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.

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.

“The modern idea of empire has its own history,” Woolf writes. “Yet Rome has a key place in the history of this idea. The Romans created a set of ideas and symbols that exercised a fascination over many subsequent generations. Other empires had touched the Mediterranean world before Rome, most recently those of the Persians and of Alexander. But their repertoire of ceremonials, titles, and images has had less of an afterlife, in part because Romans refused to acknowledge them as their equals, and invented their own language of world domination, in part because the Latin vocabulary of empire was the one adopted by later powers. The history of the idea of empire in the west is very largely the history of successive imitations of Rome.” Nothing proves the point more conclusively than Nazi Germany, which wrapped itself in Roman apparatus from architecture to “Latin titles and imperial eagles,” and, in evoking the dream of the “Thousand Year Reich,” calculatedly sought to align itself with Rome.

’Rome: An Empire's Story’ by Gerg Woolf (Oxford University Press)

There is no precise date for the founding of the Roman empire, but it began to take shape in the formative years of the Republic; was greatly expanded during the reign of Augustus and his descendants; became better organized and bureaucratized during the reigns of Trajan, Caracalla and others; then began to fall apart under siege by the barbarians and was ended by Arab incursions in the seventh and eighth centuries. Though there were occasional periods of tranquility, bloody warfare was more the rule than the exception; slavery was an essential ingredient in the empire’s expansion and quotidian functioning; crisis after crisis challenged Rome, yet over and over again it survived. There were any number of reasons for this:

“The Mediterranean basin offered a corridor within which communication was relatively easy. The Sahara and the Atlantic together provided boundaries that, once reached, did not really need to be defended. The Iron Age civilizations of the Mediterranean world and its hinterlands produced sufficient demographic and agricultural surpluses to support the rise of cities and states, even given the technological limits of antiquity. Climatic conditions, broadly similar to those we experience today, had perhaps contributed to the general prosperity of the period, making it easier for peasant cultivators to produce the surpluses on which states and empires depended.”

The empire was run by and for the aristocratic and the rich, yet was broadly and often enthusiastically supported not merely by the lower classes but by the residents of conquered territories: “Romans imagined [the empire] as a collective effort: Senate and people, Rome and her allies, the men and the gods of the city working together.” This continued as Rome passed from the Republic to the Caesars, who were kings “even if [Romans] could never bring themselves to call them by that name.” It is “a history of remarkable stability. If it was largely true that (as one historian has put it) ‘Emperors don’t die in bed,’ it was also true that the murders of many individual emperors seem to have done little to shake the system itself.”

As for the conquered territories, of course there was resistance and resentment within them, but there also was pride at being part of this astonishing human enterprise, especially after 212 A.D., when Caracalla extended citizenship “to most inhabitants of the empire.” “Over time,” Woolf writes, “more and more of Rome’s subjects were successful in obtaining citizenship,” and “one reason the Roman world did hold together . . . was a sense on the part of enough of Rome’s subjects that this was their world. . . . Enfranchisement, loyalty, and acculturation are not the same thing, but they were deeply interconnected.”

All of which makes for exceptionally interesting and provocative reading, but “Rome” must be recommended with a caveat. In folding the history of 50 generations into 300 pages of text, Woolf has written a dense book that moves slowly, with no discernible narrative thread. Woolf is not Suetonius, nor is he Robert Graves. Readers seeking Roman entertainment of that order must look to them, not to him.


An Empire’s Story

By Greg Woolf

Oxford Univ. 366 pp. $29.95