Book Review: Roman Power: A Thousand Years of Empire


by W. V. Harris

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xxii, 260. Illus., maps, chron., notes, biblio., index. $51.99. ISBN: 1107152712

What Caused the Rise, Greatness, and Fall of Rome?

Prof. Harris, author of a number of insightful works in Classical history, culture, and economy, examines the factors of power – population, military and civil institutions, wealth, etc. -- that underlay the rise, greatness, and decay of Rome and how these changed over the centuries.

After an introduction, Harris addresses trends in three periods; the rise of the Republic through the early years of the Empire (400 BC-AD 16), the defense of the Empire through the reign of Constantine (AD 16-337), and long decline from Constantine to Heraclius (AD 337-641). He devotes two chapters to each period, one titled “The Romans Against Outsider” and the other “The Romans Against Each Other”, recognizing that for much of its history the Romans were often plagued by internal as well as external problems

For the period, Harris argues that the Romans were avidly expansionist, hardly an innovative idea, but managed to expand even while resolving internal problems. During the second the Roman mostly tried to keep what they had, and often found themselves as much threatened by internal and external problems. Finally, in the third periods, the Romans were generally in decline, more rapidly in the Western than in the Eastern half of the Empire, and the internal threats were equally responsible for the final collapse.

Recognizing the complex nature of empire, Harris observes that the factors of power affecting internal and external security changed over time. The factors that underlay the enormous vitality of the Republic were quite different from those that bolstered the Empire at its height. Thus, even when rent by internal conflicts – e.g., the ‘Crisis of the Third Century’ – it was able to hold together, until the underpinnings of power had weakened, to the point where the empire fell into a long downward spiral.

There are some problems with Harris’s case; he holds that the Republic was far more aggressive than any other power of its day, despite the obvious militancy of many of the Hellenistic Successor States or even Carthage, and he at times seems to want to drag in political issues from modern times. Harris also tends to neglect economic and environmental changes that affected the fortunes of the Empire.

Nevertheless, this is a thought provoking work, and an essential one for anyone seriously interested in the rise, greatness, and fall of the Romans.


Note: Roman Power is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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