Alexander Lives!

(This piece is being published again in order that the participants at my talk on alternative history can read the full text on the alternate Alexander; a new post will take its place in a week or so.  The names in bold type are historical characters; for clarity the Greeks are given their original royal cognomina, though they do not apply in this history. Alexander’s son, born after his death, was named Alexander [IV]; here is named Philip [III].)

Our boy in fighting trim

Our boy in fighting trim

 

……..Once the fever had passed, Alexander’s first act was to order the construction in Babylon of a massive new temple of Marduk, whom he believed had saved his life. He then dispatched Craterus to take over the governorship of Macedon and Greece from the aging Antipater and made further arrangements for the training of 20,000 Persian youths brought west by Peucestas. The already planned expedition to circumnavigate Arabia then got underway, with the King accompanying the fleet, which would keep the land forces supplied. But the heat was debilitating, especially for the army, and it rapidly became more difficult to gather food and even water. Reaching the point where the Arabian Peninsula turns south and west and getting a better idea of just how big Arabia was, Alexander created a smaller squadron of ships, provided them with all the supplies that could be spared and sent them on. He meanwhile led the remaining forces back to Babylon, a march that many said outdid the Gedrosia in hardship.

Babylon

Babylon

Alexander and Craterus in their younger days

Alexander and Craterus in their younger days

Roxane and with her son Philip

Roxane and with her son Philip

Back in the capital the King was pleased to discover that his Bactrian wife, Roxane, had delivered a boy, whom he named Philip after his father, to the delight of the older Macedonian veterans, who were unenthusiastic about Alexander’s Asian ways. He attended to the administration of the Empire and the training of the new Greco-Persian units, one of those Asian programs so disliked by his soldiers. Towards the end of the year he traveled to the Phoenician coast to inspect the new fleet being assembled in the Mediterranean, then spent the winter in Alexandria, indulging himself in ordering new temples built around the Hellenic world, including a splendid monument to his father in the ancestral Temenid royal burial grounds in Aegae.

The royal tombs at Aegae

The royal tombs at Aegae

In the spring of 322 Alexander got word that his tutor, Aristotle, had died, and he ordered a period of mourning throughout the Greek world. He also dispatched a squadron of ships south in the Red Sea to meet the expedition coming from the east and spent most of the year mustering forces and supplies for a march west along the African coast. The Greek cities in Sicily, which had congratulated him on his return from the east, were now beginning to make dire predictions of what threats would emerge should the Carthaginians seize the entire island and consolidate their position there. The King, who had always wanted to bring all the Greeks into the Empire, agreed and began preparations for an expedition against Carthage. Meanwhile, Craterus was compelled to take an army north to deal with the Paeonian tribes that had renewed their traditional raiding south into Macedon.

Alexandria (Egypt)

Alexandria (Egypt)

The African army began its march westwards in the spring of 321. The coastal towns of Cyrene had submitted to Alexander when he entered Egypt a decade earlier, but the heat and constant need to feed and water his forces without devastating the area’s inhabitants meant fairly slow progress. At the site of modern Benghazi the King left a force to build yet another Alexandria and continued westward along the coast with the bulk of the army and navy, driving into the territory of tribes nominally allied to Carthage. Sandstorms and constant harassment by the desert tribes, who seemed to spring out of nowhere, slowed progress greatly, however, and with growing supply problems Alexander decided to turn back and winter at the new Alexandria Kyrenaea. The western desert had proved a much greater challenge than the Sinai had back in 332.

During the winter the King learned that the fleet sent around Arabia had sailed up the Red Sea to Egypt, and he ordered that bases be established along the route to facilitate trade. He had been sending out mounted units to reconnoiter the African coast, especially regarding water supplies, and contact the tribes along the route. With the treasure of the old Persian Empire at his disposal buying the Libyans away from Carthage was easily done, and when the army was ready to march in the spring, he sent to the Punic capital demanding an alliance and the evacuation of their troops from Sicily. Their answer, delivered a few weeks later, was a surprise raid on Alexander’s fleet, during which his transports suffered heavy damage and his Phoenician crews revealed an extreme reluctance to attack their Punic cousins.

A rooky trireme going into battle with its mast still up

A rooky trireme going into battle with its masts still up

Triremes under sail

Triremes under sail

Sending the Phoenicians back to Alexandria with instructions that new crews and more warships and transports were to join him as soon as possible, Alexander characteristically moved quickly, trusting his new Libyan allies to provide information about the enemy and the land. By summer’s end he had reached Lepcis Magna, well into Carthaginian territory. The extremes of heat and cold had once more taken a toll on his army, and he decided to rest here where supplies were plentiful and await the reinforcements coming by sea. Soon enough the Carthaginian navy reappeared, this time in greater numbers, and Alexander was forced to beach his supply vessels and guard them with troops while his outnumbered and out rowed warships were so roughly handled that they were soon fleeing and heading for the shore. The enemy fleet departed, and the next day the King sent the surviving naval units east to meet the reinforcements and continued the march to Carthage. Despite the naval defeat morale was high, since the men knew that if the King could take an army though the Hindu Kush, he could certainly traverse this region.

A week’s march from Carthage his way was blocked by the enemy army at Bararus. The force was larger than his and composed of Libyans and mercenaries, most of them veterans from the Carthage’s Sicilian campaigns, and cavalry from Numidia. Ptolemy Soter suggested that the King simply buy the army from its Carthaginian leaders, but he replied “I will not purchase a victory.” While some of the King’s newly raised units performed poorly and his smaller cavalry force had a time of it with the Numidians, his Macedonians and Greeks broke through the enemy center, at which point the Numidians fled and the subject and mercenary infantry surrendered. Alexander promptly hired the mercenaries and gave the Libyans the option, eagerly taken, of joining his army.

Ptolemy Soter

Ptolemy Soter

Within a month Carthage and the other Punic towns had surrendered. Knowing that he could not yet deal with their navy, Alexander had offered terms that left the Carthaginians in possession of their emporia, excepting in Sicily, and their commercial empire, but they were bound in an alliance. They in turn supplied ships to transport Alexander’s disabled troops east and to find his long overdue fleet, which in fact had turned back due to storms. He meanwhile continued west to accept the surrender and alliance of the Numidian king, who agreed to supply cavalry to the King’s army. Taken once more by his pothos, his “longing,” which had compelled him to cross the Danube and the Gedrosia desert, Alexander wished to continue on to the Pillars of Heracles, named after his ancestor, but Ptolemy and the other Companions managed to convince him that after three years on the march he needed to return to the heart of the Empire.

The Pillars of Heracles

The Pillars of Heracles

In 317 Alexander was back in Babylon, once more replacing failed governors, as he had in 324 upon his return from the east. Later in the year he returned to Pella for the first time in seventeen years, there to meet his mother, Olympias, and host massive banquets celebrating the Macedonian achievement. He also celebrated by taking a small army into Illyria, which had been conspiring with the Dardani to invade northern Macedon. Completely surprised, the Illyrians were easily defeated, and the King established a chain of fortresses to watch over them. The following year he took a larger force north and was joined by several Thracian tribes eager to benefit from the campaign against the Dardani and Triballi, who were duly crushed and scattered. More territory was awarded to the Thracians, and Alexander settled old veterans in a new city on the Danube, Alexandria Istria.

Ruins of Pella

Ruins of Pella

Ruins of Pella

Ruins of Pella

The Queen Mother Olympias

The Queen Mother Olympias

The King decided in 315 to begin preparing an expedition to settle affairs in Sicily, where the removal of the Carthaginian menace had led to a destructive free-for-all among the Greek cities, Syracuse leading the way as the strongest player. A new fleet was ordered from the Phoenicians and the Athenians, who were reminded of the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of Syracuse a century earlier during the Sicilian expedition, and Alexander himself attended to training a younger generation of Macedonians and Greeks. Late in the year, however, word of trouble in India finally reached the west. An Indian adventurer, Chandragupta, having established himself along the Ganges, had engineered revolts in the northern Indus valley and was pressing Alexander’s one time foe and now ally Porus. Engaged in the preparations for Sicily, Alexander dispatched his Companion Seleucus Nicator with a largely Asiatic force with a strong contingent of Greek mercenaries.

Seleucus Nicator

Seleucus Nicator

Porus surrendering to Alexander

Porus surrendering to Alexander back in the day

Chandragupta

Chandragupta

Having intimidated the Italian Greek cities of Tarentum, Croton and Rhegium into alliance, in 314 Alexander, recovered from another bout of malaria, invaded Sicily, where Syracuse under the tyrant Agathocles had formed a coalition of Sicilian cities to resist the invasion. By 312 he had defeated several Greek armies and gained the entire island except Syracuse, which was put under siege. It took almost a year to take the city, after which Alexander organized the Sicilian cities into a confederation similar to that of the Greek cities in Asia Minor. Now, most all the Greeks, except those in Italy, were under Macedonian control, and Alexander began planning an incursion into Italy, where the fledgling Roman Republic was still dealing with the Samnites in the central highlands. Alexander of course saw this as another step in his dream of reaching the Pillars of Heracles.

Agathocles the tyrant

Agathocles the tyrant

Ruins of Syracuse

Ruins of Syracuse

Late in 311, however, the King learned that Seleucus had been unable to stop Chandragupta, whose forces were pressing Porus and threatening to seize the passes west into Afghanistan. Alexander determined, with no little enthusiasm, that it was time for him to return to India. The Macedonian-Greek forces destined for Italy instead moved to Babylon, where they were joined by newly raised Asiatic troops. The army spent the winter of 309/308 in Ecbatana, where Alexander discovered that the Scythians had poured across the Jaxartes and were plundering Sogdiania and Bactria. In the spring the King moved into these provinces and after months of pursuit finally drove the major Scythian force into a battle, where it was annihilated. He wintered in Kabul, where he was joined by Seleucus and the remnants of his army and informed that Porus had sided with Chandragupta. In 307 Alexander moved east, dividing the army into three contingents, as he had done almost two decades before. Debouching into the north Indus watershed, he once again faced Porus, who was once again defeated. This time, however, the Indian prince was sent west under guard, and the area was placed under the control of Seleucus, who was left with a substantial garrison of Greek mercenaries.

Once more Alexander built a flotilla and proceeded down the Indus, meeting Chandragupta’s huge army not far south of Porus’ kingdom. Thinking wistfully of the battles against the last Persian king, Darius III, the King took on an Indian army at least twice the size of his own and as at Gaugamela won a crushing victory. And once again the leader escaped, fleeing eastward. Alexander repeated his journey down the Indus, reestablishing garrisons in the major towns, and then followed the route west taken by Craterus years before. In 304 he was back in Babylon, where the news was uniformly bad.

He learned that two years earlier Antipater’s son Cassander had procured the assassination of Craterus and proclaimed Philip Arrhidaeus, the halfwit son of Alexander’s father, king of Macedon, asserting his pure Macedonian blood in contrast to Alexander’s son, who was only one quarter Macedonian. The King’s most able governor in Asia Minor, Antigonus Monopthalmos, had promptly marshaled his forces and marched on Europe, where he defeated and killed Cassander in a particularly bloody battle and having little choice, had the pathetic figure of Arrhidaeus executed. The King’s position in Macedon had been restored, but his long absence in the east and the coup in Macedon had led to the revolt of Syracuse and Carthage, which had regained its Sicilian fortress of Lilybaeum.

Antipater

Antipater

Cassander

Cassander

Philip Arrhidaeus

Philip Arrhidaeus

Antigonus Monopthalmos

Antigonus Monopthalmos

 

Alexander immediately moved to Pella, where he found that Cassander had executed his mother, Olympias. Overwhelmed by grief and anger dwarfing that following the death of Hephaestion in 324, Alexander killed everyone even remotely associated with Cassander and then took an army northeast to slaughter every barbarian he could lay his hands on. In 299 he invaded Sicily a second time, this time accompanied by his son, and after another siege captured Syracuse again in 298, this time to make the streets run with blood, seemingly a sacrifice to his mother. Carthage was next, and while an army marched from Alexandria, the King landed his Sicilian army to the west of Utica, his warships, led by the Rhodians, fending off attacks by the Punic navy. A Carthaginian army of Greek and Italian mercenaries was easily defeated, and united with the force from Alexandria, he besieged the Punic capital. It took the almost two years to take the city, and the final assault would be long remembered, as Alexander was treated to a stiff dose of Semitic fury. The devastated city was settled with Greeks and renamed Alexandria Hesperia.

Ruins of Carthage

Ruins of Carthage

It was now 295 and Alexander returned to Babylon to spend two years dealing with administrative problems and inspecting the new facilities being built at the head of the Persian Gulf. In 292 he dispatched his son Philip to occupy Kolchis and the southeastern shore of the Black Sea, while he traveled to Alexandria to attend to affairs in the “second capital.” The following year he again prepared for the invasion of southern Italy, moving his fleet and army to Epirus. He assembled a force of some 35,000 infantry and 3000 cavalry while making contact with the Samnites, the Greek cities in the south and the Gallic tribes settled in the Po valley. In 290 the expedition crossed the Adriatic with no opposition and landed at Tarentum, which had agreed to an alliance on the promise of new territory. Other Greek cities joined, seeking aid against the local Italic tribes, the Lucanians and Bruttians, and the King and received word that the Senones and Boii were preparing to cross the Appenines, but chastised by the just concluded war with Rome, very few Samnite communities revolted. The fleet went on to Messana to ferry a Sicilian Greek army to the mainland.

The Senate meanwhile had been negotiating with the Lucanians and Bruttians, offering them new lands to be taken from their traditional Greek foes, while Samnite loyalty was buttressed with promises of land in Apulia. Two legions and allies under the consul P. Cornelius Rufinus were sent north to overawe the Etruscan towns and join a Ligurian army hoping to acquire land from the Senones. His colleague, M’. Curius Dentatus, raced south along the Appian Way with two more legions, picking up some Samnite units along the way. A fifth, understrength legion was hastily raised and sent south along the coast to make contact with the Lucanians.

Dentatus telling the Samnites to shoved it

Dentatus telling the Samnites to shove it

In the north Rufinus marched to Arretium, which was being besieged by an army of Senones, which was obliterated in a set battle outside the city walls. Intimidated, the Boii hesitated, only to be overrun by the Ligurians moving east into their lands. Establishing a few key garrisons and leaving the Ligurians to sort things out, Rufinus headed back south. Almost 500 miles to the south the King moved his army to Thurii to confront a Lucanian horde converging on that city and defeated it with ease at the Battle of the Sybaris River, leading the major Bruttian tribes to open negotiations with him. Using his mercenaries as garrison troops and taking the meager forces of his Italian Greek allies, Alexander then began the march up the recently extended Appian Way, awed by the Roman engineering. To his surprise he learned that Dentatus had already passed Maleventum on his way to the Roman colony of Venusia. Leaving his Greek allies to straggle, he undertook the kind of forced march that had surprised Thebes forty-five years earlier, but he himself was surprised to find Dentatus and his army encamped south of the city. Never had he encountered a foe who could move as fast as he. Further surprise came when the consul refused to withdraw into the city though outnumbered by as much as a third. The resulting Battle of Venusia was a victory for Alexander, but while the legions could make little headway against his phalanx, they seriously cut up his Greek infantry before being flanked by his cavalry. Dentatus lost his life, and less than half his men made it into Venusia, which refused to surrender. With winter coming on the King returned to Tarentum and sent his son back to Macedon to gather more troops.

Venusia

Venusia

Via Appia

Via Appia

Appian Way

Appian Way

The following year Alexander sent the Sicilians up the western coast, while he again traveled the Appian Way, his army augmented by replacements from the east. Harassed constantly by bands of Lucanians, the Greeks met the now reinforced legion from Rome near Paestum and despite the presence of Macedonian officers were roughly handled and headed back south. The defenses of Venusia had been strengthened, and leaving a covering force, the King marched on Maleventum, where a gate was betrayed and the Roman garrison massacred. Continuing towards Capua, Alexander ran into three legions under the consul M. Valerius Maximus Corvinus, and the Battle of Caudium was fought. This time the Senate had dispatched all the cavalry they could find, but though holding out longer and actually damaging the phalanx, the Romans were sent reeling back to Capua, which the King prepared to besiege. The Senate began discussing negotiation, but the blindold censor Appius Claudius Caecus shamed them with his outrage that they dare talk peace while an enemy was still on Roman soil.

Appius Claudius chastising the Senate

Appius Claudius chastising the Senate

Maleventum

Maleventum

Caudium

Caudium

Meanwhile, Alexander discovered that the other consul, Q. Caedicius Noctua, was approaching Venusia with two legions from Apulia, and abandoning the siege of Capua, he rushed south to deal with the threat to his communications, passing Venusia before Noctua arrived. With his army damaged by two major battles, facing yet another Roman force and worse, learning of troubles in Asia, he made the hardest decision of his impetuous life and sent envoys to Rome. Exhausted, the Romans agreed to stay out of Sicily in return for the King’s evacuation of Italy. Alexander returned to Macedon, and the following year on his way through Thrace he succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 68.

Roman legions vs. Macedonian phalanx

Roman legions vs. Macedonian phalanx

The world held its breath, and Philip III succeeded his father as ruler of the oikoumene, the Greek-speaking world. The body was taken to Aegae, where the tribute of an Empire reaching from Numidia to India was spent to inter Macedon’s greatest king. Across this vast landscape Macedonian soldiers wept as they received the news of his death and consoled themselves with the thought that he was now a god, looking down upon them from the heights of Olympus. The greatest hero since Achilles was dead.

But not everyone grieved, and the new King was immediately faced with revolts from Sicily to the far east. Philip sent Antigonus’ son Demetrius Poliorcetes to deal with Sicily, while he moved east to deal with revolts by his governors in Media and Bactria and reached the Iranian plateau in 285. Media was easily pacified, but there he encountered Greek troops fleeing the occupation of the Indus valley by Chandragupta and learned that Seleucus had been killed. The King made a momentous decision and sent envoys to recognize Chandragupta’s conquest and Bactrian independence, deciding to withdraw the frontiers of the Empire west to a line from the Caspian Gates south along the eastern border of Persis. Seleucus’ son Antiochus Soter, was made viceroy of the entire Persian heartland.

Antiochus Soter

Antiochus Soter

Demetrius

Demetrius Poliorcetes

Back in Babylon in 283 Philip decided to move the capital to Alexandria and ordered the Old Royal Road west of Babylon refurbished and a spur built south to Egypt. With the Empire momentarily at peace he turned to domestic activities, especially Hellenization, and began a program of encouraging poorer Greeks to settle in western Asia, particularly Syria-Palestine and along the route to Babylon. Because of continued Macedonian resistance, his father’s experiment with joint Greco-Iranian units was abandoned, and Asian troops were henceforth used almost exclusively in the east. Despite calls by his more aggressive generals to revive the Italian campaign, the King decided to postpone it in favor of more consolidation. Then suddenly he was dead, killed when thrown from his horse in 280.

The heir, Alexander IV, was still in his early teens, and Ptolemy Philadelphos, son of the Alexander’s Companion of the same name, was established as Regent. Until his death in 262 Ptolemy continued to advise the King, even after he achieved his majority, but Alexander was not cut from the same cloth as his predecessors and fell into a life of indolence, the court filling with sycophants. The administration of the Empire fell upon the shoulders of its governors and viceroys, who began passing their power on to their own sons. Revolts, all stirred by Greek and Macedonian adventurers, were successfully suppressed with little direction from Alexandria. In 263 the viceroy in Macedon, Demetrius’ son Antigonus Gonatus, having spent the later 260s smashing Gauls on both sides of the Danube, foolishly decided to expand his power by “liberating” the Greek cities in Italy, which had by now fallen under Roman control. Experienced only in fighting barbarians, however, his poorly led army was twice defeated by the Roman legions, and the enterprise was abandoned. Intimidated by the Macedonian fleet in the Adriatic, Rome was content with repelling the invasion, but was now clearly eyeing Sicily, whose garrisons were beefed up by Antigonus.

Antigonus Gonatus

Antigonus Gonatus

Ptolemy Philadelphos

Ptolemy Philadelphos

Alexander died in 248 and was succeeded by his son Perdiccas III, who after three years of incompetent rule was assassinated, perhaps by his younger brother, who succeeded him as Philip IV. Philip is generally considered the last of the great Temenid kings, and during his long reign the Empire was as united as it ever would be. While he confirmed the position of many of the governors inherited from his brother, he attempted to regain control of the offices, fearing any long tenure of power could provide a dangerous local power base. Unfortunately, that was already the case in Macedon and Babylonia, and for all his ruthlessness Philip hesitated plunging the Empire into civil war and tolerated the powerful Antigonid and Seleucid families. He signed a treaty with Rome delineating spheres of influence: Spain and Gaul, where the Romans already had colonies, would be off limits to the Empire, and while both parties were free to send raids into the area north of the Alps and the Adriatic, neither could establish any permanent facilities. Apart from punishing various barbarians off the northern and eastern frontiers and an expedition up the Nile, he refrained from serious military operations and oddly, patronized the arts.

Incredibly, Philip ruled until 199, dying at the age of 80, still loved and feared by his subjects. He had outlived all his sons, and a nephew took the throne as Alexander V. Trouble began almost immediately. In Pella Philip, grandson of Antigonus Gonatus, contested the succession, asserting that the Macedonian troops did not accept Alexander, and in 198 he began moving forces into Asia Minor, replacing the local governors with his own men. Alexander mustered what forces he could and moved north to bar the Cilician Gates, summoning Antiochus Megas, great great grandson of Seleucus, from the east, where he was embroiled with the troublesome Parthians. Fortunately for the King, whose hastily collected forces would have serious trouble facing Philip, the Illyrians, quiet for several generations, poured into Macedon and more threatening, Syracuse was said to have appealed to Rome for liberation from the Macedonian yoke. Leaving what forces he could, Philip rushed back west and sent his fleet back from the Aegean to Sicily to block any attempt by the Romans to cross to the island.

Antiochus Megas

Antiochus Megas

Philip

Philip

Coming west, Antiochus affirmed his loyalty to the King, if only to see the rival Antigonids crushed, and 197 was spent clearing Asia Minor and raising new troops. The following year Alexander invaded Europe, while Antiochus returned to the east to deal with a Parthian invasion of Media through the Caspian Gates. The Illyrians had been subdued, but now outmatched by the King, Philip retreated into the Macedonian highlands and offered the Gauls land in Thrace if they aided his cause. This caused the Thracian tribes to enthusiastically support the King, and soon Philip’s Macedonians were deserting in ever increasing numbers. He fled to Italy and sought asylum with the Romans.

Alexander spent two more years in the ancestral homeland and the lands to the north, repairing the damage done by Philip and executing every member of the Antigonid family he could get his hands on. In early 193 came news of a usurper in Alexandria claiming to be a surviving son of King Philip and raising an army, his funds most likely supplied by Antiochus, now surnamed Parthicus. The following year the King easily defeated the usurper, who had been unable to secure Gaza and had remained in the Delta, but he was killed in the battle under suspicious circumstances. Alexander’s youngest son, still a boy, was proclaimed King as Alexander VI by the Macedonians in the army, while his eldest brother, serving as viceroy in Pella, was elevated as Philip V by his Macedonians and immediately began collecting an army. With a promise of autonomy he recruited Alexandria Hesperia and Numidia to his side, raised troops in Sicily and sent several delegations to the Parthians.

Antiochus collected his forces from his eastern frontier and marched toward Anatolia, while Philip secured the Ionian cities and cleared the Cilician Gates. Remembering the destruction of Carthage, the Phoenician cities declared for Antiochus, who had reached the upper Euphrates by 190. But the grand battle never materialized. From east and west came the news: the Parthians were swarming into Media and the Romans had invaded Sicily. Antiochus agreed to recognize Philip as the true King, and Philip in turn formally ceded all the territory east of the Euphrates to Antiochus and guaranteed his right to recruit from the Greek cities. King Antiochus I returned home to face the Parthians, the Phoenician cities submitted and Philip’s boy king brother was dead by the time his men reached Alexandria. Philip took his army back to Macedon, where he confirmed that the Romans, never very good at siege craft, were bogged down before the walls of Syracuse. Ignoring the lessons of a century earlier, he began assembling in Macedon forces from all over the Empire and demanded that Rome evacuate Sicily or face war. Delighted with being presented a casus belli and opportunity to deal with the threat across the Adriatic, the Romans declared war.

The invasion came in 187, after Rome spent the previous year securing its position in Sicily and dealing with problems in the Po valley. A new Roman fleet with new boarding tactics cleared the way across the Adriatic, and four legions were shipped to Greece. It took the Romans almost three years to break into Macedon, and there they met Philip at Dion in the biggest battle ever fought: P. Claudius Pulcher and L. Porcius Licinus led more than 40,000 men against Philip’s 55,000. By nightfall Philip and his Companions lay dead on the field, along with perhaps 25,000 Greeks and Romans. The King’s eldest son, now Alexander VI, fled with his remaining troops to Anatolia, where a number of revolts had erupted. The Romans declared the Greeks free and placed the exiled Philip on the Macedonian throne. The Empire had lost the homeland and all its European possessions.

The dynasty began a downward spiral. Alexander was assassinated in 183 while on campaign in Cappadocia, to be followed by Alexander VII, Perdiccas IV and Alexander VIII in scarcely two decades. Although the Romans kept Philip and his successor Perseus on a short leash during this period, a Gallic invasion of Anatolia and internal revolts, some prompted by Rome, were chipping away at the Empire. Adding to the troubles were the Seleucids, who seized control of Syria-Palestine when they were finally driven from Mesopotamia by the Parthians. By the middle of the century the Alexandrine Empire, once stretching from Numidia to the Indus, had been reduced to Lower Egypt, Cyrene and the fortress of Gaza and under the child King Philip VI was being governed by a constantly scheming coterie of advisors. Prematurely aged from his sybaritic life, Philip died suddenly in 132 and a nephew was elevated as Alexander XII. Within the year he was dead, the victim of a coup launched by a Sicilian Greek mercenary, who promptly proclaimed himself Sosistratus I, ruler of Egypt. The ancient Temenid dynasty was at an end.

Perseus

Perseus

In the century following the demise of Alexander the Great’s Empire the Romans slowly moved into the lands of the oikoumene, ending the second Antigonid dynasty in Macedon when its kings refused to stop meddling in Greece and then occupying Anatolia and Syria in order to prevent the Parthians from doing so. Thus, the Romans became rulers of the Hellenic world, and while the Alexandrine Empire had disappeared, the work of the Temenid kings in Hellenizing Anatolia, Syria-Palestine and Lower Egypt remained. The urban centers and even some of the rural populations of these regions were thoroughly Greek; even the curious and obstinate Judeans, having lost the most fanatic zealots of their invisible god in a failed revolt, were Hellenized. The Romans would preserve this inheritance for another half millennium and pass it on to Europe.

Finally, there has long been speculation about the course of Western history had Alexander the Great conquered Rome. The destruction of Roman power would certainly have left Hellenism dominant in the Mediterranean, but there is little reason to believe, given the history of the post-Alexander III oikoumene, that a Greek Mediterranean could produce the long-term stability that allowed the Roman Republic/Empire to establish classical civilization so well in western Europe that its core could survive the devastation of the barbarian migrations. And in any case, it was essentially Hellenic civilization that was passed on by Rome.

What a guy!

What a guy!

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Stuff from Way Back #35: A Tale of Two Empires

(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It.  I have got carried away, and this will be the last of the tedious history pieces – well, for a while.)

 

With the death of Theodosius in 395 the Roman Empire fell into permanent division into two separate states, marking the beginning of the emergence of the Byzantine Empire in the east.  A fiction of Imperial unity was maintained for a time, with one consul (the two annual chief magistrates dating back to the earliest days of the Republic) chosen in Rome and the other in Constantinople, but in fact there were two separate administrations and the death of one Emperor did not result in the other controlling the entire Empire.

The situation in 395 did not bode well for either half.  In the east Arcadius was a youth of eighteen under the influence of the Prefect Flavius Rufinus, while the western Emperor, Honorius, was only eleven and completely controlled by Flavius Stilicho (Flavius yet again!), a half-Vandal of low birth.  Stilicho considered himself a Roman, but in fact most of the western Emperors would never be anything more than puppets of Germanic barbarians standing behind the throne.

Stilicho and family

Stilicho and family

And serious troubles were coming.  Seizing the opportunity presented by the death of Theodosius, Alaric, leader of the Visigoths settled north of the Balkans, began plundering Greece.  In 401, while Stilicho was busy with an invasion of Vandals and Alans, Alaric attempted to invade Italy and was repulsed, then tried again two years later, only to be thwarted again.  But in 408 Stilicho was assassinated, and Alaric blockaded Rome, demanding a serious of huge ransoms, all of which Honorius, who was holed up in the virtually impregnable city of Ravenna, haughtily refused.  In 410 a frustrated Alaric sacked Rome for three days and having unwittingly secured his name in history, then died the same year.  For the first time since the Gauls captured the city eight hundred years earlier Rome had been occupied by a foreign army.

Alaric in Athens

Alaric in Athens

Honorius

Honorius

Visigoths on the road

Visigoths on the road

 

The Visigoths moved to Gaul in 412, popped into Spain to fight the Vandals and Alans, who had been settled there, and in 418 were settled in southern Gaul.  In 429 the surviving Vandals and Alans crossed to Africa to establish a kingdom there, and the Visigoths began extending their rule into Spain, dominating most of the peninsula by 500.  The Burgundians, who may have crossed the Rhine in 411, were defeated by Aetius in 433 and settled in southeast Gaul (not Burgundy) and aided general Flavius Aetius, the “last of the Romans,” in the defeat of Attila in 451.  The Salian Franks, settled earlier on the lower Rhine, also fought as Roman allies against Attila, and steadily expanded their power southwards, reaching the frontier of the Gothic kingdom in 486 under their king Clovis.  Finally, Saxons, Angles and Jutes began settling Britain, especially after the last Roman troops were evacuated around 442.

Barbarian shit hits the Roman fan

Barbarian shit hits the Roman fan

Meanwhile, in the east Arcadius had died in 408, and was succeeded by Flavius Theodosius (Minor).  Theodosius II was a weak Emperor, dominated in turn by the Praetorian Prefect Flavius Anthemius, his sister Pulcheria, who became Augusta, his wife Eudocia and finally his chamberlain (and eunuch) Chrysaphius.  He occupied the throne for forty-two years, however, a measure of the greater stability of the eastern Empire, and was not troubled by any serious domestic problems.  There were two successful wars against the Persians, in 421-422 and 441-442, but the real problem was the Huns.  Constantinople began paying a huge annual bribe to the Huns in 424, and when Attila became king in 433, he demanded even more, which was paid.  Never trust a Hun: in 441-443 Attila ravaged the Balkans anyway, defeated the imperial forces and received an even greater tribute, which was paid.

Hun central

Hun central

Three notable achievements emerged from the reign of Theodosius II.  In 413 a new circumvallation of Constantinople, the “Theodosian walls,” was completed, and in 448, after a number of serious earthquakes, the damage was repaired and a second outer wall was added.   In 425 Theodosius founded the Pandidakterion, a sort of proto-university with thirty-one chairs, half in Greek and half in Latin, further establishing Constantinople as the center of European civilization and learning, while Rome and the west sunk into barbarism.  Finally, the Emperor ordered a compilation of Roman law since Constantine, and in 438 the Theodosian Code was published, the first of the great late imperial law codes that would so influence medieval Europe.  It went into force the following year, though its impact in the west, which was already mostly barbarian kingdoms, was minimal.

Theodosian walls around Constantinople

Theodosian walls around Constantinople

Theodosius II

Theodosius II

When her brother died in 450, the Augusta Pulcheria married Flavius Marcianus, who became the next Emperor.  He refused to continue payments to the Huns, who were bankrupting the Empire, and Attila decided to invade the west, removing for good, as it happened, the Hunnish threat to the eastern Empire.  Upon Marcian’s death in 457 Flavius Valerius Leo, surnamed Thracius (the Thracian), became ruler and was faced with the growing power of his Gothic general Flavius Ardabur Aspar, who had risen to prominence under Marcian.  Aspar’s power base was Gothic mercenaries and allies, and Leo began recruiting Isaurians, a warlike people living in Anatolia, in order to undermine his position.  Aspar was assassinated in 471, and Leo and his successor, his grandson Flavius Leo (Minor), both died in 474.  Leo II’s father, Flavius Zeno, became Emperor.

Leo I the Thracian

Leo I the Thracian

Out in the wild west the collapse was accelerating.  When Stilicho died in 408, his place was taken by Flavius Constantius, who crushed usurpers in 411 and 413 and convinced Honorius to make him co-Emperor 421, promptly dying a few months later.  Two years later Honorius died, and he was succeed by the son of his sister Aelia Galla Placidia and Constantius, Flavius Placidius Valentinianus, a five year old, who was escorted with his mother to Italy by eastern troops.  Placidia was made Augusta and regent, but the real power would be in the hands in of Flavius Aetius, who became supreme commander of the army in 429.

Aetius

Aetius

Galla Placidia

Galla Placidia

Valentinian III

Valentinian III

He was ousted in 432, but with the backing of the Huns he returned the following year and subsequently drew upon Hunnish forces to preserve Roman control of central and southeastern Gaul.  In 451, Attila, refused more authority in the west by Valentinian III, crossed the Rhine and was defeated at the Battle of Troyes (or Châlons) by Aetius and an army composed mostly of Germans.  The following year he invaded northern Italy, but after a chat with Pope Leo I he returned to the east, an army ravaged by hunger and disease rather than the words of the Pope being the compelling reason.  He died in 453, and the Hun empire immediately fell apart.

Pope Leo I chats with Attila

Pope Leo I chats with Attila

Huns

Huns

A measure of his stupidity, Valentinian had Aetius killed in 454 and was then himself assassinated the following year.  He was followed by a string of losers.  Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus lasted one year, chased out by the Vandal lord of north Africa, Gaiseric (or Genseric), who sacked Rome, while his successor, Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus, a Gallic general, was removed after a year by his supreme commander, the German Flavius Ricimer.  Ricimer was content to remain behind the throne and elevated puppets instead: Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus, who was deposed by Ricimer in 461, and Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius, who died in 465.  For the next two years there was no Emperor in the west, and Procopius Anthemius was sent out in 467 by Emperor Leo.  Ricimer put up with him until 472, when he was executed and replaced by Anicius Olybrius, who died the same year, along with Ricimer.

Gaiseric parties in Rome

Gaiseric parties in Rome

Rare portrait of Flavius Ricimer

Rare portrait of Flavius Ricimer

Gaiseric the Vandal

Gaiseric the Vandal

A nephew of Ricimer attempted to take over his uncle’s position, appointing Flavius Glycerius Emperor in 473, but the following year Flavius Julius Nepos arrived from the east with an army and installed himself.  He was in turn driven out of Ravenna (now the western capital) in 475 by his own supreme commander, Flavius Orestes, who made his twelve year old son Romulus (surnamed Augustulus) Emperor.  The pair lasted a year.  In 476 German mercenaries in Italy under the leadership the Scirian, Flavius (!) Odoacar (or Odovacar), demanded land, and when they were refused, they murdered Orestes and deposed Romulus.  Odoacar declared himself king, and his authority over Italy was recognized by Emperor Zeno.  In theory Odoacar ruled on behalf of the Emperor, but in fact the western half of the Roman Empire was now nothing more than a collection of barbarian kingdoms.  Ironically, the last Emperor in the west bore the names of the two “founders” of Rome; Romulus and Augustus.

Flavius Odoacar

Flavius Odoacar

Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus

Lights out for Romulus Augustulus

Lights out for Romulus Augustulus

The eastern half survived, on its way to becoming the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire, which would last another thousand years before the Theodosian walls of Constantinople were breached by the Turks in 1453.  In some ways the west was doomed once the Empire split permanently in 395.  The east was in a better strategic situation, with a shorter northern frontier and Constantinople guarding the crossing between Europe and Asia.  The lower Danube was the only seriously threatened border, primarily because of the sheer number of barbarians, whereas deserts helped protect Syria and Egypt, and the Persian Empire, exhausted from its long struggle with Rome and with its own barbarian threat on its northern frontiers, could generally be dealt with.  Further, Constantinople had the option through threat and reward of convincing barbarians, primarily Goths, who crossed the Danube to move on to better pickings in the west.  The west also had to deal with more Germans coming across the Rhine and upper Danube, especially when the Huns moved into eastern Europe, driving the other tribes westward.

Clearly, the policy of recruiting barbarians into the Roman army and settling entire tribes in the provinces as allied kingdoms led ultimately to their growing power over the actual Roman rulers and the making and breaking of Emperors.  This had a far greater impact on the western government, since outside the area between the Danube and Greece there was in the east very little settlement of barbarians, leaving the core provinces of the eastern Empire generally under imperial control.  Additionally, as early as Arcadius Constantinople was endeavoring to raise troops from within the Empire in order to forestall the emergence of powerful Gothic leaders; Leo I did precisely this when he began hiring Isaurians to thwart his Gothic general Aspar.  The eastern Empire was fortunate in having a supply of excellent non-Germanic recruits in Anatolia, and this became more or less a steady policy.  Troubles with barbarians were not eliminated, but the emergence of Germanic puppet masters was prevented, and by the time of Emperor Justinian (527-565) the armies of Constantinople were virtually completely indigenous.

Very important was the far superior economic situation in the east.  Because of the long presence of the Greeks, the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were far more urbanized and productive than those in the west, and as the Empire fell into political and economic trouble, especially in the wake of the Anarchy, capital began fleeing to the more stable east, further aggravating the situation in the west.  To be sure, during the Dominate Constantinople had serious financial problems, but with the complete collapse of Roman authority west of the Adriatic and the suppression of the Goths in the east, the economy began improving.  In the sixth century Justinian had enough resources to attempt to reconquer the west, a foolish endeavor, as it happened.

Justinian the Great

Justinian the Great

The reign of Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus (527-565) in fact marks a symbolic end of the Roman Empire.  He was the last Emperor to attempt to reunite the Empire – he failed – and his administration was the last during which Latin was the official language of the government – it gave way to Greek, the true lingua franca of the east.  And under him for the last time consuls were appointed, ending a thousand year political institution.   A new history begins here.

Could it be that in addition to all its other problems the Roman Empire collapsed because during the Dominate virtually every official had the first name Flavius, confusing the hell out of everyone?

 

395-476 The Divided Empire

            383-408 Flavius Arcadius (East)

            393-423 Flavius Honorius (West)

395 Death of Rufinus; Huns invade Asia Minor and Syria

408-450 Flavius Theodosius (Minor) (East)

                        408 Death of Stilicho

409 Vandals and Alans settled in Spain

                        410 Visigoths sack Rome; Alaric dies

413 Theodosian wall

418 Visigoths settled in southern Gaul

421-422 Persian War

421        Flavius Constantius (West)

            423-455 Flavius Placidius Valentinianus (West)

                        429 Vandals occupy Africa

433 Burgundians defeated by Aetius, settled in Gaul

438 Theodosian Code

441-442 Persian War

442 Last Roman troops leave Britain

            450-457 Flavius Marcianus (East)

                        451 Attila defeated at the Battle of Troyes (Châlons)

453 Death of Attila

454 Death of Aetius

            455        Flavius Anicius Petronius Maximus (West)

            455-457 Marcus Maecilius Flavius Eparchius Avitus (West)

            457-474 Flavius Valerius Leo Thracius (East)

            457-461 Flavius Julius Valerius Majorianus (West)]

            461-465 Flavius Libius Severus Serpentius (West)

            465-467 No western emperor

            467-472 Procopius Anthemius (West)

            472        Anicius Olybrius (West)

                        472 Death of Ricimer

            473-474 Flavius Glycerius (West)

            473-474 Flavius Leo (Minor) (East)

474-475 Flavius Julius Nepos (West)

474-491 Flavius Zeno (East)

475-476 Romulus (Augustulus) (West)

                        476 Odovacar king of Italy

486 Salian Franks under Clovis occupy central and northern Gaul

493 Theoderic king of Italy

            491-518 Flavius Anastasius Dicorus (East)

            518-527 Flavius Justinus (East)

            527-565 Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus (East)

Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It

 

(This piece follows Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It.  Incidentally, the chronologies at the ends of these pieces are carefully indented and spaced, but that all goes out the window the moment I publish them.  I have no idea why, and WordPress has a lame system whereby one must hope some contributor with nothing better to do with his time will supply an answer.) 

[ISIS idiots are destroying ancient statuary in Mosul and their friends in Libya are desecrating Roman ruins.  Slaughtering innocents is one thing, but this scourge is now assaulting the very history of humanity and irreplaceable treasures that belong to all of mankind.  Kill them all and leave their bodies to be devoured by dogs.]

 

 

When Constantine died in 337, he was succeeded by his three sons, Flavius Claudius Constantinus, the senior Augustus, and Flavius Julius Constantius and Flavius Julius Constans.  Blood not being thicker than ambition, Constans challenged his older brother, and when Constantine II invaded Italy in 340, he was defeated and killed.  Engaged in continuous warfare against the Persians, Constantius accepted the new arrangement, and ten years later Constans was executed by his troops, who elevated a barbarian, Flavius Magnus Magnentius, as Augustus.  At the same time, Flavius Vetranio accepted the purple in Illyria and then immediately abdicated when Constantius came west and in 351 defeated Magnentius, who committed suicide two years later, leaving Constantius sole Emperor.

Constantine II

Constantine II

Constans

Constans

Constantius

Constantius

In 355 Constantius appointed his last surviving cousin, Flavius Claudius Julianus, his Caesar and tasked him with dealing with an invasion of Alamanni, whom he crushed in 357.  In 360 Julian, who was very popular with the troops, was proclaimed Augustus, and when his cousin died suddenly in 361, he named Julian his legitimate successor.  Once he was sole Emperor Julian, who had been disgusted by the bloody history of his family, revealed his conversion to traditional Roman religion and became known to history as Julian the Apostate.  Determined to settle the Persian question and pursuing the Alexander dream, in 363 he invaded the Sassanid Empire, only to be killed in battle, possibly by one of his own men who resented his abandonment of Christianity.  His death marked the end of the House of Constantine.

Julian

Julian

Julian’s army chose Flavius Jovianus as Emperor, and he concluded a humiliating peace with Persia in order to move back west to defend his new authority.  This turned out to be unnecessary, since he died the following year, probably assassinated.  The army met with high civilian officials and decided upon another Illyrian, Flavius Valentinianus, who chose Milan rather than Constantinople as his capital and appointed his brother Flavius Julius Valens as Augustus in the east.  (Flavius seems to have become an immensely popular name.)  In 367 Valentinian, in order to prevent problems with the succession, made his nine year old son, Flavius Gratianus, Augustus, a practice that would become more common.

Valentinian

Valentinian

Valens (or Honorius?)

Valens (or Honorius?)

Gratian

Gratian

Valentinian’s great achievement was reestablishing the Rhine and upper Danube frontiers, where he spent all of his reign smashing Alamanni, Franks and Saxons, guaranteeing the security of Gaul for years to come.  His general Flavius Theodosius meanwhile crushed a rebellion in Africa and swept Britain free of invading Picts and Scots.  Unfortunately, in 375 while negotiating with the Quadi, who had launched an invasion across the Danube, he became so angry that he had a fatal stroke, and the teenage Gratian inherited the purple.  Under pressure from his advisors Gratian chose his younger brother, Flavius Valentinianus (Minor), as Augustus, but only of Illyria, inasmuch as the new Emperor was only four years old.

Valentinian II

Valentinian II

Meanwhile, the situation in the east was more serious.  The problem there was not so much the Persians, who had their own troubles with barbarians on their northern frontier, but Goths.  In the early 370s the first of the steppe horsemen to plague Europe, the Huns, destroyed the Ostrogothic (East Goths) kingdom in the Ukraine and then assaulted the Visigoths (West Goths) on the Dniester River, driving sundry Gothic refugees to the Danube.  Valens, a far weaker ruler than his brother, granted the Goths permission to settle south of the river, but they were abused by corrupt Roman officials, who also left them their arms.  The result was the outbreak of war in 377, and in 378 Valens, ignoring advice to await his brother Gratian, attacked some 20,000 Goths at Adrianople in Thrace, and he and his army were slaughtered in the worst disaster for the Roman army against barbarians since three legions were lost to German ambush back in the days of Augustus.  In the wake of their tremendous victory the Goths plundered the Balkan Peninsula.

Battle of Adrianople

Battle of Adrianople

Gratian then appointed Flavius Theodosius, son of Valentinian’s general of the same name, Augustus in the east.  While fomenting trouble among the various factions of Goths, Theodosius enlarged his own army by enlisting many of them, and in 382 a deal was made by which the Goths were provided an independent kingdom in the depopulated lands south of the Danube in return for a military alliance with the Empire.  This was an ominous development (the Salian Franks had been allowed to settle in far northern Gaul around 358), a practice that would hasten the disintegration of the western half of the Empire.  A state that trades its territory for security from invaders is one in serious trouble indeed.

Back in the west, Gratian’s incompetent administration had alienated the soldiers and civilian populace, and in 383 the British troops proclaimed Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus.  He crossed to the continent, where Gratian was deserted by his army and killed, and unable to do much about it, Theodosius temporarily recognized Maximus’ position as ruler of the western provinces, excepting Illyria and Italy, where Valentinian II was in control.  This arrangement lasted until 388, when Maximus chased Valentinian out of Italy and was then attacked and killed by Theodosius.  Maximus did have an impact: moving his troops to Gaul led to the abandonment of Britain’s northern defenses, including Hadrian’s Wall.  They were never reoccupied.

Theodosius

Theodosius

In 383 Theodosius named his son Flavius Arcadius Augustus, stationing him in Constantinople while he returned to Milan.  Eight years later he was back in the east to deal with Gothic troubles and problems among Arcadius’ officials, the most important of which was Flavius Rufinus (Was everyone named Flavius?), who served as a regent for the thirteen year old Emperor.  Meanwhile, in the west Valentinian was at odds with his protector, Flavius Arbogastes, who had him murdered in 392.  As a Frank, Arbogast could not assume the purple and proclaimed instead Flavius Eugenius, a rhetorician.  In response Theodosius named his son Flavius Honorius Augustus in 393 and invaded Italy the following year, defeating Arbogast and the hapless Eugenius.  Having restored unity in the Empire, he died in Milan in 395, never to know that the Roman Empire would be permanently divided after his death.

Honorius

Honorius

Arcadius

Arcadius

This period from the death of Constantine to the death of Theodosius saw the continuation of developments during the previous half century.  All state officials were now in theory personal servants of the Emperor, and despite the efforts of some Emperors there were more and more of them.  In 68 there were thirty-six provinces; by the end of the fourth century there one hundred and twenty, arranged into fourteen dioceses, which were grouped into four prefectures.  The praetorian prefects, who were the heads of the prefectures (yes, that is what happened to them), were the highest officials in the Empire.  Italy, incidentally, was now simply another set of provinces, a culmination of the “democratization” of the Empire, and Milan was now the western capital.

The economic decline, though not even, continued, and it appears the “Roman” population was steadily shrinking, making it more attractive to settle barbarian tribes within the confines of the Empire.  The western half of the Empire, far less urbanized and increasingly suffering more barbarian depredation than the eastern, was sinking faster, and huge estates, worked by virtual serfs, were turning to household economies, producing all they needed as economic communications broke down.  The medieval manorial system was emerging.  Members of the Senatorial class played a large role in these estates, for while the Senate itself was powerless, the Senatorial order comprised a great number of extremely wealthy and influential men, though they for the most part represented new families.

The army was of course the greatest consumer of shrinking Imperial revenues, and the Empire simply could not afford the numbers it required.  Further, the main source of recruits was barbarians, given the declining population and increasing reluctance to serve in the military.  Training had plummeted, and the only advantages “Roman” armies, now devoid of heavy infantry, possessed were in mobilization, logistics and fortifications.  The Persian front was more or less stable, as control of northern Mesopotamian and Armenia see-sawed back and forth, and in 384 a treaty of friendship provided peace for almost four decades.  But the pressure from Germanic tribes was becoming overwhelming, requiring the planting of relatively autonomous kingdoms in the provinces and the payment of tribute.  The barbarians were in effect now running a huge protection racket.

With all the power of the state behind it Christianity was spreading and the church growing in power.  Constantine and a few other Emperors had supported a policy of religious tolerance, but the persecution of non-Christians grew steadily.  In 341 polytheist sacrifices were outlawed, and in 392 the cults were banned altogether.  Symbolically important, in 357 Constantius removed from the Senate the Altar of Victory, installed by Augustus in 29 BC, and though it was restored by Julian, it was removed again in 382 by Gratian.  (And the Empire split into two thirteen years later.)  The old gods persisted in the rural areas and among many of the intellectual elite, whose learning was rooted in the non-Christian literature of the Greeks.

Altar of Victory

Altar of Victory

The Church also began to flex its muscles regarding the state.  In 390 Theodosius ordered the massacre of a mob in Thessalonika for murdering general, and Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, told the Emperor that he would be barred from Church services if he did not publically repent for the crime.  Theodosius at first resisted but ultimately gave in and publically admitted his guilt.  The Empire was ending, and the long battle between Church and State was beginning.

Theodosius and Ambrose

Theodosius and Ambrose

 

 

 

337-395 Dominate II

337-340 Flavius Claudius Constantinus

337-350 Persian War

337-350 Flavius Julius Constans

337-361 Flavius Julius Constantius

350        Flavius Vetranio (abdicated)

350-353 Flavius Magnus Magnentius

358 Salian Franks settled in northern Gaul

358-363 Persian War

360-363 Flavius Claudius Julianus

363-364 Flavius Jovianus

364-375 Flavius Valentinianus

364-378 Flavius Julius Valens

367-383 Flavius Gratianus

373 Huns attack the East Goths

375-392 Flavius Valentinianus (Minor)

378 Battle of Adrianople

379-395 Flavius Theodosius

382 Goths settled south of the Danube; Altar of Victory removed from the Senate

383-388 Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus

383 Hadrian’s Wall abandoned

384 Treaty of Friendship between Rome and Persia

383-408 Flavius Arcadius

390 Theodosius does public penance at Ambrose’s order

392-394 Flavius Eugenius

392 Polytheist cults banned

393-423 Flavius Honorius

393 Olympic games ended

 

 

 

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #32a: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?

(I have recently discussed the civil war that finally brought an end to the Roman Republic [Stuff from Way Back #21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?] and the establishment of the Principate by Augustus [Stuff from Way Back #26: Image is Everything], and it seems appropriate to continue the story – on to the final collapse of the Empire.  And the story of the early Empire should shed a wee bit of light on the question of dictatorship versus chaos in the Middle East.  Incidentally, for the Julio-Claudians I highly recommend the old BBC series I, Claudius, but keep in mind that Livia did not kill any of the people she is accused of.)

 

The almost complete failure of the Arab Spring and the chaos of Syria and Iraq (and soon Afghanistan) have raised again the question of whether even a dictatorship is preferable to the disorder, destruction and death now widespread in the Arab world.  The answer of course depends on the nature of the dictatorship and the depth of the disorder.  The rule of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was for the average Athenian clearly preferable to the constant mismanagement of the state by the oligarchy of wealth he overthrew, and even life under the deadly thumb of Joseph Stalin was better than the utter disaster of the Russian Civil War.

Five thousand years of civilization have not been so much a struggle for freedom as one for security and comfort.  With a few exceptions, such as classical Greece, the Roman Republic and much of the world in the last century or two, the average human has been quite willing to surrender political freedom for a tolerable life.  In fact, there has rarely been anything to surrender, since political freedom has been a very scarce commodity until recently.  Further, even now people can be satisfied with the illusion of political participation and liberties so long as they can enjoy the good life.

A recent opinion in Der Spiegel has argued that there are no functional or stable dictatorships, since they all contain the seeds of their own collapse.  This may often be true insofar as the long haul is concerned, since the death or overthrow of an autocrat frequently leads to a contest for power and consequent disorder.  On the other hand, because of traditional dynastic succession absolute monarchy generally did a fair job of providing longer term stability, and even in the modern world a defined successor, as with Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, can preserve stability across a transition of power.

The same article, however, boldly stated that “There is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship,” which strikes me as an absurd assertion. Ask the Athenians about the difference between the Peisistratid dictatorship and that of the infamous Thirty Tyrants who briefly ruled Athens after her defeat by Sparta in 404 BC.  Autocracy can in fact provide excellent government.  The rub is in guaranteeing that you have a good autocrat.

This was one of the problems faced by Octavian after his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC.  The only alternative to yet more disorder and civil war was a stable dictatorship based on military support; there was simply no way to return to the wealth-dominated democracy of the Republic.  He certainly did not solve the problem of guaranteeing that the dictator would always be competent and benevolent, but he did create a structure that with two brief interruptions secured imperial stability and prosperity for almost a quarter of a millennium.  Despite the long Roman experience of popular legislative assemblies and elections, a rarity in the pre-modern world, democracy could not have achieved this.

This period, from 14 BC to AD 235, is called the Principate, because there was theoretically no office of dictator or emperor.  Octavian, who took the name Augustus, understood the importance of image in politics and created a sham Republic, in which he was voted by the Senate all the powers associated with the Republican offices, including control of the military, without having to hold any of them.  Thus, he was not Emperor or Dictator or Consul for Life but simply the Princeps or “First Citizen” in the restored Republic.  That this “Republic” was an autocracy was obvious to anyone with any intelligence, but it made the bitter pill of a dictatorship easier for the former ruling elites to accept.

Augustus

Augustus

A traditional problem with autocracies is their tendency to become dynastic, which of course does not guarantee competence on the part of the successor; even supposedly communist North Korea has followed a dynastic succession. Compounding the problem for Augustus was the need for the Princeps to have a Julian connection, since the army was unbelievably impacted by C. Julius Caesar and loyal to his memory.  The idea was to select a promising member of the family and groom him as successor, easing him into power until he was virtual co-ruler with the Princeps.  Because of deaths, Augustus was forced to choose his adopted stepson, Tiberius, a Claudian, as his heir, and consequently the initial dynasty of the Principate is called the Julio-Claudians.  (See the chronological table at the end of the article.)

Tiberius was virtually co-ruler when Augustus died, and the change of power was smooth.  That Tiberius was a well-known general among the Rhine legions compensated for his lack of a direct blood connection to Caesar.              The Roman people were delighted by the Principate, but the Senatorial elites were not, dreaming of the true Republic and forming conspiracies, making it even more difficult for the gruff Tiberius, who would have preferred to be with the troops than in Rome, to play the sophisticated game Augustus had set up.  Not that it mattered.  He was succeeded in AD 37 by the twenty-five year old C. Caligula, son of his immensely popular brother Germanicus.  “Bootsie” (Caligula is the diminutive of caliga, the legionary boot, a tiny pair of which Caligula had as a child on the Rhine.) was also popular, but six months into the office he had some sort of nervous breakdown and became completely irrational.  The sham Republic of the Principate now had a first citizen who proclaimed himself a god.

Tiberius

Tiberius

Bootsie

Bootsie

Thus, a little more than two decades after Augustus’ death Rome was confronted with the problem of how to get rid of a bad Princeps. The only answer of course is assassination, and he was killed in AD 41 by insulted members of the Praetorian Guard acting in concert with members of the Senate hoping to choose their own successor or restore the Republic.  Other members of the Guard, however, found Caligula’s uncle Claudius and proclaimed him emperor, whether with Claudius’ connivance or not is unclear.  Many thought Claudius, a fifty-year old scholar who had a number of infirmities, to be a fool, but fortunately for Rome, he turned out to be an excellent administrator.

Claudius himself died in AD 54, and the consensus is that he was poisoned by his last wife, Agrippina, whom he had married because of her Julian connections.  He was succeeded by her son, Nero, whom Claudius had elevated above his own son, Britannicus, presumably because Nero was older and was much more a Julian, important in retaining the loyalty of the military.  Agrippina probably feared he might change his mind or simply wanted her son emperor while he was still young enough to be dominated by her.  In any event, Nero killed both Britannicus and after several failed attempts his own mother.  Nero was a terrible Princeps, ignoring the administration of the Empire in favor of his aesthetic interests (he competed in music and poetry in the Olympics) and his building programs, which drained the treasury.

Nero

Nero

Claudius

Claudius

Growing opposition from the Senatorial class pushed Nero further into tyranny and executions, and he was losing the support of the urban mob as well. More important, he ignored the military, never showing himself at the camps and even appointing his freedmen (ex-slaves) as commanders.  He was creating the environment for a revolt, and matters came to a head in AD 68, when the military basis of the Principate became perfectly clear in the “Year of the Four Emperors,” AD 68-69.

AD 68 one of the governors in Gaul, C. Julius Vindex, raised the standard of revolt and freedom from the tyrant.  He was easily defeated, but fearing for his life because of his association with Vindex, Ser. Sulpicius Galba, one of the Spanish governors, prepared to march on Rome, supported by the governor of Lusitania, M. Salvius Otho.  Nero had troops available near Rome, but despaired when his Praetorian Prefect suddenly disappeared and he learned the Guard had accepted a massive bribe from an agent of Galba.  The other provincial armies began revolting, the Senate declared for Galba, and Nero committed suicide with the help of a slave, declaring what a real artist the world was losing.

That was it for the Julio-Claudians.  There were simply no more male Julians available, and while the armies may have been reluctant to recognize a non-Julian (even though there was now no one left alive who could remember Caesar), they and the Praetorians were not about to accept a return to the rule of the Senate.  Galba thus became the first non-Julio-Claudian Princeps.  He did not last long.  The military did not trust the seventy-three year old Senator, and no one liked his austerity program, especially the Guard, whose promised bribe was not paid.  One of the Rhine commanders, Aulus Vitellius began marching on Rome, while Otho, feeling cheated by Galba, appealed to the Praetorians and soldiers in Rome, who proclaimed him emperor and murdered Galba in January of AD 69.

Otho might well have been a good Princeps, but the German legions following Vitellius refused to declare for him, and while he had the support of some seventeen legions, they were scattered about the Empire.  In April he was defeated by Vitellius’ forces at Bedriacum in northern Italy, and though he still had considerable resources, he committed suicide to spare Rome a protracted civil war.  Vitellius was now Princeps, but already in trouble.  Off in the east T. Flavius Vespasianus, the commander finishing off the First Jewish Revolt, was persuaded by his troops and the eastern governors to take his shot at the imperial purple.  The Egyptian, Syrian and Danubian legions all joined him, and the Vitellian troops, beset by desertions to Vespasian, were defeated by Flavian forces at the second battle of Bedriacum and the battle of Cremona.  The indolent and gluttonous Vitellius negotiated an abdication, but his troops went on a rampage in Rome, killing Vespasian’s brother (and ominously burning down the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus), and Vitellius came out of retirement, only to be defeated and killed by Flavian forces, who themselves then sacked Rome.

Galba

Galba

Vitellius

Vitellius

Otho

Otho

Vespasian was Princeps.  The Julio-Claudians had governed Rome for ninety-five years, and after a relatively brief and limited struggle their dynasty had been replaced by the Flavians.  Tacitus, an historian of this period, declared that the secret of empire was now out: one did not need to be in Rome to become emperor.  Nor, it can be added, did one need to be a Julian – or by implication, of any particular noble family.  The Year of the Four Emperors had made it vividly clear to the troops and certainly their generals that they were the basis of political power in the state, but the legionaries of the first century were not the self-interested scum of the Anarchy.  They were still disciplined and loyal to the idea of the Roman state and Empire, and following the victory of Vespasian, they returned to their camps and did not leave in serious numbers again for another hundred and twenty-four years.

Vespasian is the Lyndon Baines Johnson of the Principate.  He was a no-nonsense and determined leader, well educated, but presenting the shrewdness of the farmer of central Italy, from which his family came, rather than urban cleverness.  His ever active wit was more rustic than sophisticated: when on his death bed, knowing that he would be posthumously deified, he quipped “I feel myself becoming a god!”  Given his character and how he came to power, he could hardly pretend simply to be the First Citizen, but he was willing to respect the Senate and involve them in the administration of the Empire, though he was constantly opposed by the Stoic philosophers.  And he surely looked like LBJ.

Emperor LBJ

Emperor LBJ

Vespasian

Vespasian

Vespasian restored confidence, peace and prosperity in the Empire, and the succession of his son T. Flavius Vespasianus in AD 79 was completely smooth.  Titus was remembered as one of the best Principes, though his poor health only allowed him two years of rule. The only memorable events of his administration were the dedication of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Coliseum), begun by his father, and the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Though he had not been designated heir, Titus was followed by his younger brother, T. Flavius Domitianus.

Domitian is remembered as a cruel tyrant, but this is a grand exaggeration of the Senate that conspired to kill him and hostile historians such as Tacitus.  He was far more openly autocratic than his father and did seemingly possess a cruel streak, which may explain why he was not politically prepared by either his father or brother.  Senatorial opposition and his fears created a cycle of conspiracy and execution, which resulted in his assassination in AD 96.  But he was a capable administrator and popular with the army, securing the imperial stability that preserved peace and prosperity, and in that regard he must be regarded as one of the better Principes.  But the Flavian dynasty had come to an end.  What now?

Domitian

Domitian

Titus

Titus

As expected the Principate had evolved, most obviously in becoming more openly autocratic.  A signpost along the way was the legal mechanism of Vespasian’s accession.  Whereas Augustus had all his powers voted to him by the Senate in bits and pieces, Vespasian became Princeps through a single law, the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, a step that further defined an actual office of emperor.  While Caligula and Nero might be considered aberrations, the autocratic Flavians were competent rulers and their administrations beneficial for the Empire, which certainly helped smooth the way for a growing acceptance of an outright Emperor.  The weaknesses of dynastic succession had become very apparent, both in the accession of completely unsuitable rulers and in the emergence of powerful advisors, generally freedmen, who essentially ran the government under a weak Princeps.  Even Claudius, an excellent ruler, relied heavily on his Greek freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, who could often sway the Princeps to a particular course of action.  History has shown again and again that personal access to the autocrat, especially if he is weak, is a tremendous source of power for individuals who are otherwise merely servants – consider the administration of Bush junior.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s position as a partner in the Principate was shrinking. The Senatorial class was still a source of administrators for the Empire, but the Senate itself had to satisfy itself with relatively trivial matters, and its role as a serious decision-making body was disappearing.  It would appear also that by the end of this period Senatorial dreams of the Republic had finally died: when Domitian was assassinated, there was no talk of restoring the Republic, but simply choosing their own candidate for Princeps.

Finally, the military and the Empire remained strong.  After the loss of three legions in the disaster in Germany in AD 9 Augustus had declared that the Empire had reached its largest sustainable extent, and with the exception of Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 43 for political reasons, this was adhered to.  The Flavians completed the occupation of Britain up to the Scottish highlands, and the addition of the island did not materially lengthen the frontiers to be defended, though the British provinces apparently never paid for their upkeep.  Domitian in fact cashiered his excellent general Gn. Julius Agricola for suggesting that he could easily conquer the Scottish highlands and Ireland.  The Flavians also occupied and fortified the triangle of land between the upper Rhine and Danube, thus shortening the northern frontier.  If anything, the army was stronger at the end of the first century because of the work done by the Flavians in organization and equipment.  It was primarily stationed in large permanent camps (many of which would become cities), especially on the Rhine-Danube frontier, but it clearly remained a field force, ready to move along the road system to any point of threat.

But in AD 96 the last Flavian was dead and the Senate had chosen its own candidate.  What would the army do now?

 

(753)–c. 509 BC Regal period

c. 509–27 BC Republic 

133–30 Revolution

30 Deaths of Antony and Cleopatra VII, supremacy of Octavian/Augustus

27 BC–AD 235 Principate or Early Empire

  27 BC- AD 68 Julio-Claudians

    27 BC–AD 14 Augustus

             26-6 BC pacification of Spain, Alps and lands south of Danube

AD 9 loss of Germany

14-37 Tiberius

    37-41 Gaius Caligula

41-54 Claudius

43 Invasion of Britain

54-68 Nero

             66–70 First Jewish Revolt

68–69 Year of the Four Emperors, civil war

June 68-Jan 69 Galba

             Jan-March 69 Otho

             April-Dec 69 Vitellius

69-96 Flavians

69-79 Vespanian

             70 Destruction of Jerusalem

79-81 Titus

    81-96 Domitian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Stuff from Way Back #29b: Roma Aeterna

The last and most critical reason depends upon how one understands life in the Roman Empire, and there is much we do not know about life in the rural areas of the provinces. I am, however, convinced that it was basically good, convinced especially by the belief that the Empire could not have been generally so stable and last so long were its inhabitants generally oppressed. This of course comes close to making a circular argument, but the evidence appears to support the contention that at least until the Anarchy life in the Empire for the average free person was relatively comfortable or at least acceptable. Imperial structures based entirely on fear are simply not stable over the longer run – consider the Assyrian Empire.

 
Strong evidence that the Roman Empire was not such a bad place to live lies in the fact that apart from the Jews the Romans essentially did not have to concern themselves with the revolt of subject peoples. This strikes me as an impossibility were the Empire held together only by fear. There were of course revolts, which were suppressed with great brutality, but they all occur in areas that were recently or incompletely pacified: Gaul in the 50s BC, Illyricum in AD 6, Germany in AD 9, Boudicca in AD 59, Civilis in AD 69, Mesopotamia in AD 116. Once an area had been controlled for perhaps a generation Roman rule was accepted.

 
The one exception was the Jews, who undertook two disastrous revolts against Rome, the results of which were to forever change (and improve) the nature of Judaism by ridding the religion of the temple and all the rituals and sacrifices characteristic of polytheism and allowing it to become more introspective and spiritual. The Jews were a special case inasmuch as their monotheism prevented them from being assimilated into the polytheist Greco-Roman culture of the Empire as were all the other subject peoples. Understanding this, the Romans granted the Jews special exemptions from such things as any obligation to the imperial cult and allowed them more local autonomy, but friction was impossible to avoid. It was not just the religion, which affected every aspect of their society, but also the fact that this religion was inextricably entwined with the idea of a national state, given them by god. This was one thing Rome could not grant, given the strategic importance of Syria-Palestine.

It didn't work out

It didn’t work out

Generally Roman rule appears to have been accepted, certainly once the generation of the conquest had passed. The provincials, a least in the towns and cities, were easily assimilated and ultimately Romanized. The highly urbanized and Hellenized east fit readily into the urban Greco-Roman culture of the Empire; though Latin was the official language, Greek was the real lingua franca of the eastern provinces. In the west Roman civilization was simply at a much higher level of development than that of the Celtic and German tribes and naturally dominated, once again at least in the municipalities.

 
I believe that up until the Anarchy Rome gave more than she took. She obviously robbed the provincials of their nominal independence, but for many, especially in the Greek east, this was meaningless since they had already been under the control of someone else. Self-determination for the Greek states had essentially disappeared with the conquests of Alexander, but Rome had no problem allowing the Greeks and everyone else to run their own cities and communities. In fact, she had little choice but to allow a great deal of local autonomy, since administering the Empire at the grassroots level was beyond the manpower and financial resources of the state. Rome followed a traditional imperial pattern by making alliances with the local elites and drawing upon their experience by allowing them to govern locally under the auspices of the Roman officials at the province level. Such had the additional benefit of shrinking the imperial presence in the lives of the Empire’s subjects.

 
Rome of course also collected taxes. There is a great deal of dispute over what the tax burden was like for the average inhabitant of the Empire, but my estimation is that from the end of the Republic to the Anarchy that burden was not particularly onerous – in general. The civil wars in the first century BC saw the financial rape of the wealthy eastern provinces, but the return to stability and the systemization of provincial administration and tax collection seems to have produced a tolerable level of taxation. In any case, the Empire certainly prospered in the next two and a half centuries, suggesting relatively comfortable or at least livable economic circumstances for most inhabitants. With the Anarchy this changes rapidly, as continual civil war and barbarian invasion drives the government to extremes of revenue collection, which in turn begins to strangle the productive classes of the Empire.
In return the imperial subject received a number of things, the most important of which was peace and security. We tend to underestimate the value of peace because no wars have rumbled through the United States for a century and a half and we are used to it. For most human beings decades, let alone centuries, of peace is a highly compelling commodity. It is clear in the modern world that most people, even in places like America, would gladly trade some of their freedom and civil rights for security and comfort. So, that Gaul who fought against Caesar probably hated Rome, but his grandson would likely think more about the eight legions on the Rhine that prevented the Germans from trashing his farm every summer.

Better than Germans

Better than Germans

The Empire meant more uniform laws and more efficient mechanisms of justice. This is not to say that the average person was guaranteed justice – as today, money and social standing played a large role – but he certainly had a better shot at it. There were material benefits of course. Those military roads that knitted the Empire together could be used by anyone, dramatically enhancing communications and consequently commerce. In fact, take an area the size of the Roman Empire and guarantee more or less continuous peace for a couple of centuries, and the economy can hardly fail to prosper, assuming reasonable levels of taxation.

 
But far more important, second only to peace, was that the Roman Empire was an open society and became more so as it aged. Rome exported Romanitas, that is, her culture and language, though not through any state directed policy. In the east Romanitas dovetailed perfectly with the Hellenism that had helped shape it, while in the west it naturally overwhelmed the less sophisticated native cultures, at least in the municipalities, which were focal points of Romanitas. Speak Latin and act like a Roman, and few will worry about your Celtic blood.

 
Even the once precious citizenship was available to non-Romans. By the time of the Principate citizenship was politically meaningless on the national level, but municipal politics remained vibrant, and in any case the citizenship brought enhanced social status and some economic advantages. During the Republic, Rome was loathe to extend citizenship to non-Romans – the Italian allies had to revolt to get it – but this hesitation broke down rapidly with the advent of the autocracy. In AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire. Now, he did it as a way to raise more revenues, and being a Roman citizen pretty much lost all its value when everyone was one, but the act is symbolic of the character of the Empire. Henceforth, a Roman who could trace his ancestry back to the early Republic had the same legal status as someone whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought Caesar. The conquerors had lost their special status in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. This points the way to the Late Empire, when Italy will simply be another set of provinces.

 
The city was one of the two primary mechanisms for the Romanizing of the Empire. They were the bastions of Romanitas, settled originally by Italians and bringing the trappings of Roman civilization to the provinces. And Rome had an unofficial policy of encouraging urbanization: the more urbanized a province was the more economically active it was and the easier it was to secure. Cities and towns of course also helped spread Romanitas, and they provided higher quality recruits for the provincial military units, who, incidentally, received the citizenship upon discharge.

A nice place to raise a family

A nice place to raise a family

The other major Romanizing element was the army, an irony considering that one rarely sees soldiers as a civilizing force. But half the Roman military establishment was composed of the provincial auxiliaries, for whom the army was a factory creating new Romans. One was not going to pick up the finer points of Roman culture in a legionary camp on the Danube, but the recruit learned basic Latin, the essentials of being Roman and came to think of himself as a Roman. It is estimated that during the first two centuries of the Principate the auxiliaries supplied a stream of about 15,000 Romanized provincials a year.

The Empire wants you!

The Empire wants you!

There was a two-way street connecting Rome to the provinces. As she exported Romanitas, she was also importing provincial talent, products of the Romanizing of the Empire. These were people whose bloodlines were not at all Italian but who did not for a minute consider themselves anything other than Roman. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian came originally from Spain, completely Roman but descended at least in part from Iberians. The emperor Septimius Severus hailed from North Africa, and during the Anarchy emperors came all over the Empire.

 
Despite Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the best and truest film ever made about Rome) most people think of the Roman Empire in negative terms – slaughtering Gauls, scattering Jews, oppressing Christians – but to my mind the Empire was perhaps the finest imperial structure ever, which accounts in part for its longevity. This was an incredibly cosmopolitan entity, a rare and seemingly successful multicultural state. The British Empire turned subjects into quasi-Englishmen, but Britain never relinquished its status as imperial master; one was not about to find an African or Indian in Parliament. Rome civilized western Europe and did it without the snottiness and hypocrisy of the British.

Welease Bwian!

Welease Bwian!

What have the Romans ever done for us?” Plenty.

Stuff from Way Back #29a: Roma Aeterna

(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 big one

the big one

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.

next door neighbors

next door neighbors

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.

Stuff from Way Back #27: Achilles and Aeneas, Alike and Unlike

he Greeks and Romans are, at least since the Renaissance, inevitably associated with one another and clearly differentiated from the Near Eastern societies that preceded them and the barbarian societies that succeeded the collapse of the Roman Empire. They constitute Classical history/antiquity/society, their architecture, arts and languages are Classical and their literature constitutes the Classics; the two millennia of urban civilization before them are pre-Classical. And in many ways Roman civilization appears to be simply Greek society translated into Latin. The two societies do indeed constitute a recognizable and unique period of history, easily distinguished from what came before and what came after, yet the two peoples were very different in character, which accounts for the obvious differences in their histories. The Greeks were the Beatles of antiquity, dabbling in everything and pumping their genius into almost every aspect of culture and politics; the Romans were the Rolling Stones, incredibly good at one thing, the hard-driving rock and blues of the maintenance and expansion of power.

Romans

Romans

Greeks

Greeks

Originally barbarian cousins in the extensive Indo-European migrations of the second millennium, both peoples began with roughly the same social and political institutions, common, it seems, to all the Indo-Europeans, at least while they are still on the move. Most critically, this included a weak kinship and the tradition of an informal assembly of warriors that heard and advised the king and was theoretically the source of his authority, an idea radically different from the sophisticated kingships of Egypt and Asia, which derived their authority from heaven. The Greeks and Latins would be the only groups that developed agriculturally based urban societies without losing these core political institutions characteristic of their hunting and gathering past and would consequently be the only ones to evolve actual constitutional polities in which the power exercised by the state was considered to derived from the people, at least in theory.
This accounts for the remarkably parallel political development of the Greek and Latin city-states from petty tribal kingships to sophisticated democratic republics. The driving engines behind this were the changing economic environment, as growing wealth produced new economic elites that challenged the traditional arrangements, and the emergence of the citizen army, which gave increasing reality to the old notion that the people were at the root of political power. Thus the Latin and Greek proto-cities eliminated their kings and established the basic mechanisms of the constitutional state: precisely defined law, citizen assemblies and elective limited term magistracies. With as many as a thousand independent city-states the Greeks had a larger social laboratory and produced in some cases the most complete democracies the world has ever seen, whereas in Italy the dominance of Rome over the other Latin towns resulted in a single powerful city-state, Rome.
But there were differences, some of them profound. The Greek kingship apparently withered away over a period of centuries during the Greek Dark Age, while the Romans clearly overthrew their last king in historic times. The Greek transition from aristocracies of birth to oligarchies of wealth took a generation or two (the Age of Tyrants) and in many cases involved violence, whereas in Rome the transition required two centuries (the Struggle of the Orders) and was remarkably free of political violence. The Greeks produced radical democracies, but Rome, though technically democratic, never went beyond an oligarchy of wealth. The Greeks excelled in the arts and affairs of the mind; the Romans were great administrators and engineers. Despite a common language and culture the Greeks remained fragmented, and the empires of the fifth and fourth centuries were short-lived; even the huge Macedonian controlled empires of Alexander and his successors were relatively fragile. The Romans of course steadily expanded their power, conquering Italy and the Mediterranean world over a period of little more than three centuries and establishing an immense empire that would endure for almost another five hundred years. This power thing in particular baffled the Greeks, who could not understand why the Romans, who began with the same political, social and military equipment as themselves, could so easily become the stable imperial power that always eluded them. And being almost effortlessly conquered by a people they considered in so many ways intellectually inferior did not help.
Greek thinkers, like the historian Polybius, had trouble seeing beyond the institutions that made the two societies appear so similar. What apparently escaped them, at least in trying to understand Roman history, was something relatively simple: national character. The most important facet of the Greek character, affecting everything they engaged in, was agōn, the need to compete and struggle, which consequently enhanced the importance of both the individual and his city. The Greeks were most definitely not team players. The Romans were. Their prime character directive was pietas, duty, the compulsion to fulfill ones obligations to the family, the gods and the community, which ultimately meant the state. They were incredibly conservative, which slowed their evolution, but at the same time they were also eminently practical, which saved them from that conservatism. While the Greeks theorized, the Romans just did it – and did it differently if the traditional way no longer worked.

 

Consider the national heroes of the two cultures. For the Greeks it was the Homeric warriors, especially Achilles, extreme and narcissistic individuals who ultimately cared for only one thing – themselves. For them the major importance of the group was simply defining their individual honor, in defense of which they would gladly sacrifice their lives. The Roman heroes, on the other hand, were all men whose defining quality was the willingness to sacrifice for the group. Aeneas, the premier Roman hero, abandons Dido and the kingship of Carthage in order to fulfill his destiny as the ultimate founder of Rome. At great cost to himself he honors his duty to a state that will not even exist for another four hundred years.  Incidentally, Aeneas, though technically a Trojan, is a figure out of Greek literature, a Greek creation, yet the Romans  came to believe that he was the ultimate founder of Rome.
Why these character differences? It probably had much to do with their respective environments. The Balkan Peninsula, especially in the south, is a land of limited resources, notably arable land, and scarcity inevitably encourages competition. In contrast Italy possesses a great deal of good farmland, and Latium, the coastal area where Rome is situated, is particularly bountiful. This is not to say that the early Romans were devoid of any competitive spirit, but rather that survival in the relative economy of scarcity that was Greece instilled in the Greek psyche a far larger measure of competitiveness and aggressiveness. This is hardly a completely satisfactory explanation, but then, I am not a cultural anthropologist.
The Greeks competed in everything (even sex was seen as a kind of competition), which goes a long way in explaining their history and society. They competed in athletics, music and drama; trierarchs competed in equipping the fastest trireme. The incredible cultural explosion of the sixth and fifth centuries clearly has its roots in agōn; societies that are comfortable simply have less motivation to ask questions, to think new thoughts, to create new things. Archaic and Classical Age Greece (8th – 4th centuries) was, like the Renaissance, filled with struggle, and the result was the perhaps the most important intellectual discoveries in history. By way of contrast Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (27th – 18th centuries) was the most materially and spiritually comfortable society in antiquity, and in the course of a millennium virtually not a single new idea was produced.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

But the drive to compete had a down side. City-state governments were very unstable, and political violence was always just outside the door. More devastating of course was the seemingly endless warfare, as each city competed with its neighbors, not just for resources but also status. The city-state was a narcissistic entity, a polity with attitude, and warfare was the ultimate expression of superiority – at least if you won. So deeply ingrained by constant competition was the idea of autonomy that inter-city structures were inevitably based on force or the threat of force, as with the Athenian Empire or the Peloponnesian League, and unity eluded the Greeks until it was imposed from without. Common efforts, such as the defense against the Persian Empire, were extremely difficult, and Greece’s ultimate downfall emerged from her inability to cooperate for the common Hellenic good. It was left to the Macedonians monarchy, the most backward of Greek states, to dominate the Balkan Peninsula and conquer Persia.
The Romans of course also enjoyed a powerful sense of superiority – what successful culture does not – but it was not so all-consuming as with the individual Greek cities. In establishing control over the other Latin towns Rome was able to some extent to share authority and even her citizenship, something unthinkable for the Greeks. Roman arrogance took a back seat to practicality in dealing with defeated non-Latin peoples in Italy, and the Romans were able to create alliance structures that left them stronger and in complete control but offered sufficient mutual benefit to provide for long-term stability. The so-called Italian allies were thoroughly subordinate to Rome yet came to regard themselves as actual allies and ultimately as Romans, thus providing the manpower base that would allow the conquest of the Mediterranean world.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

The Roman saw the world around him as a network of obligations, and honor was rooted in fulfilling those obligations. This makes for a very well-knit community, and the political factionalism that plagued the Greeks remained well leashed until the last century of the Republic. The Roman was inclined to accept rather than challenge authority, at least if he considered it legitimate, and as a result, the Senatorial elite smoothly governed Rome for four hundred years, even though for most of that period the Senate possessed no actual constitutional powers but was simply an advisory body. Once again, unthinkable for the Greeks. The system only broke down when the Senate was corrupted by power and wealth, and serving oneself edged out serving the state.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, both peoples initially considered the other barbarians. The Greeks clung to this notion well into their role as provincials in the Roman Empire, an idea perhaps sustained in the face of overwhelming Roman success by the fact that the new masters were so clearly impressed by the Greek cultural achievement. The Romans could hardly deny that achievement, as they learned Greek, imitated Greek arts and looted the statuary of the Hellenic world. So, the Greeks were not barbarians, like the Gauls and Germans; they were just effete.

 
The Hellenizing of Rome began long before Roman legionaries were traipsing about the Balkan Peninsula, and “captive Greece” captured Rome centuries before it actually became captive. The Greek Age of Colonization (late 8th – 6th centuries) saw Sicily and the coastal areas of southern Italy so thickly settled with Greek cities that the area became known as Great Greece, and young Rome could hardly resist the influence. Cumae, the northernmost and possibly earliest Greek establishment in Italy, was barely a hundred miles southeast of Rome, and the tendrils of Hellenism were already caressing the city on the Tiber while it was still being rules by kings. Roman culture was not quite a blank slate, but a couple of centuries behind the Greeks in their development, the Romans were simply overwhelmed.

Greek genius

Greek genius

Roman genius

Roman genius

The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek, and the more defined and sophisticated Greek gods had such an impact that native Italic deities gradually disappeared, supplanted by the Greek pantheon with Latin names. Greek literature was so far advanced that the earliest examples of serious Latin literature are written in Greek. The Romans copied the hoplite phalanx, the more efficient heavy infantry formation invented by the Greeks, though characteristically, when it ran into trouble operating in the central highlands, they seriously modified it, copying weapons used by their opponents. Greek heavy infantry ended in the dead end of the Macedonian phalanx, while the Roman version grew into the legions.
In a very real sense Rome’s major legacy was preserving virtually intact the Greek achievement. The Greeks simply could not create stable long-term imperial structures, and while the discoveries of the Greeks would not have simply vanished without the Roman Empire, they would have suffered. Hellenized at such an early stage, Rome and her empire embraced Greek culture, and the extent and incredible duration of that empire insured that the grand ideas of the Greeks would be fixed at the heart of European civilization.