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.footnote1 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.footnote2 This makes it all the more important to find firm ancient evidence on which to ground contemporary historical analysis.
Those born at the heart of the Roman empire came to feel about Italy rather as similarly placed Victorians and Edwardians came to feel about Britain. The Elder Pliny tells us in his Natural History, itself a sort of compendium of empire, that Italy was:
But they were equally capable of offering powerful critiques of this civilizing mission. Tacitus, in particular, examines empire both through the eyes of the conquered and through the eyes of those doing and administering the conquering. He has the British leader, Calgacus, rally his men for a final battle—against Tacitus’s own father-in-law Agricola—with a series of claims about what being subject to Rome really means:
Tacitus has Roman officials admit to the unpleasantness of imperial rule, even while proclaiming its superiority. He also has the Roman commander Petillius Cerialis, faced with a Batavian revolt, draw up a balance sheet in which the extravagance and greed of Roman rulers is nevertheless outweighed by the peace and prospects offered by empire:
Most remarkably, Tacitus in his own voice details the ways in which Agricola brought Roman cultural values to Britain, only then to question those values: