When asked what kind of government the newly minted United States of America would have, Benjamin Franklin famously responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.” Once you know the story of Rome, you instantly know how daunting that statement would be in his mind.
It is said that the two greatest problems in history are trying to explain how Rome came to be, and how she fell. In the case of the latter, it’s been suggested that the two most probable causes were barbarians at the gates and Christianity from within. Will Durant makes the claim that the fall of Rome was a process that unfolded over the course of hundreds of years, that both barbarians and Christianity were effects of this internal decay, not causes. How that internal decay came to be… well, that’s the whole of the saga, for one must understand the foundations of Rome and how it built itself into the largest empire the West would ever know.
The saga begins not with the Republic, but with a recap of the little known civilization known as the Etruscans. The birth of the Republic would unfold from within their world. Thorough as ever, Durant covers the entirety of this foundation, outlining the patricians, the plebs, and the beginnings of Roman law that allowed for the conquest of the Italian peninsula, the defeat of Carthage, and the complete overrun of Greece. From there we get the Agrarian Revolt, the Servile Wars, and the rise of such characters as Marius, Sulla, Spartacus, Pompey, Cicero, and Julius Caesar. Republic turns to civil war, and from the ashes comes Augustus and Empire.
Not content with the politics and war, Durant expands to all corners of life and society, covering religion, morals, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, commerce, and pretty much any other aspect of Roman life you can name throughout the course of the entire history from 800 B.C. to 325 A.D. Keeping in mind that Rome is not just a city or a confined area, the scope of this survey covers the whole of the empire, its peoples, and its greatest opponents.
This tome is divided into five books, the fifth of which deals with the beginnings of Christianity and the foundations of how civilization would morph into Middle Ages. If I have a single complaint here, it’s that Durant seems to be of two minds about Christianity’s origins. He seems to have no doubts whatsoever in the historical Jesus or the miracles attested to him, and readily defends Biblical accounts in the four canonical gospels. But then he also points out all of the contradictions and developments between these foundations and the later books of the Bible, citing how developments in dogma and tradition grew from reactions to Roman law and society. My problem lies in that Durant is at once neither objective nor subjective, but dances around both. He makes the claims of the Bible’s inherent history and points out where it isn’t, so much so that it creates a confusion in the mind of those who aren’t readily acquainted with the nuances of Christianity’s spread and development. This and a rapid conclusion following Constantine are why I offer only 4 stars instead of 5 this time around. I’ve not looked, but I’m assuming the 4th volume of this series will backtrack a bit and cover the fall itself in greater detail.
The point that Durant stresses repeatedly is that while Greece was physically conquered by Rome, Rome was intellectually conquered by Greece. Rome came up with absolutely nothing on any level of progress, merely developing what was already in play on a larger scale. When it fell, the Church was the last bastion of knowledge, transforming into a state and eventually an army through the Middle Ages. In the East, the Roman Empire would last until 1453. In the West, the Empire saw its twilight a thousand years previous. The perception of rot and stagnation that is the general assumption of the Middle Ages was the legacy of Rome’s internal strife, the result of how she kept her power and of how she doled it out upon her enemies. The greatness and the horror of Rome stand as contradictions in the annals of history; one cannot be without the other.
As with the previous volumes in this series, this is the most complete and thorough history I’ve encountered on this subject to date, with most books concentrating and expanding upon mere fragments of what’s contained herein. As a medievalist, this book has painted a clearer picture for me of how those societies were seeded in this era. As an American, the inspirations and parallels for my country are too vivid to ignore, so this book was as disconcerting as it was enlightening. And on the whole, this book seemed considerably easier to digest than the volume on Greece.