The Origin of Empire by David Potter

The Origin of Empire: Rome from the Republic to Hadrian
By David Potter
Harvard University Press, 2019

The Origin of Empire: Rome from the Republic to Hadrian By David Potter Harvard University Press, 2019

“Bureaucracy is a cure for eccentricity,” writes University of Michigan history professor David Potter in his new book The Origin of Empire: Rome from the Republic to Hadrian, and it’s an ominous note. Histories of Rome already suffer from a certain popular reputation for being great granite mausoleums of scholarly tedium; one that sticks up for the value of bureaucracy might be seen as trying to out-Mommsen the Master. But the sly note that fills so much of The Origin of Empire creeps in right away, in the following line: “It may be dull, but it creates systems that function even when executive power is operating with marginal efficacy.” There are a great many Americans in 2019 who’ll read that mention of “marginal efficacy” with a wince and an increased attention to the story of long transformation Potter describes:

The grand narrative of Roman history is of the development of a vast state that would endure for centuries, uniting different cultures, enabling conversations across time and space that continue to shape our thinking today. It is also the story of how a democracy tore itself apart and ultimately voted itself out of existence so that a monarchy could unite the world it had plundered.

The outlines of Potter’s story are extremely familiar: the Brothers Gracchi, the dictatorial forays of Marius, Sulla, and Pompey, the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, the shaky early days of hegemonic rule, the long pacifying rule of Augustus, the gaudy record of successes and horrifying failures of the Julio-Claudians, the so-called Year of the Four Emperors, the rule of Vespasian and his sons, the imperial high noon of Trajan and Hadrian ... the birth and heyday of the early Roman Empire, in other words, the territory of Suetonius and Tacitus, as well-trod ground as anything a writer on Rome could choose.

Potter covers it all in 400 pages, built on a careful blending of original sources and secondary sources, both scholarly and popular. He’s concise on points where most other chroniclers of this period dilate shamelessly, he’s energetic at every turn, and with refreshing regularity, his straightforward approach to even the most well-known topics makes them fascinating all over again, even if you don’t end up agreeing with him, as on the Spartacus revolt:

Spartacus’ revolt was not a slave revolt. Spartacus’ army was dangerous precisely because it could fight as an army. Our sources make clear that his people could engage toe to toe with Roman legionaries. It is undoubtedly true that a gladiator untrained in the deployment of large formations would scarcely have been able to build such an army from nothing. But, as was the case with a rural revolt a decade later, the men who followed Spartacus were already trained legionaries.

A reader of such a summary will have some immediate reservations, and it’s a cheering thing how often Potter himself anticipates such reservations. “The revolt’s initial success owed more than a little to the fact that Rome’s best generals were abroad and its most experienced soldiers, if not joining the revolt, were retired,” he writes, for instance, in quick follow-up on the Spartacus revolt. “The first response was to dispatch two praetors at the head of hastily raised armies, whom Spartacus either eluded or defeated with alarming ease.”

That kind of loose-limbed awareness fills The Origins of Empire, making it a vigorous experience even for readers who are already very familiar with the men, women, scandals, and wars the book considers. As a portrait of an old and vast representative republic deteriorating into an autocracy, Potter’s book is easily, even alarmingly, lucid.

--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is