Accidental Empire or a Militaristic Mastermind?
The Rise of Rome
The amount of time, energy, and resources spent on evaluating the Roman Empire is exhaustive and in some cases, exhausting. The United States, a nation oftentimes paired with the great Mediterranean power, especially pays a lot of attention to Rome’s history. However, is it valid to think that Rome was all that special compared to other powers in the Ancient World? Though the Empire reached unprecedented heights, is it our own perspective that renders Rome as exceptional as we make it out to be?
Imperialism or Accidental Empire?
In reading Arthur M. Eckstein’s chapter on Roman Exceptionalism and Nonexceptionalism, it seems that Rome happened to be in the right place at the right time, making the right decision when it came to intervening in conflicts. This seems to work well together in considering Herfried Munkler’s ideas of how empires form “in a fit absence of mind”. As Cline and Graham state in Ancient Empires, many historians argue that Rome was far from the warmongering, aggressive nation that has been presented throughout time. A reactive rather than active entity, they state that Rome flew to the defensive after the Gauls sacked Rome in 390 and attempted to remain proactive against possible threats. Their taking of land could be attributed to a fearful uptake of states, accumulated by accident rather than intent.
However, it does not seem that easy to say that Rome was simply made up of accidents. Though there is merit to the idea that Rome was oftentimes of the defensive or proactive approach when it came to war, it seems that Roman leaders would inevitably find expansion something worth doing, or at least a process that generally worked out well for them. Cline and Graham quote Polybius, stating that his work “’should leave my readers in no doubt that the Romans had from the outset sufficient reason to entertain the design of creating a world empire and sufficient resources to accomplish this purpose’”. In looking at Livy’s documentation of the taking of Sabine women to expand Rome’s population, it seems difficult to imagine Rome as being fearful or hesitant. It is stated that Romulus had extensive walls built with the intention of rapid expansion. Sabine women were abducted with a fairly intense amount of planning that went into it (Livy, 1.9).
Though their intentions may be lost in history, Rome probably found itself somewhere between a strictly accidental empire or an imperialistic force. As Eckstein states:
In part the desire to dominate and the tendency to answer such pleas for help can be said to arise from militaristic and aggressive unit culture—but as we have repeatedly seen, these actions, as well as the aggressive and militaristic unit cultures from which they sprang, were also, simultaneously, natural responses and adaptations to the dangers of the environment.
It could be sufficient to say that it was a mixture of both aggressive tendencies as well as chance responses to events that crossed Rome’s path that allowed it to grow in the manner it did. Either way, Rome was really good at gaining territory, allowing it to become more powerful than other states in the Mediterranean.
But Really, How Great Was It?
To answer that question, I would say that Rome was, in fact, unprecedented in terms of the power it was able to gain and sustain over long periods of time and distance. Though I think there is great potential to overestimate just how awesome Rome was because it’s the very thing we found the “West” on, I also do not think we can discount its true power. What made Rome so successful and why didn’t some other state beat the odds? Why was it Rome?
I agree with Eckstein’s evaluation of the factors that contributed to Rome’s success. He talks at length about the social, political, and militaristic powers that were at play in their foundation. I especially enjoyed his thoughts on the way Rome integrated other cultures and peoples into their empire. There seems to be less of an “us versus them” mentality that characterized Athenian attitudes. Rome was quick to hand out Roman citizenship (even if that was partial) and did not engage in elite replacement like many other empires in the Near-East and Greece had done. This was extremely helpful in the long term, as it secured more friendly ties and a way to keep control of local populations.
In my opinion, the most different and characterizing aspect of the Roman republic is their ideological value of honor and assistance. They are drawn into conflicts, fight wars, and engulf populations because of their desire to upkeep the idea of justice and the “Roman” identity. It was this need to be just that drove them to intervene in conflicts that they did not necessarily need to be involved in. It helped to display their might and their duty to upkeep Roman ideals. When a population, such as Greece (examined by Eckstein) asks for help, Rome would come to their aid and in doing so, would gain alliances and land from the group asking for help and the threat itself. In this way, Rome and its culture, infrastructure, and honorable ideology spread easily throughout the Meditteranean.
 Münkler, Herfried.”What is an Empire?” In Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. 1-17. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
 Cline, Eric H. and Graham, Mark W. “The Western Mediterranean and the Rise of Rome.” In Ancient Empires: From Mesopotamia to the Rise of Islam. 173-198. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
 Eckstein, Arthur M. “Roman Exceptionalism and Nonexceptionalism.” In Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome. 244-316. Berkley: University of California Press, 2006.