‘The Enemies of Rome’ shows the underdogs’ view of the empire

Stephen P. Kershaw tells of a thousand years of resistance to Rome, with portraits of the most celebrated adversaries from across the known world. 

Courtesy of Pegasus Books
“The Enemies of Rome: The Barbarian Rebellion Against the Roman Empire” by Stephen P. Kershaw, Pegasus Books, 556 pp.

The dust jacket illustration of the U.S. edition of Stephen Kershaw’s new book “The Enemies of Rome: The Barbarian Rebellion Against the Roman Empire” – unnamed by Pegasus Books – is a detail from Lionel Royer’s 1896 painting “Germanicus Before the Remains of the Legions of Varus,” which is an odd choice on one level. Surely for a book about ancient Rome’s centuries-long struggle with a succession of alien invaders, Royer’s far more famous 1899 painting “Vercingetorix Throws Down his Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar” would have been the more logical choice? 

The 1896 painting dramatizes the moment when an enormously popular Roman prince recovered the precious keepsakes of legions that had recently been annihilated in a German forest. In the painting, there’s no sign of any Germans – just somber and disillusioned Romans gathering the relics of their fallen countrymen. But the 1899 painting shows the proud Gallic war chieftain Vercingetorix surrendering to a red-robed Julius Caesar, and all around the scene are beaten and bound Gauls clearly worried about their future.

Kershaw’s big, generous history is much more a Vercingetorix book than a Germanicus one. In a series of densely researched chapters, Kershaw acquaints readers with a gallery of the enemies of Rome, and it’s a testament to the charismatic nature of the underdog that most readers will recognize far more of those alien names than they would the names of the Roman generals who faced them in battle.

Many people, for instance, knows the term “Pyrrhic victory,” a reference to the costly strategies of King Pyrrhus of Epirus - but Laevinus, the Roman who dealt with Pyrrhus? Who’s he? Similarly, the brave and sophisticated foreign kings like Jugurtha or Mithridates are each given a chapter here. Kershaw’s easy command of the classical sources makes the battles and stalemates gripping reading, but most of the Romans come across as mere avatars of a greedily expanding empire.

All the best-known enemies of Rome are here: Spartacus, the gladiator who led an improbably successful revolt against the legions of the Republic; Cleopatra, who used her wit and wiles to retain Egypt’s semi-independence for a few years in the face of imperial expansion; Boudicca, the iconic rebel of Roman Britain; and of course the aforementioned Vercingetorix, whose courageous struggle against the forces of Julius Caesar was doomed from the outset. 

Kershaw does a good job cobbling that struggle together from the extant sources, although in this section as in many others in the book, his pandering to topicality is downright painful. “The tribes who were reckoned to have the best government also kept close control over their ‘social media,’” he writes about the Gauls, “anyone who heard a rumour or news from a neighbouring country that concerned the state, had to tell it straight to a magistrate, and not anyone else, because they felt that ignorant and impulsive people were often frightened by ‘fake news’ into subversive acts and meddling in important state affairs.” This would be inexcusably lazy even in limited quantities, and alas, it crops up distractingly often in these pages.

Kershaw also has a tendency to exaggerate the already dramatic stakes. In the case of the 1st-century Dacian warlord Decebalus, for instance, readers learn that he broke his treaty with Rome in A.D. 105, prompting an invasion by the Roman emperor Trajan. “By stockpiling arms, giving refuge to deserters, repairing his forts, sending envoys to his neighbours, attacking people who had previously differed with him and annexing a portion of the territory of the Iazyges, he prompted the Senate to declare him an enemy,” Kershaw writes, which is accurate enough until he adds: “And this time Trajan’s response was practically genocidal.” There are scarcely any detailed sources for Trajan’s Dacian campaigns; there are certainly no accounts of genocide.

“The Enemies of Rome” begins with 14 pages of invaluable maps and an engaging discussion of just who the Romans considered “barbarians.” “As far as many Greeks and Romans were concerned,” Kershaw writes, “the further you went from their culture, the wilder, weirder and more monstrous people became.” The term fairly easily came to describe “everyone who lived outside the limits of Rome’s power, or who resisted or rebelled against it.” This book is essentially one long segmented chronicle of those rebellions, whether born outside Rome’s frontiers or fostered at its heart, and it makes for consistently gripping reading thanks to Kershaw’s adroit sifting of his sources, which lean heavily on primary writers from the ancient world.

The result is a curiously fascinating inverted portrait of a thousand years of Roman history, with events and battles and marquee personalities seen, as much as possible, through the eyes of the despised and defeated opposition. “The Enemies of Rome” becomes an anti-triumphalist counterpoint to the standard history of the empire.

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