Friday, January 17, 2014

In Rome: An Empire's Story, Greg Woolf manages to compress 15 centuries into an elegant span of 300 pages

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.

It seems fitting that a short book about the rise and fall of the Roman empire is a triumph of engineering. Greg Woolf distills 1500 years of history, bisected by the birth of Jesus Christ, into exactly 300 pages of main text, cased with a robust editorial apparatus. He accomplishes this with eighteen chapters that alternate between narrative history and a thematic overviews that include the ecology of the Mediterranean basin, the role of slavery, Roman religion, and other topics. (Oddly, one omission is a chapter on Roman engineering, a surprising oversight given the magnitude and durability of its accomplishments.) The effect of this book is a squared circle: Woolf surveys a history that is very difficult to grasp as a whole, and yet also manages to suggest a sense of texture and continuity in the values, institutions, and practices that stitched together a world for a remarkably long time.

With a similar sense of economy and leverage, Woolf endows his narrative with an interpretive dimension that rests on the indefinite article of its subtitle: an Empire's story. When it comes to the Romans, Woolf is not an exceptionalist. He is able to repeatedly and convincingly juxtapose any number of practices -- tax policy, war-making, identity formation -- with reference to earlier and later empires around the globe, both contemporary to Rome and those temporally on either side of it. He sees the key of Rome's success is the way in which the ad-hoc conquests of the late Republic, culminating in the career of Julius Caesar, gave way to the tributary empire of Augustus, in which an army loyal to the emperor maintained civil as well as military stability. This stability was severely tested in the third century CE, but successfully reorganized before a series of waves eroded and finally broke it down, a gradual process culminating with the the rise of Islam in the seventh century. This is not an original argument, of course, as Woolf, a professor of Ancient History at St. Andrews and the editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World, readily makes clear. Indeed, his masterful sense of historiography suggests a lifetime of learning worn lightly. But his assertion that it's Rome survival, not its fall, that's hardest to explain is a point worth remembering.

Rome: An Empire's Story was first published in 2012 and has just been reissued in a paperback edition. It was clearly conceived as a textbook adoption, as suggested by chapters that end with sections for further reading. But it has the ease and scope of a trade book, as admiring reviews from the likes of the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley suggests. It's hard to imagine a better introduction to the subject.