Rome: Republic into Empire

Rome: Republic into Empire

Author
Paul Chrystal
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Given that we are still living with the legacy of Rome in many respects, all of our politicians ought to read this book; although – with the exception of Boris Johnson, who is a classicist - they probably will not, being too far up their own posteriors to heed the lessons of the past.

Rome: Republic into Empire has a certain contemporary resonance: a selfish and out-of-touch political elite wished to monopolise the spoils of office and war, denying any reward to their allies and former soldiers. They also tried to deny a political voice to the lower orders. Aspiring reformers who sought a more equitable society, like the Gracchi, were assassinated for their pains. All of this caused civil unrest, in the course of which a mob burned down the Curia, the Roman Senate building, and plunged the State into civil wars in which many of the elite, and numerous other people, perished.

The Roman Republic lasted from 510 BC, when the Romans expelled their last King, until 49 BC. In that year Julius Caesar led his legion across the Rubicon into Italy, in defiance of the Senate and the constitution, and marched on Rome. The Dictator Pompey, the Consuls, magistrates and many senators fled. By 44 BC Caesar was dictator perpetuo; Emperor in all but name. In that year he was assassinated by aristocrats who wished to restore the Republic but in 27 BC the Senate granted his heir, Octavius, extensive powers and the title of Augustus. Monarchy was back and the Roman Empire had begun. The Republic had lasted for 461 years; it had outlasted most of its enemies, including Carthage and Epirus. Until the last century of its existence, when it plunged into disastrous civil wars, it had seemed an outstandingly successful State. How did it come to this?

Rome: Republic into Empire looks at the political and social reasons. The author describes the protagonists, their military skills, their political aims, the battles they fought and lost and the consequences of each battle. Using a wide range of literary and archaeological evidence, Paul Chrystal offers informed insights into one of the most interesting, turbulent and exciting periods of history. He shows how Rome, which by all the rules should have been destroyed by civil war, survived to establish one of the greatest empires the world has known. The price of stability and firm government was high: the curtailment of traditional Roman liberties and political rights, although this was balanced in many Romans' eyes by the inception of a long period of remarkable prosperity and sophisticated civilisation.

Rome: Republic into Empire is more than a list of battles, their winners and losers. We are given a complete picture of Roman and Italian society from aristocrats to peasants and slaves. Women, who were often influential, are accorded their full importance; Cleopatra enjoys a whole chapter to herself. Chapter 15, The Social and Literary Impact, focuses on their role. We learn that Porcia Catonis, the wife of Caesar's assassin, Marcus Junius Brutus, was regarded by her husband as having “the spirit to fight as nobly for her country as any of us”. When Brutus was killed in 43 BC, Porcia committed suicide by swallowing live coals, displaying “a spirit equal to her father's (Marcus Cato) manly death”. Cicero's wife and daughter Terentia and Tullia, managed the family's affairs after he had been driven into exile, bravely interceding for him with the authorities and narrowly escaping death at the hands of a mob. Cicero himself recorded that Terentia, as his adviser, was more active in his political life than she ever was in domestic affairs.

Chapter 15 also gives a survey of the writers and poets of the period, many of them brilliant, whose works, notably Vergil's Eclogues and above all his Aeneid, often give valuable insights into contemporary events and society. Vergil clearly welcomed the stability brought by the Empire; by contrast the poet Lucan, a republican and Stoic, regretted the new political order; this is reflected in his gloomy, pessimistic verse.

One important difference from modern Britain is that late republican Rome did not lack for leadership; it abounded with great men; too many for comfort. Some of the greatest names of Roman history belong to the Republic's last, violent century: Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Cataline, Marc Antony and Augustus. All of them seem to have possessed limitless intelligence, energy, courage charisma and ambition, so they frequently fought and destroyed one another; this was another factor of the civil wars.

Rome: Republic into Empire offers readers a readable narrative, informative notes, a good index, maps and bibliography. The illustrations, chosen from the art of several centuries, are of absorbing interest. I liked a fifteenth century illustration of Julius Caesar's murder, showing Caesar as a medieval Holy Roman Emperor wearing a crown and purple robe, while Brutus and Cassius are stiletto-wielding fifteenth-century dandies in brightly-coloured jerkins and tights. I could go on praising this book, but I shall stop here: buy it and enjoy it for yourself.

The author, Philip Chrystal, holds classic degrees from the universities of Hull and Southampton; has written more than 100 books, many of them on classical historical subjects; has contributed articles to learned periodicals, as well as appearing on BBC and other television historical programmes.

5/5 mushroom-heads

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