Book Review: The Origin of Empire, by David Potter

Capturing the pivotal moment when Rome transformed from a republic to a world empire, spanning over three hundred action-packed years.

By
A comprehensive history of Rome, from Republic to Empire
Overall
4

David Potter is an American historian at the University of Michigan who has written extensively on Greek, Roman and Byzantine history. This huge topic is covered from both primary and secondary sources, some academic, some popular, which are seamlessly blended into a refreshing narrative complemented by photographs and maps.

The book traces three centuries of expansion from 264 BC when the first foray of a Roman army into Sicily laid the foundation of the development from a local republic to an enormously powerful empire. I have read other books on this period which were a little dull but, while very detailed and well researched, Potter maintains a lively narrative of the expansion from a city on the Tiber right through to the north of England and Hadrian’s Wall.

Of particular interest in this book are the links the author makes between history and archaeology. For instance, the metal rams found recently on the sea bed, show that in the war between Rome and Carthage, in the early 260s BC, the ships used by both sides were triremes, not quinquiremes, as has previously been believed. This demonstrates smaller ships were in use even when the heavier ships, able to carry more men, were also available in the area.

The benefits of accepting Roman hegemony were clear when Roman troops were stationed in far flung parts of the realm and offered protection from other invaders. Roman citizenship was highly valued and through multiple levels, non-citizens could aspire to citizenship while leaving effective control in Roman hands. 

As we have seen in modern times, ethnic divisions can result in the fracturing of the polity and vicious antagonism between groups. Davis argues that part of the success of the burgeoning Roman Empire was its ability to absorb these differences. Local religions in conquered territories were not stamped out but rather allowed to continue, perhaps in a modified form as Roman practices and gods were also introduced.

Davis discusses how the cultural and political aspects of the newly acquired territories brought about transformations back in Rome. The ceaseless competition between aristocratic families and factions for power within the Roman state and the expansion into other territories meant the leaders of armed forces could also use these soldiers to assert their power and position in their home city.

This infighting continued for most of this period and weakened the republican aristocracy which in turn, created a space for a militarised Roman state under dictators such as Julius Caesar. Perhaps the best known single, powerful ruler was Emperor Augustus who was responsible for the creation of a strong bureaucracy which successfully ran the empire for many centuries.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2019
RRP: $59.99

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