The Roman empire’s USP has always been its survival. The largest state ever to exist in Europe, Rome’s empire began with the conquest of its Italian neighbours in the last centuries BC, and endured, in one form or another, for more than 1,000 years. The imperial monarchy established by Augustus at the turn of the millennium became a model repeatedly imitated into the 20th century. The Slavic title Czar is a distant echo of Caesar. Its Eagles soared over the empires of Austria, France and Mexico. The Roman fasces, an axe enclosed in a bundle of rods, were not only brandished by Mussolini and Hitler, but continue to adorn the US House of Representatives and the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
My book Rome: An Empire’s Story, the second edition of which has just been published, describes that long arc of history from Iron age villages on the Tiber to Byzantium, embattled on the Bosphorus as its Syrian and African possessions were falling to Arab armies. It also explores the echoes of Roman empire through the ages.
The following are some of the best volumes in a long and still expanding literature.
1. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward GibbonThis six-volume history (first published between 1776 and 1789) is now read more by scholars of the Enlightenment than by Roman historians, but no one has told Rome’s story with more style and relish. The famous opening in the ruins of the Roman forum colours the whole book. The sense of antiquity yielding with poor grace to the succeeding ages remains a powerful image. Gibbon knew too that Byzantium was also, and was still, Rome long after the Eternal City was sacked by barbarians (twice) and possessed by the popes. No word describes it better than epic.
As different from Gibbon as it could be, except for its scale and ambition. Published in 2000, this is the most brilliant and influential recent work on the ancient world. Beginning from a deep understanding of the Mediterranean environment it builds a picture of the ancient region as a world of distant but connected communities, many of them precariously balanced on the edge of sustainability. City states and empires play second fiddle here to peasants and villages: wars and revolutions matter less than bad harvests and disease. It is a compelling view of the underside of empire, the base on which it was built. The discipline is still working through the implications of their arguments.
3. The Acts of the ApostlesFor Rome, of course, we are lucky enough to have eye-witness accounts. Perhaps none is more gripping than the Acts, a sequel to the gospel narrative – life after Jesus – played out in Judaea, among the cities of the empire’s eastern provinces and eventually in Rome itself. Acts has everything from Roman summary justice and civic riots to the perils of sea travel, and especially the strange combinations of identities the empire’s various subjects adopted for themselves.
Politically, all revolved around the emperor. Fergus Millar’s masterpiece, like all great books, has inspired debate and critique, but it changed the way we understand the practice of Roman government. Millar concentrated on building up a picture of what emperors actually did, from their letters and laws and from thousands of inscriptions and provincial records, rather than from the sardonic histories of senatorial writers such as Tacitus and Dio. It conveyed too a sense of the vastness of the empire, and the slowness with which information moved through its arteries. Millar’s emperor struggled to keep track of what was going on. He was mostly on the back foot too, reacting to crises rather than driving policy. It is an image hard to get out of one’s mind.
5. The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown Another book that leaves its mark. Where others had seen Rome reach its peak around the turn of the second and third centuries, Brown begins there and tells the story of the new worlds that emerged between the reign of Marcus Aurelius and the prophet Muhammad. The new cultures and religions and languages of late antiquity have been a fertile field for recent research. When revising my own book this was the period in which Roman History had changed the most over the last decade. Brown started the study of late antiquity, which now has its own journals, encyclopedias and conferences, and he has continued to lead from the front.
Rome has so often been a model for later imitators that it is sometimes easy to forget how different it was from what followed. This is not the most famous of Beard’s many books on Rome, but it played an important part in exploring the combination of savagery and ceremonial that followed Roman victories. It also described the enormously creative efforts of Romans who reshaped their religion and their monumental city for each generation.
7. Rome. An archaeological guide by Amanda ClaridgeIf you want to explore the remains of that city, there is no better guide than this. Claridge knows the modern city and its most recent archaeology better than anyone writing in English. Her book is a lucid and compact guide to the most ruinous and built-over monuments. I carry it with me everywhere when in the city (and have worn out a couple of copies).
8. Roman Presences by Catherine EdwardsWandering the Eternal City it is impossible not to think of the many aftershocks of the Roman empire. The later reception of images of Rome has been a scholarly growth industry in recent years but my favourite collection remains this one, which ranges from Thomas Macaulay to TS Eliot and London to Bombay.
9. Asterix the Gaul by Rene Goscinny and Albert UderzoMy earliest encounter with a modern reception of ancient Rome was here. It still makes me laugh as much as it did when I was 12 years old. My children learned to read on it. When I came to live in Paris as a graduate student, I realised how much it had to say about France after the second world war and under the Fifth Republic as well. Quite brilliant.
10. Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire by Judith HerrinMy final choice, because Gibbon was right that Roman history does not end with the sack of Rome, the deposition of the last western emperor, or even the Arab Conquests. Herrin tells the 1,000-year history of the Christian Roman empire not through a narrative, but a series of brilliant and vivid vignettes. It is a joy to read.
Rome: An Empire’s Story by Greg Woolf is published by Oxford University Press (£12.99).