“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 subject, first published in 1950, “Tacitus seems to have regarded the freedom of the Senate as freedom par excellence.” And it was gone, leaving only the reflected sense of “courage to keep one’s dignitas alive,” a courage which few senators possessed. So Tacitus wrote the history of the first century of the Principate as the story of how a few men kept alive what he understood as “liberty,” in a struggle against despotic rulers and their unworthy henchmen, slaves, freedmen, toadies of all classes (including the senatorial), men without dignitas; a story of conspiracies, real and imaginary, one after another stretching out to infinity.

Tacitus died just when a new phase began, the succession of “good emperors” from the accession of Trajan in A.D. 98 to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. That is how it still appears in many modern histories of Rome, as they proceed through each reign in turn, from Augustus on, centering the account on the emperors themselves, their acts and their qualities, distinguishing and judging. Which of them, if any, merits such concentrated attention is rarely asked. Given a king, historians and their readers alike become mesmerized.

A frivolous instance, taken at random from Fergus Millar’s The Roman Empire and Its Neighbours, underscores the point precisely because the reference is mechanical and subconscious. Exemplifying the rise of Spaniards into the Roman ruling class, Millar writes: “On a less exalted social level we have an inscription from Barcelona of a man who was a centurion in two legions and was honorably discharged under Marcus Aurelius and Verus (161-9).” What follows about this man makes it obvious that the names of the emperors are as irrelevant as the color of his hair. And Millar, as we shall see, is engaged in a conscious effort to break from conventional Rome-centered, emperor-centered history.


My stress is not on the fallacy pathetically exposed by Brecht in the poem, Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters, which begins

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

Between the kings and the haulers of stone, the soldiers and the farmers there were the men for whom Tacitus lamented. It was they whose political role was transformed, and broken, by the accession of Augustus. A new structure of government, and of power-relations at the top, was created, from which the vast plebeian majority of the empire were excluded, as they always had been.

The difference between “bad” and “good” emperors was largely one of their relations with the ruling class, and there is no need to exaggerate the “goodness” or even the competence of individual rulers. They were absolute monarchs, regardless of constitutional formalities. Hence the panicky behavior of Tiberius in his final years, for example, or the presumed insanity of Caligula did make a difference—in the lives of a few senators and their supporters. Or an emperor could deplete or enrich the treasury. But the development of the new governmental system and of the empire as a whole had an inner coherence that was essentially untouched by personalities. It may be hyperbole to maintain that the antics of Tiberius and Caligula had no effect on the further history of Rome, but that is far less misleading than excessive concentration on them.

Under the emperors the provinces were still Roman possessions. On that score there was no breach. Indeed, Mr. Miller points out, “the pressure of the State on the population increased,” as compulsory services, such as maintenance of the road and courier network, were added to the basic land tax, from which only Italy and a few favored cities outside were exempt, and to the various indirect taxes on the sale and transport of goods. Ancient imperialism was always openly exploitative: it demanded land, manpower, and money, in different forms and combinations. Unlike modern imperialism, however, it rarely looked for raw materials (except for gold and silver, and for wheat to feed the populace of the city of Rome); nor did the economy require cheap labor with which to make great profits on investments. Commercial interests never counted for much (on this question I believe Badian exaggerates). Cheap labor meant slaves, and the paradox was that slaves came from outside: the incorporation of Gaul into the empire, for example, put a stop to the enslavement of Gauls, which had been one of Julius Caesar’s contributions both to the well-being of rich Romans and to the creation of his own large personal fortune.

The Roman empire, in short, was a tribute-collecting institution. For whose benefit? In the late Republic, as Professor Badian has demonstrated in detail, partly for the benefit of the public treasury (so that Roman citizens were virtually tax-free), but even more for the enrichment of the Roman ruling class. Augustus and his successors put a stop on the whole to the illegal fleecing by tax-farmers (the publicans of the New Testament), governors, and money-lenders. We need not argue whether or not moral considerations entered; imperial authority and administration required more orderly and less provocative methods. Nor need we argue whether the word “fleece” can still be fairly employed. The “legal” private benefits of empire were enormous. The population of Italy gained exemption from most of the costs of governing Rome and the empire. The masses in the city of Rome itself, uniquely favored, were subsidized from the imperial purse. Administrative and military posts brought considerable profits, direct and indirect. Upper-class Italians acquired large tracts of land in Sicily, North Africa, Gaul, and elsewhere. When Nero confiscated the estates of six senators, they were said to have comprised half the land in the province of Africa. The emperors themselves were personally rich beyond the dreams of Midas or Croesus.

Yet there was a significant change in the imperialist situation after the Republic gave way to an Empire. One of Millar’s themes, formulated in his introductory chapter, is the slow but steady “replacement of a distinction between local groups (Roman citizens, predominantly Italians—and others) by one applicable, as far as we know, equally over the whole Empire, between classes.” If one insists on a date for the completion of that process, the year was A.D. 212 (or thereabouts), when an imperial edict gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire save for certain “underprivileged groups.” From 90 to 88 B.C. the Italian “allies” had fought a savage war against the Romans to win Roman citizenship. Three centuries later the very concept of citizenship had become so meaningless that it could be granted to everyone in the interest of administrative (and tax-collecting) tidiness. The profits of empire now went not to a Roman (or Italian) ruling class, but to the ruling class of the empire, an élite (some of whom still bore the title of “senator”) drawn from every region. As an appropriate corollary, Mr. Millar points out, “the word ‘plebs,’ which originally signified the lower order in the city of Rome,” became “a technical term for the lower classes throughout the Empire.”


The rich élite were very rich, not only by ancient standards but also, even after making due allowance for the differences in the economy, by later standards. Statistics are not available, but there are sufficient indicators, in the occasional rent-figure or in the continuous and substantial benefactions, especially for public buildings, temples, baths, amphitheaters, and the like. The vaunted pax Romana was a reality, undisturbed for two centuries save for Jewish revolts and for occasional troubles with people on the borders. Augustus stabilized the army at 300,000 men; even for such a major campaign as Trajan’s against the Parthians, that figure was not substantially increased. Then came the internal breakdown of the third century, accompanied by new threats from the Germans, and eventually Diocletian, at the end of that century, was forced to make a permanent increase in the armed forces, to 500,000 or perhaps 600,000 men. Dr. Michael Grant calls this “a huge quantity of soldiers,” but Gibbon long ago noticed that Louis XIV’s army was as large as the Augustan, though his kingdom “was confined within a single province of the Roman Empire.”

The empire, it must be remembered, extended over something like 1,600,000 square miles, and the population may have reached 60,000,000 at its maximum. The difference was that Louis XIV could afford a proportionately much larger outlay, because the Roman economy rested on a very low and stagnant level of production and consumption among the peasant masses. To squeeze more out of them and from anyone else outside the élite who could not escape exactions became the major task of the imperial administration. By the fourth century these efforts had brought about legislation seeking to freeze everyone into hereditary occupations and domicile. That there remained loopholes is certainly true, but it is equally true that the “Roman” world now looked more like the medieval than the ancient.

I have used inverted commas for the word “Roman” because the question then arises about the legitimacy of the label. In his Preface Mr. Millar speaks of “the process by which, with no break in historical continuity, a pagan Empire ruled from Rome developed into a Christian Empire ruled from Constantinople” (my italics). Professor Joseph Vogt claims that “no one has ever seriously maintained that there was any marked break in the east between ancient and Byzantine civilization.” Dr. Grant even calls his account of the period from A.D. 161 to 337 the “climax” of Rome (rather than the conventional “decline”) and defends his choice by “a number of simultaneous or successive artistic, intellectual, and spiritual developments.” He refers to portrait sculpture of the emperors, “novels” such as the Golden Ass and Daphnis and Chloe, and the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus.

Few will agree with Grant, I believe. Bernard Berenson settled the quality of late Roman monumental sculpture once for all; to write about the novels, even the Golden Ass, as great literature, remembering the classical Latin poets and historians, or to say that in this period “ancient philosophy came to its culmination” is boldly perverse. Marcus Aurelius has always been a layman’s “philosopher,” a sermonizer, of no interest to professional philosophers. Thereafter, as Vogt rightly says, though he is equally insistent on “continuity,” “knowledge of God was for the moment its [philosophy’s] sole aim.” And that marks the sharpest possible break from the long ancient philosophical tradition, beginning with the Milesians of the sixth century B.C. “Knowledge of God” as here understood was a medieval and Byzantine focus of exclusive interest, not a Graeco-Roman one. It will no doubt shock Professor Vogt, but I am prepared to claim that there was a “marked break in the east between ancient and Byzantine civilization,” and I cannot imagine that the Gracchi (not to go back earlier), Cicero, Pompey, and the other characters in Professor Badian’s book, or their Greek contemporaries, would have felt themselves in any but the most alien environment, socially, politically, culturally, in the Byzantium of Justinian (d.565) or of Heraclius (d.641), or, for that matter, of Constantine (d.337).

Words like “continuity” and “break” are deceptive and dangerous. What can Millar mean when he writes that the pagan empire of Rome became the Christian Empire of Constantinople “with no break in the historical continuity?” That the transformation occurred without the violent overthrow of the eastern half of the empire by foreign invaders, without violent social revolution, is true. But is that so important? The Industrial Revolution in England occurred without such a “break,” too, and it brought about a profound transformation of society. The western Roman Empire, on the other hand, was smashed by Germanic invaders. Was there no continuity in the west, then?

In my student days I once heard Rostovtzeff mock the then current mania for origins: if pushed back far enough, we must eventually reach Adam and Eve. The same can be said in the reverse direction. Of course there is always continuity, unless a people is physically eliminated. Language, technology, religious ideas, ceremony and pageantry, bureaucratic terminology and procedures have a remarkable tenacity to adapt and embed themselves in new forms. Structurally they are no longer the same as they had been, but persistent seekers after continuity have no trouble in finding it. Greek cities occasionally memorialized Augustus as a “savior” (soter in Greek) sent by God. Jesus was also Soter. That is interesting for the psychology of religion; it is a snare and a delusion when used to argue continuity of religion. Christianity eventually destroyed Roman paganism. That is what matters historically.

Today scholars have discovered the true spirit of ancient Greece in the ruins of Mycenae, a tenth-century Renaissance and a twelfth-century Renaissance, Roger Bacon as the founder of modern science, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the fifteenth century, ad infinitum. Yet classical Greece, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution initiated by Copernicus and Galileo, and the Industrial Revolution stand unshaken by all this misguided gamesmanship.

Motives among the players vary. For a time there was an openly political one, that of undercutting the Russian Revolution by denying that revolution, a bad thing anyway, ever took place in any effective sense. Another is the universalist view of mankind as marching toward God’s revealed truth, that of the Christian religion. It is absurd to bracket so distinguished a professional historian as Professor Vogt with Bishop Bossuet, yet they share this much common ground. One need only read Vogt’s pages on magic, superstition, and “degenerate” pagan religion, or on Julian the Apostate, a “religious zealot,” “influenced by fanatics,” a “sophistical” writer of “tirades.”

The choice of nouns and adjectives can perhaps be defended, but of whom in that world of violent religious strife, whether between Christians and pagans, or among Christian sects, can it be said that he was not a zealot, that he was immune from fanatics, that his arguments were never sophistical? Gibbon was wrong to see in Christianity the major cause of the decline and fall, but he was not wrong to stress the shattering role of this creed with its radically new concept of conversion, and its drive toward theocracy.

History always tends to be the history of winners. One must therefore ask why they won; in the case of Christianity, God’s will is not the only possible answer, and it is curious that our famous polemicists against historical inevitability do not occasionally divert their attention from Hegel and Marx to the way the early history of Christianity is written, even by so good a scholar as Vogt. “We now ask whether the elevation of Christianity into the state religion was accompanied by any inner transformation of the ancient world.” The answer comes forty pages later, cautious but affirmative: “the social aspects of imperial legislation cannot be attributed wholly to Christian influence;…neither governments nor people underwent a total moral regeneration” (my italics).

I am myself unable to discover humanitarian legislation of importance, or any regeneration. The lives of individual saints and the writings of a few philosopher-theologians do not warrant such a sweeping judgment of a whole society. But that does not alter my view that the conversion of Constantine, added to the social and political changes that came at the same time, marks a new period in the history of Europe.

The Oxford School of History begins its curriculum with Diocletian and Constantine, and though it may be amusingly anachronistic to retain the label “modern history,” this formal acknowledgement of a major historical break has not been shaken by the proponents of continuity. Periodization is not just a matter of pedagogical convenience; it is part of every historian’s assessment of his field of inquiry. Professor Badian’s account of Republican imperialism, for all its brevity, provides a model, as he seeks to define and then to explain the break-points.

All the books under consideration appreciate that Roman history cannot be the history of Rome, and all prefer institutions to political/military narrative. Mr. Millar, as he promises in the Introduction, concentrates on the political, social, and economic history of the empire, region by region (with the cooperation of four specialists, each of whom wrote a chapter on people outside the boundaries, the Dacians before the Roman conquest, the Scythians and Sarmatians, the Germans and the Iranians). Professor Vogt and Dr. Grant pay much more attention to literature, philosophy, religion, and the arts.

Such diversification of subject matter adds complications. “Political and economic distress,” writes Grant, “does not always prevent cultural and spiritual triumphs, and sometimes breeds them.” Beyond doubt, but sometimes, too, distress breeds cultural sterility. Only a structural approach makes possible (though it does not guarantee) an understanding of such relationships. The search for continuity in individual strands or institutions is, on the contrary, a block to understanding.*

This Issue

January 29, 1970