The History of Rome

January 5, 2013

Reflections on a 74-hour podcast about 1,000 years of Roman history.

I’ve just finished Mike Duncan’s epic 74-hour podcast series, The History of Rome. What took me four months to devour was nearly five years of Duncan’s life in the making. An interesting side-effect of this time compression is that, while flying through about 1000 years of Roman history, thanks to Duncan’s personal remarks throughout the series I’ve also zoomed through a handful of Christmases, Mothers’ Days, his move from Portland to Austin, and the birth of his first child. To my delight, this kept me aware of the fact that it was another human being–not an impersonal textbook or Wikipedia article–telling me the story of Rome. Mike’s sense of humor as well as his frankness about the limits of his (and history’s) knowledge contributed to the effect.

The podcast covers the story of Rome from its mythical founding in the eighth century B.C. to the various events in the fifth century AD that collectively (and each potentially) might be called the fall of the Western Roman Empire. I specify the Western Empire because while culturally quite different, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which survived until the fifteenth century, is historically very much a branch of the Roman Empire. While Duncan ends his podcast with the West’s fall in the fifth century, he makes clear that it’s highly contested whether the history of Rome ends there. After five years of podcasting, he may have stopped simply from exhaustion.

What Was Rome?

It may seem an odd question, but one thing I’ll take away from this experience is that Rome was so many things throughout its history: both city and sprawling empire, from republic to dictatorship within a few generations, Italian and cosmopolitan, pagan and Christian, civil bureaucracy and military regime. Like the fasces carried by its imperial bodyguards, Rome was ever a bundle of contradictions that, against all odds, mostly stayed bound together–until, of course, they didn’t.

Rome began as an Italian city-state, one of many, that by luck and guile conquered her neighbors–the Latins, Samnites, and Etruscans prominent among them–to become a regional power. After a series of wars with the Carthaginians in North Africa, which Rome nearly lost but which ended with the destruction of Carthage, Rome expanded its dominion to Africa and ascended toward empire. Soon, Julius Caesar would make a name for himself capturing territory from the Gauls north of Italy. After his famous coup and the resulting civil war, assassination, and then another civil war, Caesar’s successors would keep right on expanding further into northern Europe as well as Asia. Eventually, it became clear that the empire was too large for one man to rule, so Diocletian divided it in two and installed a senior and junior emperor in each half. This system, called the Tetrarchy, worked pretty well until Diocletian wasn’t around to make the four rulers behave themselves, and East and West split apart. The equally shortsighted but more vulnerable and less fortunate West would fall a few centuries later.

Why Was Rome?

By this I mean, why was the Roman Empire so successful for so long? The most notable reasons I’ve found are these:

The Fall

When Rome was sacked by “barbarians” in 410 AD, I had always pictured a bunch of random, fur-clad brutes sweeping down to pillage the city and bring an end to the empire. There’s a lot mistaken about this notion:

Why Did the Western Empire Fall?

Duncan was fond of joking that there are 256 different reasons why the empire fell, though that’s probably true at a certain level of granularity. Much more abstractly, my impression is that the empire fell because people stopped believing in it. They stopped paying taxes, stopped enlisting in the legions, and, crucially, honest men stopped running for office to change things. Like a marriage gone sour, the fall of the Western empire seems a story of gradual, mutual estrangement between the state and the people. Certainly, there were precipitating factors–one spouse loses a job (famine), the other has an affair (barbarian immigration), either one of them converts to a new religion (the rise of Christianity)–any or all could lead to separation, but only when one underlying factor is present: a lack of willingness to keep on fighting for it.

This is of course a wild oversimplification of an incredibly complicated situation. Taking a few steps back, here are six major factors that worked to bring the Western Empire to its knees:

Final Thoughts

Before turning my back on Rome for a bit (and picking up the story of the Eastern Empire with The History of Byzantium), let me end with two major themes that impressed themselves upon me:

That’s it for the Republic? Really?

Before Julius Caesar seized supreme power in 49 B.C., Rome was a republic and damn proud of it, ruled by two annually elected consuls. Romans deposed their last king, Tarquinius, in 509 B.C. and for nearly five centuries the most life-threatening accusation you could level against a politician was that he wanted to be king. Which is why I find it bizarre that, after Caesar was assassinated for precisely this reason, his successors were allowed to maintain absolute power with barely any agitation to put it back in the hands of the people. Certainly, some of this had to do with Caesar’s immediate successor, Octavian (a.k.a. Augustus) brilliantly styling himself a man of the people and foregoing the more regal titles for simply princeps or “first citizen.” And of course the senate was allowed to keep existing, though mostly toothless. Beyond that, perhaps the people just found it easier to trust a single man–often an experienced military commander–than a few hundred old rich guys in the Senate.

We Take Political Legitimacy for Granted

Say what you will about the dysfunctions of our modern political system, but when someone is elected president it’s a pretty sound bet that they will, in fact, be president. But Roman emperors were never elected,3 and succession was often an uneasy affair. Sometimes emperors would name a successor (usually adopting him posthumously in a weird imitation of hereditary rule). Sometimes when an emperor died the first general to make it back to Rome would assume power (anticipating our modern ritual of calling “shotgun”). And once, the Praetorian Guard assassinated an emperor without thought to who would succeed him, and then hastily proclaimed as emperor someone with no interest in being one (the ascension of Claudius).

Here in the United States, legitimacy flows from relatively few sources. People in power are generally either elected or personally chosen by someone else who was elected. What I found most interesting about Rome is the great number of factors contributing to political legitimacy. Some examples are, in no particular order: relation to a previous emperor, selection by a deceased emperor, holding high office, favor with the senate, military success, the size of one’s army, favor with the people (usually from expanding welfare or sponsoring games), and bribes paid to the Praetorian Guard. I don’t know whether succession was so uncertain because of all these factors or whether there are so many factors because succession was so uncertain.

  1. Every so often (such as when a new ruler came into power) there would be a widespread cancellation of debts. Through bribes or litigation beyond the means of the poor, the Roman rich could avoid paying their taxes until such an event, at which point they would no longer have to. 

  2. For example, arguments about whether God is superior to Christ, as Arian Christians believed, or whether the two are co-substantial, or “of the same stuff”. The high-profile Council of Nicaea was finally called to solve this and other squabbles, but those it ruled against did not simply change their opinions with such matters as eternity at stake. 

  3. Though one emperor, Didius Julianus, did buy the office fair and square at auction.