Empire Without End
The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire From the First Century A.D. to the Third
“In our own disordered times, it is natural to look back for comfort and instruction to the experience of Roman imperial statecraft.” Thus writes Professor Luttwak. Livy, one of the historians treated by Lidia Mazzolani, started his own history of Rome in order to distract his mind from the unbearable present by steeping himself in the examples of virtue offered by antiquity. Early in the nineteenth century, Barthold Georg Niebuhr turned to the history of Rome (as he later told Francis Lieber) in order to distract his mind from the reality of Napoleon’s control over Europe: “We felt like Tacitus.”
Tacitus, another of the historians in Lidia Mazzolani’s book, of course complained that, with the end of the Republic, great genius died, and there was nothing worth writing about anyhow. What these and other historians of Rome have in common is the tendency to place their golden ages in the past, and (precisely) in the Roman past. That those to whom that particular past was present were doing the same will be no surprise to the historian who does not hanker after golden ages, past or future.
There was certainly a theme for a worthwhile book in the neurotic despair and historical escapism of the three eminent Roman historians treated in Empire Without End. The modern examples we have noted show that the theme is never without present interest and relevance. Unfortunately the author lacked both the knowledge and the scholarly care to write the book. Ignorant of many basic facts of the history of the period she purports to treat, she has also (as so often happens nowadays) been ill served by her translators, whose ignorance of those facts is even greater—matched only, it seems, by ignorance of the Latin language, in which the works discussed were written.1 It is hard to tell which particular instances of ignorance and confusion are due to whom, though such choice items as “the plebes” (for the plebeians), or “commodity data” recorded by the Pontifex Maximus, as well as numerous examples of zany surrealism in the “Bibliography” and notes, show the peculiar contribution of the translators. It hardly matters, in detail. When Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus are described as “the ancient sentries who from their promontories alerted one another with signal fires to the impending dangers of storms and pirate ships, discerned in the distance, beyond the roar of the breakers and the gleaming waves,” the nature of this book is clear to the discerning reader; and he will suspect that author and translators are in harmony.
Mazzolani’s basic thesis, which we have already glanced at, is unoriginal and noncontroversial. The facts, in most cases, seem taken from secondary works, expanded into a succession of vacuous purple patches, rarely accurate and often meaningless. The introduction shows the general standard. The Romans, in the Macedonian wars (in fact fought in what is now Greece), are said to have “marched along the routes that Alexander had followed…. The figure of Alexander, his curly,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.