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.
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: