Friday, December 17, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Giovanni Alberto Cecconi, La città e l'impero: una storia del mondo romano dalle origini a Teodosio il Grande. Frecce 84. Roma: Carocci, 2009. Pp. 477. ISBN 9788843051144. €36.50 (pb).

Reviewed by Luca Fezzi

The volume La città e l'impero. Una storia del mondo romano dalle origini a Teodosio il Grande by Giovanni Alberto Cecconi takes its place in a vast bibliographical panorama and yet is an entertaining and stimulating read.

Cecconi states that his objective is to provide an approach to the Roman world that is accessible to the amateur history buff and at the same time a useful instrument for university students (15). The text fully achieves this none too easy objective. The richness and precision of the contents are effectively sustained by a fluid prose and a narration that is consistently lively and offers thought provoking comparisons of different places and periods. The allusions to the Middle Ages and later periods, and more importantly to twentieth-century history and contemporary geopolitics are far from being purely ornamental. They assist the reader in understanding the fundamental object of the book itself.

The decision to end the book at the death of Theodosius the Great (395 A.D.) is made clear in the introduction and in the last pages of the volume: «un approdo tranquillo, anche se certamente non l'unico possibile dell'epoca tardoantica» (16); «non interessa spingersi oltre, alla improbabile ricerca di una cesura temporale più 'profonda' del 395... con la fine del regno di Teodosio I si scivola nel V secolo, il quale comincia con una serie di episodi che aprono ulteriori problemi sul piano amministrativo, militare, ideologico... » (393-394).

The focus is political-institutional, but the ideological, religious and economic aspects are not overlooked and are, when necessary, discussed in depth. The work is developed following the transformation of Rome from city-state to centre of the empire, and its gradual decline, in a perspective that doesn't overlook in any way the provincial contexts and the evolution of centre-periphery relations, winding along a path that is divided into 4 parts (I. Roma nel Lazio e in Italia; II. Dall'egemonia mediterranea alla fine della repubblica; III. L'impero da Augusto agli Antonini; IV. Tardo impero e tarda antichità), which are in turn subdivided into 19 chapters and 142 concise paragraphs, particularly efficient in pulling together the most important historical passages. The book is completed with a glossary (written in collaboration with Novella Lapini), an updated general bibliography, a bibliography by topic, with notes and comments, and a general index. If Cecconi judges painful (15) the choice not to include an introduction on the documentary basis of Roman History, it must be observed that the wide and rigorous use of the sources (besides the numerous citations of passages there are references to debates and the most recent scientific findings) manages to clarify to the nonexpert the nature of the problems, even methodological, encountered by the scholar of antiquity.

Considering the breadth of this work, it will be possible here to just briefly address a series of points deserving attention.

Cecconi reflects on war as a «brutale realtà antropologica» (62), closely connected with religion and politics (62-66). He comments on the inherent difficulties of the concept of imperialism and on the relationship between expansionism and philhellenism (84-86). He describes the institutions of the period after the Punic wars (95-103), the morphology of relationships between the senatorial order and the equestrian group (120-121) and the model of the provincial government (137-147). Moving to the Caesarian era, we must agree on the importance that Cecconi has attributed to the correspondence of Cicero (149-150) as an eyewitness and main source of the period. On the other hand, regarding the actual importance of election campaigns and of the political role of common citizens, Cecconi assumes a somewhat detached viewpoint on the debated problem of 'democracy' in Rome, observing that even today «i principii costitutivi dell'idea di democrazia sono lungi dall'incontrare un riconoscimento generale» (155; on the theme, now, we must come to terms with M.C. Alexander, The Commentariolum Petitionis as an Attack on Election Campaigns, «Athenaeum» 97, 2009, 31-57; 369-395). On the assassination of Publius Clodius Pulcher (160), I would rather observe that Caesar himself had to have been involved in the affair (see G. Traina, Marco Antonio, Roma-Bari 2003, 16-21). Rich with cultural recollections of a varied nature it is the description of the second triumvirate (173-184) that leads the reader to the third part of the volume, dedicated to the high Roman Empire, which opens with an extensive examination of the Augustan reorganization (189-213). As regards the second century AD, Cecconi shows caution on different themes such as the existence of an individualistic spirit of the time or the use of the evidence at our disposal as an indicator of demographic and economic levels (241). The reconstruction of the 'special day' of the Roman emperor, traced by taking into account several pages from Fergus Millar, is also instructive (255-258). The problem of 'globalization' of the Roman world (263-284) is accompanied by a reflection on the much debated concept of 'romanization' (272-274) that Cecconi has decided to maintain because «è quello che con maggiore chiarezza e congruità identifica la relazione fra Roma e il suo impero, e il modo in cui essa si è venuta storicamente a formare» (273). The pages on the imperial city (285-302) are followed, at the beginning of the part on late antiquity (on the notion of «tardoantico», 303-305), by an entire chapter on Christianity (307-321). Cecconi considers such a choice relatively unusual within a general synthesis of ancient Roman history, and he justifies it with historical-cultural reasons, the most recent consequences of which being the controversies generated by the rather bizarre idea of inserting a reference to the Christian roots of Europe into the preamble of a European constitutional charter, which was to be established at the beginning of the twenty first century; these controversies, at the same time, appear to be partly the result of a questionable ideological operation to completely negate these roots (307).1 Cecconi's reflections on the idea of 'crisis' referring to the third century AD are also useful (323-325); Religione e società is the title of chapter 18, which outlines the growing political power of Christianity. The Epilogue (393-395) concludes the narrative part of the book with some brief suggestions on the 'fortune' of the myth of the Eternal City and its empire, to clarify that the most tangible heredity of Rome is to be had in the application and the study of its law (395).


1.   Incidentally, it should be remembered that the European constitutional charter project was not successful and that, some time before it was abandoned in 2009—following the referendum in France and the Netherlands—it excited discussion even on the Periclean concept of 'democracy': see L. Canfora, La democrazia. Storia di un'ideologia, Roma-Bari 2004 e M.H. Hansen, Thucydides' Description of Democracy (2.37.1) and the EU-Convention of 2003, «GRBS» 48 (2008), 15-26.

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