In the middle of the 1st century B.C., Julius Caesar, future dictator of Rome, spent about 10 years knocking around what would become Western Europe oppressing the natives. Latin students still have the pleasure of translating "The Gallic Wars,” Caesar’s, ahem, vivid account of this campaign. A sample sentence: “All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.”
Such is the burden of the Roman historian – endure a blitzkrieg of dependent clauses, then convince modern readers that events two millennia old are relevant. In his new book The Rise of Rome, classicist Anthony Everitt does his best, but can’t quite carry the standard.
His first slip comes early. “One of the curious features of Roman history is that it often suggests parallels between then and now, but such comparisons can be dangerous,” he writes in a preface. “I leave readers to make their own connections unaided.” Everitt’s bold move – forego 21st-century politics in a discussion of Rome’s decline even as cable news pundits endlessly debate America’s decline – is good scholarship. After all, one can’t run around comparing Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, to George W. Bush willy-nilly.
But Everitt’s neglect of current events puts a lot of faith in his audience – too much, since understanding this epic book demands more than differentiating between Cincinnatus, Cicero, Cato, and Caesar. In little more than 500 pages, Everitt tackles more than a thousand years of ancient history, from the ostensible fall of Troy (circa 1084 B.C.) to the Ides of March so memorably dramatized by Shakespeare. The cast of characters – including Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythical founders breast-fed by a she-wolf, and Hannibal, the very real elephant-riding Carthaginian general who could have destroyed the city – is much longer than a call sheet for “The Wire.”
Instead of zeroing in on one or two major figures, “The Rise of Rome” revels in the turgid details of battles such as Cannae, where Hannibal almost destroyed the Roman army in 216 B.C. Everitt sacrifices the big picture to recount every flanking maneuver, and his book’s maze of military detail makes it too easy to forget that this civilization was the new empire on the Mediterranean block trying – and failing – to preserve a version of Greek democracy while taking over the world.
“From the Republic’s earliest years, the Hellenic world had been a major influence,” Everitt writes between recounting his subject’s military exploits. “They admired the deathless achievements of a glorious past … and knew they could not compete with them.” American readers should find this game of philosophical telephone ironic: Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas fetishize the words of the Founding Fathers; the Founding Fathers fetishized Roman republicanism; Rome fetishized the older, cooler civilization across the sea.
Its effort to reinvent Plato’s republic, of course, was doomed. Everitt leaves off around Caesar’s assassination; after about 400 more years of dictatorship perhaps best recounted in 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” the city was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 A.D., and the world would wait more than 1,000 years for another representative democracy.
“Although more conquests were to come, the Republic was now the undisputed ruler of a vast Mediterranean empire; at the same time, it was on the verge of a final and irrevocable constitutional breakdown,” Everitt writes. “The men who governed the world were unable to govern themselves.”
Still, Rome looms large. Our constitution plagiarized its government’s checks and balances; John Adams intervened when he learned son John Quincy’s school curriculum did not include Cicero; films such as "Spartacus" and HBO’s miniseries "Rome" continue to name-check our toga-ed forebears. Will anyone care in the decades to come?
“They are a rich poetic feast that has nourished European civilization for two thousand years,” Everitt writes. “It is only in the past few generations that our collective mind has begun to jettison them. If this book serves any purpose, it is as a reminder of what we are losing.”
The problem: Authors such as Everitt too often make these worthy reminders incomprehensible to laymen and difficult, even boring, to read. If Rome fades again, they are partly to blame.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.