Rome: Empire of the Eagles

Rome: Empire of the Eagles

Rome: Empire of the Eagles

Rome: Empire of the Eagles


The Roman Empire is widely admired as a model of civilisation. In this compelling new study Neil Faulkner argues that in fact, it was nothing more than a ruthless system of robbery and violence. War was used to enrich the state, the imperial ruling classes and favoured client groups. In the process millions of people were killed or enslaved.

Within the empire the landowning elite creamed off the wealth of the countryside to pay taxes to the state and fund the towns and villas where they lived. The masses of people - slaves, serfs and poor peasants - were victims of a grand exploitation that made the empire possible. This system, riddled with tension and latent conflict, contained the seeds of its own eventual collapse.


The world of Rome, with its wars of conquest, slave labour, bloody games and crucifixions, can seem a terrible one. Or, thinking of town planning, civil engineering, bath-houses, mosaic pavements and Latin literature, Rome can appear a peak of human cultural achievement. Which of these is dominant? Rome the bloody conqueror or Rome the great civilizer? Should we deplore the historical example of Rome, or admire it, perhaps even seek to emulate it?

Some are making open comparisons between Rome and today’s American Empire. The office of Donald Rumsfeld, neo-conservative US Secretary of State under George Bush junior, sponsored a private study of great empires, including the Roman, asking how they had maintained their dominance and what the United States could learn from them. British diplomat Robert Copper, imagining ‘a new kind of imperialism … acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values’ which might be promoted by the EU, has suggested that ‘like Rome, this commonwealth would provide its citizens with some of its laws, some coins, and the occasional road’. When the Islamic militant Osama bin Laden called for ‘a general mobilisation to prepare for repulsing the raids of the Romans’, it was a metaphor for holy war against the American occupation of Iraq. Ancient historians Tom Holland and Peter Jones, writing in the BBC History Magazine, debated whether US power offered parallels with the Roman imperium. And Alex Callinicos, a leading left-wing intellectual, compared the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003 with that of the 4 century Roman emperor Julian in the opening passages of his recent book The New Mandarins of American Power. The past, it seems, is about the present.

This book is a contribution to the debate. Though trained as a Roman archaeologist, I also taught Roman history for about ten years, mainly at two London adult education colleges. As a Marxist, I approached the subject . . .

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