Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Reframing Rome and Italy during the early Roman expansion

Seth Bernard

What are the effects of empire-building, and how can we study them? With Making the Middle Republic, my two co-editors and I present a collection of papers emphasizing the importance of the fourth and third centuries BCE to the broader development of Republican Rome and Italy. This period saw the earliest phases of Roman imperial expansion in Italy, when Roman political power first radiated beyond the city and across Italian territory. These papers highlight how this initial drive to empire reshaped everything, from political institutions to economic structures, material culture, settlement patterns, ecology, and more. No part of this world was untouched by nascent Roman imperialism. At the same time, the effects of this empire-building project were extraordinarily diverse. Roman power built upon or intensified existing Italian economic, cultural, and political practices. Rome’s interaction with its wider world mattered enormously, and historical change was never unilinear or straightforward. All of this makes this moment seem brilliant and consequential, but also highly complex. We hope this collection shows how fascinating this period reveals itself to be upon closer study, and I’m hopeful that we might inspire more historians to take interest in the Middle Republic.

One of the main motivations for our volume was not simply to show some of the lines of development in this period, but to reframe their study. Our claim for the period’s complex importance marks a significant scholarly turn. For modern research, the Roman Middle Republic is poorly documented by conventional sources. We have no eye-witness written accounts of Rome’s rise to empire, and the (much later) accounts we do possess are highly rhetorical and difficult to untangle. Past scholarship has put considerable effort into evaluating the usefulness of these later literary sources. What our volume points out is that there has been so much recent work tackling this period from different perspectives that some of these old debates about the usefulness of the traditional sources now become less relevant. It’s not simply that we have more material than we did before from archaeology or other allied fields for the historical reconstruction of Rome’s expansion in Italy; entirely new methodologies are shedding critical new light on early Roman empire-making. Take, for instance, bioarchaeology. Angela Trentacoste and Lisa Lodwick’s study reveals what the study of plant and animal remains can contribute to the history of landscape practices in Italy this period. The same goes with Walter Scheidel’s paper using comparative history, in this case the history of the Sokoto Caliphate, to think about early Roman slaving. Other contributions are likewise trying out approaches that are new or less typically applied to the history of the period, from object theory to fiscal sociology, survey archaeology, and more. We’re hopeful this methodological expansion will invigorate the study of a period whose broad but complex importance we increasingly come to realize. That is, what all of the contributors to this volume aim to show is that the Middle Republic is not only a really exciting period to study, but that right now is an exciting moment for how we go about studying this period. In that sense, our volume shines a spotlight on methodology and perspective as much as on reconstructing any single line of interpretation through the complex changes brought on by early Roman imperialism. The book assembles a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives on a truly fascinating and consequential moment of ancient history, and the results reframe both this period’s history and the interdisciplinary practice of its study in ways that we hope will energize future research on Middle Republican Rome and Italy.

About The Author

Seth Bernard

SETH BERNARD is Associate Professor of Roman History in the Department of Classics at the University of Toronto. His work focuses on the social and economic history of Rome and Ita...

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