What have the Romans ever done for us? Roman historian and senator Tacitus may have answered Monty Python’s question back in AD 98: “Little by little the Britons [go] astray into alluring vices: promenades, baths, sumptuous dinners. The simple natives [give] the name ‘civilisation’ to this aspect of their slavery.”
Neville Morley’s book, subtitled “Roots of Imperialism”, is an enjoyable romp through Roman history, which takes particular care to analyse the ways in which Rome became a model for later imperialist projects. In particular, Morley picks apart assumptions peddled by apologists for modern empires, who seek to depict Rome as an example of benevolent domination “civilising the savages”.
Interestingly, the Roman Empire had a largely pragmatic view of citizenship – which was open to subject peoples. This was the logical corollary of a malleable ideology in which conquered provinces were allowed to adapt and embellish Roman customs; outlying regions enjoyed partial autonomy as local elites were incorporated into the imperial ruling class.
Morley’s central thesis revolves around this combination of “soft power” and force: “Blurring the distinction between the power of a polity (deliberate, coercive) and the nebulous, inoffensive power of culture is a crucial element in the repertoire of imperialism.” A useful lesson for anti-imperialists today.
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