History has a broad appeal – whether it be in books, cinema, television, or even gaming. Certainly in the last five years, epic stories involving history’s heroes and villains – always embroiled in their grandiose wars and devious plots – have experienced a resurgent popularity. The story of the Roman Empire in particular has witnessed an unprecedented amount of attention. The very name of Rome still evokes strong images of bravery, cruelty, grandeur and power of epic proportions today, millennia after its empire disintegrated.
Reading Greg Woolf’s Rome: An Empire’s Story, readers won’t escape the fact that Woolf is a renowned scholar who is an unabashed enthusiast at heart. His words are genuinely driven by a desire to express his fascination with the ancient story of Rome and of the people who forged its destiny. While remaining a level-headed scientist throughout, narrating in a clear and carefully balanced style, this is clearly a labour of love. And the enthusiasm rubs off.
In 18 well-trimmed chapters, Woolf takes readers on the best guided tour of the Roman Empire money can buy – from its humble, precarious beginnings in Italy through its jolting expansion across the Mediterranean, from its military adventures into the dark reaches of northern Europe and its triumphant era of peace and prosperity, to its long march into ruin a full thousand years later. Woolf’s most profound accomplishment lies in avoiding the traditional dirge of facts and figures sometimes associated with academic pieces.
Rome: An Empire’s Story offers a lively biography of the Roman state and gives thought-provoking insight into the more unforeseen effects of such a success story. Rome’s story of empire is one of trial and error, of clever politicians evading the fate of their rivals, finding solutions to structural weaknesses. Yet, its triumphs abroad were accompanied by violent convulsions back home. Woolf recounts how its expansion often endangered everything its protagonists stood for, and shows how their actions transformed their world beyond recognition. For the Romans, success became a matter of survival.
Woolf’s success is the result of equally lofty ambitions. While letting us enjoy a thrilling roller coaster ride through history, he releases the throttle at crucial points to take in the scenery, offering a range of cutting edge discussions on imperial ecology, the social basis of slavery, crisis management, religious innovations and issues of provincial identities. It is quite a feat to string all of these themes together in such clear and convincing language, without losing a sense of rhythm or focus. On the whole, his efforts in balancing pace and detail pay off, though the more casual reader might well abandon the ride before the end. For those Rome-lovers who are lusting for the real deal – and who can stomach some veritable scholarship – this is a must-read.
All in all, Rome: An Empire’s Story is a fitting biography of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.