Do Some Men Love Ancient Rome for the Wrong Reasons?

ROME AND PERSIA: The Seven Hundred Year Rivalry, by Adrian Goldsworthy

PAX: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age, by Tom Holland

The Roman Empire, an enormous multiethnic state that controlled Western and Central Europe, the Near East and portions of North Africa for 500 years, has been on some people’s minds lately. Why? Perhaps it has fired the imaginations of so many sons, fathers and boyfriends because it represents a kind of antediluvian ideal of masculine potency and strength — “gladiators, legions, warfare and imperial eagles,” as one article recently put it. But while the image of this empire in the modern world is of an immutable military might, in reality the imperial system survived because it was flexible. It was far more adaptable than the flailing democracy it replaced in the first century B.C., or the modern British and French empires, which later claimed Rome as a model.

In two new books, Tom Holland and Adrian Goldsworthy, both accomplished novelists as well as historians, offer lucid accounts of the challenges inherent to managing this complex imperial enterprise. Holland’s “Pax” concerns itself with a period of relative imperial tranquillity between the suicide of the Roman emperor Nero in 68 A.D. and the death of the emperor Hadrian in 138. Goldsworthy explores the relations between Rome and its most powerful neighbor, the successive Persian regimes ruling what is now Iran and Iraq, from their first encounters in the first century B.C. to the decline of both states 700 years later.

Despite the Latin word for “peace” in Holland’s title, readers will find that people spent a great deal of time killing each other in the first and second centuries A.D. “Pax” opens in the 60s with a brutal campaign to suppress the Jewish revolt against imperial rule in Palestine and the civil war that broke out following the death of Nero, which ended in 69, when Vespasian, a general who helped crush the revolt, became emperor in Rome.

The capital did see some peace after that, but Vespasian and his successors waged a series of wars with various groups along the empire’s northern frontiers, and then with the Persian Empire. The trunk of a giant second-century column, which still stands in the center of Rome, memorializes conquests in Central Europe with carved scenes of Dacians fighting, pleading and dying while the imperial army marches on. As Holland rightly says, “No one knew how to celebrate a victory quite like the Romans.”

In an account of Rome’s frontier wars in Britain by the great Roman historian Tacitus, a Scottish chieftain observes of the Romans that “where they create a wasteland, they call it peace.” This was certainly one experience of Roman warfare, but it was not the only one. As Goldsworthy points out, the long rivalry between Rome and Persia involved many small skirmishes, but remarkably few major wars. “Peace was normal,” he writes, “wary, watchful peace based on a sense of each empire’s military might.”

In the second century, the Romans captured the Persian capital, then in the vicinity of Baghdad, three times, but they always withdrew. In the middle of the third century, when the Persians took advantage of political chaos in the Roman Empire to win decisive victories in Roman territory, they too pulled back. The two great states understood that conquest between big powers was bad for business. “Both empires flourished,” Goldsworthy writes, “benefiting from the stability each one promoted, not least because this encouraged trade.”

When the centuries-old pattern of limited conflict between Rome and Persia broke down, the results were catastrophic. Goldsworthy gives an excellent account of the war the Persian king Khusro II launched in the early 600s. The conflict lasted for almost 30 years and Khusro refused to negotiate even from positions of great strength.

In the end, as the Roman army moved in on the Persian capital in 628, the Persian court had Khusro shot with arrows — “the traditional and honorable method for killing a dethroned king” — and crowned his son. As was customary by that point, the Roman emperor Heraclius left the Persian Empire largely intact, but the long war had depleted both sides. The Persians and the Romans rapidly fell victim to the forces of the newly emergent Islamic army out of modern-day Saudi Arabia.

Throughout ancient history, imperial assassination tended to be an inside job. The emperor Galba, who tried to succeed Nero, was killed by imperial guards. Domitian, the last emperor in the next dynasty, tried to head off insubordination by killing a variety of suspicious or unenthusiastic Roman officials until the palace staff had enough and killed him too.

Despite all the instability at the top, part of what kept the imperial Roman system going for so long was the consistency of opportunity in the middle. Epaphroditus, one of the people whom Domitian killed in his paranoid murder campaign, first rose to an influential position under Nero; like many of his colleagues, he had once been enslaved.

The Roman slave system was brutally exploitative, but, unlike the North American slave system, it was not based on racist assumptions and, as Holland shows, it did offer those enslaved in the households of the rich and famous a path to prominence.

Many enslaved people were educated in the household and often freed in their early 20s. They also tended to stick together. One of the other highly influential freed persons Holland focuses on is Antonia Caenis, “a woman who knew where numerous bodies lay buried.”

She started her career as a secretary to Augustus’ niece, who found her canny and freed her. In 31, Caenis helped the emperor Tiberius avoid a coup. She also carried on a long affair with a widowed senator, Vespasian, protecting him when he nearly wrecked his career by falling asleep during one of Nero’s vocal recitals. After Vespasian became emperor, she lived with him as his wife in all but name.

Vespasian’s rise, before he became the Roman ruler who would usher in the age of imperial peace, is another tale of social mobility. “Raised in a small Sabine hamlet some 50 miles from Rome,” Holland writes, he was a newcomer to the traditional senatorial aristocracy.

In the late 30s, Vespasian charmed Caligula with flattery and proved his merit during the invasion of Britain under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, in 43. His absence of senatorial ancestors made him appear to be a safe choice at a time when Nero was otherwise engaged in slaughtering members of established aristocratic families and seeking a commander for the army in Palestine. One long succession crisis later, Vespasian became emperor.

The imperial throne wasn’t the only goal for ambitious Romans in this relatively fluid society. Holland’s account is filled with local merchants who prospered on the edges of the imperial government. Nigidius Maius, “owner of a whole range of high-end rental properties” in Pompeii, gained public esteem by sponsoring gladiator battles. Umbricius Scaurus made his way by managing a local fish sauce factory.

Holland’s feel for the lived experience of antiquity is one of the best features of this book. He and Goldsworthy wear their deep knowledge of the Roman world lightly and know how to tell a good story. Their histories also might strike a very contemporary note of interest for many people — men and women alike. Goldsworthy sees in the tangled demise of the ancient Roman and Persian empires a warning about the 21st-century war in Ukraine. In both books, we see that an accurate sense of the possible is critical to a great power’s success. Even a war that is won will cost more than a war that was not fought. And, most important, an open society is far stronger than an exclusionary one.

ROME AND PERSIA: The Seven Hundred Year Rivalry | By Adrian Goldsworthy | Illustrated | 557 pp. | Basic Books | $35

PAX: War and Peace in Rome’s Golden Age | By Tom Holland | Illustrated | 452 pp. | Basic Books | $32.50

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