Roman Imperialism in the Late Republic
The Roman Empire and Its Neighbours
The Climax of Rome
The Decline of Rome
“No administration in history has ever devoted itself so whole-heartedly to fleecing its subjects for the private benefit of its ruling class as Rome of the last age of the Republic.” That sentence, from the final chapter of Professor Ernst Badian’s exciting little book on Roman imperialism (originally a set of lectures delivered at the University of South Africa in 1965), will even today shock some Roman historians and some readers. Half a century ago it would have been unthinkable, at least outside Marxist circles. One didn’t write about the world of Cicero, Pompey, the younger Cato, Caesar, and Brutus in such terms. Yet the statement is true beyond any possibility of argument. “What a fine thing it is to rule over foreign nations,” said Cicero, and the banner of “liberty” under which Brutus stabbed Caesar (and was cheered by Cicero) had nothing to do with the case. When still a young man, Brutus had lent the city of Salamis in Cyprus money at 48 percent interest, and then got the Roman army to squeeze the payments out of the Salaminians for him.
Most of the evidence Badian adduces was of course well enough known to earlier historians. What has changed is the view of history; the present has changed, not the past. That is familiar in all fields of history and I do not propose to dwell on it. There are other, more interesting, more difficult questions to be asked of historians of Rome.
The words “imperialism” and “empire” in themselves provide enough problems. There was a Roman empire before there was a Roman Empire. That is to say, Rome was an imperialist state long before the republican system of government gave way to the “imperial” one established by Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, Augustus. After Augustus (or Octavian as he then was) defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Rome became a monarchy. The fact that the title of king (rex) was avoided for ideological reasons fooled no one; both Romans and their subjects appreciated the real meaning of princeps and imperator (whence “emperor”). A few among the upper classes thought that the Roman tradition had been breached irremediably. The statement of that view by the senatorial historian Tacitus has dominated western thinking ever since, and the convention remains firm to divide Roman history into two primary and distinct periods, the Republic and the Empire.
That the establishment of the Principate was a great divide is of course true. However, it is important to analyze carefully and to distinguish what such periodization does and does not mean. Tacitus’s history is gloomy almost beyond bearing: he held no brief for the corruption and misgovernment of the late Republic, and he accepted the need for monarchy to maintain and extend the greatness (power) of Rome, but he also concluded that the price was the loss of libertas.
“In so far as libertas consists in political institutions,” wrote Professor Wirszubski in his classic book on the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.