Rome’s Empire (2023)

A review of Patricia Southern’s book

Patricia Southern’s Rome’s Empire (2023), published by Amberley, may not be exactly what was advertised or expected, it offers a suitable overview text of the history of the Roman Empire, with an emphasis on its military actions.

Aaron L. Beek

When I was contacted to write this review of Patricia Southern’s Rome’s Empire: How the Romans Acquired and Lost Their Provinces, I was delighted. I expected a military history-focused overview by a late antique specialist that would not stop abruptly in the 180s or 230s CE, and eschew the excessive focus on Italy that our sources relay to us! While this book did not turn out to be exactly what was advertised or expected, it still remains a very clear overview history of the Roman Empire with an emphasis on its military actions.

As Southern notes in the introduction, the research conducted is that allowed by the pandemic in 2019-2022, and it shows. Aside from my admiration of her personal library/bibliography (nearly a third of which is also found in my personal library, surely a testament to her impeccable tastes in reading material), this unfortunately means that certain wide swaths of the book contain little more than a summary of the original accounts of Livy, Polybius, Appian, Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio, and the other usual suspects, supplemented by observations from the classic surveys of twentieth-century scholarship. (Unsurprisingly, the sources are fuller and more inclusive of twenty-first century scholarship when covering late antiquity, which typically receives poorer treatment.)

A particularly key (and correct) assertion appears in the introduction: Roman provinces were originally spheres of influence assigned to a commander, not a static set or territory with firm boundaries. This is an excellent point that deserves more emphasis by historians (and is re-emphasized again in chapter 2, p. 77, and chapter 3, p. 98).

Overview of the book

The first and second chapters cover the first ten books of Livy, the Roman conquest of most of the Italian peninsula, and the acquisition of Sicily. While certainly the formative legends of Rome and the establishment of the magistracies that would oversee these provinces deserve substantial discussion, the material seems unbalanced. Sicily’s administration certainly seems like it would be a model for future provinces, yet receives only a little more than half the attention paid to the First Punic War. (To be fair, a conflict that was one of the largest for centuries).

Important here is (a) Southern’s analysis of the Roman allies, communities that would gradually shift from allies to subjects to Roman citizens, and (b) an explanation of the decuma, a tithe system employed in Sicily, albeit with little discussion of how applicable this system may have been in the other provinces added later.

Chapter three (late third century BCE) brings parts of Spain, Illyria, Greece and Cisalpine Gaul into the Roman sphere. There are some puzzling balance issues, presumably driven by the weight of the surviving material from Livy and Polybius. More weight is given to explaining the Illyrian peace treaty than the outbreak of that war, and still more re-recounting the forces available to the Romans as given by Polybius (in book 2), though this does not seem as relevant to the book’s avowed purpose. Nonetheless the stories of Teuta, of Hannibal, Massinissa and Scipio and of Philip V of Macedon are told in abbreviated form.

Chapter four (second century BCE) encompasses Spain and Africa. The Spanish coast was captured from Carthage and successive generals were sent to Spain for a century annexing the rest of the peninsula. The province of Africa (modern Tunisia) was taken in the Third Punic War and brought under direct rule. The ahistorical legend of sowing Carthage with salt is sadly repeated. Southern might also have better clarified ideas of borders and frontiers, which remained amorphous, particularly in Africa, where – though the limes system of the empire can give us an estimate – people under direct Roman control gave way to people merely under Roman influence.

Chapters five through seven cover the first century BCE, a period we know much more about than most in Rome’s history, and one beset by a baffling series of civil wars and general unrest, which Southern explains lucidly.

Chapters eight and nine (first century CE to 117) cover the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the Flavians, Nerva, and Trajan, culminating in Trajan’s expansion of the empire into Dacia and briefly into Mesopotamia. Like many other authors, Southern signals a downhill shift at this point, with Rome henceforth struggling to retain control of their current territorial possessions. This might well have been an ideal place to signal how that very struggle for retention might have manifested in the administrative changes to the governance of provinces and the imperial wariness of handing over too strong a province to the wrong leader.

Chapters ten and eleven (AD 117-235) turn to the Antonines and Severans. Hadrian’s tour of the provinces and benefits bestowed is particularly clear, then Southern digresses a bit on border fortifications before turning to the impact of the Marcomannic Wars. After a lengthy discussion of the civil war that erupted in 193-197 following the death of Commodus, Southern then examines regional distinctions under Severus and Caracalla

Chapter twelve delves into the Crisis of the Third Century, for which the briefly-ruling contenders were rarely in Rome, but racing around the empire to eliminate other contenders, independence movements, and incursions alike. In this period the ubiquity of banditry and the relative impunity of soldiers’ actions meant the average Roman would seek protection from the Roman army – in both senses of the phrase. Also noteworthy here is the variety of backgrounds of the emperors, a clear account of the seceding of the Palmyrene and Gallic empires, and the loss of Dacia.

Chapter thirteen covers the third to fifth centuries, but focuses on Diocletian and Constantine. Diocletian, besides finally ending the crisis period, engaged in a massive bureaucratic overhaul – appointing four emperors and splitting the provinces into significantly more numerous smaller jurisdictions. The gradual shift of the legions into a garrison force and a campaign force over the third century is formally recognized, and Southern well explains the new division of organizing both provinces and armies. While Diocletian’s Tetrarchy does not survive, the re-organization of the provinces has longer-lasting effects. The dynasty of Constantine engaged in frequent wars and diplomacy with a series of northerners, Franks, Goths, Vandals, and many others, who were resettled within the empire, to the empire’s advantage and disadvantage alike, though the details are not given.

Chapter fourteen covers the fall of Rome’s eastern provinces in short order across ca. 300 years, which gives a false impression of rapid collapse that obscures the Byzantine resurgences under Justinian and Heraclius. If one wishes to dash off the reconquest of North Africa, fall of Egypt, the fall of Syria and another fall of North Africa, one might fairly quibble that a few more pages covering the Byzantine loss and reconquest cycle in Bulgaria or the loss of most of Anatolia after the battle of Manzikert would be deserved. Aside from these choices, however, the narrative is clear.


The promised refocusing from machinations in Rome upon matters in the provinces seems lacking, and thorny questions still under debate are given limited discussion and even more limited sources. The reigning years of the emperors and the internal wars of the empire create a useful chronological framework, but certainly one that distracts from the work’s subtitle.

Not enough time is spent on the logic of Roman acquisition. Were Roman conquests driven by “defensive imperialism”? By greedy aristocratic generals too far from Senatorial control? Motivated by economic interests (i.e. loot)? Unintended diplomatic consequences? I did not even find defensive imperialism – scholarship’s standard 20th century explanation, fallen out of favor in recent years – mentioned in the work. The necessity of pressing through 1500 years of history has the unfortunate effect of compressing motivations into sparse sentences.

This is in no way a bad book, and I may well have been mistaken about the premise and target audience for this volume. Despite my negative observations above, there is much positive to say: this is a very readable, conventional history of the Romans, entirely suitable as an overview text (I assigned the first chapter as a reading to my own students in one class and the thirteenth in another).

This is, moreover, an affordable option for those men (or women) who are always thinking about the Roman Empire, but do not yet own such an overview. Indeed, for the general history buff interested in every period, but not in reading all the ancient authors themselves, the work is quite well-suited. However, for those of you who already own works covering the same scope, this text lacks both novelty in approach and any sort of summation of 21st century scholarship.

The quality of Amberley’s printing is very good, and includes very high quality color plates (37 images). The black-and white maps are crisp, but also somewhat minimalistic. Despite Southern repeatedly asserting in the text that the territorial boundaries of provinces were ambiguous or in flux, imperial boundaries are routinely retrojected into the republic, and evidence of that flux is nowhere indicated in the mapping.