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New Left Review 77, September-October 2012

robin osborne


The roman empire has long provided both a model for modern imperialism and a framework within which to think about it. Not only, as the Greek historian Polybius already observed in the second century bc, did the Romans take care to find reasons why every war of conquest was necessary to their national security; they also came to see themselves as a civilizing power, and to realize the power of civilization. [1] Polybius, The Histories, Volume VI: Books 28–39 and Fragments, trans. W. R. Paton and S. D. Olson, rev. edn Cambridge, ma 2012, frg. 99. This makes it easy for scholars to write critiques or defences of modern imperialism into accounts of the Roman empire; in retrospect, it is hard to read any of the twentieth-century analyses—that it was defensive and non-annexationist, that it was motivated by greed, or that the Greeks got what they asked for—without reference to the authors’ attitudes to modern Western imperialism. [2] Defensive: Ernst Badian, Roman Imperialismin the Late Republic, 2nd edn, Oxford 1968; motivated by greed: William Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327–70 bc, Oxford 1979; Greeks had it coming: Erich Gruen, The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, Berkeley 1984. More generally, see Mark Bradley, ed., Classics and Imperialism in the British Empire, Oxford 2010. This makes it all the more important to find firm ancient evidence on which to ground contemporary historical analysis.

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Robin Osborne, ‘Cultures of Empire: Greece and Rome’, NLR 77: £3

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