Thursday, July 26, 2012

Greg Woolf's "Rome: An Empire's Story"

Greg Woolf is Professor of Ancient History at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of Et Tu, Brute?: A Short History of Political Murder and editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Rome: An Empire's Story, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Rome: An Empire’s Story finds the Roman Empire in crisis. The chapter section is entitled “The Last Superpower”. By the middle of the second century BC Roman armies had defeated all their main rivals around the Mediterranean World but no-one knew how they would exercise their power. “Perhaps” I wrote at the top of the page “Romans themselves had not agreed on this question.” I then glance back to show how all the old diplomatic systems were no use now there was only one ruling power. (Perhaps this shows very clearly that I was a graduate student when the Berlin Wall came down, and so am of the generation that has watched the politics of the Cold War be replaced by something more chaotic.) Chaos is the theme of the rest of the page. Macedonian kings who didn’t understand the Romans still expected them to obey orders even after they had made peace, the Roman Cato who said all kings were ‘flesh-eating animals’, but most of all the chaos of misunderstandings, in which Roman friends accidentally fell from grace and became her enemies. Think Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, and the Taliban. Rome plunged into a deeper crisis than America has – so far anyway – and nearly lost her empire entirely (just a few pages further on in fact). But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Page 99 shows kings, senators, ambassadors, Greek cities all working quite hard to put things back together, and unlike us (at least those of us who have skipped ahead or read chapter 1 which summarizes 1500 years of Roman history in an average of 3 words per year) the Greeks and Romans didn’t know what was coming next. One of the big advantages of modern analogies – I use a lot in this book at every stage from Rome’s foundation to the rise of Islam – is that they remind us how confusing things were at the time. With hindsight the patterns look too clear: rabid demagogues like Cato should have calmed down a bit, rebels were mad to try it, Rome was bound to succeed… Except for them (as for us) the future is the undiscovered country. That is what I tried to capture in this story of rise, of crisis after crisis survive, and eventually of fall.
Learn more about Rome: An Empire's Story at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue