Rome Returns; A Spate of New Books-And a BBC Miniseries-On the Ancient World's Greatest Superpower Prove Eerily Resonant

Article excerpt

Byline: Tara Pepper

When a band of pirates ravaged the Roman port of Ostia in 67 B.C., the Roman general Pompey the Great was granted extraordinary powers to manage the crisis. Despite vehement opposition from the aristocracy, who suspected his motives, Pompey was handed absolute control of the sea and the coast for 50 miles inland. "The pirates' raid on Ostia was a kind of 9/11," says author Robert Harris, whose new novel "Imperium" (416 pages. Hutchinson ) is climbing Britain's best-seller list. "A precedent was set of special military commands and the suspension of liberties, which was applied first to Pompey, then Caesar, then the whole constitution. You can make a strong case that was beginning of the end of the Republic."

Compelling contemporary resonances leap from the pages of Harris's nuanced and captivating novel. And "Imperium" is just one of a slew of timely new books drawing on the history of this powerful ancient democracy. Adrian Goldsworthy's recent, impressive biography "Caesar: The Life of a Colossus" (576 pages. Weidenfelt and Nicholson ) explores the public and personal life of the emperor who, by the time of his dramatic death, effectively ruled most of the Western world. Next month Anthony Everitt follows suit with "The First Emperor: Caesar Augustus and the Triumph of Rome" (432 pages. John Murray ). Bryan Ward-Perkins's "The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization" (256 pages. Oxford University Press ) was published in paperback over the summer, and recently won the prestigious Hessell-Tiltman prize for history. In it he casts new light on the end of the Roman Empire, arguing that it was in fact an era of positive cultural transformation rather than decline.

Roman civilization is dominating small screens, too. Starting Sept. 21, the BBC is showcasing a new series, "Ancient Rome--The Rise and Fall of an Empire," with an accompanying book by Simon Baker. The BBC is simultaneously launching "CDX," a broadband videogame in which players compete online using clues derived from the TV series.

None of these works explicitly predicts that America will suffer the fate of the Roman Empire. But Rome's dominance of global culture, law, technology and language from the second century B.C. to its demise in 476 A.D. raised questions and concerns among politicians and philosophers that are increasingly relevant today. "Societies have constantly reinvented ancient Rome, likening it to the contemporary world," says University of Cambridge professor Mary Beard, a script adviser on the forthcoming BBC series. "The fascination is about how we discuss power, political corruption and what it is to govern sensibly in an imperial world."

Unlike the British governing classes of the 18th century, who scoured Edward Gibbon's epic "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" for signs that their own might be decaying, audiences today no longer believe that history is doomed to repeat itself. …