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.



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.





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.





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.







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 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?





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.

The Egyptian Demos Speaks (and Louder Than Ours)

Is it or is it not a military coup in Egypt?  This semantic game is, predictably, being played out among the talking heads, and hardly surprising, the answer depends a great deal upon the political convictions of the speaker.  Yes, the military has entered the political arena and ousted the sitting government, which is certainly coup-like.  On the other hand, although the military is looking after its own interest, it is nevertheless responding to an unprecedented demonstration of discontent with an increasingly unresponsive and autocratic government.  So, call it a military coup, but one with incredibly broad popular support.

Of course, governments, even those that could not stomach Morsi and his Muslem Brotherhood, are bemoaning the fact that the Egyptian army has removed a legitimate, freely elected, if obnoxious, administration.  Naturally, this has less to do with any deep commitment to constitutional process than with the simple fact that governments like other governments far better than people in the streets.  Recall the consternation in Washington when the Wall came down: we understood the behavior of that nasty DDR government and could deal with it, but people pouring in to the streets demanding freedom?  Where will that end?  And military dictatorships are the best, because they tend to be more stable and consistent in their policies.

The “deep concern” over dumping the legitimately elected government of Morsi rings a bit hollow, especially where the US is concerned.  We refuse to recognize Hamas in Gaza, and they were legitimately elected.  When the Algerian military suspended elections in 1992 because the Islamic Front was winning in the early rounds, we had no problem supporting the new dictatorship.  In 1973 we actually aided in the overthrow of the freely elected President, Salvador Allende.  How about the legitimately elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh?  We engineered a coup against him in 1953 and installed the not so freely elected Shah.  Certainly the US would like to see military rule in Egypt, so long as they provide stability and do not mess with Israel.

Distrust of the common people protesting in the streets inevitably evokes the label of “mob rule,” which suggests violence and illegality and behavior distasteful to civilized democratic folk.  But one might suggest that democracy is simply polite and orderly mob rule.  Aristotle in fact distinguished between “democracy,” rule of the demos or people, and “ochlocracy,” rule of the ochlos or mob, yet the distinction was not based on the venue – the streets or the assembly hall – or the political mechanism – throwing rocks or voting – but on the aim of the group.  If the citizens in the sovereign assembly carried on in the best long term interests of the society, they constituted a democracy; if they sought only short term benefit for themselves, they were instead an ochlocracy.  According to Aristotle, then, what we have in Washington is mob rule.

Allowing Morsi to finish out his term and then be turned out of office by the voters strikes me as risky business.  Like his colleague in Turkey, Prime Minster Recep Erdoğan, Morsi betrayed his deep lack of understanding of democratic rule by assuming that once elected by a majority one can do anything one wants and ignore and punish opposition forces.  His increasingly autocratic behavior and blatant favoring of one minority group does not immediately suggest a peaceful and democratic change of power when his term ended.  More likely would be elections rigged by a Muslem Brotherhood now in secure control of the mechanisms of government.

In a state such as Egypt with virtually no practice in democratic rule deposing a plainly incompetent and nefarious ruler by mass demonstrations and the help of the military might be considered a democratic act of a  more rough and ready nature.  After all, how free are our elections?  We have two entrenched parties, who enjoy almost complete control over who runs for office, and given that elections are essentially an exercise in mass marketing rather than political debate, these contests are easily manipulated by the economic powers in the society.  Absent term limits, an elected official can pretty much hold his office for life because of the incumbent’s access to the big money and the results of two centuries of gerrymandering of districts.  And let us not forget the ignorance and passivity of the American electorate.  What has happened in Egypt appears in many ways far more democratic than what goes on here according to the rules.

I praise the Egyptian people for not putting up with the governmental crap that we routinely do.

Incidentally, Hitler was legitimately elected.

Rome and America: A Cautionary Tale

Until recently comparisons between the United
States and ancient Rome,
at least outside the classroom, have been mostly limited to conservative
Christians railing that the moral decay that destroyed Rome
will do the same to us.  No serious
historian of course believes that Roman power collapsed because of excessive
partying or a breakdown in family values, but is there any substance to the
increasingly frequent assertion that the Roman Empire
and America in
the post-Soviet world share an identity?
Does the expanding Pax Americana, enforced across the globe by military
might, recapitulate the Pax Romana of the Mediterranean two millennia ago?  Is the United
States truly the Rome
of the twenty-first century?

Well, yes
and no.  There are in fact very
compelling similarities between the two states, but there are also profound
differences, and to a great degree it depends upon precisely what is being
compared.  The answer is also complicated
by the fact that the history of post-regal Rome
falls into two very distinct parts: the Republic (c. 507-31 BC) and the Empire
(31 BC – fifth century AD).  Not only
does Rome’s political structure
change dramatically across this divide, from a constitutional oligarchy to a
frequently hereditary military dictatorship, but the nature of and motivations
behind her imperialism also evolve.  In
many ways there were actually two Roman Empires.

Americans know Rome of the
Principate (the name given the Empire up to AD 235), the Rome
of emperors, Christians, Ben Hur and the Gladiator, but America
owes far more to the Republic, wherein lie the roots of our Constitution.  As educated gentlemen of the eighteenth
century, the Founding Fathers were steeped in classical history, and their
knowledge of the Roman Republic
and the Athenian democracy, together with their suspicion of the masses, led
them to the former as the better model for stable democratic government.  The Senate-centered government of the
Republic had after all functioned well for four centuries, accommodating
economic and social changes and taking Rome from a small power in central Italy
to mistress of the Mediterranean, while the fifth century democracy of Athens
had devolved into demagoguery and civil strife and brought about the collapse
of Athenian power in less than a century.
To be sure, our debt to the political traditions of England
is immense, but the Roman Republic
was never far from the minds of the framers of the Constitution.  Take a stroll through the Senate chamber in Washington:
on either side of the podium hangs a depiction of the fasces, the bundle
of rods and axes that symbolized Roman political authority (which must have
been at least a slight embarrassment when we were fighting fascistItaly).

constitution of the Roman Republic
was technically democratic, with ultimate power resting in two citizen
assemblies, but in practice the state was completely dominated by the Senate,
which for a variety of reasons was a more or less exclusive club of wealthy
landowners.  The Roman
Republic was governed by an open
but very slowly changing oligarchy of wealth, and it is difficult not to
characterize the government of the United States
in the same fashion.  The nature of that
wealth is of course very different, since unlike Rome we possess a
consumer-oriented capitalist economy, and a member of the American governing
class need not actually be a wealthy individual, though most are.  But given the immense cost of election to
federal office and the consequent influence of powerful economic interests,
wealth dominates our political system as surely as it did that of the Republic,
albeit less directly.

The Roman
character, at least in its idealized form, also influenced many of the Founding
Fathers, most notably Jefferson, who saw Cincinnatus as
the model citizen, the small freeholder who leaves his plow to defend his
country and then returns to his farm, rejecting any reward or glory, the
Minuteman of ancient Italy.  An almost overwhelming sense of duty or obligation,
forged through centuries of warfare, was the strongest element in the Roman
character, and completely unlike the Greeks, the Romans were the ultimate team
players, ready to sacrifice everything for the group.  The ruling elite, the Senatorial class, of
course competed for political power and advantage, but the real prize was dignitas,
a kind of prestige associated with serving the group, that is, Rome.  Dignitas was a real though non-legal
form of power, enhancing an individual’s political authority and influence in
the Senate and assemblies, but it was also an end in itself, the ultimate goal
of any Roman statesman until the decline of the Republic.

The citizen
armies of America recapitulate those of the Republic, and to some extent the
small farmers colonizing the expanding westward frontier and fighting the
native inhabitants reflect the spirit of Cincinnatus and the yeomanry that
formed the backbone of the Roman army into the second century BC.  But despite the vast tracts of land the
continent offered, the Cincinnatus model was ultimately incompatible with a
country on the threshold of industrial revolution, and America’s fighting
forces, even in periods of mass conscription, would increasingly be drawn from
the landless and the poor, as indeed were Rome’s during the late Republic and
Principate.  Further, while educated
colonials admired the patriotism and self-sacrifice of those “noble Romans”
they read about in Plutarch, their society placed far more emphasis on the
individual, a regard that the frontier experience apparently only
deepened.  Average Americans of the
twenty-first century may well be as inclined to the group as their Roman
counterparts, but unlike them we proclaim individualism a virtue and pay at
least lip service to the individual.

For all the
differences in the cultural and economic environment, however, the rise to
prominence of Rome and the United
States display striking similarities, at
least on the surface.  The Republic was
born out of the violent overthrow of the monarchy, and the early history of Rome
was filled with conflict, as the tiny city-state on the Tiber
River fought first for her life and
then for domination of the Italian peninsula, which by the middle of the third
century BC was controlled through a system of dependent alliances.  The allies were nominally independent states,
but Romanization of the peninsula and the grudging extension of the citizenship
(the allies finally revolted to get it) had created an essentially Roman Italy
by end of the first century BC.  Drawing
from the vast pool of Italian manpower, in the years from 264-188 BC the Romans
took on and defeated every major Mediterranean power, becoming the effective
mistress of the Mediterranean world.  At
this time Rome actually directly
ruled relatively little territory outside Italy
and Sicily, since the Senate
preferred to control areas through compliant client states rather than shoulder
the financial and military burden of immediate provincial rule.  The empire at this stage was hegemonic rather
than territorial, but in the sense that there was no longer any state that
could conceivably challenge her Rome
had become the sole superpower of the Middle

During this
crucial period of expansion the major motive behind Rome’s
foreign policy was the question of Italian security, but by the second century
the desire for personal wealth and power had begun to seriously infect
Senatorial decision-making, resulting in a governing class increasingly
inclined towards furthering its own interests rather than those of the state.  This growing corruption of the Senatorial
class led to the Revolution, the century-long collapse of the Republic that
began in 133 BC when a Senate now interested chiefly in defending its power and
prerogatives resisted needed reform and soon employed state-sanctioned violence
to further its ends.  Political activity
became more and more extreme, foreign policy became little more than a
reflection of domestic politics, and ultimately the army was drawn into the
fray, leading to civil war and the rise of military dictators like Caesar and
Augustus, the first emperor.  Because of
the absence of any serious external threats, the empire and Roman power
survived this turmoil, but constitutional government did not.

Much of
this history has a hauntingly familiar ring to the American ear.  Our republic was born in the violent
rejection of a king, and constant low intensity conflict accompanied our
occupation of North America.  It is true of course that our conquest of
this continent was relatively peaceful when contrasted with the Roman capture
of Italy, and
until the emergence of nuclear weapons we did not, as did the Romans, face foes
who could seriously threaten our national existence.  Yet, for all the differences, especially in
intensity, violence is a shared theme in the forging and growth of both
nations, and an inclination to violence as a legitimate problem solving
mechanism seems embedded in our national character.  We may not permit gladiatorial contests or
proclaim war a good and ennobling activity, but in many areas of American
culture, from our tastes in entertainment to our love affair with guns, there
is almost a celebration of violence.
With their bloody spectacles and unabashed acceptance of martial glory
the Romans were perhaps just a bit more honest about it.

As they
expanded their authority over Italy
and out into the Mediterranean, the Romans developed the
notion that it was in fact their destiny to rule, that their national gods had
granted them this dominion in the days of the founder-hero Aeneas, centuries
before Rome even existed.  In similar fashion the American tide of
expansion, washing rapidly westward over Mexicans and Indians, was quickly seen
as a “manifest destiny,” granted us by our own national god.  In both instances success was seen as ample
evidence of the favor of heaven, and that material success and perceived divine
favor amplified an arrogance and sense of superiority already present in both
societies, though in the case of the Romans the racial element important to
white Protestant America was missing.  Less
pernicious perhaps than the race-connected attitude of Americans, Roman
arrogance was more equal opportunity, and contempt for other peoples was
essentially based on their not being Roman and thus the products of soft (e.g.,
Greeks) or barbarous (e.g., Gauls) societies.
During the Principate, when the imperial focus was more on the barbarian
lands of central and western Europe and Stoic ideas were affecting the ruling
elite, some idea of a civilizing mission emerged, but it never reached the
intensity of American paternalism towards the Indian tribes (and now the rest
of the planet) and was never government policy.

With the end
of the Revolution and the establishment of the autocracy or Principate the
nature of Roman imperialism changed.
While there would be the odd burst of aggressiveness, as under Trajan (AD
98-117), imperial policy became essentially defensive, guarding the frontiers
established under Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) and gradually transforming Rome’s
clients/allies into provinces directly ruled from Rome.  Until the empire began to come apart during
the Anarchy (AD 235-285) this policy was generally rational and based on
strategic interests, though domestic concerns sometimes intruded: Claudius’ (AD
41-54) invasion of Britain
in AD 43, for example, was mainly motivated by his need for a military
reputation.  And of course, since the
empire was governed by a generally hereditary autocracy, imperial affairs
occasionally suffered from interference by an incompetent (e.g., Commodus [AD 180-192])
or unbalanced (e.g., Caligula [AD 37-41]) head of state.  Further, though incredibly disciplined and
loyal to the state, at least until the Anarchy, the Roman military was not
always inclined to passively accept whatever loser might gain the imperial
purple, and on two occasions prior to the Anarchy – under Nero (AD 54-68) in AD
68 and again under Commodus in AD 193 – the army revolted and fought brief
civil wars, after which the troops returned to their camps and allegiance to
the state.  Actually, given the potential
political power of the legions, which were the ultimate basis of the autocracy,
it is amazing how quiet the army was over the two and a half centuries of

could in fact occasionally indulge in bad government and even civil war without
serious risk of losing the empire because she was something of a superpower in
the Mediterranean-European world.  During
the Principate Rome faced only two real threats on her frontiers: the Germanic
barbarians beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier and the Parthian Empire (and its
successor after AD 226, the Sassanid Persian Empire), centered in Iraq.  Neither could come even close to challenging
Roman power, and both were no more than a nuisance, easily repulsed when they
took advantage of a lunatic emperor or a civil war to violate the imperial frontiers.  Further securing the empire was the fact that
until the Anarchy Rome did not overly need to concern itself with the revolt of
subject peoples.  With the exception of Judea
once Roman rule was established, it was generally accepted within a generation
or so, as the provincials realized the value of the Roman peace and other
benefits of the empire.  The Jews were
the exception because their monotheism and divine promise of a national state
prevented them from being easily assimilated into the Greco-Roman, polytheist
culture of the empire, as were the other provincials.

The Roman government did not consciously export its
culture, but Latin and Greco-Roman ideas nevertheless spread among the urban
populations of the empire, and the townsfolk at least came to think of
themselves as Romans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.  And as Roman culture and Romans streamed out
into the provinces, provincial influences and provincials flowed back to Rome.  The emperors Trajan and Hadrian (AD 117-138),
for example, were ultimately Iberian in their bloodlines, the thoroughly
Romanized products of the Spanish provinces.
In a very real sense the Roman Empire was a
multicultural melting pot, and in AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the
Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the empire.  He did it for economic reasons and the
citizenship was by then politically meaningless, but the fact remains that a
Briton whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and killed invading legionaries
now possessed the same legal status as an Italian who could trace his roots
back to the birth of the Republic.  This
cosmopolitanism was one of the greatest triumphs of theRoman Empire.

It is tempting to compare the post-Soviet United
States to Rome
of the Principate.  Both enjoy the status
of a superpower, hassled but not seriously militarily challenged by their
neighbors (at least in the conventional sense – nuclear weapons have changed
the rules); one might even compare the Parthian Empire to Russia and China and
the lower intensity threat of the barbarian tribes to terrorists.  As Latin and Roman culture seeped out into
the empire, so also is English and American culture spreading about the globe,
and as provincials gradually appreciated the benefits of the Pax Romana,
so, we confidently expect, will the rest of humanity appreciate those of the Pax
.  And like Rome,
America is so powerful,
possesses such a loyal military and has such an excellent bureaucratic
structure that it can periodically suffer an incompetent head of state without
losing the ball game.

Despite these points of contact, however,
twenty-first century America
is more aptly compared to Rome of
the Republic, especially its last century and a half of existence.  The empire was then primarily hegemonic,
relying, as do we, on clients and allies as the preferred mechanism for
exerting influence.  Further, for all
that American Presidents, especially a recent one, might occasionally remind us
of less attractive Roman emperors, the constitutional government of the
Republic is far more akin to our own than is the military based dictatorship of
the Principate.  The Senate-centered
oligarchy of wealth that dominated the Republic in fact has a great deal in
common with our own national political oligarchy, whose members are utterly
dependent upon and typically beholden to those interests that possess the
financial resources necessary to get elected.
Even more to the point, as Roman foreign policy became little more than
an extension of domestic affairs during the Revolution, so also is American
foreign policy, especially with the end of the Cold War and most especially in
the case of Israel, increasingly a reflection of domestic politics and personal
interests rather than of strategic concerns and the national interest.

The growing political ambition and self-centered
attitude of the Roman ruling elite led in the first century BC to civil war and
the emergence of autocratic government, but while our own governing class is no
less venal and preoccupied with retaining power, our republic seems unlikely to
collapse in the near future.  Unlike the
Romans we have a written constitution that is very difficult to circumvent in
any serious ways, and our military has traditionally held a strong aversion to
political involvement, at least as soldiers, if not as lobbyists.  The Constitution also provides for a
government of three independent branches, each in theory independent and able
to check the others from any abuse of power, while the Roman Senate had a four
hundred year tradition of completely dominating every aspect of the national
government, which fact led to an almost overnight collapse of political
stability when that authority was challenged during the Revolution.  Finally, the American people have the
constitutionally guaranteed power to change the entire governing elite ever few
years, whereas our Roman counterparts could not touch their Senate, whose
members held their positions for life.

On the other hand, because of the power of
incumbency and the passivity, growing ignorance and lack of interest of many
Americans, our elected national leaders (excepting the President and Vice
President) enjoy potentially unlimited terms of office and constitute almost as
much a permanent political oligarchy as did the Roman Senatorial class.  And that oligarchy, the American Congress,
has recently demonstrated a disturbing willingness to take measures of dubious
constitutionality and grant very broad war making authority to a single
individual, the President.  Americans
citizens, moreover, have demonstrated an equally disturbing willingness and
quickness to surrender civil liberties in the face of vaguely defined threats
and in return for security measures of questionable value and
effectiveness.  Every politician worth
his salt, be it Gaius Julius Caesar or George W. Bush, recognizes the domestic
political capital that can be squeezed from national security issues, even if,
as in the case of the Gauls and now Iraq, the threats need to some degree be
manufactured.  The American President may
not, like Caesar, be seeking a loyal military following, but he certainly knows
as well as the Roman dictator that war is a wonderful distraction from domestic
ills and that cheap gasoline, like cheap grain in the dying Republic, will keep
and buy political support.

Twenty-first century America
is certainly not ancient Rome, even
Rome of the Republic: for all the
imperial points of contact the economic, political and technological
differences are simply too great.  Yet,
while the ultimate fate of the Roman Empire should not
overly concern us, being the result of internal conditions that are utterly
alien to this society  – at least for the
foreseeable future – the fate of the Republic may well be instructive.  The Senatorial government functioned in many
ways similar to ours, and after a long run of success an increasingly
self-interested governing elite, more concerned with its own prerogatives than
the national interest, resisted needed reform and found itself less and less
able to deal with the country’s problems or even to maintain political and
social stability.  And in the end that
instability called forth the perhaps inevitable recourse to autocratic
government, and Roman liberty was traded away for security and the trappings of
imperial glory.  At least the Romans got
that: because of economic problems Americans have little security and imperial
glory went out with theBritish Empire.