Anthony Everitt serves warning to empires in The Rise of Rome

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The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire
By Anthony Everitt. Random House, 478 pp, hardcover

Imperial Rome, over the years, has fueled countless metaphors. From the Empire’s grandeur and pageantry to its brutality and martial disposition—not to mention its ignominious downfall—there’s something for everyone when it comes to cautionary tales.

After all, hasn’t the decline and fall of the Roman Empire served as a corollary to everything from the British Empire’s sunset to the United States’ current woes?

While imperial Rome’s end is well-known, the city’s origins and path to power aren’t generally as familiar.

In The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire, classical historian Anthony Everitt explores Rome’s transformation from a provincial backwater to the most powerful city on earth, eventually to rule everything from Gibraltar to modern Iran. It’s a fascinating and engaging story—spanning a millennium—which begins with the tale of the Trojan warrior Aeneas heading west to settle in Italy.

Carefully sifting through legend, oral tradition, and primary sources, Everitt takes us from Rome’s founding in 753 B.C, through the Punic wars and age of colonization, all the way up to the moment when Julius Caesar totally, and irrevocably, brings the Roman republic to an end.

As in his earlier biographies of emperors Augustus and Hadrian, Everitt has a deft touch with the overwhelming mass of information at hand, re-assembling it into an entertaining and eminently readable survey. This is no stuffy textbook; it’s a fresh look at a 2,500-year-old history that reads with a modern urgency.

Everitt is also a master of context, explaining not just what happened, but what it all means. He clearly understands and likes the Romans (and is well-versed in the peculiar collection of traits that made them so successful), but he’s not an apologist for their transgressions. “The Romans were very skilled at doing exactly what they wanted,” he writes, “while at the same time, and with the straightest possible face, convincing themselves of the propriety of their deeds.”

As with any overview, some things do get short shrift. Rome’s 20-year struggle with the Carthaginian general Hannibal—one of the most influential episodes in Rome’s history—gets just two chapters. And two of the most important battles of the Republican era, Lake Trasimene and Cannae, merit a mere page-and-a-half each.

While Everitt’s prose is compelling, he does have the bad habit of throwing in the odd bit of modern slang (“bling,” “rent boy”), which can jolt the reader out of their literary reverie. He even goes so far as to sneak in a Simpsons reference, noting that republican Romans considered their Greek neighbors to be “the classical equivalent of cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

But these are small quibbles. Everitt’s book is an otherwise impressive accomplishment, skillfully turning the classical era into a compelling read. The Rise of Rome is eminently accessible, but still far above the din and flash of pop history.

And with Rome’s rise rivalling its decline for cautionary tales, it reminds us that there are still a lot of useful lessons out there for our modern age.

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