‘Rise of Rome’ an action-packed story of the Eternal City

“The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire” (Random House, 478 pages, $30)

There’s an imbalance in our picture of the ancient Romans, those violent, pious people who built an empire around their fly-blown miasma of a hilly backwater and left their imprint on every aspect of modern life, from politics to language.

The end of the republic, the rise of the empire and, thanks to Edward Gibbon, the empire’s collapse get most of the attention. The creation of this mighty force of history (which persisted in some form until 1453) is often overlooked.

Anthony Everitt’s “The Rise of Rome” sets out to redress that imbalance. In about 400 pages, Everitt retells the eight- century story of the eternal city from its legendary origins to the onset of Julius Caesar’s civil war.

“How was the empire won?” Everitt asks. “What was it that enabled a small Italian market town by a ford on the river Tiber to conquer the known world?”

Everitt, who has written biographies of Cicero and Augustus, weaves together war, politics, religion and daily life to describe that rise in a readable narrative that, like the early Romans, is heavy on action and light on analysis.

The Romans were astonishingly, sometimes cold-bloodedly practical. The Greeks gave us Pythagoras, Plato and the Parthenon. The Romans gave us the Senate, Cicero and the sewer.

Your city needs people? Invite the region’s cast-offs to settle. Thirsty? Build an aqueduct. Got cowardly soldiers? Kill every 10th man in the unit.

The highest honor an early Roman could aspire to was dying well or killing better. He might dedicate his death to a god to guarantee a victory in battle, or behead a son who disobeyed orders.

Roman tradition idolized leaders like Cincinnatus, who reluctantly left behind a quiet country life to lead an army against the republic’s enemy-du-jour before returning to his plow. (That George Washington drew comparisons to Cincinnatus should come as no surprise. Early Americans were obsessed with the Roman example. The Constitution echoes Rome’s mixed, balanced government, complete with senate and veto.)

Rome’s enemies were a little more fun. There is the Gaul Brennus, who sacked the city in about 390 BCE and demanded 1,000 pounds of gold. When the Romans complained that his weights were heavier than the standard, Brennus told them: “Vae victis” — Latin for “Tough luck, losers.”

Pyrrhus of Epirus, a wannabe Alexander the Great (they were distant cousins), led a youth of exile and adventure before setting his sights on Italy. He was “chivalrous and charismatic” although “his upper jaw was a continuous line of bone.” He was also unable to exploit his successes and his name has become a byword for costly victories.

“A cloud of pointlessness hangs over Pyrrhus’s career,” Everitt says. “The pursuit of glory was not accompanied by the necessary unswerving obsessiveness.”

Rome, of course, was both unswerving and obsessive, and its biggest obsession was Hannibal of Carthage, who dealt the city a humiliating defeat in 216 at Cannae, where 70,000 Romans died. For decades after, Roman parents would pacify, and terrify, noisy children by telling them “Hannibal’s outside the gates!” — “the worst threat imaginable.”

But even Hannibal lost in the end. The Romans hounded him until he finally killed himself.

The defeat of Carthage made Rome summo canis in the Mediterranean. Legionary discipline and shrewd diplomacy, including the enlistment of vanquished foes, gave the growing empire a steady supply of soldiers to expand and secure its borders.

But militarism and expansionism were also the republic’s undoing. Land that was annexed by conquest or depopulated by war fell under the control of a wealthy few and efforts to redistribute it met with violent response.

The rural populace, displaced by slaves captured in war, crowded into the city. Warlords like Marius, Sulla and, finally, Caesar exploited loyal soldiers and restive urban mobs to seize power and circumvent the political institutions that had taken centuries to build.

That’s when things really get interesting.