Saturday, August 16, 2008

Neil Faulkner - Rome: Empire of the Eagles

There is an oft quoted rhetorical question from Monty Python's Life of Brian, which goes something like "So, apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine and education, what have the Roman's ever done for us?"

The view of the Roman Empire as an essentially benevolent force that brought stability, peace and prosperity to the areas of the globe it touched is one that pervades many accounts of the time. Neil Faulkner's new book is an attempt to redress that balance.

Faulkner points out that the Roman empire was rooted in violence. Essentially a top-heavy civilisation its capital and major cities were net consumers of wealth from every other area of the Empire. Millions of slaves, raw materials, crops and goods were needed by the Romans and regular military expansion was needed both to find new areas of surplus value, and protect those existing ones.

For Faulkner, the essential dynamic of the Roman period was a military one - he writes in his introduction that:

"Rome was a dynamic system of military imperialism - of robbery with violence - and that its rise and fall, its conquests and defeats, its revolutions and civil wars can best be understood as manifestations of this."

Faulkner writes from a Marxist and anti-imperialist point of view. Though he explicitly points out that his position isn't a "orthodox" Marxist interpretation. However it is one that is fundamentally anti-imperialist and is coloured by his understanding that empires in the past and in their more contemporary clothes are never forces that operate in the interests of the people they seek to rule.

For me (and other reviews - see this ISJ review) the problem is that if Faulkner's dynamic seems to fit events, it does so because it is quite superficial. I don't have an expert academic understanding of Rome, but Faulkner seems to ignore some key aspects of Roman social life - the centrality of the slave economy and the surplus value if creates is conspicuous by the lack of detail here, and I think this is a major error. Little is said about how much the artisans, labourers or the urban poor contributed to the creation of value for the Roman emperors and if continual expansion was so important for the Romans, why are their some periods where this wasn't Imperial strategy?

More worrying though is the way that Faulkner's analysis essentially leads to a history of Rome through the roles of important men. Particularly the Emperors. There is no doubt of course that the individual characters of certain Emperors did alter the external and internal priorities of Rome. But I think Faulkner goes too far.

Elsewhere I lauded Michael Parenti's book. Faulkner argues that Parenti comes down too much on the side of Caesar as a representative of the poor and dispossessed. Fualkner points out that Julius Caesar was as much of an imperialist, warmonger and brutal practitioner of genocide. This is true. But that doesn't stop Caesar being interested in the poor people of Rome, as a method of strengthening his position in the Roman Ruling class and pushing his vision of the Roman empire.

For Marx, Class Struggle is the motor of history, yet in this book the motor is the military conquest. Surely we should be asking how does the military side of things allow the Roman rulers to continue to exploit those who create the wealth of Rome? All too often we are left with the view that the Roman army went somewhere, defeated a massive native army, stripped the country bare, established some Roman settlements and that was that. This doesn't feel too much like a rounded explanation to me.

This isn't to say that Faulkner's book isn't worth reading. The opening chapters that explain the development of Rome from town to city state are fascinating, as too is the general arc of the narrative, about how the internal economic dynamics of the Empire led to its weakening and eventual slow collapse. The detail of the last centuries of the Empire was new to me, and filled in a lot of gaps - particularly for instance, why the ruins we see are usually from the middle period of Rome's history, rather than the later days.

I'd recommend this for those who want a more in-depth understanding of the Roman dynamic, but read it with an open mind. The "interpretive narrative" that Faulkner offers needs debate, discussion and fleshing out, but all our understanding of this important period of history will be improved by that debate.

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