The world of Rome, with its wars of conquest, slave labour, bloody games and crucifixions, can seem a terrible one. Or, thinking of town planning, civil engineering, bath-houses, mosaic pavements and Latin literature, Rome can appear a peak of human cultural achievement. Which of these is dominant? Rome the bloody conqueror or Rome the great civilizer? Should we deplore the historical example of Rome, or admire it, perhaps even seek to emulate it?

Some are making open comparisons between Rome and today’s American Empire. The office of Donald Rumsfeld, neo-conservative US Secretary of State under George Bush junior, sponsored a private study of great empires, including the Roman, asking how they had maintained their dominance and what the United States could learn from them. British diplomat Robert Copper, imagining ‘a new kind of imperialism … acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values’ which might be promoted by the EU, has suggested that ‘like Rome, this commonwealth would provide its citizens with some of its laws, some coins, and the occasional road’. When the Islamic militant Osama bin Laden called for ‘a general mobilisation to prepare for repulsing the raids of the Romans’, it was a metaphor for holy war against the American occupation of Iraq. Ancient historians Tom Holland and Peter Jones, writing in the BBC History Magazine, debated whether US power offered parallels with the Roman imperium. And Alex Callinicos, a leading left-wing intellectual, compared the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 with that of the 4th century Roman emperor Julian in the opening passages of his recent book The New Mandarins of American Power. The past, it seems, is about the present.

This book is a contribution to the debate. Though trained as a Roman archaeologist, I also taught Roman history for about ten years, mainly at two London adult education colleges. As a Marxist, I approached the subject in a distinctive way, but I also found myself at odds with ‘orthodox’ Marxist accounts of the ancient world. In particular, I found the concept of a ‘slave mode of production’ both empirically unsound and of little explanatory value. In the Roman world, most of the exploited were not slaves, and most of the surplus accumulated and consumed by the ruling class was produced by non-servile labour. Even when slaves were important – notably in Italy and Sicily during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC – this fact did not appear to have affected the character of Roman imperialism in any fundamental way. In relation to this, three points are worth stressing. First, the exploitation of slaves does not seem to have been so very different from the exploitation of other categories of rural labour (serfs, debt-bondsmen, tenants, seasonal wage-labourers). Second, the taxes, labour services and compulsory requisitioning imposed by the Roman state seem to have been as significant in generating surplus as the revenues raised by landowners from their estates; and the former was a type of exploitation that could be visited even on peasants who owned their own land. Third – and for me the most important point – war probably contributed more surplus in the Roman Empire than either taxes or rents. Rome was, in its very essence, a system of robbery with violence.

So what I offer is a story with a message: a narrative of Roman history driven by a single, comprehensive interpretation. I argue that Rome was a dynamic system of military imperialism – of robbery with violence – and that its rise and fall, its conquests and defeats, its revolutions and civil wars can best be understood as manifestations of this. Let me stress that the conceptual framework has not been ‘imposed on the evidence’: it has grown out of it. After all, as I say, mine is not an ‘orthodox’ Marxist interpretation; it is something that has been worked out afresh through long engagement with the narrative. Evidence and theories have interacted. Evidence demanded explanation and pointed in certain directions. Theories attempted to organize evidence meaningfully, but were sometimes changed by counter-evidence. And the working out was done partly through discussion with colleagues and students. The result is a narrative of Roman history reconfigured by a distinctive and substantially new interpretation.

Something must be said also about matters of detail. I aim to tell a story. I have turned what I know of the evidence into a narrative. In fact, the evidence is often weak and open to alternative interpretation; much of Roman history is fiercely argued, and one can say little of substance that is wholly uncontroversial. So, as I used to tell my students, what I offer is ‘an interpretive narrative’ – a story that makes sense, that respects the evidence, and that amounts to a possible history of what happened and why. But much is open to debate, and I do not engage in debate in the text. There is not the space for it. This, relative to its subject, is a short book. Also, it is aimed at the general reader (though I hope students will find it useful and scholars be interested by the interpretation). For these reasons, I have dispensed with the customary academic apparatus of argument, references and footnotes. Because the book is a broad synthesis, scholars will know the evidence and debates, while students will find the bibliographical essay an efficient introduction to the more specialized literature. But because the text is devoid of the rather tedious argument, qualification and referencing obligatory in more formal academic writing, it demands this all-embracing caveat: much of the detail in what follows is open to dispute, and the general interpretation in particular is highly controversial.

Controversy is inevitable. We live in an age of empire and war. As I write this, the American Empire is escalating its war in the Middle East, a war which has already killed two-thirds of a million people. But the Empire has powerful friends and many influential, well-funded, high-profile apologists. The American Empire can be a force for good, they tell us. Like the British Empire. Like the Roman.

The war in Iraq is being fought for oil, profit and US power. Yet the lie endures that it is about democracy and freedom. Rome was the same. The spin stressed peace, law and civilization. The reality was carnage and looting to enrich a few. That reality is this book’s theme.

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