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'Eight Days That Made Rome' Explains the Key Factors in the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire
January 7, 2019  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

There are different views on how long the Roman Empire lasted, but by any count, it was a very long time, and a new Smithsonian channel series aims to examine some of the underlying principles by which it did so.

According to Eight Days That Made Rome, which premieres Monday at 7 p.m. ET, one of the primary principles was brutal repression.

It wasn’t pretty, says Oxford historian Bettany Hughes, who hosts the series. It just worked.

Eight Days doesn’t compress Roman history into eight single days. It suggests that eight specific days set the Empire’s course and determined its arc, from rise to fall.

Most historians set the formal launch of the Roman Empire at 31 BC. Hughes (left) takes it back to 202 BC – October 19, to be precise – when in a massive one-day battle involving tens of thousands of soldiers, the Roman army under General Scipio defeated its nemesis, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal.

Before then, Carthage had been the city with an empire, which stretched across North Africa from Lebanon to the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea and had expanded north from there to incorporate most what is now Spain.

Rome had been interested in the empire idea for a while, but 16 years earlier, Hannibal had made his famous march across the Alps and crushed the Roman army in the Battle of Cannae. Despite the Romans having twice as many soldiers, Hannibal outmaneuvered them and left 40,000 Romans dead.

It took Rome a while to recover, but under Scipio, who had survived Cannae, the Romans eventually built enough strength to, in effect, challenge Hannibal to a winner-take-all rematch.

It came in North Africa at Zama, and while this time Hannibal had a slight edge in numbers, Scipio proved a more adept general. In part, Hughes notes, this is because he had studied the tactics by which Hannibal defeated the Romans at Cannae.

As Hughes describes it, Zama went back and forth, first with the Carthaginians holding the advantage, then the Romans, and then the Carthaginians before Scipio brought his cavalry up from the rear and encircled Hannibal’s troops before killing or capturing almost all of them.

This show’s depiction of the battle, which occurred on a large open plain, is frustrating. It primarily features close-ups of armed soldiers swinging weapons at each other, often to indeterminate ends. It never provides battle diagrams that would enable viewers to get the broader picture of whose troops were where, and why that was strategically good or bad.

Hughes does, however, make her endpoint clear. By defeating Hannibal, the Romans set themselves up as the alpha power of the ancient world. While it may have been another 171 years before Rome formally became an empire, the pieces were now in place.

Rome itself was ruled, apparently with popular consent, by a determined cadre that frequently invoked the gods to justify actions as extreme as human sacrifice. On matters of external rather than internal policy, the Romans returned to Carthage less than 60 years after the battle of Zama and leveled the city, slaughtering almost all its citizens.

In many areas like architecture, transportation, and urban technology, says Hughes, Rome advanced civilization. Measured by modern concepts of morality and humanity, the Roman years were less of a milestone.

The second episode of Eight Days, covering the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus, will air immediately after the Hannibal episode, Monday at 8 p.m. ET.

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Thank you so much for noting this series! I didn’t even realize I still had the Smithsonian channel, and Roman history is one of our family’s interests. We’ve even been to Cannae.
Jan 7, 2019   |  Reply
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