Rome: The Origin of Empire


Greg Woolf is Professor of Ancient History at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of "Et Tu, Brute?: A Short History of Political Murder" and editor of "The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Roman World." This excerpt has been adapted from his latest book, "Rome: An Empire's Story."

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent, under Emperor Trajan in 117 AD. Credit: Wikipedia.

The modern idea of empire has its own history. Yet Rome has a key place in the history of this idea. The Romans created a set of ideas and symbols that exercised a fascination over many subsequent generations. Other empires had touched the Mediterranean world before Rome, most recently those of the Persians and of Alexander. But their repertoire of ceremonials, titles, and images has had less of an afterlife, in part because Romans refused to acknowledge them as their equals, and invented their own language of world domination, in part because the Latin vocabulary of empire was the one adopted by later powers. The history of the idea of empire in the west is very largely the history of successive imitations of Rome. Each time Rome was copied, directly or indirectly, the idea of empire was modified.

Yet Latin titles and imperial eagles lasted well into the twentieth century. ‘Empire’ plunges through European and finally world history, like a snowball rolling downhill....

Empire [has] lasting resonance as a set of symbols. ... The predominant dynamic seems to have been competition. Charlemagne employed the language of empire to consolidate Frankish hegemony: he and the papacy also found it a helpful tool in keeping the Byzantine emperor at bay. Four centuries later the author of the Chanson de Roland imagined Charlemagne as a great proto-crusader, who at God’s command would defend Christendom against the paien (the pagan). ... During the three centuries in which the Hapsburg family provided Holy Roman Emperors, the imperial style was further elaborated in Spain, Austria, and Germany. The enduring power vested in these symbols is demonstrated by the decision of Napoleon to abolish the Holy Roman Empire, and to proclaim the first French empire in 1804. Austria responded by declaring the Austrian Empire the same year. ... The second French Empire perished after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870: the German Empire was born the next year. The British Queen Victoria took the title Empress of India in 1876. ... The Austro-Hungarian Empire lasted until 1918. The Russian tsars lost their empire just a year earlier: their title tsar (derived naturally from Caesar) can be tracked back in Slav languages as far as the rulers of tenth-century Bulgaria, some of Byzantium’s most formidable opponents. British monarchs retained the imperial title until 1948. The latest emperor in this tradition was Bokassa, who ruled the Central African Empire between 1976 and 1979.

It is an obvious point to make, perhaps, but these polities had almost nothing in common. ... The British, by most estimates, ruled an empire (or perhaps two) long before Victoria was persuaded to take the title. Spain was clearly an early modern empire, whether or not the ruling Hapsburg happened to be emperor. … What we are observing is the enduring power of Roman models of empire to fascinate, especially at moments of intense competition for precedence. When monarchies vied for prestige, they reached for the eagles, the Latin titles, wreaths, and classicizing architecture. Their value was that they were instantly recognizable. Even Bokassa, as he seized power within the Central African Republic, demonstrated how well he had learned the symbolic language of European colonialism.

The revival of the language of empire in the modern age seems particularly surprising. Rivalry between European monarchies was clearly one factor. ... But there were multiple local factors too. Napoleon’s empire was not just about dominion abroad, it was also about the working out of the Republican project within post-Revolutionary France. Victoria’s assumption of the title Empress of India was not just about rivalry with her German son-in-law, Kaiser Wilhelm: it may also have reflected a growing recognition of the national identity of India. The last Mughal (deposed by the British in 1858) had taken the Urdu title Badishah-e-Hind, which is often translated as Emperor of India. The Russian monarchs’ use of the Slavic term czar or tsar also evoked the guardianship of Orthodox Christianity....

Empire did not lose its charm until the middle of the twentieth century. … Fascism was the last major political movement to make use of Roman models. Mussolini’s imitation of Rome was the most explicit: as well as using Roman precedent to make a claim to Mediterranean hegemony, his party was named after the fasces, the bundle of rods surrounding an axe that was the symbol carried before a Roman magistrate. German Fascism too made much use of classical Roman imagery, especially in the architecture of the Third Reich. After the Second World War the Japanese emperor was made to renounce his divinity, European empires were dismantled, and imperialism came to acquire a more and more pejorative sense. The British monarchy quietly put away the title after the end of the British Raj. Classical imagery was in any case less and less effective as the new professional and governing classes had less and less knowledge about Rome. ‘Imperialist’ became a term of abuse directed against colonial powers by newly independent peoples, and the label was used as a term of condemnation by all sides in the Cold War. Discussions of whether or not the USA is today an empire are rarely sympathetic towards American foreign policy.

The multiple afterlives of the Roman Empire are one reason for the enduring importance of Rome. But they can also obscure our vision of Rome itself. It is worthwhile considering some of the less obvious contrasts between Rome and her nineteenth-century imitators. For one thing, the Roman Empire admitted no equals and recognized no predecessor. There was no notion of a community of nations, no elite club of superpowers; the Romans were a single people over and against the rest. Not all of their subjects and neighbours saw things this way. But empire for Rome was novel and unique. Rome was restoring nothing, and the world empire it created seemed, for a while, without precedent.

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