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Seeing the elephant: beyond the querelle of “Roman imperialism” in the Hellenistic world

John Ma

Seeing the elephant: beyond the querelle of “Roman imperialism” in the Hellenistic world

How should we define and interpret Roman “imperialism” in the Hellenistic world during the third and second century BCE? The answers to this question have exhibited three major characteristics.

First, the question has largely been answered by master narratives. Such narratives have been produced in direct form, as histories of the wars and diplomatic actions involving the Roman Republic and the states, large and small, of the Hellenistic world, such as the classic produced by M. Holleaux (in a standalone essay, and in two masterful chapters in the first edition of CAH— two texts which can be said to have kicked off the grand debate on Roman imperialism), or the narrative chapter by P. Derow in the second edition of CAH; other analytical treatments of Roman imperialism are also implicit master narratives, explaining the complicated and protracted sequences of events through single factors.

Second, whatever the particular historiographical form of the various master narratives of Roman imperialism in the Hellenistic East, they (or the most serious narratives, beyond pure positivism and personality-driven stories) have been remarkably focused on finding explanations or analyses for the whole phenomenon or set of events, using different viewpoints and theoretical stances: the events of the third and second centuries get explained as the outcome of deep structural tendencies (cultural, economical, institutional, political), in Roman society, or in Hellenistic high politics.

Third, the explanations and analyses have all been proposed as exclusive solutions to the historical problem of Roman imperialism, as attempts to grasp the essential nature of the historical phenomenon: as driven by Roman acquisitiveness, or explicable by Roman fears and world-views, or characterized by Roman disinterest, or (on the contrary) marked by Roman heavy-handedness and duplicity, or reducible to the pre-existing Hellenistic norms lived by agency-exercizing local actors, or intelligible in terms of international anarchy and self-interest.

It is obvious that these totalizing and conflicting explanations are themselves determined by a variety of historiographical forces: national ethos, scholarly tradition, and judgments about sources (especially Polybios). It should be equally obvious that all the quarrel about Roman imperialism in the Hellenistic world (the “coming of Rome”, etc.) is largely a classic case of blindfolded observers describing the various parts of an elephant, and that the polemics can be resolved if it is understood that the various interpretations usually focus on different aspects of the phenomenon, located at different geographical or chronological points. The point here is not a historiographical survey of the various traditions and currents within the debate; rather, it is a sense that, with various adjustments and corrections (such as those provided by the thoughtful survey in J.-L. Ferrary’s recent republication of Philhellénisme et impérialisme), it might prove possible to federate the various interpretations proposed, in the course of the nearly century-old debate on Roman imperialism in the Hellenistic world, in a single holistic unified theory of this historical phenomenon. Seeing the elephant: the balance between “push” and “pull”, and the varied texture in time, are of interest to the historian of the Roman Republic, but only as part of a broader investigation that looks both at the whole Mediterranean context, and at the late Hellenistic dynamics (notably in case of the “Indian summer” of the Greek city-state).

Session/Panel Title:

Rethinking Roman Imperialism in the Middle and Late Republic (c.327 - 49 BCE)

Session/Paper Number


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