Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Greg Woolf, Rome. An Empire's Story. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 366. ISBN 9780199775293. $29.95.

Reviewed by Michael Peachin, New York University (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a hugely ambitious book. It marches through ancient Rome's entire history, posing all of the following (and, indeed, more) questions with respect to that empire (p. vii): "How did it grow? What enabled it to resist defeats and capitalize on victories? Why did Rome succeed when its rivals failed? How did empire survive crises, dig itself in, and replace chaotic campaigns of conquest with stability? How did empire come to coordinate the great flows of wealth and populations on which it depended? How did it evolve to face new needs and new threats? Why did it falter, regain its balance, and then shrink under a series of military blows until it was, once again, a city–state? What circumstances and technologies made the creation and maintenance of an empire possible, in just this place and just at that time? What institutions, habits, and beliefs suited Rome for the role? And what did the fact of empire do to all the beliefs, habits, and institutions with which the world had been conquered? What part did chance play in its successes and its failures?" Woolf emphasizes a desire to know how this empire could have lasted as long as it did, this being one of the big questions (cf. p. 273).1 He also employs, now and again, comparison with other empires, "sometimes trying to spot a general trend, more often as a way of spotting what is unusual or even unique about the Roman case." (p. ix) Ultimately, the book is meant to be not so much a survey history, but rather, "an exploration of the theme of empire." (p. x) If one keeps that precise goal strictly in mind, then, An Empire's Story succeeds rather well.

First, a map of the book. A historical skeleton is provided in one series of chapters, which then interlocks with another group of sections, these on several broad themes:2

1 a thumbnail sketch of Rome's entire history;
2 a meditation on the meaning of empire, both in antiquity and now, and as a category of historical research;
3 753-275 BC;
4 the ecology of the Mediterranean;
5 272-133 BC;
6 the impact of slavery;
7 146-89 BC;
8 Roman morality, religion, and the imperial project;
9 89-31 BC;
10 thoughts about Graeco-Roman culture, which resulted in Rome's being "a truly imperial civilization" p. 159;
11 31 BC – AD 235;
12 the Roman economy;
13 a history of Roman expansion, 15 BC – AD 284;
14 identity formation;
15 AD 284 – 476;
16 Christianity;
17 AD 527 – 711;
18 the material remains of ancient Roman civilization, and their messages.

Let me first address success. Woolf is extraordinarily good at synthesizing large questions, historical developments, or the like, and then expressing his synthesis in an eye-opening manner. Thus, e.g., he writes that (p. 63), "Roman rule remained [after ca. 146 BC], in modern terms, both informal and indirect. Supremacy meant simply that Rome no longer had any rival in the region [i.e., the Mediterranean]…they could issue orders to whomever they wished." Not necessarily a revelation. However, it is extremely important to have precisely this point in mind, whenever one confronts the persistent Roman talk about universal hegemony, which is seemingly undercut by their clearly limited control over actual territory. To have imperium, as Woolf at one point remarks, is to give orders.

Similarly, anyone who desires to understand the imperial period would do well to keep constantly in mind the fact that (p. 6), "[t]he Senate and people of Rome were given greater honors as they lost power." The following beautifully encapsulates much of very great importance about how the Romans governed their empire (p. 138): "To the other structural deficiencies of the Republican hegemony, then, we can add an inability to operate effectively on any scale larger than could be handled by one man with a moderate-sized army and an oversized ego; and a system of government that more or less promoted corruption…The reluctance of governors to work together made it difficult to tackle very large-scale problems." Nor should one forget that (p. 176), "Romans of all ranks believed in the power of individuals much more than they did in the power of institutions." Or, the point that the division between the public finances and the monies belonging personally to the emperor "…was most useful because it allowed emperors to pose as personal benefactors" is well worth taking to heart (p. 197). One last caveat worth remarking (p. 284): "Using the language of transformation to describe what happened to the Roman Empire between AD 300 and 700 is an evasion." Such sententiae can be quite profitable for those who already know the history. On the other hand, those who are not so familiar already with Rome's history may well miss the full significance of many a remark in this book.

That raises the most obvious downside to Woolf's presentation, namely, the extreme compression necessitated by the very nature of the project. At a most basic level, important events simply cannot be narrated sufficiently. So, for example, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus are handled in the space of about one page (pp. 107-108). This is a fairly straightforward problem, and is easily resolved by a bit of extra reading. And, to the extent that the book is an "exploration of the theme of empire," this will not be so troublesome. More perplexing, however, is the situation (for example) with Rome's expansion in the Middle Republic – that is, with the rise to empire, one of the book's crucial themes. Woolf seems, in large part, to be steering a course somewhere between the arguments of William Harris and Arthur Eckstein, though this is nowhere plainly said.3 In any case, the newcomer to Roman history is not, I think, going to understand the ramifications of Woolf's presentation here. There is also a repeated, and to my taste, slightly worrisome, tendency to veer in the direction of something akin to teleology. So, for example (p. 72): "It was the structure of alliances built up from the fourth century that locked Rome into expansion." In other words (as I understand the argument), once Latium (for example) is brought into the fold, the next enemy is farther away, thus (inevitably ?) causing Rome to reach, in order to get at that foe, and so forth. This type of thought arises elsewhere, e.g.: (p. 31-32), "Rome at the start of the second century BC enjoyed a dominant position at the geopolitical centre of the Inland Sea. It was equipped with institutions, ideologies, and experience geared to conquest. From that point on, control of the whole Mediterranean world was only a matter of time." Another example (p. 64): "Rome's unification of the Mediterranean was the culmination of processes of political growth that characterized the last millennium B.C." To my taste, a bit too much of the inevitable creeps into the discussion of imperial growth, and this seems to have resulted from the need to explain much in very few words. In any case, the birth of Rome's empire comes off as a clearly complex phenomenon in Woolf's telling, which is just as it should be. However, for those not already versed in the scholarship on this subject, the author's need to compress will surely result in lack of clarity as to what, precisely, has been argued about this matter heretofore. Moreover, the several feints in the direction of what smacks of teleology could perhaps cause the unwary to think too exactly in terms of the metaphors engaged at the book's start (e.g., p. viii): "The Roman Empire was like a great tidal wave sweeping up more and more water before dissipating its energy."

In the end, I think one must assess this book in terms of its potential readership. For the newcomer to Roman history, An Empire's Story will be interesting, I assume, but will probably remain in many ways obscure. Supplemental learning will in this case be required. For scholars in the field, there are some interesting comments strewn throughout. The ideal target audience is perhaps that of graduate students, who would like to get a vague sense of Rome's history overall, and who would like to know something about recent scholarship in some key areas of this history.


1.   A key statement in this regard seems to be this (p. 285): "Successful empires are sustained by long-term relationships with other social entities with which they are in some senses symbiotic. The success of the Roman Empire rested on the synergies it engineered between imperialism and aristocracy; imperialism and slavery; imperialism and the family; imperialism and the city; and imperialism and civilization." So, we have here an institutional approach, which might interestingly be placed alongside Clifford Ando's emphasis on consensus, and an ideology of loyalty: Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley 2000). Also important here is now Carlos NoreƱa's Imperial Ideals in the Roman West. Representation, Circulation, Power (Cambridge 2011).
2.   It will be noticed that the history of the republican period is divided into rather traditional chronological chunks. It seems to me, though, that Harriet Flower's ideas about establishing periodization for this era should now be considered (n.b., her book was probably not soon enough available to Woolf). See H. Flower, Roman Republics (Princeton 2010).
3.   W. V. Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome (Oxford 1979), A.M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (Berkeley 2006). The section on further reading (at p. 81), where these books are listed and described, does not make clear enough what their respective arguments are—again, there is simply no space to do so.

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