The Roman Empire: Roots of Imperialism

Peter Jones on a new study of the operations of the Roman elite

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: Neville Morley
Publisher: Pluto
Price (RRP): £17.99

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This polemic stimulates and irritates by turns. Professor Morley tells us that the west today is still ‘imperialist’. But he does not define what he means, though he agrees that the ‘new imperialism’ is not the old. So how the Roman empire is a useful model (except, as Morley insists, it isn’t) is not clear.

Again, the elites are the eternal villains of the piece. Poor old Pliny the Younger sets up a scheme to compensate suppliers for bad harvests and is rapped over the knuckles because it “placed [his partners] under an obligation to him which might pay off in future dealings [while] enhancing his [local] reputation”. The unfeeling, exploitative brute!

And is it “the task of the historian […] to understand Rome and its continuing influence in order to break its power over the modern imagination”? That sounds like preaching, not history.

Forget all that. Morley has produced a highly readable, very challenging account of an elite that understood, dimly at times, that if it was to maintain the revenue flows from its provinces, there needed to be a quid pro quo for the provincials, or at least for those that counted. Economic, political and cultural benefits and the stability offered by Pliny the Elder’s “immeasurable majesty of the Roman peace” were offered.

His fashionable pieties apart, Morley’s penetrating analysis of the balance sheet, cleverly combining the ancient sources with the latest research and analysis and properly refusing to take the Roman elite at their word, is a fine piece of work.

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Peter Jones is the author of Vote for Caesar (Orion, 2009)