Book Review: The Origin of Empire: Rome from the Republic to Hadrian


by David Potter

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2019. Pp. xvi, 432+. Illus., maps, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 0674659678

How did the Romans Do It?

Prof. Potter (Michigan) takes a look at how Rome grew from the dominant power in Italy to a continent spanning empire, over the period from the eve of the First Punic War, 264 BC through the peak of the imperium in the mid-second century, when it totally engulfed the Mediterranean world and much beyond it.

While this is, of course, rather well trod ground, Potter’s approach is rather more analytical than that of many earlier treatments. He regularly considers alternate interpretations of events, and these are often very much at odds with traditional thought.

Potter makes a number of important points about Roman rule. One has become increasingly recognized as critical to Roman power, that Rome offered its “subjects” a route to full participation in the affairs of the state, a rare thing in the history of imperialism. In addition, ties to Rome brought important benefits to the conquered and particularly their elites, social, economic, and political, members of which begin turning up in high office during the final yeas of the Republic, and by the mid-Second Century even have family ties to the Emperors.

Potter argues the what was perhaps the most important benefit to those accepting Roman dominance, which might sometimes be heavy handed, Rome’s willingness to defend its “friends and allies” was absolute, regardless of cost. He cites several examples, perhaps the most important of which was the Roman defeat of a massive Gallic invasion of allied Etruria in the late 220s BC, which was a factor in keeping most of the Republic’s allies loyal during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).

A volume in the Harvard series “History of the Ancient World”, The Origin of Empire is an excellent work, very thoughtful, albeit that Potter eschewed footnotes, making it hard to follow up on some points.


Note: The Origin of Empire is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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