Saturday, January 3, 2015

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Rome

"The great historian Edward Gibbon was right when he said that the story of the fall of the Empire was 'simple and obvious' and that therefore 'instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.' "

- D. Brendan Nagle's "Ancient Rome: A History" (published 2010), pages 309-310 - quoting Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Volume IV (published 1788-1789)

So I recently finished reading a textbook about the history of Ancient Rome. (Any observations about my being a shameless nerd are readily agreed with.)

My interest in Roman history has both secular and religious aspects. The history of Ancient Rome is of great secular importance, and was much known to our Founding Fathers, who were well-versed in classical history and - in many cases - even classical languages. Many of them knew Latin (the language of the Romans), and some of them knew Ancient Greek, the great international language of Roman times. I don't know any Latin - their descendants Spanish and French, yes, but not Latin itself - although I do know a little bit of Ancient Greek, which greatly influenced Latin. Thus, I have a little bit of exposure to classical times.

My textbook about Ancient Greek

As a practicing Mormon, I call myself a Christian; and so I have a great interest in the Bible, particularly the New Testament. My study of Ancient Greek is largely motivated by my desire to read the New Testament in the original, and I hope to one day be able to do so. I wanted to know something about Greek history as well, so that I could understand the history and culture of this Biblical language. Greek and Roman history are highly intertwined, which is why they are often grouped together in universities under the "Classics" major - a single major covering both periods - and the influence of both cultures is strongly reflected in the Bible.

Greek New Testament

The New Testament takes place during Roman Empire times, and the political power of Rome influences much of the narrative. The Pauline Epistles even discuss missionary work amongst the Romans and Greeks (the Corinthians and Philippians were Greeks), and so there is much to learn from classical history, for any Biblical scholar. Thus, I thought it might behoove me to study some Roman history, and learn about the historical context of the New Testament.

When I got this book, I was anticipating something shorter and more pedestrian than this, not realizing I was getting a major textbook when signing up for this - it's rare to get a textbook for under $60, and so this seemed like it wouldn't be a textbook. But when I got it, I thought to myself that this was actually good: I could become something of an expert in a major culture from the Bible, and know something about the secular history of the West to boot.

The Pantheon - Rome, Italy

I was going to title this "A review of" this book, but decided against it for a couple of reasons. One, the audience for a textbook is not very large, and I wouldn't attract much readership in titling it this way. (It's true, I've reviewed some obscure history documentaries; but most of them are under five hours, with only three of them being longer than twenty hours. Thus, they require much less investment of time than does this lengthy book.)

Two, I don't really recommend reading this unless you're either taking a class where it's assigned, or unless you're super-serious about learning the material. This is a fairly demanding book, which requires a lot of concentration and attention, not to mention investment of time. Thus, this post will be more experiential, focused on my experiences with learning this, with some personal reflections on the content.

The book itself

For starters, the book is called "Ancient Rome: A History," by D. Brendan Nagle. It's a textbook that's over 450 pages, which took me over six months to finish reading. And it is (for me) an interesting read, which seemed very well-written, and whose author usually seemed to come from a conservative point of view (which I much admire). There's an entire chapter on the war with Carthage, as well as coverage of the many civil wars (and major foreign wars) that rocked Ancient Rome.

Julius Caesar

Most people don't know that the history of Ancient Rome comes in two main periods: the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is the one that receives the most attention today (especially from Hollywood), but I would argue that most of the greatness of Rome comes from its success during the Republic period. Its republican form of government did not collapse altogether during the Empire, as the Emperors did not have absolute dictatorial power as most monarchs in history have. (For a contemporary example of how monarchies do not always have absolute power, look at the British monarchy of today - a constitutional monarchy with little real power.) Unlike the British monarchy of today, the Emperors of Rome did have real political power; but it was not the dictatorial power found in other states at that time ... and our time. The Romans still had a Senate and a democracy even during the Empire, but it should be admitted that the system nonetheless was undermined by the institution of monarchy - a lesson we should pay attention to today, as many seek to give more power to charismatic leaders of no real substance.

Edward Gibbon, the famous eighteenth-century historian of Ancient Rome

I will not attempt to go into the question of why the Roman Empire fell, as the topic is an enormously complicated one, which has been studied from virtually every angle imaginable. The British historian Edward Gibbon took many volumes to get through it in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and this blog post doesn't have time to cover all that. Thus, having not read Mr. Gibbon's work, I will not comment on whether or not it's accurate; but I suspect he was at least partially right when he said famously that the story of how the Roman Empire fell was "simple and obvious," and that therefore "instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long." (An interesting comment to me - I've always wondered what his famous work had said about this topic.)

Augustus Caesar

One of the reasons the Roman Empire fell was undoubtedly the crises over the successions. We in the free world often take it for granted that we have a peaceful transition of power from one government to another, and so we don't realize how important a thing succession can be in a monarchy. But the peaceful transition of power was not always to be found in Ancient Rome, as there was often fighting over the succession - over who would become Emperor and have political power. The result was anarchy and civil war; and in the later portion of the Empire, it was endemic. Whether or not the succession problems were a cause of Rome's fall is beyond question. Whether they were a root cause or just the symptoms of one - that is a more complicated question.

Map of the Roman Empire's splitting into
its Western and Eastern sections, 395 AD
(superimposed on modern borders)

The question of why the Roman Empire fell always runs into one complication, which is the splitting of the Empire into East and West in 395. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, but the Eastern Roman Empire fell in 1453; and this eastern empire (known as the Byzantine Empire) had a very different story from the western one. Why did the one last nearly a thousand years longer than the other? The author of this book does not attempt to provide a definitive answer; just useful ways of thinking about the problem. This is part of why it is so interesting.

Painting of Jesus Christ

The book does not ignore the complicated religious history of Ancient Rome, which involved a polytheistic pagan religion not unlike that of Ancient Greece - until, that is, the rise of Christianity; when the new religion of Jesus of Nazareth began to be important. They also pay attention to Judaism and Zoroastrianism (two of the other major religions of the time); and in the last chapter, they give attention to the rise of Islam, and how it would affect the eastern portion of Rome's former territories for years to come. (Much of the Middle East still feels the negative effects of the Muslim faith, and suffers under the stifling of thought and creativity found in most of its branches.)

But there's more to this book than Christianity or Islam - there's also much about the rise of democracy, and the success of Rome's republican forms of government. I don't always agree with it, but it's surprising how often I do; and this book is a fascinating read for one interested in either democracy or Christianity. I've learned a great deal about these subjects, and I feel like I've gotten a good education about classical times. We don't always notice it, but the classical civilizations and their histories are still relevant; and they have much to teach us about democracy, good government, and the timeless subject of freedom.

"This book does not aim to settle the argument over the justice or injustice of empires and imperial rule. That is properly the role of political philosophers and ethicists. By reviewing previous chapters, readers can make up their own minds whether Rome was justified or not in waging war as it did in Italy against the Samnites, Celts, and others or later with the Carthaginians in the west and the powerful Hellenistic monarchies in the east.

"The argument presented so far in this book is that what made Rome different from the many other militarized, belligerent states of its day was not that it was more or less just or violent than others, but that it was better organized, better led, better adaptable, and had, at the time of its conquests, greater internal cohesion than its opponents. It did not, as a society, fall apart and lose its nerve when confronted with serious challenges. Its elite did not betray it as did the elites of so many Greek cities. The population at large lived up to its responsibilities and did not feud incessantly with the leadership. This formula won for Rome its empire. The question of its justice came later."

- D. Brendan Nagle's "Ancient Rome: A History" (published 2010), page 139

If you liked this book, you might also like:

Why I am learning Ancient Greek

Ben-Hur movie review

Reflections on learning about history of Ancient Greece

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