Why I Chose The Rise of Rome
I really ought to pay better attention to whose book recommendations I take. I believe I found this one through an NYT article during the Trump transition about how democracies fall and how the decline of American Democracy was well paralleled by the transition of Rome from Republic to Empire.
(1) Throughout their vast conquests, the Romans offered citizenship to the defeated and found ways to integrate them into Roman society. In this way, they grew their tax base, military ranks, and their culture.
“They could see that [the policy of integrated the defeated into society through citizenship] enabled them to not only foster consent to their rule among their former enemies but also to constantly enlarge their population and, by the same token, the manpower available to their armies.”
“Over time, Rome became the most culturally diverse of cities and its population mirrored the ethnic composition of its growing empire.”
(2) Although it evolved over time, the Roman constitution was originally designed by and for societal elites (much like the American system). They shared power so that no king would dominate them, not so the common man could have a voice in government.
“The principle underlying the Servian reforms was timocratic—that is, they were a property owner’s charter. The idea was that only those with much to lose would make careful and well-considered decisions.”
“In principle, each of them could very well have presented himself to the People as a successor king. That they did not do so, but instead established a republic, is a sign that this was not a revolt from ‘below’ but a plot by resentful aristocrats, who wanted government by the elite.”
(3) Ultimately, the Roman constitution proved to be well balanced. It was pragmatic and evolved over the centuries to address unforeseen issues. But it was, above all, a work of compromise, and when those in power refused to compromise, the system broke down and slid into autocratic empire.
“To avert despotism, the forces in the state were almost too evenly balanced one against the other. A spirit of compromise and a refusal to resort to violence were essential to its success.”
(4) The myth of Cincinnatus is emblematic of the struggles facing the Roman Republic in its final century (and can be seen to an extent in America today). The nostalgic yearning for the pastoral city state of the past lived in stark contrast to the sprawling, multi-ethnic Roman empire. The two were irreconcilable. That much Caesar knew, which is why he created a new form of government (the Roman Empire). The question we’re left with today—is there a way solve America’s internal schism without turning to authoritarian empire?
“Although he is not a fully historical figure, Cincinnatus represented a combination of qualities that the Romans greatly admired, even if they were seldom honored in the observance. These were a simple life, commitment to country values, unquestioning patriotism, and disdain for riches.”
“It was also true that Rome’s transformation from middling Italian city-state to invincible superpower had a coarsening impact on standards of public life.”
“There had been a decline in moral standards in public life. All would be well if only there was a return to traditional values, to the mos maiorum. Caesar disagreed. With the insight of a genius, he saw that incremental reforms would not save the day, nor would a return to the ideals of Cincinnatus. An altogether new system of government was required.”
A final, beautiful quote from Cicero:
“The Republic, when it was handed down to us, was like a beautiful painting, whose colors were already fading with age. Our own time has not only neglected to freshen it by renewing its original colors, but has not even gone to the trouble of preserving its design and portrayal of figures’”
Would I recommend The Rise of Rome?
The book offers a sweeping and cohesive narrative of Rome’s growth from provincial backwater to undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean and spells it out in simple fashion. I do wish Everitt had focused more of the shift toward Empire and the principle characters in Rome’s last Republican century. In the end, it did feel like 300 pages of background to reach 100 pages of what I wanted…but I also may have come to the book with misplaced expectations.
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