The Romans and Their World: A Short Introduction

Peter Jones admires a new attempt to condense over 1,000 years of Roman history into a single volume


Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: Brian Campbell
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25


Introductions to a historical period must acknowledge the shortcomings of the genre.

Such an audience requires first and foremost a strong, persuasive narrative, and that is what Brian Campbell, professor of Roman history at Queen’s, Belfast, has provided. At the same time, he makes it quite clear where the problems lie, but without delving into the complexities.

The story is all. This comes out well in Campbell’s treatment of Rome’s early history, which even Livy agreed could hardly be accurate, beginning as it does with Aeneas, a survivor of Homer’s Trojan War, as the founder of the Roman race, and his descendants Romulus and Remus as the founders of the city of Rome itself 300 years later (traditional date 753 BC).

Nor do things improve much historically with the subsequent story of Rome’s first kings, culminating in their expulsion, the founding of the Republic in 509 BC and Rome’s dramatic expansion across Italy to become its master by c280 BC. Campbell’s judgment is therefore sound in telling the story of this period first but leaving the warning note about its likely historicity to a closing section.

With the Carthaginian wars (264–146 BC), light slowly begins to dawn. Campbell has a straight run through Rome’s first provinces (Sicily, north Africa, Spain, and then east into Greece and Asia Minor), the rise of powerful dynasts like Sulla, Pompey and Caesar in the first century BC that effectively destroyed senatorial control, and the well-documented result.

This was, of course, Rome’s imperial system, established by Augustus (emperor 27 BC–AD 14) – though stretches of the imperial period are also fairly blank.

This empire lasted nearly 500 years, economically unifying a world of some 50 million people from Britain to Mesopotamia and the Rhine-Danube to north Africa. Given that the army for most of that time was only around 300,000 strong, Romans must have been doing something right.

Campbell ends with the traditional date of AD 476 for the collapse of the Rome-based empire in the west, though not in its Constantinople-based extension in the Greek east. That finally fell on 29 May 1453 to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who promptly called himself Kayser-i Rum, ‘Caesar of the Romans’.

Everyone valued an association with the legendary Greco-Roman world.

Campbell sees Rome’s success as, at heart, a combination of military aggression with political and diplomatic flexibility. As the emperor Claudius pointed out, the key to successful imperialism lay in the willingness to transform enemies instantly into allies.

Though Augustus’s revolution was, in Campbell’s view, a flawed blueprint – the now professionalised army needed upkeep, no policy defined how large the empire could usefully be, and no clear means of succession was established – Roman pragmatism and a willingness to adapt institutions kept the show on the road.

As an expert in military history, Campbell devotes much space to the army, particularly in the tension between its loyalty to the state or to its general, and in its transformation in later years with numbers increasingly made up by barbarians. Oddly, he puts little emphasis on the role of the Huns in ending Roman imperial authority in the west.

Yet the book offers more than a clear, chronological treatment of politics, institutions and armies. The narrative is interspersed with thematic essays on the wider Roman world, from patronage to slavery, from economics to gladiators and religion.

However, while the text is interspersed with frequent quotations from ancient sources, I was left with the feeling that, though plenty of hard information is being transmitted, there is little tangible evocation of a world and its values, particularly the lives of the 99 per cent of Romans who were not the men at the top, let alone women. Campbell’s treatment of literature in particular is too cursory. One gets little idea that it meant a very great deal indeed to the ruling classes.

But if the ‘and their World’ part of the title is not quite so successful, users will still appreciate a clear narrative, well illustrated with pictures and maps, that introduces us to the broad sweep of Roman history in the traditional sense. 

Peter Jones is the author of Vote for Caesar: How the Ancient Greeks and Romans Solved the Problems of Today (Orion, 2009)

See also…


The End of Roman Britain: Where History Happened