Greg Woolf, a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has spent his entire career studying Roman history, yet even at this point he can barely disguise the incredulity he obviously feels when he writes that the story of Rome is a “fifty-generation tale of rise and fall [that] is an epic one in human terms.” Yes, that “is the blink of an eye” in geological terms, but in human ones there is simply nothing to compare with it. There have been other great empires — Chinese, Spanish, British, to name only three — but none had anything like the staying power of the one based in Rome, and it seems as sure as sure can be that there will be none like it in the future.
His subject in “Rome: An Empire’s Story,” Woolf writes, is not a conventional account of Rome’s rise and fall but “empire itself” and the many questions it raises: “How did it grow? What enabled it to resist defeats and capitalize on victories? Why did Rome succeed when its rivals failed? How did empire survive crises, dig itself in, and replace chaotic campaigns of conquest with stability?. . . What institutions, habits, and beliefs suited Rome for the role? And what did the fact of empire do to all the beliefs, habits, and institutions with which the world had been conquered?” There are no final answers to these questions, not least because documentation of the empire is surprisingly sparse, especially for the half-millennium B.C., but Woolf speculates intelligently and interestingly.
(Oxford University Press) - ’Rome: An Empire's Story’ by Gerg Woolf
I confess that I picked up “Rome” in the hope that it might shed some light on what is happening now to the United States. It is true, as Woolf says, that we have probably never had an empire as the term is commonly understood, but we have possessed hegemonic powers for well over half a century and there is reason to believe that those powers, some if not all, may now be declining. After reading “Rome,” though, I suspect that Woolf would argue that the history of the Roman empire has little to tell us about what has happened to the United States and what may happen to it in the future. Not least among the reasons is that while a great deal of political, economic and social change occurred during the Roman empire’s 50 generations, the world in which that change took place was remarkably stable, compared with the world of today, in which change — often traumatic — occurs at a pace so rapid as almost to defy human understanding.
For this and other reasons, “Rome” does not seem to be a text through which we can see history repeating itself. Roman power was exercised in a region — primarily the Mediterranean rim — where the people, the ecology and the climate were remarkably similar to those of Rome itself: “Roman expansion was facilitated by what the conquerors shared with their new subjects,” in contrast to the stark differences that have confronted the United States in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Only with the barbarians in the fourth century A.D. and beyond did Rome confront a culture it did not recognize, and though for a while it was able to co-opt the barbarians, they in time were among the most crucial agents of its decline.