A Story Of Ancient Power In 'The Rise of Rome'

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Over the past decade, there's been a revival in popular histories of ancient Rome; not the academic tomes once reserved for specialists and students, but books and movies designed for the rest of us.

Anthony Everitt has written three biographies about some of the major players in ancient Rome: Cicero, Augustus and Hadrian, all full of intrigue and treachery.

His latest book is called The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire. It traces Rome's 800-year transformation from a small market town in the hills into a world power moving well beyond the confines of the city.

So what is it about the ancient world that intrigues Everitt?

"I love stories and I love characters," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Thing Considered. "And the thing about the ancient world, it is crammed, it is packed with [the] most interesting and eccentric and brave and villainous characters of all kinds."

Some of those characters are mythical, like Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome who suckled a wolf. And some of the characters are real but whose stories are so fantastic you'd think they were fiction, like Julius Caesar, the Roman general who died at the hands of his senate colleagues.

"So much of who we are today can be taken back to the ancient world," Everitt tells Raz. "Rome was a huge example. Roman law cast its shadow forward millennia."

Interview Highlights

On the early years of the Roman Republic around the 5th Century B.C.

"A very complicated sort of constitution was arranged, full of checks and balances. Not entirely unlike, in fact, the United States constitution. And that's not much of a surprise, because your founding fathers were great admirers of the Roman Republic and read authors like Cicero. And what they wanted was to create a sort of, call it a balanced constitution, with a bit of monarchy in it, a bit of oligarchy — the rule of regular aristocratic families — and a bit of democracy."

On the concept of citizenship

"It was quite radical. And it was a brilliant notion. And it really kept the Empire going for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. If you're going to run an empire, you really do need consent. Simply having military power, simply being an all-powerful autocracy with a secret police, let's think of Syria, or think of the old Soviet Union, sooner or later the people that you're ruling rise up and say, 'Look, we've had enough of this.'"

On the end of the Roman Republic

"The people who governed the world suddenly lost the ability to govern themselves. There was bloodshed. ... This collapse of the constitution and an unwillingness of political opponents to talk with each other, to do deals, to come up with agreements, however messy and provisional, that loss was a catastrophe for Rome. And the Republic, in fact, went up in flames."

On how we know so much about the last years

"It was such a cataclysm. And the people involved in this cataclysm, the destruction of the Roman Republic and its replacement by a military autocracy, it was such a traumatic event that people wrote about it. They couldn't not write about it. And even during the Empire, they went on writing about it because they couldn't get it out of their heads, what they'd lost."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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