When the Roman Empire Didn’t Stop

Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images
‘Marcus Curtius’; after John Martin, circa 1827. According to the historian Livy, when a chasm opened up in the Forum in 362 BC and an oracle declared that Rome could endure only by casting its greatest strength into it, the soldier Marcus Curtius said that its greatest strength was arms and valor and rode his horse into the chasm, saving the city.

“Is there any human being so indifferent or idle,” wrote Polybius in the introduction to his Histories, “as not to want to know how, and through what kind of regime, almost the entire society of the inhabited world, in less than fifty-three years, came under the sole rule of the Romans—an event to which the past offers no parallel?” Probably not; but Polybius himself (circa 200–117 BC), a Greek statesman from Arcadia, in the central Peloponnese, and a member of the Achaean League (a confederacy of Peloponnesian city-states), had good reason to ask this question. After the crushing victory over King Perseus of Macedonia, won at Pydna in 168 by the Roman general Aemilius Paullus—a battle that finally and fully established Roman hegemony in Greece—a thousand Achaean citizens suspected of anti-Roman tendencies were deported to Italy. Among them was Polybius.

It would be hard not to suspect a historian in his position of harboring private, if discreetly concealed, resentment at the turn that events had taken in his own career. Yet his prejudices are not so cut-and-dried as might at first sight appear. Polybius’s public record makes it clear that he was always in favor of dealing with the Romans—even if, unrealistically, on terms of equality—rather than resisting them head-on, which he saw from the start was a suicidal policy. Further, he had a privileged position in Rome, and was, uniquely as an Achaean deportee, allowed to remain there rather than being dispatched to some distant Etruscan town.

Accepted as an intimate at a high level of Roman society—he was a good friend, and mentor, to Aemilius Paullus’s son Scipio Aemilianus, the future consul who destroyed Carthage, in 146—Polybius was thus in an excellent position to gain firsthand information about Rome’s system of government and dealings with foreign powers. Whatever private reservations he might have about the Roman imperium, he condemned the Achaean League’s futile fight for independence from Roman rule in 146, and supported the conservative constitution that was imposed on his home state as a result, since this gave control to the established upper-class families to which he himself belonged and the social order that they represented. This was very like that of the well-connected optimates who looked after him in Rome. The Roman imperium that he served, and its excesses that he subtly criticized, were indeed something unique. Virgil could, without any sense of exaggeration, have Jupiter tell Venus in the Aeneid that he has bestowed on the Romans…

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