H-Net Revew: Erskine, ‘Roman Imperialism’

Andrew Erskine. Roman Imperialism. Edinburgh Edinburgh University
Press, 2010. xxiv + 208 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN
978-0-7486-1962-7; $37.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7486-1963-4.

Reviewed by Jack Wells (Emory and Henry College)
Published on H-War (December, 2012)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Andrew Erskine’s _Roman Imperialism_ provides an overview of how and
why the city-state of Rome conquered the Mediterranean world. The
book is divided into two main parts. The first presents a survey of
recent approaches and issues, and the second gives a selection of
ancient sources in translation. The book will be very useful to the
undergraduate reader who wants to understand the political and social
causes and consequences of Roman expansion, but it does not offer
much to the student of the Roman military.

The first half of the book is divided into five chapters. The first
chapter states the aim of the book, which is to explain "how [the
Roman] empire was acquired, conceived and maintained and how the
subject responded to it" (p. 1). Erskine also discusses Rome’s own
terminology for "empire" and gives an overview of the primary sources
on the topic.

The second chapter offers a chronological survey of Rome’s conquests,
starting with its domination of Italy and concluding with the major
territorial acquisitions under the empire. Erskine is correct to
point out that the majority of Rome’s conquests took place during the
period of the Republic (509-30 BC), but he treats the empire (30
BC-AD 476) in a cursory manner, mentioning in passing Claudius’s
conquest of Britain and Trajan’s campaigns in Dacia. Erskine
relegates Roman imperial history to the sidelines, which is perhaps
necessary, given the nature of our surviving sources and the demand
for brevity. Readers wanting a detailed examination of the empire
will have to look elsewhere.

The third chapter is particularly valuable and discusses various
explanations that have been offered by ancient and modern scholars
for what motivated the Romans to undertake wars of conquest.
Erskine’s historiographic overview is thoughtful, and his criticisms
of the scholarship are on point but usually not heavy-handed. He
outlines the three main approaches that modern scholars have used to
explain Roman expansion: wars to defend Rome and its allies, the
militarism of Roman politics and society, and war for economic gain.
He most sharply criticizes the so-called defensive imperialists, the
most important of whom, he points out, did not use the term
"defensive imperialism" in their own writings. He suggests that
Western imperialism made scholars of the early twentieth century more
inclined to put a positive spin on Roman motives for conquest. He
describes the blind spots in the arguments of those who employ the
latter two approaches, but does not attempt to impose his own
viewpoint on the reader.

The fourth chapter outlines how Roman rule transformed the provinces
culturally and socially and how Rome’s rule was viewed by the
inhabitants of the empire. Because our best sources for this topic
come from the era after the accession of Augustus, it is here that
Erskine devotes most of his attention to the imperial period. Erskine
discusses how Greeks, Jews, and Gauls adapted to Roman rule and how
far they were able to accommodate themselves to Roman overlords. He
describes how Roman culture spread throughout the empire, explains
why provincial cities were eager to build temples to Roman emperors
and to Rome itself, and outlines the major revolts against Roman

The fifth chapter explores how acquiring an empire transformed Rome
and the Romans. Erskine discusses the problem of managing an empire
of about fifty million with only about 160 high-ranking officials and
points out that much administrative business was left to local
elites. He argues that imperialism changed Rome into a city of
marble, transformed the rest of Italy, and helped bring about the end
of the Republic.

All this is a lot to accomplish in eighty-seven pages, so Erskine has
to be cursory and could not cover everything. One obvious omission is
any significant discussion of the Roman military. For Erskine, the
question of how Rome acquired its empire is primarily a political one
that has social and cultural implications.

The second half of the work contains a readable collection of primary
sources in translation. The collection, organized alphabetically by
name of author, is designed to be used as a reference for the first
half of the work, which contains citations to the primary sources in
relevant places. Some of the weaknesses of the first part are
mitigated by the selection of primary material. For instance, those
wanting to learn about religion’s role in Roman warfare will find
Livy’s description of how priestly officials known as fetials
declared war in ritual fashion. Those wanting some description of the
Roman army will find Polybios’s famous depiction of the _fustuarium_,
in which soldiers who failed to do their duty were beaten to death by
men from their own unit. Likewise, several descriptions of triumphs
are also given. Erskine incorporates different types of sources, not
just literary but also epigraphical and numismatic, and he provides
several photos of relevant works of art and architecture. Scholars
interested in the Roman army at war will, however, be disappointed to
discover that Erskine does not include Polybios’s description of the
organization of the Roman legion from book six of his _Histories_,
except for the passage on discipline mentioned above.

Erskine also provides a helpful ten-page section on further reading,
a list of Internet resources, a glossary of terms, and a thorough
bibliography, all of which will be very useful for teachers or for
those beginning research on the subject. Erskine’s is a welcome but
brief introduction to the causes and consequences of Roman
imperialism. The chief flaw of the work is its brevity. Because this
subject has been of great interest to scholars, the list of primary
sources and the bibliography of modern works are enormous, perhaps
too large to be easily summarized in so few pages.

Citation: Jack Wells. Review of Erskine, Andrew, _Roman Imperialism_.
H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2012.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=34382

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

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