of a worldly hierarchy, overlords of prince-electors, petty kings, and free cities from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. During the three centuries in which the Hapsburg family provided Holy Roman Emperors, the imperial style was further elaborated in Spain, Austria, and Germany. The enduring power vested in these symbols is demonstrated by the decision of Napoleon to abolish the Holy Roman Empire, and to proclaim the first French empire in 1804. Austria responded by declaring the Austrian Empire the same year. Nineteenth-century France experienced an alternation of republics and empires. The second French Empire perished after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870: the German Empire was born the next year. The British Queen Victoria took the title Empress of India in 1876. The nineteenth century saw brief New World empires established in Brazil, Haiti, and in Mexico. The Austro-Hungarian Empire lasted until 1918. The Russian tsars lost their empire just a year earlier: their title tsar (derived naturally from Caesar) can be tracked back in Slav languages as far as the rulers of tenth-century Bulgaria, some of Byzantium’s most formidable opponents. British monarchs retained the imperial title until 1948. The latest emperor in this tradition was Bokassa, who ruled the Central African Empire between 1976 and 1979.
It is an obvious point to make, perhaps, but these polities had almost nothing in common. Nor do they correspond very well, in any age, to the list of imperial powers we might draw up on other criteria. The British, by most estimates, ruled an empire (or perhaps two) long before Victoria was persuaded to take the title. Spain was clearly an early modern empire, whether or not the ruling Hapsburg happened to be emperor. On the other hand, these claims cannot be dismissed entirely as megalomaniac fantasies. What we are observing is the enduring power of Roman models of empire to fascinate, especially at moments of intense competition for precedence. When monarchies vied for prestige, they reached for the eagles, the Latin titles, wreaths, and classicizing architecture. Their value was that they were instantly recognizable. Even Bokassa, as he seized power within the Central African Republic, demonstrated how well he had learned the symbolic language of European colonialism.
The revival of the language of empire in the modern age seems particularly surprising. Rivalry between European monarchies was clearly one factor. Perhaps there were simply not many alternative vocabularies to express the global differentials of power being created. But there were multiple local factors too. Napoleon’s empire was not just about dominion abroad, it was also about the working out of the Republican project within post-Revolutionary France. Victoria’s assumption of the title Empress of India was not just about rivalry with her German son-in-law, Kaiser Wilhelm: it may also have reflected a growing recognition of the national identity of India. The last Mughal (deposed by the British in 1858) had taken the Urdu title Badishah-e-Hind, which is often translated as Emperor of India. The Russian monarchs’ use of the Slavic term czar or tsar also evoked the guardianship of Orthodox Christianity.
Behind all this we can sense the emergence of a group of nation-states that regarded each other as in a league of their own, as great powers. Today, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, only three members of the G8 and only one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are still monarchies of any kind. But for much of the nineteenth century, all the leading nations had hereditary heads of state. The nineteenth century too was the high watermark of European interest in the classics, and especially in Rome. Perhaps it is not surprising that, by one route or another, so many of these monarchs became emperors, at least for a short while. The language and trappings of empire offered a way to express a sense that they were more than simply kings and queens, and that the nation-states over which they reigned were not ordinary nations.
Empire did not lose its charm until the middle of the twentieth century. One by one monarchies were abolished, or rendered peripheral. Communist states found Rome a less attractive model than had their predecessors. Fascism was the last major political movement to make use of Roman models. Mussolini’s imitation of Rome was the most explicit: as well as using Roman precedent to make a claim to Mediterranean hegemony, his party was named after the fasces, the bundle of rods surrounding an axe that was the symbol carried before a Roman magistrate. German Fascism too made much use of classical Roman imagery, especially in the architecture of the Third Reich.16 After the Second World War the Japanese emperor was made to renounce his divinity, European empires were dismantled, and imperialism came to acquire a more and more pejorative sense. The British monarchy quietly put away the title after the end of the British Raj. Classical imagery was in any case less and less effective as the new professional and governing classes had less and less knowledge about Rome. ‘Imperialist’ became a term of abuse directed against colonial powers by newly independent peoples, and the label was used as a term of condemnation by all sides in the Cold War. Discussions of whether or not the USA is today an empire are rarely sympathetic towards American foreign policy.
The multiple afterlives of the Roman Empire are one reason for the enduring importance of Rome. But they can also obscure our vision of Rome itself. It is worthwhile considering some of the less obvious contrasts between Rome and her nineteenth-century imitators. For one thing, the Roman Empire admitted no equals and recognized no predecessor. There was no notion of a community of nations, no elite club of superpowers; the Romans were a single people over and against the rest. Not all of their subjects and neighbours saw things this way. But empire for Rome was novel and unique. Rome was restoring nothing, and the world empire it created seemed, for a while, without precedent.
Fig 2. A Mercury Dime, depicting the Roman fasces
Empire as a Category
The last notion of empire that I want to introduce is one the Romans would have found hard to credit. This is the idea that empire is a particular kind of political entity, one that has occurred on several occasions and in several locations in world history. This usage makes the term ‘empire’ into a timeless socio-historical category; the very opposite of a phenomenon with its own history.
We are all familiar, naturally, with the idea that ‘empire’ denotes a particular kind of thing. Alongside the Roman Empire we might want to set the British Empire, the New World empires of the Aztecs and Inkas, the Persians and the Assyrians in antiquity, the Spaniards in the early modern period, and so on. For everyday purposes, we associate empire with the conquest of other peoples or states, with grand capital cities and rich court ceremonial, with rule over a great swathe of territory, and with a leading place in historical narratives. Empires rise and fall, they dominate their neighbours, they gather exotic treasures from the edges of the earth, and claim to be at the centre of it. Empire evokes dreams of universal dominion: a Reich that lasts a thousand years, a flag the sun never sets on, a ruler who is a king of kings.
It turns out to be not so easy to develop more rigorous definitions. We can hardly rely on the rulers’ preferred description, which usually depended on local rivalries and whether the term would win or lose them support. Besides, what are we to do when we consider places outside those traditions that placed Rome at its root? Most historians would agree that the Inka and the Chinese created empires comparable to those of Europe and the Middle East, yet how are we to decide which Quechua or Mandarin terms have the same semantic range as ‘empire’ or ‘emperors’? The ancients themselves did not always agree on what was or was not an empire. Roman emperors generally treated Persia as a lesser state, yet Persians on occasion addressed them as ‘brother emperors’.17 The historical sociologist finds it especially difficult to distinguish small empires from large states, since most states are built on domination, and since only the tiniest states have no internal peripheries. Did the English ever exercise imperial rule over Wales and Ireland or over Scotland? That English governments dominated these regions is without doubt, but the language chosen to describe them was never imperial. Scots were eventually presented as partners in the British Empire. But was not this mere ideology, a device to disguise English hegemony and to claim that the inhabitants of Scotland were in some sense privileged relative to those of other subjected territories? Empires are certainly states, and there are certainly rulers and ruled. But there are also those subjects who join in conquering and ruling, both their own people and others. Scale ought to be a good criterion. But fixing the limit is impossible. The Bronze Age empires of Mesopotamia and the classical Athenian empire were tiny compared to those of Rome, Persia, and north India. Yet it would seem odd either to deny the title ‘empire’ to them, or alternatively to term virtually all the kingdoms of medieval and modern Europe imperial.
What most historians concerned with comparative analysis do is to divide up the term ‘empire’ into sub-categories, and to try to compare only like with like.18 It makes sense, for example, to treat separately the late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century European empires in which nation-states enjoyed brief control of distant regions with much weaker economies, largely through their technological superiority. Even within pre-industrial (or, if you prefer, pre-modern or pre-capitalist) empires, some comparisons seem hazardous. Can we really compare the maritime empire of early modern Portugal with the chronologically contemporaneous empires of the valley of Mexico, whose rulers did not use writing, iron, or pack animals and whose political horizons were so much narrower? Perhaps these definitional questions do not matter too much: small empires are difficult to distinguish from large states precisely because they are, in many respects, very similar. Unless it is important to establish an unambiguous separation of categories (for example if one were trying to show how some things were always true of empires and never true of anything else) the vagueness of the term is not a problem. Lenin needed clear definitions for his proposition that imperialism was a particular historical stage, but that is not my purpose here.19
The empires to which I will most often compare Rome are those that resembled it most closely in scale and technology. That means great states like Achaemenid and Sassanian Persia, the Mauryan Empire of north India, and China after the Qin dynasty. All these were states with productive agricultural economies, generally dependent on Iron Age technology, and had no source of energy beyond human and animal power, firewood, and perhaps watermills. All employed some form of writing or similar record keeping, and also standardized systems of money, weights, and measures. All were so vast it took weeks to get a message from one side to the other by the fastest communications media of the day, and months for an army to cross. All had elaborate social hierarchies, especially at their courts, and made extensive use of ceremonial and ritual. States of this kind are sometimes called tributary or aristocratic empires. Empires of this kind were typically created when one or more ruling peoples conquered—generally rather rapidly—a number of previously independent subject peoples. Achaemenid Persia was formed from the forced merger of the kingdoms of the Medes, Babylonia, Lydia, and Egypt, all between 550 and 520 BC. Rome became imperial by first swallowing up other Italian states, then defeating Carthage and finally the major kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean. The Qin became imperial by conquering six or seven other kingdoms at the end of the Warring States Period. There are many other examples of this pattern known from around the world. But conquest was only the first stage, and many empires collapsed at the moment expansion stopped: the fate of Alexander the Great’s empire is a case in point. Conquest states needed to transform themselves into stable structures of domination. Their rulers came to depend not only on the use and threat of violence, but also on the tacit support of local elites of various kinds. Through their help levies, tithes, taxes, or some combination of these was extracted. Local rulers took a portion and most of this surplus was put to the task of maintaining order and defending the empire. The residue paid for the extravagant lifestyle of the rulers of the empire. Those rulers also invested heavily in ceremonial and monuments. Most claimed the mandate of heaven, both to reassure themselves and to cow their subjects. Rome was, in all these respects, a fairly typical pre-industrial empire.
What is to be gained from thinking about Rome in these terms? One benefit is that comparison sometimes explains some feature of society that seems odd to us today. That Roman emperors were worshipped as gods seems less strange when we appreciate quite how widespread practices of this kind were in ancient empires.20 Comparison can also sometimes help us appreciate how unusual one or another feature of the Roman version of early empire was. Citizenship, for example, an inheritance from the city-state cultures of the archaic and classical Mediterranean, is a good example of one respect in which the Roman Empire was unusual. Persian shahs and the Chinese sons of heaven had subjects, not fellow citizens. Perhaps a final advantage is that this kind of exercise reminds us of the difference between appropriate and inappropriate comparisons. Many historians today find themselves making comparisons between modern imperialisms and those of the Roman past. The reasons are obvious enough. Our age has rejected the language of empire, arguably without always surrendering much of its power. Rome enters the discussion not because it is a very close analogy, but because it is familiar, and because modern empires have made so much use of Roman symbols. Modern empires are unlike Rome: the principal difference is not one of morality (racism versus slavery anyone?) but of technology. Lenin was right to insist on the ineradicably modern origins of nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism. Comparative history gives us a sense of perspective: Rome was not unique, but nor was it very like either the British Raj or twenty-first-century superpowers. Rome has its own Romance.
Roman myth-makings about their past and their gradual awakening to an imperial destiny are the subject of Erich Gruen’s Culture and National Identity in Republican Rome (London, 1992) and Emma Dench’s Romulus’ Asylum (Oxford, 2005). Andrew Erskine’sTroy between Greece and Rome (Oxford, 2001) is a wonderful study of Rome’s discovery of its Trojan origins. A vivid account of Roman myth-making is Peter Wiseman’s Myths of Rome (Exeter, 2004).
The study of later receptions of Greece and Rome is one of the fastest growing areas of classical scholarship. For the afterlife of Rome and for Rome as a model of empire, see Catharine Edwards’s Roman Presences (Cambridge, 1999) and Margaret Malamud’sAncient Rome and Modern America (Oxford, 2009). A valuable set of essays is Richard Hingley’s Images of Rome: Perceptions of Ancient Rome in Europe and the United States in the Modern Age (Portsmouth, RI, 2001).
The best introduction to the comparative history of the pre-modern world is Patricia Crone’s Preindustrial Societies (Oxford, 1989). One of the most influential studies of early empires was Jon Kautsky’s The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (Chapel Hill, NC, 1982). Susan Alcock, Terence D’Altroy, Kathy Morrison, and Carla Sinopoli’s Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History (Cambridge, 2001) faithfully reproduces the exciting conference that gave rise to it. For a recent essay in systematic comparative history, see Walter Scheidel, Rome and China (Oxford, 2009).
Map 1. The peoples of Italy around 300 BC