Two millennia ago, the Romans applied their word for military authority - imperium - to the vast territory conquered by generals whose own title - imperator - was transferred to the monarch who ruled that empire. This archetype of empire has left its physical imprint on the Mediterranean and European landscape, while its cultural, linguistic and ideological offspring have shaped subsequent global history. Rome's legacy also includes an abiding and unnerving question: how did such a dominant political institution disintegrate, transform or, in Edward Gibbon's formulation, "decline and fall"?
Greg Woolf's dazzling account of ancient Rome's story will entrance the general reader with its succinct formulation of complex issues, its stylistic bravura and pungent aphorisms, and illuminating metaphors. Rome: An Empire's Story will equally impress historians with its apposite comparisons to China, Persia and other empires, seamless incorporation of recent research, and a sophisticated awareness of new methodologies. This tour de force is introduced with a 12-page overview of an arc of 15 centuries titled "The Whole Story". The author calls it a "motorway route planner"; it is in fact an astonishing overview of the principal issues he will confront.
The book's structure is simple. Woolf alternates chapters of narrative chronology with thematic analyses of topics such as ecology, slavery, religion, entertainment, economy and Christianity. Thus, "traditional" history stands beside the latest research on social, economic and cultural matters. This works brilliantly in the first half of the book on the Roman Republic, which provides not just a story but also an argument: that Rome's growth, adaptation and survival are more interesting than its decline and fall. Neither location, economic strength, technology nor even religion - pace Polybius and the Romans themselves - were, in Woolf's view, at the heart of the Republic's success; it was rather institutional advantages such as elite solidarity, patronage and slavery, a legal system and military adaptability. Rome nearly "lost its plot" in the aftermath of the destruction of Carthage in 146BC; civil discord ripped apart the fledgling empire until the brutal dictatorship of Sulla held the state together and provided a template for centuries of monarchical rule by Julius Caesar, Augustus and their successors.
Woolf's structure is perhaps less successful in the second half of the book. The narrative chapters' range seems skimpier, since Woolf improbably takes his narrative to early Byzantium (AD711); chapter 11 alone sketches 250 years from Octavian to the fall of the Severi. If chronology suffers, the thematic chapters on imperial society and economy reflect the abundant recent scholarship and here Woolf is at his best; on the changing identity of Romans - a field in which he has elsewhere made important contributions - and the importance of ecology and geography. The Mediterranean was for Rome a long corridor to Western Asia as well as an inner sea that did not require the transport infrastructure of Persia's Royal Road or Imperial China's Grand Canal.
Minor quibbles aside, this is the best general history of ancient Rome available in English. A teacher at any level might give it to students as a reliable guide with brief bibliographical paragraphs at the end of each chapter, and the general reader who cares little about bibliography will enjoy Woolf's graceful style and illuminating dicta, such as: "The Bay of Naples became Rome's Greek alter ego." And the Fall? Woolf has no facile answer, but he does not shy away from the issue; he provides a range of reasons for what he believes was a collapse, not a "transformation" (pace Peter Brown). Rome may end in a whimper, but no matter. This extraordinary book redirects contemporary obsessions away from imperial collapse to the issue of how empires arise, survive and change the world.
Rome: An Empire's Story
By Greg Woolf
Oxford University Press 384pp, £18.99
Published 17 May 2012