Skip to main content

Full text of "Omnibus Issue 29"

See other formats


The trouble with not conquering 
the world 

Greg Woolf 


Why didn't the Romans conquer the world? That might seem a strange question. After all 
the world is a big place and no modern power has yet succeeded in controlling the whole of 
it, despite possessing military, transport, and communications technology far superior to 
that of Rome. All the same, Latin literature is full of claims that Rome had conquered the 
world (or else was just about to do so). The most famous example is the prophecy Virgil puts 
into Jupiter's mouth in the first book of the Aeneid: 'I set no boundary or fixed term for 
them, I have granted them imperium sine fine'. The Latin phrase could mean either 
'unlimited power' or an 'empire with no frontier'. Of course, it might be that this is just 
exaggeration, a bombastic imperialist claim along the lines of 'Britannia rules the Waves' 
and 'The sun never set on the English Flag'. But the claims the Romans made were so over 
the top that it is tempting to conclude that they actually believed them. 

The earliest suggestion that Rome's conquests were of a different order from the wars 
constantly being fought by all classical states is a statement made by the Greek historian 
Polybius, writing in the middle of the second century B.C., claiming that the Romans had 
recently conquered virtually the entire world. To understand what he meant, it helps to 
compare that statement to those made by other contemporary observers of International 
Relations. Thucydides, in the fifth century B.C., claimed that his history had been inspired 
because the war to which he was an eyewitness - the Peloponnesian War between Athens 
and Sparta had been greater and more important than any previous conflict. More recently 
the American political analyst Francis Fukuyama wrote that after the revolutions of 1989 in 
eastern Europe we had reached the End of History: what he meant was that the major 
theme of twentieth-century history (as he saw it), the struggle between communism and 
the capitalist liberal democracies of the West, had been finally settled. Both these analysts 
were struggling first to express their sense that they had lived through events which had 
changed the world forever, and second to try to understand how those events, which no 
one had expected, had come about. 

Polybius also felt he had been a witness to an historic turning point, the moment at which 
Rome succeeded in defeating or intimidating all conceivable rivals for power, first the other 
great western city-state of Carthage and then the three great Greek kingdoms of Macedon, 
Syria, and Egypt which had inherited Alexander the Great's empire. Polybius didn't think 
history had ended, but he did think it had been transformed from a series of local histories, 
each charting events in one bit of the world, to a single unified and universal history. As the 



Latin historian Florus put it later: '(The Roman people) have extended their military power 
so widely throughout the world that those who study the process are learning the history 
not of a single nation but of the human race.' 

Great expectations 

Perhaps Polybius reflected views already held by his powerful Roman friends, or perhaps he 
suggested those views to them. In any case, by the age of Cicero and Caesar, the idea that it 
was Rome's des tiny to rule the world was very common, perhaps widely accepted. It is not 
difficult to see why Romans believed it. The conquest of the world was going very well. In 
fact, it was speeding up. Rome had only just managed to gain control of the whole of Italy 
before Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 B.C.; Polybius' turning point was in 167 B.C. Over 
the next half century there were more conquests in southern France, Spain, north Africa and 
the East, and the careers of Pompey, Caesar, and Augustus took the limits of empire to the 
Atlantic, the Rhine, the Danube, and the deserts of Syria and the Sahara. How could this 
have come about if it was not the will of the gods'? And why should it stop when Rome was 
more powerful than ever before and her enemies were no longer great kingdoms but 
barbarian tribes'? 

We can compare Roman views of their destiny to our own assumptions about the major 
themes of history, for example our belief that scientific progress will continue to provide 
progressively greater understanding of the universe and more sophisticated technology, or 
the assumption that our standard of living will continue to rise indefinitely. Future historians 
(if we can assume their existence!) might find those beliefs just as odd as we find the 
Romans' belief that they would conquer the world. Beliefs like these are comforting fictions, 
giving us and the Romans a feeling that there is some pattern and maybe purpose in history. 
Romans might otherwise dwell on the increasingly vicious civil wars of the late Republic, or 
we might worry about our persistent failures to keep the peace between nations or to 
eradicate genocide, torture, disease, and famine. World conquest or scientific progress, on 
the other hand, are themes which we can all agree on and which hold out the promise that 
the best is still to come. 

The laziness of Caesars 

The trouble with great expectations is that they lead to great disappointments when the 
bubble bursts. The dynasts of the late Republic, including Augustus, had made a great deal 
of political capital out of their conquests. Pompey had conquered so far east that he could 
compare himself with Alexander. Caesar had been the first to lead Rom an troops across the 
Ocean (to Darkest Kent!). Conquests were celebrated with greater and greater triumphal 
processions and commemorated with grander and grander monuments. Pompey had set up 



a trophy to commemorate his conquest of the Pyrenees, so Augustus set up another to 
commemorate the conquest of the Alps. 

But once expansion began to slow down, the achievements of the past became a reproach 
to future emperors. Florus compared the history of Rome to the lifetime of a man. In its 
infancy (under the kings) Rome struggled with its neighbours, in its youth the Republic 
conquered Italy, in its maturity (over the last two centuries B.C.) Rome pacified the entire 
world,' but from Caesar August us down to our own day, there has been a period of not 
much less than two centuries in which the state has as it were grown old and feeble, 
because of the laziness of the Caesars.' 

Laziness was one of the more charitable accusations. Tacitus complained that Tiberius was 
'uninterested in extending Rome's power' and slavishly followed Augustus' deathbed advice 
to keep the empire within its existing boundaries, and his senatorial heroes repeatedly find 
envious emperors frustrating their impulse to conquer. When Corbulos campaigns in 
Germany were curtailed by Claudius, he exclaimed 'how fortunate were Roman generals of 
the past'; and Tacitus' own father-in-law Agricola used to complain in retirement that only 
the emperor's jealousy had prevented him from completing the conquest of both Britain 
and Ireland. 

Emperors were not just embarrassed because they were failing to live up to Augustan 
precedents. The point at which world conquest had suddenly slowed down was too close for 
comfort to the foundation of the principate and the end of the free Republic. Aristocrats 
who felt themselves excluded from power and privilege under the emperors must have 
relished that coincidence ... if it really was a coincidence. 

Historians are divided on why Roman expansion stopped when and where it did. Some think 
that the limits of empire were fixed by external factors, for example that pre-Roman 
societies in northern Europe were too fierce to be conquered or else were too poor to 
support an army of occupation. It is difficult to prove or disprove that kind of argument: 
perhaps Ireland and Germany really could have been conquered if Rome had tried harder. It 
is difficult to tell, although it is important to remember that just because an explanation 
cannot be shown to be true, it does not mean that it must be false. 

But other historians think that the laziness and/or envy of the Caesars might still be the best 
explanation. Compared to their Republican predecessors, emperors had less to gain from 
successful wars of conquest and more to lose. The war lords of the Republic were 
competing with each other for fame and booty, and so the incentive to take risks was much 
stronger for them than for emperors, who were already supreme. Some Republican wars of 
conquest did go badly wrong: one of Caesar's rivals, Crassus, was defeated and killed in a 
war against the Parthian (Persian) empire, and Mark Antony narrowly escaped a similar fate. 



Why should an emperor take such risks when he was already for some a living god? 
Augustus had tried to take the credit for successes and let senatorial generals take the 
blame for defeats - what we might call 'the Lamont Gambit'. But then, as now, that policy 
was unconvincing. The result was a no-win situation: if emperors waged war themselves 
they risked weakening their position much more than they could strengthen it; if they let 
others wage war they risked creating powerful rivals and a return to civil war; if no one 
waged war the emperors were failing to live up to the example of Augustus. 

Tough at the top? 

It is never easy to summon up much sympathy for the emperors of Rome but we can 
appreciate their dilemma. Augustus' success had made it almost impossible to renounce the 
conquest of the world, but also very difficult to carry it on effectively. By the early second 
century A.D., emperors were aware of the problem, but very few managed to solve it. Only 
two methods were available and neither worked very well. 

The first method was to carry on conquering out to do it very, very carefully. The conquest 
of Britain is a good example. It took the emperors half a century to secure the southern half 
of the island and a great deal longer to establish a frontier system in the north, even though 
Julius Caesar had conquered a much bigger area, the whole of Gaul (France) in just eight 
years. The invasion of Britain was a deliberate attempt by Claudius to gain some military 
credibility but he did not dare to join the expedition until victory was guaranteed. Other 
first-century emperors cautiously extended the frontier to the Caspian Sea, or in north 
Africa or in southern Germany. Imperial imagery on coins, sculpture, and statues 
represented emperors riding in battle, often surrounded by barbarian captives. But the 
reality was a series of slow advances and the construction of static fortifications like 
Hadrian's Wall. Only one emperor really managed to portray himself convincingly as a 
successful conqueror on the lines of Alexander, Julius Caesar, or Augustus, and that was 
Trajan, who conquered Dacia (Rumania), annexed Arabia, and invaded Mesopotamia (Iraq). 
But his successor Hadrian abandoned his eastern conquests, and although most second- 
century emperors led major campaigns, expansion effectively stopped with Trajan's death 
and he became just another embarrassing role-model for his successors. 

The other method was to pretend that the world was already conquered. The trick was to 
represent the world outside the provinces as areas ruled for Rome by client kings or else as 
areas that the emperors could rule if they wanted to. Augustus and Tiberius had let it be 
known, when they abandoned the plan to conquer Britain, that the island was so poor it 
would not justify the expense of garrisons, and Nero represented even the Parthian 
emperors as Roman vassals. Some Greek writers at least were happy to accept and 
reproduce this image of the entire world pacified, protected, and made prosperous by 



Rome. The second-century A.D. writer Appian even claimed to have seen emperors refusing 
the requests of barbarian peoples to have their states incorporated in the empire. 

Unfortunately these two methods undermined each other. The emperors' claims to be great 
conquerors and their claims that the world was already pacified were mutually 
contradictory. Worse, because the emperors had carried on pretending to be great military 
leaders, they found it difficult to maintain their position once they were defeated in battle. 
From the middle of the second century onwards military pressure began to build up on the 
northern frontier. The emperors kept up appearances until a new aggressive dynasty in 
Persia put pressure on the East as well, and then they began to suffer a series of major 
defeats. Because they had maintained the image that an emperor was someone who was 
successful in war, it was not surprising that these defeats triggered half a century of civil 
wars in which the empire almost collapsed. By the time order was restored, more than 
thirty emperors had been murdered or killed in battle, the new lands won by Domitian in 
Germany and by Trajan in Dacia had been lost, and the dream of world conquest was gone 
for ever. 

Greg Woolf's main interest is in what happened to the parts of the world which the Romans 
did conquer, and when not teaching ancient history at Brasenose College, Oxford, he runs a 
field survey in France.