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Roman Imperialism

In response to:

A Profitable Empire from the January 29, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Professor Badian’s recent work on Roman imperialism (NYR, Jan. 29) Mr. M. I. Finley tells us that the truth about Rome’s exactions “would have been unthinkable” fifty years ago, “at least outside Marxist circles,” and adds that even now many students of the period will be shocked. This is wildly untrue, and reflects a certain leftist tendency to see repression everywhere.

Let three examples suffice: In 1919 Richard Jolliffe published a thorough study entitled Phases of Corruption in Roman Administration in the last Half Century of the Roman Republic, and in fact Badian refers to this work on the very page from which Finley takes his quote (p. 87, n. 33); in his standard work on the Hellenistic world (1941) Michael Rostovtzeff described how heavy burdens were imposed by Roman governors “not so much for the benefit of the State as for their own profit” (p. 962), and concludes that Roman rule was “a truly ‘colonial’ regime, arrogant, selfish, corrupt, cruel, ruthless and inefficient” (p. 1017); an even more negative view had already been voiced by Charles Merivale in 1850, who judged that provincials “were subjected to the severest fiscal and other burdens, enhanced by the rapacity of their rulers, who, from the consul or praetor to the lowest of their officers, preyed upon them without remorse and without satiety” (Vol. 1, p. 21 of History of the Romans under the Empire; 1872 edition).

Now I am not aware of Mr. Jolliffe’s political views, but it is fairly sure that neither the Dean of Ely nor Michael Rostovtzeff ever moved in Marxist circles. So another triumph of the Sons of Light proves illusory. But that is a minor matter.

More important is the fact that the real significance of Professor Badian’s work goes unnoticed. He has argued that the main impetus to expansion and exploitation came from the Roman masses, not from the businessmen or the aristocracy (see p. 76 ff. in particular), and that the masses were motivated by both nationalism and greed.

If true, this interpretation must lead to a basic revision in our views on the Late Republic and its fall.

Mr. Finely makes no mention of these matters. Such an omission is unworthy of your journal and of his own distinguished reputation.

R. I. Frank

University of California, Irvine

Irvine, California

M. I Finley replies:

It is characteristic of writers of political diatribe that they do not read with any care. I didn’t say anything so absurd as that “the truth about Rome’s exactions ‘would have been unthinkable’ fifty years ago.” On the contrary, I pointed out that “most of the evidence Badian adduces was of course well enough known to earlier historians.” What I claimed to be new and of prime importance, apart from the brilliance of the analysis, is the stress that runs through Badian’s book, summed up in the sentence I quoted, “No administration in history has ever devoted itself so wholeheartedly to fleecing its subjects for the private benefit of its ruling class as Rome of the last age of the Republic.” If Professor Frank cannot appreciate the difference between what I wrote and what he alleges I wrote, no serious discussion with him is possible.

Furthermore, it is not “wildly untrue” that such a view “will even today shock some Roman historians.” (I wrote some, not many as Frank has it.) Professor S. I. Oost of the University of Chicago has just published in Classical Philology a short review of my Ancient Sicily, half of which is a complaint that “Finley is not quite fair to the Romans.” Others have said the same, though not with the trains-run-on-time ideology of the following rhetorical question by Oost: “Is, in fact, sovereign freedom (with all its notorious abuses in Greek hands) so important that it outweighs peace, prosperity, order, and, save on ideological grounds, individual happiness?” That is supposed to be a comment on the provincial administration of Cicero’s day, precisely the period under review.

Nor does Frank read Badian any more carefully. If what he chooses to call the “real significance” of the book went unnoticed in my review, that is because Professor Badian has not argued that “the main impetus to expansion and exploitation came from the Roman masses.” In pp. 76ff., to which Professor Frank draws attention, Badian shows that in the last half-century of the Republic, the plebeians were able to claim a share of the profits of the empire because of their growing importance in the political cockpit. Presumably Frank thinks that is the same as his false and misleading paraphrase. Let him then reread what Badian wrote on p. 79: “For it is the senators themselves who now take the lead in imperialism in both its principal senses: in exploitation and in aggression. Not surprisingly (in the Roman scheme of things), it is the political class, not the various non-political pressure groups, that ultimately decides the temper of policy.”

Of course, it may be that for Professor Frank the “real significance” of the book is that he has at last discovered the elementary fact that the Roman plebs, like the plebs in other ages, was nationalist and imperialist in its attitudes. Before he rushes off to a “basic revision in our views on the Late Republic and its fall,” he must acquire another fact he has not yet discovered, that the Roman Equites should not be labeled “businessmen.”

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