Like the Civil War, one of the topics I haven’t read as much about as I would have liked to as of late is Ancient Rome. That glorious republic, then empire, was one of the mightiest and most brilliant forces ever seen, paling only, perhaps, in comparison to Victorian England or early-Cold War America. As such, it is an epoch we should remain knowledgeable of.
How the Romans became the Romans, how their society was structure, how they waged war, maintained a stable society (until they couldn’t), and from where their success came are all aspects of the ancient world that should and do fascinate us. That’s why I added The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt to my reading list and I am so glad that I did.
Innumerable books have been written about the ancient Greeks and Romans. There are stories of their mythology. Dramas and plays written about the most colorful characters from the Hellenistic and Roman times. Translations of their journals, compilations of their letters, and even translated biographies (such as Lives of the Noble Greeks by Plutarch). And, of course, there are the modern biographies, histories, discussions of campaigns and building projects, and short articles or books about specific events.
But few books written in modern times create a compelling narrative about how the Roman civilization arose. There are snippets here or there about the founding myths, mentions of Rome’s past struggles in later discussions of the rise of Stoicism in Rome or imperial decadence, but I haven’t yet found one that charts the course of Rome from Aeneas to Caesar, Troy to the Rubicon. Other than The Rise of Rome, that is. Read it if you want to learn how Rome became Rome and why the Republic became the Empire.
Summary of The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt
Anthony Everitt’s terrific The Rise of Rome is a relatively concise book for the hundreds of years it covers, yet it does a good job of noting and explaining the most important moments of the Roman Republic.
Beginning, as it ought, with the myths and legends shrouded in the far reaches of the past, Aeneas is the first Roman character in it. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, that Trojan prince led his defeated people from the burning wreck that was Troy across the Mediterranean, eventually landing them in Italy and founding the tribe that became known as the Latins.
Two young boys were eventually born to the leadership of that tribe, but left to die because of royal squabbles. Suckling at the teats of a she-wolf, they were raised by a shepherd and eventually founded Rome. Well, one did. Romulus killed Remus before the city was officially founded with him as its first king, Rome showing its martial nature from the start. Thus began the reign of the seven kings of Rome.
Much of that is myth, of course, as Everitt ensures the reader learns in the second chapter of The Rise of Rome, but it is the sort of myth that the Romans thrived on and one that exemplifies their culture at its finest; strong men overcoming hardship and thriving because of the blessing of the gods and martial prowess. After the last of the kings was eventually deposed, Rome became a republic. That form of government lasted through the centuries, ending only with Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavian.
Over those many years, Rome faced many challenges. The elites and commoners bickered near-incessantly, only forgetting their differences in times of crisis and because some of their best leaders understood the necessity of compromise. Various enemies, such as Pyrrhus, the Carthaginians, the barbarians to the north, and enemies at home like the Etruscans and Sabines threatened the existence of Rome, at times. But they were all defeated. Rome, able to marshal resources and endure sacrifice like few other states, always persevered. its citizens were willing to bear the burden necessary for success and brilliant leaders were found. Hannibal could destroy army after army, but the Romans led by Scipio would defeat him anyway.
Such was the spirit of Rome in the Republic’s heyday. While its citizens were far from perfect, often focused on petty squabbles, debauched behavior, or greedy enterprises over what was best for Rome, they eventually pulled through every time they had to.
But that spirit didn’t last, as Everitt takes pains to point out throughout The Rise of Rome. The hardy men of the Punic Wars and existential battle with the Sabines bore the immense burdens required of them and led the state with what seemed like a clairvoyant hand, but Rome eventually lost its virtue, that one element that held the whole enterprise together. Whereas it was once merciful, it became cruel. Whereas it was once poor, hardy, and full of men ready to make sacrifices, it was later full of haughty, arrogant, greedy men that did what was best for them rather than what was best for the state.
Because of that lack of virtue, Rome lost its way. The elite controlled more and more power and wealth, something the Gracchi brothers put on full display. They were killed for their troubles and attempted reforms. Political hopefuls and already successful senators, learning from those that killed the Gracchi brothers, gradually settled their disputes with violence and threats rather than compromise for the good of the state. Sulla’s prescriptions were the result of that trend, his tyranny and excesses putting on full display what happened when ambition overcame tradition and greed overcame sacrifice.
The result, was Caesar marching with his legions across the Rubicon. And that is where The Rise of Rome.
My Take on The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt
I thought The Rise of Rome was one of the best historical works I have read. Everitt manages to keep it exciting and hold the attention of the reader while also filling it with details about the Roman Republic that teach the reader a good bit about that glorious state. He covers the main politicians and generals, both on the side of the Romans and their enemies, while also covering everything from Roman culture to the history of its campaigns against varied enemies around the Mediterranean.
But that’s not what makes The Rise of Rome exceptional. Most good historians could do that. What made The Rise of Rome so good, in my view, was how Everitt crafted a narrative about the Roman Republic and why it eventually became and empire.
That narrative is, largely, that successive wars enriched Rome but decimated its traditional farmer class, thus placing more power in fewer hands while increasing the wealth of Rome to the point where the stakes were incredibly high. The citizen-soldiers that had been the Republic’s backbone were slaughtered by the thousands in the wars with Carthage, the Macedonians, the Gauls, and other enemies, thus devastating that class of men. Their farms fell into disrepair and were bought up by greedy elites that sat safely in Rome while the legionnaires fought and died in the fields of Italy and North Africa, the hills of Macedon, or the dangerous seas of the Mediterranean.
Even worse, eventually, for Rome was that the Marian reforms meant the lower class, rather than just landowners, could fight. That gave Rome a manpower boost, but also meant that the troops became loyal to their generals rather than Roman tradition. Hence why Sulla’s soldiers slaughtered his opponents and Caesar’s troops crossed the Rubicon with him. War was profitable, and soldiers rewarded their generals for bringing them such wealth.
Such a society, one where the elites held all the power and certain famous generals controlled tens of thousands of well-armed and highly-trained men, couldn’t last. Rome’s success became its enemy; without any external enemies, Romans had only each other to fight. The result was the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire.
That’s a generalized depiction, of course. Everitt does a much better job of describing it in The Rise of Rome. But, nevertheless, it is one with important parallels. America has become a prosperous, debauched nation. Our successes abroad removed existential enemies and we have turned into a nation of weak men as a result. And now Antifa is battling it out with police in the streets. Hopefully our republic will not end in the same manner as Rome’s.
Everitt never explicitly goes into those ominous parallels. He does, however, implicitly include them, making sure to describe certain aspects of Rome in a way that applies to modern America. To me, that was one of the best parts of The Rise of Rome.
Overall, The Rise of Rome is a great book with a compelling narrative. It will teach you not only the history of the Roman Republic, but is organized around a narrative of hard men turning soft, virtuous citizens turning into greedy, uncompromising mobs.
You should read The Rise of Rome. Frankly, there’s nothing negative I can say about it. It’s fast-paced and easy to read. Everitt delves into the depths of details about certain plots and battles when necessary, but never goes off track. His narrative is apparent from the start and can be tracked throughout the book. Even better, that narrative makes sense and is one modern Americans need to learn about so that we can prevent it from happening here.
Plus, ancient Rome was a marvelous place full of great men. Cicero, who wrote and spoke about everything from politics to how to be a friend. Great Stoics fought for Roman tradition and virtue even as their debauched society collapsed around them. Rome’s legions were a mighty fighting force and its engineers created unparalleled feats of human building, such as the aqueducts and Via Appia. That little village on the Tiber became one of the mightiest forces ever seen. The Rise of Rome shows you how and why that happened.