Friday, May 7, 2010


I am going to take a small break from my history book reviews to discuss something that has always bothered me on books and papers related to the Roman Empire. I strongly feel that the way the Roman civilization is classically presented is a huge problem. What I am generally referring to is historians often divide Rome into three distant time-periods: the Roman Kingdom (753 BC*-509 BC), the Roman Republic (508 BC-27 BC), and the Roman Empire (27 BC-476 AD). In other words, the Roman period is defined by what type of government it had. This might make since if it was something the Romans used to define themselves, but it is not. The classical view is distorted producing a false image to all who try to study it.

You remember this scene from Star Wars:

Well in Rome, that never happened. There was never a moment in Roman history where someone stood before the Senate to proclaim the Republic was over and the Empire had begun. In fact, Rome was an empire long before it ever had any sort of emperor.

The term empire and emperor actually get their origins from the Latin word imperium. Imperium translated directly into English means simply ‘power’ or ‘supreme power.’ In the Republic or res publica, these powers were held by a group of magistrates (consuls and praetors) and there existed a type of checks and balances for each of the magistrates. By the time we get an emperor, Augustus, he pretends as if the res publica is still going on (it is not since he had assumed Supreme imperium), and his successors do the same for entire Pax Romana.

Even when the Republic was operating as it was intended, it was clearly acted in ways that we would definitely now refer to as 'imperial'. In fact, they–the Romans— referred to Rome’s ‘foreign policy’ as Imperium Romanum. Imperium Romanum, which we translate as ‘Roman Empire’, actually, more properly translated means ‘power of Rome.’ The 'power of Rome' or Imperium Romanum is based on the idea that other cities and nations would do as Rome wanted. The 'power of Rome' does not begin upon the acts of settlement that gave Augustus the power that would become the bedrock of the Principate. Rather, Imperium Romanum begins the moment Rome first attempts to take control of the Italian peninsula and make their neighbors do what they want.

(Territory Rome held before any emperor ever ruled.)

The Republic was also not much a democracy, hence why we call it a Republic. The people’s assemblies, although they held the sovereign power, only voted things up or down they did not debate matters of state. That function was handled by the Senate, which was made up of a group of independently wealthy former office holders. In order to be an officer holder you were going to serve without pay. Rome did not compensate their leaders, and as consequence, if you wanted to be consul of the Republic you would have to be able to afford to take a year off. Therefore, power was always in the hands of the wealthy few. The Republic was the reign of Aristocrats. It had its advantages of binding their leaders to the law. However, the Republic was not expanded into the territories. The city of Rome ruled all it conquered; they sent their former consuls and praetors out into the territories as pro-consuls and pro-praetors ruling over the subject people as despots. Even where Rome expanded its citizenship the new citizens had to be in Rome to vote. The Republic was designed to govern only a city when they came to cover most the Mediterranean Sea, their system started to break down. Civil Wars ultimately brought Augustus to power as the ‘savior of the Republic’ in such a role he consolidated power from several offices he held and pretended to be a republican official.

I think explaining the fate of Rome from it's beginnings to Augustus can be summed up like this: Romulus created Rome as a Kingdom, later the Romans would though off the kings and create a Republic, which in turn would create an empire whose weight would destroy the Republic and give rise to the Caesars.

* For the purposes of this post, I am using BC and AD as opposed to BCE and CE since I am talking about classic viewpoints.

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