Book Review by Ursus
As I trudge about Romanophilia in my own amateur way, I have discovered that books written in bygone eras offer an enthralling Old School view whose charm is seldom replicated in modern times. They are often dated, but not always outdated. They offer a straightforward presentation of facts rather than a tableau of convoluted revisionist theories. They are imbued with a prosaic language rather than postmodern jargon. Finally, they seem possessed of a genuine conviction and enthusiasm rather than the cynical nay saying of modern academia. It is with regards to such virtues that I devoured H.H. Scullard’s A History of the Roman World, 753 to 146 BC.
Originally published in 1935, it was updated by the author as late as 1978. This history professor from the University of London provides a well-balanced survey of the period that still serves as a widespread introduction at universities across the English speaking world. The author by his own admission takes a generally conservative attitude and approach to the subject. The main focus of the study is a general political narrative, supplemented by military history where appropriate, and finally rounded out with a sketch of social life and culture. At roughly 400 pages of text (not counting footnotes and the index), the work provides just the right level of detail to serve its purpose as a thoughtful but digestible overview.
A History of the Roman World traces the origins of the small village on the Tiber to its seat as mistress of the Mediterranean. The first chapter is dedicated to examining the archaeological evidence for the complex web of pre-historic cultures in Italy in whose shadows Rome developed. The basic thrust of this survey is still relevant today, though obviously the narrative is not informed by the most recent discoveries of the field.
After the archeological prologue, Regal Rome is established. Regardless of the semi-legendary embellishing of the primary sources, archeology and external sources seem to validate the central thesis of a conspiracy of Roman nobles overthrowing an Etruscan king. The monarchy was replaced with various peoples’ assemblies and a senior advisory body acting in concert with a college of elected magistrates. Thus was the Republic born and to endure for five centuries.
The history of the Republic until the time of the Punic Wars is then viewed through two prisms. The Roman constitution is shaped by the struggle of the Plebian order to gain parity with the Patrician order. At the same time, the Roman state adopted a policy of what Scullard calls “defensive imperialism” to pacify Italy. Through these two dynamics, Rome became a citizens’ city-state at the same time it became the leader of an Italian confederation whose subjects enjoyed varying levels of rights and duties. The latter element was truly revolutionary in Western international relations, for no other nation was so willing to transform conquered subjects into junior partners of a wider federal system. The Early Republic had come of age.
After a brief disruption caused by a Gallic invasion, the Roman Republic as the head of a confederated Italy emerged as the third side of a Mediterranean triangle that also included the Carthaginian empire and various Hellenistic states. The triangle imploded with the Three Punic Wars of the Middle Republic, a martial tempest to which all subsequent Western history is owed. At stake was the economic and political dominance of the Mediterranean. To the victor belonged the right to shape the cultural outline of half the known world.
The land power of Rome collided with the naval and commercial power of Carthage. The former won the initial war through determination and adaptability. For the first time, Rome became a naval power with overseas territories.
The second war proved Rome’s darkest hour, a struggle it nearly lost when the legendary Hannibal proved he could marshal armies with more efficacy than his opponents. Yet the Romans arose from incessant disaster to refute final defeat. Their Italian allies supplied them with a continual reserve of manpower which the enemy could not match. Rome’s closest allies never defected even in the face of collapse, for Rome’s benevolent confederation had left them little doubt as to which Mediterranean power was the more preferred master. After much hardship, Rome finally prevailed in a war whose exploits are now renowned.
The third and final war proved something of an anti-climatic mopping up operation with the ultimate destruction of the enemy. With Carthage thus eliminated, the Mediterranean triangle became a closed circle as Rome quickly engulfed weakened Hellenistic coastal states and the lands beyond.
The first book then concludes with Scullard’s examination of how Rome’s sudden empire effected its government and culture. Despite the Senate’s reluctance, the number of magistrates were expanded to provide overseas governors. The need for tribute collectors paved the way for the rise of the Equestrians, a second order of nobility who began to challenge the landed Senatorial aristocracy. Nonetheless the Senate retained control of the State, and the people’s assemblies seemed little more than rubber stamps to its decrees. At the same time, a small group of perhaps twenty families came to wield commanding influence over the Senate via Consular elections.
The general shape of Roman society altered. Family life was disrupted as divorce rose and childbirth decreased. Peasants were displaced as slavery caused unemployment. Roman art and religion took on shades of Hellenistic influences. Did the Romans lose their native soul under the imperial weight of the Middle Republic?
The question of course takes us to the turbulence of the Late Republic and the opening act of the Principate. These events are covered in Scullard’s sequel, From the Gracchi to Nero. Herein we witness how the Romans dealt, or often failed to deal, with the problems of empire, and in so doing lost the Republic of their forefathers. But that is another review for another time.
After all these years, Scullard still provides one of the best no-nonsense introductions to Roman civilization. We have served to us the meat and potatoes of Roman civilization; those wishing desert or colorful side dishes may seek them elsewhere or not as their conscious dictates. The understated wisdom of the Old School approach has not lost its relevance. The benefits of a practical conservatism is something the Romans themselves would have applauded.
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