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:

At once the nursling and the mother of all other lands, chosen by the providence of the gods to make heaven itself more glorious, to unite scattered empires, to make manners gentle, to draw together in converse by community of language the jarring and uncouth tongues of so many nations, to give mankind civilization (humanitas), and in a word to become throughout the world the single fatherland of all the races.footnote3

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:

Now the uttermost parts of Britain lie exposed, and the unknown is ever magnified. But there are no other tribes to come; nothing but sea and cliffs and these more deadly Romans, whose arrogance you cannot escape by obedience and self-restraint. Robbers of the world, now that earth fails their all-devastating hands, they probe even the sea: if their enemy have wealth, they have greed; if he be poor, they are ambitious; East nor West has glutted them; alone of mankind they covet with the same passion want as much as wealth. To plunder, butcher, steal, these things they misname empire: they make a desolation and they call it peace. Children and kin are by the law of nature each man’s dearest possessions; they are swept away from us by conscription to be slaves in other lands: our wives and sisters, even when they escape a soldier’s lust, are debauched by self-styled friends and guests: our goods and chattels go for tribute; our lands and harvests in requisitions of grain; life and limb themselves are worn out in making roads through marsh and forest to the accompaniment of gibes and blows. Slaves born to slavery are sold once and for all and are fed by their masters free of cost; but Britain pays a daily price for her own enslavement, and feeds the slavers; and as in the slave-gang the newcomer is a mockery even to his fellow-slaves, so in this world-wide, age-old slave-gang, we, the new hands, worth least, are marked out to be made away with.footnote4

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:

There were always kings and wars throughout Gaul until you submitted to our laws. Although often provoked by you, the only use we have made of our rights as victors has been to impose on you the necessary costs of maintaining peace; for you cannot secure tranquillity among nations without armies, nor maintain armies without pay, nor provide pay without taxes: everything else we have in common. You often command our legions; you rule these and other provinces; we claim no privileges, you suffer no exclusion. You enjoy the advantage of good emperors equally with us, although you dwell far from the capital: the cruel emperors assail those nearest them. You endure barren years, excessive rains, and all other natural evils; in like manner endure the extravagance or greed of your rulers.footnote5