The HBO/BBC series Rome is being presented as a breakthrough in the portrayal of ancient Rome. But in fact there’s little new. In line with long-standing Hollywood tradition, the cast is British, even if the money is mainly American.
Equally familiar, the focus is on sex, violence, nudity, and more sex. All this was done better in BBC’s wonderful 1976 series I, Claudius — although Polly Walker’s performance as the lustful and unscrupulous Atia is beginning to invite comparison with the splendid grotesques in the older series.
Even the upstairs-downstairs theme — laddish centurions drawn into aristocratic bonking and intrigue — isn’t new for anyone who remembers Richard Lester’s terrific film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or even Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii!
Bruno Heller, one of the writers of Rome, tries to persuade us that we’re the same as the Romans: “We see the same problems today — crime, unemployment, disease, and pressure to preserve your place in a precarious society. There’s the potential for social mobility, if you’re smart. Human nature never changes…”
The trouble with this way of looking at the past is that it removes its strangeness. It also ennobles the present by suggesting that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are Julius Caesar and Mark Antony 2000 years on. And, above all, the implication is that nothing can really change.
In fact Rome at the time this series is set — 52BC — was a very special and very horrible society. It was based on conquest and slavery.
Slaves have existed in many past societies — and are still to be found in the contemporary world. But slave societies are much rarer.
According to the sociologist Keith Hopkins, “there were about two (or even three) million slaves in Italy by the end of the first century BC. This is about 35 to 40 percent of the total estimated population of Italy. Roman Italy belonged to that very small group of five societies in which slaves constituted a large proportion of the labour force.”
This huge slave population — larger proportionately than that of the American South before the Civil War of 1861-5 — was the result of a relentless process of military expansion and conquest.
Between 250BC and AD9 the Roman state was engaged in more or less continuous warfare that left it in control of the Mediterranean world. This was made possible by the military prowess of the legions — highly disciplined formations of heavily armed infantry recruited from peasant citizens.
Until almost the end of this period Rome was a republic dominated by an aristocracy that monopolised political office and military command. Imperial expansion primarily benefited this nobility.
The sociologist Michael Mann calls the Roman state, “little more than a committee for managing the common affairs of the rulers of the legions”.
Governing a province — particularly in the richer and more advanced societies conquered by Rome in the eastern Mediterranean — was a way of getting very rich. Proconsuls (magistrates) were often prosecuted by their political enemies for corruption after they left office — something that worried Julius Caesar as his term as governor of Gaul (France) neared its end.
The spoils of empire — including enslaved conquered populations — poured into Italy. The Roman aristocracy amassed huge landed estates worked by these slaves.
This gave rise to one of the great contradictions of Roman society. The growth of the slave estates in Italy displaced free peasants from the land. But by the first century BC these were Roman citizens from whom the legions were recruited.
According to Hopkins, “the scale of migration by the Italian poor is amazing. Between 80 and 8BC, in two generations, it seems that roughly half the free adult males in Italy left their farms and went to Italian towns or were settled by the state on new farms in Italy and the provinces.”
Many flocked to Rome, where they joined the proletariat of propertyless citizens dependent on handouts of free wheat by the state. Rival aristocratic politicians would bribe them for votes and recruit some to serve in their street gangs.
The demand for an “agrarian law” that would redistribute land led to violent political warfare towards the end of the second century BC. The Roman Republic became increasingly unstable. Political competition within the nobility interacted with the social and economic contradictions to produce violent internal conflict.
Many landless peasants joined the legions of rival generals such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar during the civil wars that dominated the first century BC.
When victorious they would be given land — often only to be booted off it when a later commander needed their farms for his veterans.
According to Hopkins, “each fresh expulsion severed more peasants from the land — fresh reserves for the armies of conquest and new migrants to Italian towns.
“The painful cycle of expulsion, military recruitment, civil war and the reallocation of land achieved little except to make a different set of poor peasants landless.”
This wasn’t the beginning of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon’s famous book of that title starts in AD180, almost 250 years after the period when Rome is set.
The problem was that the old republican political form, which placed power collectively in the hands of a Roman aristocracy — now fiercely competing for money and office — no longer offered the framework for ruling a world empire.
Caesar emerged victorious from the round of civil war that started when his alliance with Pompey broke down — the subject of the first Rome series (there are more on the way, apparently).
In 44BC he was assassinated by republican traditionalists who feared he was about to proclaim a monarchy.
They were destroyed by an alliance of Caesar’s lieutenant Mark Antony and his great nephew Octavian.
They in turn fell out when Antony allied himself to Caesar’s ex-lover Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, which was the richest of all the kingdoms of the east. Their defeat by Octavian at the sea-battle of Actium in 31BC marked the end of the civil wars — and of the Roman republic.
Octavian was too crafty to crown himself. He paid lip service to
republican forms, getting the senate to vote him special powers for life as “first citizen” (princeps) and adopted the name Augustus — the title taken by all his successors. Rome escaped a king, only to be ruled by an emperor.
Intrigues and civil war continued under the empire, as anyone who has watched I, Claudius will know. But the extreme instability of the late republic was avoided, at least till the end of the second century AD.
The civil wars took a heavy toll on the Roman aristocracy. Their land was redistributed to the new men around Augustus.
Political competition between them and the survivors of the old nobility was tightly controlled by the emperors.
Caesar, Augustus and their successors sought to ensure a steady supply of peasant soldiers for the legions by settling veterans in colonies outside Italy. Roman citizenship was given to increasing numbers of provincials.
The emperors stabilised the Roman state in other ways. Military expansion slowed down. After losing three legions in AD9, Augustus gave up any serious ambition of subduing the German peoples beyond the Rhine.
The odd province was acquired by later emperors. Britain was conquered under Claudius (AD41-54). Trajan (AD98-117) pushed the empire to its further limits by seizing modern Romania and Iraq.
Trajan’s successor Hadrian (AD117-38) withdrew from this last conquest — maybe setting a precedent for George Bush.
His decision to build a wall separating Roman Britain from the barbarians beyond symbolised that the empire had stopped growing.
It is here than that the real origins of decline and fall lie. The Roman state rested on what Mann calls a “legionary economy” that used military power to extract economic resources.
Apart from land, the most important of these resources were slaves. But as the wars of conquest dried up, so did the supply of fresh slaves.
This produced, as the great Marxist historian Geoffrey de Ste Croix has shown, another fundamental contradiction. The Roman aristocracy amassed ever greater estates under the empire, especially in the western Mediterranean.
The labour needed to work these latifundia (estates) was provided by transforming free peasants into unfree tenants tied to the land. But the legionary armies had been recruited from the free peasantry.
The empire filled the gap by increasingly recruiting vigorous fighters from the “barbarian” peoples from beyond its borders. Foreign mercenaries are notoriously untrustworthy, and so Rome became more vulnerable to attack.
It staggered on by recruiting yet more barbarians and taxing the population ever more heavily to pay for them. By the time the Western empire finally crumbled in the fifth century AD, probably not many people were sorry to see it go.
Modern historians from Gibbon onwards have tended to portray this process as a tragedy. But the brutality and rapacity of Rome at its height gives us little reason to regret its decline and fall.