Oxford (2021) h/b 301pp £21.99 (ISBN: 9780190076719)

This book provides an abbreviated history of Rome and the Roman Empire from the republic through to the sixteenth century. As summarised below, the central theme of the book is the continuous perception of decline.

Rome triumphed in the Punic Wars during the third and second centuries because of the courage and ingenuity of military heroes. These men formed a backdrop against which later generations were compared unfavourably. In 190 BC Plautus mocked the moral degeneration of the wealthy classes. During the 190s and 180s Marcus Porcius Cato railed against the decadence of his fellow citizens. He deplored Rome’s growing engagement with effete Greek culture.

In the first century the Gracchi campaigned against the large landowners who were exploiting the masses. The conservative classes were horrified at the growing tendency by Sulla and others to use violence for political ends. They saw this as disrespecting constitutional norms and undermining the republic. The first triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus (60-53 BC) presented themselves as restoring order after a period of chaos. Unfortunately, both the first and second triumvirates ended in civil wars. The final outcome of these struggles was, of course, the emergence of the principate. Augustus skilfully presented this as the restoration of the republic after a prolonged period of disorder and decline. Horace and Virgil loyally supported that theme. They emphasised that the Augustan age was a period of renewal, in stark contrast to what had gone before.

Contrary to what some may have thought, Augustan age was not the end of history. The Julio-Claudian dynasty collapsed in chaos with the suicide of Nero in AD 68. Galba, who succeeded briefly as emperor, and Vespasian, who reigned from AD 69-79, both resurrected the theme of decline and renewal. They dissociated themselves from the excesses of the Neronian years. There was a similar process in AD 96 when Domitian was assassinated, bringing the Flavian dynasty to an end. At this point the author pauses in his breathless rush through the narrative to say a few kind words about Domitian, who has received a bad press over the last two thousand years.

There then followed the so-called ‘five good Emperors’, namely Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. In W.’s view they did not preside over quite such a calm and prosperous era as they or their propagandists would have us believe. After the death of Marcus Aurelius a period of undoubted decline followed. There was a bloody civil war in the AD 190s. Then, after the interlude of Severus and his sons, a stream of over fifty emperors, on average one per year. This dysfunctional administration continued until Diocletian seized power in AD 284. He restored order and established a tetrarchic system of government, which worked more or less for twenty years. Diocletian also launched a massive persecution of the Christian church. The next ‘strong man’ to take control was Constantine, who established a new capital at Byzantium/Constantinople. Constantine reversed his predecessor’s religious policies and promoted Christianity vigorously. The theme of decline and renewal now entered the sphere of religion as well as politics.

From the late fourth century onwards, Rome came under increasing attack from Goths and other eastern peoples. Politically the Empire was in decline. Theodosius, who reigned from AD 379 to 395 ‘pivoted from promising a traditional restoration of Roman power to delivering a new Christian future’ (p. 97). This process accelerated in the fifth and sixth centuries with the fall of the Western Empire and rise of the Eastern Empire based on Constantinople. Justinian, using his team of expert jurists, effectively rewrote Roman law and maintained that this was the will of the Christian God. Unfortunately for Justinian’s successors, both Persian armies and the new Arab caliphates were mounting sustained attacks against the Byzantine Empire. This was another period of decline, which continued until the eighth century emperors, Leo III and Constantine V, won back much of the lost territory.

At this point the papacy emerged as a new and serious player in European power politics. The popes sought and gained the support of Frankish kings for their imperial claims over central Italy. They also claimed the right to crown a suitably powerful monarch, starting with Charlemagne, as Holy Roman Emperor. The popes based these audacious claims on a recently forged document, The Donation of Constantine. As W puts it, ‘there were now three Romes’. These were the Eastern Empire of Constantinople, the recently created papal republic in Rome and the new Roman Empire of Charlemagne.

Over the following centuries the Eastern Empire waned, with Constantinople itself finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. But the Holy Roman Empire, inaugurated by Pope Leo III and Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, went from strength to strength. The Holy Roman Emperors, pre-eminently Charles V (1519-1556) were powerful figures on the international stage. They saw themselves as the institutional descendants of Augustus and acted accordingly. The Holy Roman Empire continued to exist as an institution until it was dissolved in 1806. But even after that kings, emperors and presidents claimed connections with the Roman past, a classic example being the Russian czars. In the twentieth century Mussolini and his fascist supporters claimed to be reinstating the Roman Empire, although their project failed dismally. In modern times, as W. demonstrates, the Roman Empire and its decline is a stock feature of US political oratory. People make all sorts of extravagant claims as to why Rome fell and what America should do to avoid a similar fate.

All in all, this is a gripping book, which packs much detail into its 242 pages. It is built around the theme of continuous decline or apparent decline. The book has many insights, in particular the way in which Roman history is misused by modern writers and politicians. This reviewer would strongly recommend the book to anyone with an interest in European history or classics.

Rupert Jackson