What motivated you to write your new book Rome – Empire Of The Eagles on the history of the Roman Empire?
Most histories, if they aren’t broadly uncritical, tend to make excuses for the Roman Empire. They admit that there was a lot of nastiness such as the massacring of enemies, slavery and gladiators.
But then they point to lots of good things, like towns, roads, central heating, bathhouses and mosaics – as if that cancels the other out.
When we look at a modern society we evaluate it on the basis of what is fundamental to it as a social and political system. People writing about Nazi Germany don’t say it was half good – “You got decent motorways as well as death camps.”
Rome was an exercise in imperialism – the use of physical force to dominate territory, labour and resources – and that is a bad thing.
And when people today argue that imperialism can be a force for achieving freedom, democracy and progress, they often refer to the Roman Empire to support that idea.
It is important to be able to engage with that argument. Of course capitalist imperialism is profoundly different from imperialism in the ancient world. But the Roman Empire was no different from any other empire in that it was an exercise in carnage and looting to enrich a few.
You present the story of the empire as a logical progression, covering a vast sweep of time from the founding of Rome to the collapse of the Western Empire.
There is a single thread that runs right the way through the history of the empire.
There was a period of about 250 years from the third century BC to the end of the first century BC when expansion was absolutely dynamic.
In that period Rome went from being the dominant state in central Italy to becoming the greatest empire in the world at the time, dominating the whole of the Mediterranean, and much of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
It’s an extraordinary story, particularly as it happened in an area of dense settlement and concentration of wealth. This enormous growth was in part made possible by the distinctive Roman social organisation.
Through struggle the general mass of Roman citizens – the plebeians – stopped the aristocracy from using their control of the state to exclude any kind of democracy.
Had they won, the aristocrats could have used their political dominance to control the peasantry on the land, which was what happened in many other contemporary societies.
The plebeians’ struggle ensured that the free citizen peasantry had a considerable measure of control over its own security.
They were also represented collectively to some degree in the Roman political system by the tribune of the plebs and so on.
After this the Roman aristocracy had to look outwards to competition with rival states to gain wealth.
And when it moved against other powers it found that it had a relatively willing citizen militia prepared to fight in the legions.
The legionaries identified materially with the empire and took a share of the booty.
Why then did the empire decline?
The empire was a completely predatory system that could only carry on as long as there was territory it could absorb.
The Roman frontiers came to rest on the edges of the wilderness – mountains, deserts, uncleared forest and marshland.
Imperial resources drained away as they tried to conquer these areas. They got bogged down in guerrilla wars for very little return.
In the east they came up against the Parthian and later the Sassanid empires, strongly placed in modern Iraq and Iran. In a centuries long confrontation neither Rome nor its rivals were able to achieve a decisive victory.
So Rome stopped expanding. The plunder stopped flowing in.
At the same time there were still long frontiers making heavy military demands and a large rich, urban based ruling class with its various client groups.
To maintain all of that it became necessary to ratchet up exploitation in the countryside within the empire by taxing the peasantry.
Each rise in taxes made another part of the traditional agricultural economy cease to be viable. Each ruined peasant farm further reduced the tax base – so taxes had to be raised again.
Once the system stopped expanding it quickly got into a negative spiral, eating away at its own ability to generate the wealth to maintain the empire.
In the West you had an urban based civilisation that to a large degree had been constructed by the Romans.
It also had several exceptionally long frontiers that had to be defended, principally in North Africa and the Rhine-Danube line in continental Europe.
That contrasts with the situation in the East where there was a very well established urban civilisation that the Romans took over, so the whole thing has much deeper roots.
The Western empire only generated a third of the tax revenue against the East’s two thirds, whereas the West required about two thirds of the military manpower to defend its frontiers.
The outcome was predictable. As these pressures split the vast empire in two, the West went to the dogs and the East was able to maintain itself.
Was Rome genuinely more important than other ancient empires in that part of the world?
There are certainly other great civilisations that have been less studied.
The supreme example is Arab and Islamic culture. From the eighth century until the late medieval period the Arab world was well ahead in terms of economic progress, productivity, innovation on the land, irrigation schemes, the development of universities and learning and so on.
But there is a bias in the way Western political elites have looked to Greece and Rome for models of power, civilisation and culture.
Having said that, what happened in the fifth century BC in Greece, principally in Athens, was one of the greatest revolutions in the whole development of human culture.
Things changed incredibly fast. In the space of a few decades art, learning, philosophy and science were revolutionised.
There was a revolution in Athens. It became a democracy and for the best part of 150 years ordinary working people were involved in running the state.
Everything that happened after that, including the Roman Empire, was culturally derivative of that great explosion. Roman art is essentially the art of fifth century BC Athens. It doesn’t change much.
There was a great leap culturally in Greece which was bound up with revolution and democratisation.
The Roman Empire adopted the culture then put it in the service of a ruthless system of military imperialism.
The productivity of labour on the land was not significantly different by the end of the Roman period from the beginning. There were improvements, but they were quite limited.
The way in which rulers and the states they control competed to accumulate more surplus was principally through war – the physical seizure of land, slaves and booty that had been accumulated by others.
Roman plebeians were relatively privileged compared to non-citizens. But more importantly they were more privilged than the peasant populations of those states that were conquered.
There was no universal class like the working class, so there was no possibility of Roman citizens breaking with their rulers in alliance with non-citizen peasants elsewhere – let alone with the slaves accumulated through successful warfare.
There is no example of such unity in the whole of Roman history, and that shows us how fundamentally different it is from the capitalist world, where workers have an interest in building links across national and religious boundaries.
You record various revolts against the empire, most famously the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Yet none succeeded. Was it ever really possible to challenge the brutality of the empire?
I’m with the great archaeologist of the ancient world Gordon Childe.
He said that the advances that matter – those that increase the productivity of labour and the capacity of human beings to improve their lives – are rooted in the productive classes and maintained by working people.
Real progress in history is always linked with the productive classes.
The degree to which these people fight back and claw back a greater portion of the productive surplus from the ruling classes, who are wasting it on war and luxury, is the degree to which humanity moves forwards.