Roman Empire by C. M. Wells

Book Review by Ursus

Wells offers a general survey of the Roman Empire from the rise of Augustus to the reign of Caracalla. The book is novel in adopting an alternating view between center-periphery relations. That is to say, one chapter will adhere to the traditional focus of Roman history by exploring the political machinations of the imperial court as well as the major military initiatives of the legions during a given time frame.

The successive chapter, however, will attempt to provide a broader view of Roman society by highlighting the social and economic affairs of the provinces during the same time frame. In effect the book flips back and forth between the history shaking events of Rome, and the more mundane reality of the territories which Rome controlled. Where possible, the author tries to provide a direct link between the two, demonstrating how the policies of the imperial court affected the provincials and vice versa.

As far as the chapters dealing with the usual political and military events, there is not a great deal of novelty here. Given that many Romanophones already concentrate on these aspects of Roman society, they will probably not find much in the way of groundbreaking research. The half of the book dealing with the broader social realities of the Roman provinces is where the real worth lies. The more political and military minded readers may find these chapters boring, but others may appreciate the attempt to analyze deeper issues in Roman society.

One of the major encompassing themes of the survey is inclusion and exclusion in Roman society. Wells makes it clear that imperial Romans had little concept of ethnicity or nationality that we moderns do, which facilitated the incorporation of the provincials into the greater empire. The provincial elites, for their part, usually assimilated into imperial society as Roman law favored the propertied classes.

For example, most of the Gallic tribes had fiercely resisted the incursions of Julius Caesar. However, a 150 years after conquest we find many Gallic notables, many of them having named themselves after Julius Caesar, gleefully embracing Romanization. Provincials who had enough money became Roman Senators. Those who had the proper support of the legions might even find themselves moving into the imperial court in Rome. Major revolts against imperial control were in fact rare in the early empire as provincials raced to stake a claim in the new economy.

The small oligarchy that had ruled Rome in Republican times soon faded away, to be replaced with "new men" from both Italy and the provinces. The major division in the new order was not a cultural but an economic one, with the dividing line placed between rich and poor. Even there, however, there was a certain fluidity.

The rich often lost their fortunes in political shenanigans, while many an enterprising slave or freeman moved up the socio-economic ranks. Wells hints that the real success of the empire lay in the universal allegiance of the upper classes to maintain order and make profit. If there is a central theme that unites the alternating perspective between the Roman court and the provinces, it would be this.

Wells is not a Marxist and does not approach the subject from any antiquated or narrow-minded orthodoxy. He breaks ranks with many heretofore cherished assumptions. On the matter of Gibbons painting the rise of Christianity as the decline of the empire, Wells scoffs. To Wells, the "decline" of later Roman society was merely a transition to a new cultural reality with its own particular list of triumphs and failures.

There are some problems with this book. The first is that is was written by a British academic for a particularly British audience. Much of the cultural references and idiosyncratic humor is lost on this Yankee, and might be to other readers outside the UK. Another problem lies in its focus. Only the early empire is studied in detail. The later half of the Western empire is largely devoid of analysis, and thus Wells' treatise feels incomplete.

The Roman Empire is still worth reading. There are those who say the world is building for itself on a global scale what the Roman Empire accomplished in part: a society where tribal and cultural distinctions pale before a new universal economic reality. Modern day barbarians crash airplanes into buildings to protest the new imperial order. Somehow the study of the Roman Empire never seemed more relevant.

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