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A Story Of Ancient Power In 'The Rise of Rome'

Aug 5, 2012
Originally published on August 6, 2012 4:11 pm

Over the past decade, there's been a revival in popular histories of ancient Rome; not the academic tomes once reserved for specialists and students, but books and movies designed for the rest of us.

Anthony Everitt has written three biographies about some of the major players in ancient Rome: Cicero, Augustus and Hadrian, all full of intrigue and treachery.

His latest book is called The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire. It traces Rome's 800-year transformation from a small market town in the hills into a world power moving well beyond the confines of the city.

So what is it about the ancient world that intrigues Everitt?

"I love stories and I love characters," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Thing Considered. "And the thing about the ancient world, it is crammed, it is packed with [the] most interesting and eccentric and brave and villainous characters of all kinds."

Some of those characters are mythical, like Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome fed by a wolf. And some of the characters are real but whose stories are so fantastic you'd think they were fiction, like Julius Caesar, the Roman general who died at the hands of his senate colleagues.

"So much of who we are today can be taken back to the ancient world," Everitt tells Raz. "Rome was a huge example. Roman law cast its shadow forward millennia."


Interview Highlights

On the early years of the Roman Republic around the 5th Century B.C.

"A very complicated sort of constitution was arranged, full of checks and balances. Not entirely unlike, in fact, the United States constitution. And that's not much of a surprise, because your founding fathers were great admirers of the Roman Republic and read authors like Cicero. And what they wanted was to create a sort of, call it a balanced constitution, with a bit of monarchy in it, a bit of oligarchy — the rule of regular aristocratic families — and a bit of democracy."

On the concept of citizenship

"It was quite radical. And it was a brilliant notion. And it really kept the Empire going for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. If you're going to run an empire, you really do need consent. Simply having military power, simply being an all-powerful autocracy with a secret police, let's think of Syria, or think of the old Soviet Union, sooner or later the people that you're ruling rise up and say, 'Look, we've had enough of this.'"

On the end of the Roman Republic

"The people who governed the world suddenly lost the ability to govern themselves. There was bloodshed. ... This collapse of the constitution and an unwillingness of political opponents to talk with each other, to do deals, to come up with agreements, however messy and provisional, that loss was a catastrophe for Rome. And the Republic, in fact, went up in flames."

On how we know so much about the last years

"It was such a cataclysm. And the people involved in this cataclysm, the destruction of the Roman Republic and its replacement by a military autocracy, it was such a traumatic event that people wrote about it. They couldn't not write about it. And even during the Empire, they went on writing about it because they couldn't get it out of their heads, what they'd lost."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Over the past decade, there's been a revival in popular histories of ancient Rome. Not the academic tomes once reserved for specialists, but books and movies that are designed for the rest of us. Think HBO's series on "Rome" or "Gladiator" or three biographies written by Anthony Everitt.

His books on Cicero, Augustus and Hadrian were all bestsellers and read more like modern narratives full of intrigue, treachery and heroism. His latest is no different. It's called "The Rise of Rome," and it focuses on the first 800 years of the city, before it came to be seen primarily as an empire that controlled much of the known world.

What still fascinates many historians, including Anthony Everitt, is how a small market town in the eighth century B.C. rose to become the world's greatest power.

ANTHONY EVERITT: They were a very aggressive society, and they liked war, and they fought and fought and fought. For most of the centuries of the Roman Republic, they were at war with somebody or another. But once they'd won a victory and they'd beaten up the opposition, they then said, come and join us. Why don't you become a Roman citizen? You can join us in our next war against somebody else, and you can have a share of the booty. So that was a way of really winning consent to your rule. People felt they had a stake in the empire, even if they had been forced into it in the first place.

RAZ: How radical was that concept of citizenship in the ancient world?

EVERITT: I think that was quite radical. It was quite radical. And it was a brilliant notion. And it really kept the empire going for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. If you were going to run an empire, you really do need consent. Simply having military power, simply being an all-powerful autocracy with the secret police that's linked to Syria, you'll think of the old Soviet Union.

Sooner or later, the people that you're ruling rise up and say, look, we've had enough of this.

RAZ: The Roman Republic that you write about really begins around the fourth century B.C. with...

EVERITT: Well, a little bit earlier. That's right. They get rid of the kings, and then we have the Roman Republic being set up, and a very complicated sort of constitution was arranged full of checks and balances, not entirely unlike, in fact, the United States' Constitution. And that's not much of a surprise because your founding fathers were great admirers of the Roman Republic and read authors like Cicero.

And what they wanted was to create a sort of - call it a balanced constitution with a bit of monarchy in it, a bit of oligarchy - the rule of regular aristocratic families - and a bit of democracy.

RAZ: Why do we know so much about the last, say, 50 years of the Republic from the time of the rise of Julius Caesar to the time of Augustus' ascension, I mean, all the characters in between, Marc Antony and Cicero and Brutus.

EVERITT: Well, I think it's partly that the Romans took to writing history quite late. It was only really in the sort of third and second centuries B.C. that you begin to get historians writing serious history as opposed to retelling myths and legends. And by the time you get to the first century B.C., you have a lot of historians who are writing reasonably good quality history, reasonably factual stuff.

I think the reason why that we know so much about the first century is because it was such a cataclysm. And the people involved in this cataclysm, the destruction of the Roman Republic and its replacement by a military autocracy, it was such a traumatic event that people wrote about it. They couldn't not write about it. And even during the empire, they went on writing about it because they couldn't get it out of their heads what they'd lost.

RAZ: Let me ask you about the last hundred years of the Republic because it's really the beginning of the end.

EVERITT: Hmm. That's right.

RAZ: What happens? Who is responsible for the beginning of the decline?

EVERITT: Ultimately, the answer is the senate. By the end of the Republic, the people who governed the world suddenly lost the ability to govern themselves. There was bloodshed. A tribune of the people, a reformer, was murdered by rioting senators.

And this collapse of the constitution and an unwillingness of political opponents to talk with each other, to do deals, to come up with agreements however messy and provisional, that loss was a catastrophe for Rome, and the Republic, in fact, went up in flames. So something that was vaguely democratic almost fell on its own sword. Romans lost this habit of compromise and tolerance.

It's interesting. I mean, their - the modern parallels do sometimes suggest themselves. And, I mean, I look from across an ocean at your congress. One gets the sense that these days, there's a sort of lack of compromise in the great debates in Congress. If that is true, the Roman example is a ghastly warning.

RAZ: That's Anthony Everitt, the author of the new book "The Rise of Rome." Anthony Everitt, thank you so much.

EVERITT: Thanks very much for asking me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.