Analysis of “War and Imperialism in Republican Rome” by William Harris

Author William Harris’ work “War and Imperialism in Republican Rome”, 327-70 BC, first published in 1979, produced notable controversy for Roman historians. In writing the work, the author makes a point of projecting his own ideas onto the already proven theories of previous historians. His book, though a valuable insight into the practices and proceedings of Ancient Rome, is troublesome for several reasons. Throughout the book, Harris makes a habit of projecting thoughts and concepts onto the thinking and writings of the Romans.

Not only does Harris continually make these projections, he also makes frequent assumptions, and extrapolates information from Roman primary sources that, in some instances, simply does not exist.

One of Harris’ most notable points in War and Imperialism is his idea that members of the Roman Senate held a ‘warmongering’ mindset, and that their only mission was to constantly wage war on other nations. Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White’s 1980 review of War and Imperialism demonstrates marked disdain for the book.

Sherwin-White’s main issue with Harris’ writing is how often he chooses to change the primary sources from which his research no doubt largely originates. The second part of the book, according to Sherwin-White, is essentially a detailed overview of the origins of the more important Roman wars from 320-70 B.C. Harris strives to determine why these wars were fought. In so doing, the author assumes that the only solution for the Roman Senate was violence. Sherwin-White observes that War and Imperialism’s stance on this is incorrect.

The idea that each individual member of the Senate held a proclivity for war comes directly from Harris. In reality, based on Sherwin-White’s research, primary sources record that the mean number of Roman victories each year was less than two. Sherwin-White also notes the manner in which Harris uses his own broad explanation to account for the origins of each war that he discusses. The issue with this is that Harris’ explanation is not only the same for each war, but he also blatantly ignores the detailed information on the same topic, which is located in the primary sources.

Another issue that Sherwin-White takes with War and Imperialism is the fact that Harris’ narrative constantly leaves out key statistics and facts that, if included, immediately change conclusions throughout. Harris’ idea of the Romans as a fearless and powerful people is not always correct. Sherwin-White’s example of this, something he says that the reader is told nothing of, is the fact that in the 3rd century, many Roman officials lived in fear that their survival and the existence of their empire was constantly at stake. He also neglects to mention the fact that the Roman military shrank drastically during the timeframe War and Imperialism studies. As the Roman economy dipped, the military shrank because of the economy, however, the military’s commitments increased. Because both of these examples entirely disprove Harris’ ‘warmongering’ theory, they are left out of his work, and leave the reader with no choice but to assume that the author’s prose must be correct.

Roman historian J.A. North’s review of Harris’ work, while certainly less scathing than Sherwin-White’s, still presents the book in a relatively negative light. As both reviews note, Harris presents the idea of the Romans as aggressors, mainly due to the wars they fought in and their large territorial expansion. North’s answer to this suggestion is that it is a poor choice on Harris’ part to assume that Roman expansion meant the Romans became violent in all aspects of life. There is a small issue that North takes with Sherwin-White’s review he believes that Sherwin-White spends too much time disagreeing with Harris, and does not allot enough time in his review to actual discussion of the book and the points raised within.

Harris’ work did not come at a time of world peace. The Cold War waged on, World War II had been over for less than forty years, and the international effects of the Vietnam War and European colonialism still lingered. All of these events involved a great power attempting to insert their beliefs – political, religious, or otherwise – into the culture of other nations. This is the view of the Romans that Harris takes in War and Imperialism. He paints them as an aggressive, war-hungry nation, with their only interests being acquiring territory and showing violent tendencies in all of their actions. As Sherwin-White and North point out in their reviews, this mindset is detrimental Harris’ choice to ignore so many key factors that accurately describe the Ancient Romans leads to his skewed belief in their vicious and altogether unreasonable ways.

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