My previous novel Roma followed the fortunes of a single family through the first thousand years of the city’s existence, from its beginnings as an Iron Age trading post to its domination of the Mediterranean world and the civil wars that ended the Roman Republic. Empire continues the story of the Pinarius family and covers a relatively smaller time span, the five generations from the reign of the first emperor, Augustus, to the height of Rome’s empire under Hadrian.
As in Roma, the action in Empire takes place entirely within the city of Rome and its immediate vicinity. The city is always the backdrop, with its ever-changing skyline and accumulation of great buildings like the Colosseum, the fires that periodically sweep over the Seven Hills, and the silent, terrifying ash fall that followed the eruption of Vesuvius. As generations come and go, Rome itself is the abiding, ever-changing, always enduring central character of the novel.
With the action set in Rome, the din of battlefields remains distant—except when the turbulent power struggles of A.D. 69 bring an invading army to the city itself, and the emperor Vitellius meets his squalid end. Nevertheless, the impact of Rome’s wars and military policies reverberate through the pages of Empire, from the disastrous loss of the legions at Teutoberg Forest to Vespasian’s triumphs in Judaea, from Domitian’s repeated failures to subjugate Dacia to Trajan’s near-genocidal campaigns against the Dacians and his capture of their vast hordes of gold and silver. Just as Judaean booty and slaves built Vespasian’s vast new amphitheater (the Colosseum), so Dacian gold paid for Trajan’s enormous new forum with its crowning monument, Trajan’s Column, decorated by spiraling relief sculptures that commemorate the annihilation of the Dacian people. The chief beneficiary of Rome’s wars was the city of Rome itself, which became filled with architectural splendors and stunning monuments.
After Dacia, what remained of any worth for the Romans to capture and loot? Only Parthia, which Trajan diligently proceeded to conquer, subjugating the barbarians beyond the Euphrates, reaching the Persian Gulf and declaring, “Mission accomplished!” (Diplomacy sometimes offered an alternative to bloodshed, as when King Abgarus of Edessa sent his handsome son to dance for “the new Alexander”; Trajan was so favorably impressed by this “dancing boy diplomacy” that he abandoned plans to sack Edessa and allowed Abgarus to keep his throne, if only as a Roman puppet.)
Within a few years , Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, seeing the new provinces along the Euphrates descend into chaos and insurgency, began the inevitable pull-back. Rome’s long era of expansion came to an end. Instead of moving outward to find new lands to loot, the Romans worried about being looted themselves. Instead of pushing the borders outward, they began building walls to keep out the barbarians. Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland is the most famous, but such fornications were built all along the German frontiers as well. The empire of Rome reaches its cultural and economic apex under Trajan and Hadrian—but a troubled future looms.
Living in Rome, the members of the Pinarius family feel the effects of these momentous changes on the frontiers only at a distance. Most of their time is spent trying to survive under a series of absolute rulers; some emperors are crazier than others, but all are dangerous. Even the enlightened Hadrian is not a man to be crossed (as the architect and military engineer Apollodorus of Damascus discovered). Stripped of political power and civic engagement, some of the Pinarii seek meaning through supernatural channels—they dabble in astrology, join strange new cults (including Christianity), and follow the teachings of the wonder-worker Apollonius of Tyana.
Only one of them, Marcus Pinarius, witnesses battle. As an assistant to Apollodorus of Damascus, he accompanies Trajan to Dacia, and later sculpts scenes of the campaign from memory for Trajan’s Column. Marcus is proud of his work, but uneasy with the result:
The Dacians were an ignorant, impious, and dangerous people, a threat to the Danube frontier and, with their vast horde of wealth, a menace to Roma itself; so the legionaries were told as their commanders exhorted them to fight. But sometimes it seemed to Marcus that the Dacians were simply a proud people desperately fighting to save themselves, their religion, their language, and their native land. Just as the atrocities he had witnessed in the war sometimes caused him distress, so Marcus’s work on the column that commemorated the war sometimes afflicted him with doubts. However dazzlingly executed the images on the column, were they not a celebration of brute strength and human suffering?
The column remains in Rome to this day, though now it’s topped by a statue of St. Peter instead of Trajan. Have a look at the images sometimes—they can all be seen at this site—and decide for yourself what we should make of them today.