I just finished reading 2.5 books on ancient Rome: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Donald Dudley’s The Civilization of Rome, and Michael Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. After taking
6 years of Latin in middle school and high school, I realized how little I knew about the history of Rome itself. I had heard various emperors mentioned, and the periods of monarchy, republic, and empire, but I didn’t know much beyond that. Julius Caesar was hard to follow without knowing the history, inspiring me to read the other two books.
I liked Dudley’s book, but unfortunately left it on the Chinatown bus in Philly, right at the peak of the Roman empire. Unfortunately, the second book didn’t pick up until 150 years later, after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and other exciting and important events, so I missed out on some key parts of the history, but got the basic idea.
Reading these books made me aware of how little I know about that time period in general, and in particular the other empires that were around at the time. As scholars have had 2000 years to study them, I’m sure there are some good books around on the subject. Unfortunately, it sounds like many of the “barbarians” at the time didn’t leave much of a direct record behind, but it would be interesting to learn what people have managed to figure out about them.
The thing I enjoyed most about these books was learning how Roman civilization faded into medieval European civilization, through the many causes of its fall. It was certainly a gradual transition that I’d like to read up on further. For example, the decline of the Roman middle class and the taxes Rome levied on its citizens combined to form the seeds of the feudal system. To support its growing military, Rome raised taxes ever higher, the brunt of which fell on the poor, as the rich found all sorts of means of evading such taxes. The rich did, however, offer protection to the poor from both tax collectors and invaders on their own estates, causing large numbers of proto-serfs to flock to these estates. These estates became towns unto themselves and eventually ossified into feudal serfdoms.
In fact, power and wealth in Rome had always been hereditary, another aspect of the history that fascinated me. The Roman government, whether republic or empire, seemed to be an oligarchy in practice, with powerful families fighting for control over the country. This story continued through the fall of the empire, with the plutocrats remaining in power and even cooperating with the conquering German tribes to maintain their status. This history of Rome added some texture to the idea that the rich tend to stay rich. Obviously there were many who came from humble backgrounds and worked their ways up, but they eventually added their own line to the preceding ones. The image that comes to mind is a bowl of spaghetti lifted up by a fork, making a giant intertwined continuum of powerful families through time. Each strand begins and ends at some point, but the whole entanglement continuing forever. I’m sure that these families continued through Medieval Europe and one to today’s royalty, etc. I’d like to read the history of the time immediately after the fall of Rome, which seems like it should be full of interesting power struggles as well.
Such battles for control of the empire were also fought between the various religions of the Western Roman Empire. I’m very interested to learn about the early history of Christianity and the establishment of the Church as such a powerful institution. One question Grant raised was how the tiny sect of Christians managed to eventually take over the entire Roman empire, instead of, say, the Jews? Constantine adopted Christianity because he hoped it would unite the empire, but even when it had utterly failed at that and splintered into a number of opposing factions, it continued to augment its ranks. The history of the Jews also intersects with that of Rome a number of times. And for all my years of Hebrew and Sunday school, I’ve never gotten a historical view of the Jewish people. There was a piecemeal account from the religious texts themselves, but never an objective, modern history. I’m sure there are lots out there, I’d like to check out
some of those as well to fill in those gaps.
All of these relationships and power struggles are eerily familiar, invigorating my sense of the stability of certain human characteristics over the past two or more millennia. The question becomes, in which ways are “modern” humans and institutions different from those of the time of Christ?