Nostalgia for the Roman empire
Anthony Everitt’s “history as story” aims to give an account of ancient Rome that Romans themselves would recognise.
The Rise of Rome: the Making of the World's Greatest Empire
Head of Zeus
A t the start of his new book on the history of Rome, from its foundations to the late republic, Anthony Everitt contrasts the great first-century historian Livy with the academic historians of the present. Where contemporary historians tend to be too sceptical about the more bizarre incidents that are handed down to us, Livy uses artistic licence to describe events as they may have happened.
In his preface, Livy urbanely suspends judgment about whether the stories he is about to tell us of Rome’s beginnings are true. As he puts it, if Romans want to say that Romulus, their founder, was the son of the god of war, the conquered peoples of the world are in no position to argue with them.
For Livy, there’s a question mark over how much one can know about the distant past, but the traditional stories of what happened preserve a sort of symbolic truth that speaks to Romans about who they are and how they should act in the present. Where Livy is more upfront than Everitt is in his acknowledgment that the politics of his own time have an impact on what can be said about the past and what it means for him and for his readers.
It is “history as story” that Everitt aims to give us, an account of the Roman past that [Romans] themselves would recognise”. He makes use of recent scholarship, though he is largely impatient with scholarly debates. His emphasis is on working the ancient histories of Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Polybius and others into a seamless narrative, pausing from time to time to weigh up the reliability of their evidence.
The book is divided into three sections that nod towards the limits of what we can know about different periods: “Legend”, which covers the mythological founding of Rome by Aeneas, and by Romulus and Remus, and continues until the fall of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud); “Story”, which deals with the development of the republican constitution and the Roman conquest of Italy; and “History”, which takes us through Rome’s battles with Carthaginians and Greeks to become the dominant power in the Mediterranean.
We have a cast of great characters here, many of them familiar subjects in the art, literature and political discourse of later eras: Dido and her love for Aeneas; Romulus and his murdered brother; Lucretia, whose rape and suicide provoke the overthrow of the kings; Pyrrhus, of the pyrrhic victory; Hannibal and his elephants at the gates of Rome; Cato the Elder and his stern moralism; the rivals Marius and Sulla; and the great writer and politician Cicero, whose interest in Roman history provides us with a jumping-off point for the narrative.
Everitt’s style is cheerful, blunt and very readable: this is a very painless way into finding out what generations of Europeans have known about the great men and great deeds of early Roman history.
‘Great man’ history
This is a sort of history that schools and universities have more or less sidelined in the past 50 years or so, as we have become more ambitious in our desire to know how ordinary people lived and more suspicious of the politics of what has been sometimes derisively called “great man” history.