Friday, November 26, 2010

Rome: Emperors and poets

Ever since her fall, Rome has served the west as the very archetype of empire. Predatory, intimidating and ineffably glamorous, her civilisation was both eerily like our own, and utterly, astoundingly strange. It is this tension, between what is familiar and what is not, that best explains the fascination that Rome still holds for us to this day. The famous words that Edward Gibbon applied to her ruin might well describe the entire parabola of her thousand-year rise and fall. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind."

At its heart lies a mystery as profound as any in the records of human civilisation. How did the Romans achieve all that they did? How did a small community, camped out among marshes and hills, end up ruling an empire that stretched from the moors of Scotland to the sands of Arabia? So solidly planted within our imaginations are the brute facts of this rise to superpower status that we have become, perhaps, desensitised to the full astonishing scale of the Roman adventure. Virgil, the great laureate of his people's achievement, saw in it the fulfilment of a mission entrusted to them by the gods. "Your task, O Roman," he wrote in celebrated lines, "is to rule and bring to men the arts of government, to impose upon them the arts of peace, to spare those who submit, to subdue the arrogant."

Rome's enemies, unsurprisingly, were inclined to interpret her motives a little differently. "Warmongers against every nation, people and monarch under the sun," spat Mithridates, an Asiatic king of the first century BC who devoted his life to resisting the encroachments of Roman imperialism. "They have only one abiding motive – greed, deep-seated, for empire and riches." So it has ever been, of course: one man's peacekeeper will invariably appear another's brutal aggressor. Yet both Virgil and Mithridates, profoundly though they may have disagreed as to the character of Rome's dominion, had not the slightest doubt as to what had made it possible. Her truest talent was for conquest. There were other peoples, perhaps, who excelled the Romans in the arts, or in philosophy, or in the study of the heavens, but there were none who could match the legions on the battlefield. Rome's greatness was won and maintained, above all, by her genius for war.

The city's destiny had been manifest in her origins. Rome was founded, according to tradition, in 753BC, by Romulus, her first king: a man who had drunk in savagery from a she-wolf's teat. The story of this suckling was one that always caused the Romans some embarrassment – for it was the habit of their enemies to condemn Rome as "the city of the wolf." Yet the image of the Romans as a killer breed, sniffing the wind for prey, and feasting on raw meat, only told half the story. Their undoubted aptitude for violence was mediated by a characteristic no less potent: a steely admiration for self-control. When the son of Rome's seventh king, ignoring this, raped a prominent citizen's wife, the scandalised Romans abolished the monarchy altogether and replaced it, in 509BC, with a republic.

Later generations would pinpoint this as the moment when Rome came of age. Yet in truth, for a century after the expulsion of their last king, the Romans struggled to establish their city as anything particularly notable. Then, in 390BC, came the experience that transformed the Republic into a state authentically mutant and lethal. An invading horde of barbarians from the north wiped out an entire Roman army, swept into Rome itself, and pillaged the city mercilessly. A salutary and shocking humiliation – and the episode, more than any other, that served to put steel into the Roman soul. The Republic, from that moment on, was resolved never again to tolerate defeat, dishonour or disrespect.

Expanding of the Empire

Slowly at first, and then with increasing self-assurance, the Romans pushed back the limits of their supremacy. By the 260s BC, they had established their city as the mistress of Italy, and by 241, after a terrible war lasting 24 years, succeeded in defeating the great naval power of Carthage, and establishing their first overseas province.

It was not in victory, however, that they best demonstrated the unique fortitude of their character, but in catastrophe. In 218BC, a Carthaginian general named Hannibal renewed his city's war against Rome. Two years later, on 2 August 216, he subjected the largest army that the Roman Republic had ever put into the battlefield to utter defeat. More soldiers, it has been estimated, were slaughtered in that single day's fighting than were killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme – and the scene of carnage, it is said, "was shocking even to the enemy." The battle of Cannae, the greatest victory of Rome's greatest enemy, annihilated perhaps a fifth of her available manpower, and it was the natural presumption of Hannibal that she was now bound to sue for terms.

But she did not. Against all the conventions of warfare at the time, implacably and barely believably, the Romans fought on. In due course, completing one of the most sensational comebacks in military history, they emerged triumphant – first against Hannibal, and then against anything that any power anywhere could throw against them. By the first century BC, Rome was the undisputed queen of the Mediterranean.

This was unprecedented, in that huge empires had often been won by monarchs before – but never by a republic. To the Romans themselves, as startled as everyone else by the scale of their rise to dominance, it appeared self-evident that their liberty and their greatness were different sides of the same coin. The values that gave breath to the Republic, the rituals and codes of its citizens, its extremes of ambition, self-sacrifice and desire: these, it seemed to the Romans, were what had enabled them to conquer the world.

"It is almost beyond belief how great the Republic's achievements were once the people had gained their freedom, such was the longing for glory that it lit in every citizen's heart." So wrote Sallust, Rome's first great historian. There were few of his fellow citizens who would have disagreed.

Read more on the website.

Holland, Tom. 2010. "Rome: Emperors and poets". Guardian Series: Guides to the ancient world. Posted: November 8, 2010. Available online:

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