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Reviewed by:
  • Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History
  • T.D. Barnes (bio)
C.S. Mackay . Ancient Rome: A Military and Political History Cambridge University Press. xvi, 396. $46.95

Christopher Mackay delivers exactly what he promises. His history of the Roman state from its foundation down to the disappearance of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD is primarily a narrative of political and military events at the level of 'a general introduction to the affairs of the Roman People for a reader with no prior knowledge of the subject.' Mackay adopts a much more traditional approach than some recent books of similar scope, which have concentrated on social, cultural, and economic history. He aims to be 'both concise and readable,' and he identifies the principal obstacle to achieving this double aim as the relatively deficient source material available for writing the history of ancient Greece and Rome: the evidence which survives is so lacunose that the course of events, even sometimes of very important wars or social upheavals, can often only be established in vague outline and by hypothetical arguments. The ancient historian is frequently in the position that a modern historian would be if he was genuinely uncertain whether an episode on the scale of the Armenian genocide of 1915 actually occurred or not. Given both the enormous accidental loss of evidence and the obvious deliberate distortion in much that does survive, it is a welcome feature of Mackay's book that he prefaces each of its five chronological sections with a brief introduction of about three pages on the main sources for the period and the central problems in understanding it.

The book comprises a consecutive narrative in five parts with the traditional division of Roman history into 'obscure beginnings' down to the start of the First Punic War, the conquest of the Mediterranean, the collapse of the Roman Republic, the Principate, and the Late Empire. Mackay is aware, of course, that conventional periodization often misrepresents the continuous web of historical reality. Accordingly, he marks the break between the Principate and the Late Empire as occurring with the end of the Severan dynasty in 235 rather than with the stabilization of the Roman [End Page 223] state after the 'crisis of the third century' by Diocletian fifty years later. But he is not equally radical with the transition from republic to monarchy, where he accepts the modern myth that Augustus fraudulently pretended to 'restore the Republic' in 27 BC. What Augustus did was more subtle: he retained and made permanent the concentration of military power in his own hands, which he had won in civil war, within a largely traditional framework of specific legal powers and existing offices and institutions. In many ways, deeper breaks with the past occurred several decades both before and after 27 BC, with the rise of the military dynasts and on the death of Augustus: the first removed control of the state from the Senate and People of Rome, while the transfer of supreme power from Augustus to Tiberius was symbolically marked by the effective end of popular elections.

In a narrative covering a thousand years of history, there are bound to be some errors, omissions, and lapses of judgment. Fortunately, they appear to be relatively few and usually not serious. One that is serious, however, concerns the division between East and West under the Later Roman Empire. Mackay is wrong to assert that there was 'no firm division of the empire' under Diocletian and to date the permanent division of the Empire to 395. On the contrary, during the century between 293 and 395 , the whole of the Roman Empire was subject to a single unified political regime for less than twenty years in all. In other words, the division between East and West was a basic structural feature of the Later Roman Empire from Diocletian onwards.

Mackay's prose is rarely exciting or distinguished, and he indulges in some ill-judged modernisms, so that Cleopatra, who was a queen and the lover of the most powerful man in the Roman world, to whom she bore a son, becomes Julius Caesar's 'young new girlfriend.' But he writes...


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pp. 223-224
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