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.

Hegemonic Folly: Defense Spending

With the predictable failure of the of the budget super-committee comes the blunt ax of sequestration, which is likely the only time the military budget will ever be threatened with cuts.  Such will never happen, of course, but the cries of putting our national security at risk are already flying, mostly from Republicans, but also from Democrats, since no politician wants to be accused of being soft on defense.  The military has naturally also chimed in, and who is a more impartial judge of the nation’s security needs?

Some figures on just how big our military is.  In 2010 we spent $687 to $698 billion (an exact total is not available to mere mortals) on the military, which is more than the next 17 nations combined and about 43% of the total world expenditure.  The next largest budget, that of China, is 7.3% of the world total.  Our expenditure was in 2009 4.7% of GNP; only five countries – Saudi Arabia, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Eretria – exceed that and for obvious reasons.  Only the UAE, with a population of only 8 million, exceeds us in per capita spending; in 2009 our military cost every man, woman and child in America $2141.  One specific and particularly relevant example: though our battle fleet has indeed shrunk in the last 20 years, it is still larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those are our allies.

The stated justification for this mammoth spending on arms are all the threats to our national security, but apart from sundry individuals, who are hardly any threat to the nation (see the article The Terrorist Nuisance), exactly who poses a serious threat to our motherland?  Only an advanced nuclear power could possible threaten our shores, and there are only two who are not our allies, Russia and China, and neither is likely to attack the US in the face of total devastation.  The truly dangerous nuclear states, North Korea, Pakistan, Israel and perhaps Iran, may threaten their neighbors, but for the foreseeable future they simply cannot deliver warheads to North America.

Of course a regional power could threaten to disrupt our supply of resources, but there is really only one that is absolutely vital to our welfare, oil, and it is hard to image that even Iran, unless pushed to the brink, could possibly be stupid enough to launch a war in the Gulf.  Rolling in money, the Gulf   states are already armed to the teeth with modern weaponry, and given the rapidly declining need of large ground forces to repel an invasion, how many carrier groups would it take to smash Iran?  A nuclear equipped Iran is a different story, but the real powers in that country, the Supreme Council and the Revolutionary Guard, have, unlike Ahmadinejad, not demonstrated the complete irrationality necessary to contemplate an action that would bring absolutely no benefit to Iran and lead to massive retaliation from virtually all the developed nations dependent on Gulf oil.

We want to protect our friends, but how many of them need protecting?
Europe? Japan? Canada? Australia? Mexico?  The Philippines do not want us there any more and are making their own arrangements with the other offshore Asian powers. Taiwan and China are forging more and more economic ties, and China’s economic relationship with the US makes it increasingly unlikely she will do anything that would seriously offend her most important market. China is seeking to increase her influence in Southeast Asia, but the only thing that threatens is American influence in the area.  Possessing nuclear weapons and the most powerful military (after Turkey?) in the region, Israel hardly needs American help, and given her behavior, one wonders how much of a friend she would be were it not for her seeming stranglehold on American politicians.  The one serious friend who is actually threatened is South Korea, and while an invasion from the north would result in immediate and extensive casualties, North Korea could be rapidly and utterly defeated by the South Koreans and minimal US forces.  And if the military is the real power in Pyongyang, would they sacrifice themselves for nothing?  Further, China, which ultimately controls the food and energy supply of her socialist ally, has absolutely no desire to see even temporary chaos in the Korean peninsula. They also can hardly be enthusiastic about the emergence of a seriously nuclear North Korea, since that could bring on the nightmare of a nuclear South Korea and Japan.

Not many military leaders, especially those who are quasi-political, have ever supported cutting their budget and reducing their forces, the major reason why threat assessments emanating from the Pentagon must be consumed with a boulder of salt.  For American politicians, who are achieving unheard of levels of self-serving behavior, reducing the military is virtually unthinkable, since they would suffer the wrath of sundry powerful lobbies and blocs of ignorant voters whipped up by their opponents.  After 60 years of having the most powerful military in the world and 20 years of virtual hegemony around the planet many Americans see any cut back in “defense” as a sign of surrender and decline.

We are no longer in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, and not only territorial but also military-based hegemonic empires are obsolete.  Gunboat diplomacy only works when the threat of military intervention is real, and although world opinion and international law did not stop the US in places like Grenada, Panama and Iraq, it is clear that military operations of any scale are incredibly expensive and self-defeating in the long run.  And against the backdrop of American arrogance, disregard for international law, increasing violation of other nations’ sovereignty and traditional inclination towards violence rather than diplomacy, our 13 carrier groups certainly appear to be the twenty-first century equivalent of gunboats.

Finally, not only is large-scale warfare rapidly becoming prohibitively expensive but with the emergence of a globalized economy it has also become counterproductive for the developed nations. Whatever their rhetoric or ideologies, they are all now inextricably bound together in a world capitalist web in which the economic misfortunes of one will inevitably affect the others.  At least in the industrialized world less and less does national security depend on huge military establishments and more and more on sound economies, which are ill-served by wasting treasure on weapons systems with no opponents and wars resulting in nothing but dead human beings.  Large scale violence must only be contemplated when there truly is no alternative, and given the increasing interconnectedness of the planet, there will almost always be an better alternative.

Then again, it is cool to be the baddest dude on the earth,  even though that might be at the expense of everything else.  Ask the Spartans how that worked out.