(I am getting too carried away with these history pieces and must shorten them. Consequently, this week’s post includes only the first half of the article, and you must wait to find out exactly why Rome was so cool. I am traveling to Germany for two weeks, so you will have to wait even longer.)
The fall of the Roman Empire has long been the most popular question concerning antiquity, probably because Rome is the most widely known ancient state and because it is the premier empire. At their peaks the Mongol, Spanish, Russian and British Empires all controlled far more territory than the Roman, but hands down Rome wins the prize for longevity. (The Chinese “Empire” was essentially a series of relatively distinct Chinese states.) Beginning as a tiny city-state on the Tiber, a miniscule platform for empire-building compared to the European powers, the Roman Republic methodically conquered and unified the Italian peninsula in two centuries and in another century eliminated every possible rival in the Mediterranean-European world. The Roman Empire is thus established by the middle of the second century BC, though a great deal of real estate – most of the eastern Mediterranean, northwestern Europe and Britain – was yet to be occupied.
The Senate-dominated Republic collapsed in the first century BC, and though “restored” by Augustus in 27 BC (see Stuff from Way Back #26: Image is Everything), the reality was a military autocracy, the Principate. In AD 235 the Principate gave way to the Anarchy, essentially a fifty year long civil war that vividly revealed the serious cracks in the imperial structure. A measure of order was restored in AD 285, but in AD 378 the Empire permanently split into a western and eastern half, and the western empire disappeared in the next half century. If the fall is marked by this final division, then the Empire had lasted some six hundred years; the city of Rome itself had remained unoccupied by a foreign army for eight hundred years.
The decline and fall of such a long-lived and high civilization is understandably a fascinating subject (it had nothing to do with immorality or Christianity), but equally fascinating is a far less frequently posed question: why did it last so long? Incompetent and outright mad emperors, civil wars, barbarian invasions, military revolts, the Empire went on. It even survived the Anarchy, a half century of more or less constant civil war, during which barbarians penetrated deep into the Empire, which actually fragmented into three parts at one point.
There are three broad reasons, two of them indisputable historical considerations, the third – and most important – in part a judgment call, though based on the historical evidence.
First, throughout the four centuries of the Late Republic and the Principate and to a lesser degree for another century after that, Rome had no seriously dangerous foreign enemies. During this long period the Empire had two major foes. The first was the Parthian Empire. The Parthians were an Iranian people who established a kingdom in northeastern Iran in the third century BC and expanded south and west as the Greek Seleucid Empire declined. The kingdom ultimately stretched from Iran to the frontiers of Roman power in eastern Anatolia and in Syria, where constant friction emerged during last century of the Republic.
Parthia was, however, more of a nuisance than a real threat, raiding and capturing Roman territory only when the Romans were distracted, as during the civil wars that brought down the Republic. (See Stuff from Way Back #21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?) Parthia was a very decentralized state, with local governors possessing a great deal of autonomy, and the central government often wrestled with dynastic problems as well. Unlike the Romans of the Principate, Parthia had no professional standing army, though it could quickly mobilize levies and raise effective horse archers and armored lancers, as M. Licinius Crassus discovered in 53 BC with his defeat and death at Carrhae. Further, the Parthian king had his own problems with barbarians on his northeastern frontier and commanded far less economic resources than Rome.
The relative weakness of Parthia was constantly demonstrated when the Romans were able to easily deal with Parthian incursions even before solving their own problems that had led to the aggression. Most vividly, there is the emperor Trajan’s rapid conquest of the Parthian heartland in AD 114-117. That the entire area was immediately evacuated by his successor Hadrian is not a reflection of Parthian strength but a recognition that Rome did not have the manpower necessary to garrison a large area that could not be easily assimilated into the Greco-Roman culture of the Empire.
In AD 224 the declining Parthian Empire was seized by a new Iranian group, the Sassanid Persians, whose new empire was essentially a reprise of the Parthian. The Persians did, however, develop heavily armored cavalry (but still no stirrups) and siege equipment and tactics, vital in fighting the well-equipped Romans. The emergence of a new dynasty also generated a new aggressiveness, and this was at a time when Rome was on the brink of the Anarchy. Still, even during the Anarchy and the frequent civil wars of the late Empire Persia could not permanently occupy Roman territory. Actually, Persia’s greatest threat to Rome was simply being there, a new Persian Empire that constantly lured foolish and incompetent Roman emperors to attempt to emulate Alexander and launch expensive and pointless invasions of the east.
Rome’s only other enemy was not a coherent state but a category: barbarians. The barbarians in north Africa were hardly noticed, and those in and around Britain were simply annoying. The Germanic tribes were a lot tougher and prowled a frontier that stretched from the mouth of the Rhine to the Black Sea. Nevertheless, they were never any problem for competently led legions, and even during the Anarchy, when tribes were able to penetrate deep into the Empire, they were soon mopped up. Only with the great folk migrations of the late fourth century and later did they become a serious problem, and one suspects that had the government and army of the fifth century been equal to that of the first, they could have been routinely dealt with.
Thus was the outside pressure on the Empire minimal and relatively easily countered, and Rome could consequently indulge in bad government, a declining military and even a half century of continuous and devastating civil war and not lose it all.
The second factor is the development of an imperial bureaucracy. The institutional history of the Republic, which built the Empire, was one of constantly adapting the political mechanisms of the old city-state to the demands of a growing and vastly larger political sphere. The administration of the Empire consequently had an ad hoc and jury-rigged character, and the governance of provinces was in the hands of successful office-holders, frequently in debt because of their political career, and their personal staffs, which almost guaranteed corruption. And the fact that taxation was privatized and in the hands of groups whose profit margin depended upon how much they could collect over their bid for the contract certainly did not help create could provincial government.
It is astounding that the extent, frontiers, garrisoning and administration of the Empire were not considered rationally and apolitically until Augustus and the advent of the Principate. Not only did he approach the Empire in terms of grand strategy and Roman resources and regularize and depoliticize provincial governance, but he also laid the foundations of an essentially apolitical civil service. From this grew an imperial bureaucracy that handled the day-to-day administrative affairs of Rome and the Empire. In short, the administration of the Empire became routine, allowing it to continue functioning regardless of whether or not the emperor was competent or even in the event of civil war. Rome could indulge herself in bad government and not lose it all.