Where Are the Assyrians When You Need Them?

In its efforts to redefine barbarism ISIS has bulldozed the remains of the millennia old Assyrian city of Nimrud and has now begun demolishing the Greek/Parthian city of Hatra, crimes against humanity that for an ancient historian surpass their slaughter of innocents.  The destruction of Hatra is a particularly great loss, inasmuch as it is – or was – the finest surviving example of a Parthian city, with standing walls surrounding well preserved temples and statuary.  For these acts every member of this disgusting organization should be exterminated and refused burial; those who are captured should be handed over to the families of their victims.  Seriously.

Nimrud

Nimrud

Hatra

Hatra

Hatra

Hatra

There is, however, a certain irony in the assault on Nimrud, one doubtless unappreciated by the thugs and sociopaths of the “Caliphate.”  The Assyrians, who figure largely in the Old Testament because of their destruction of Israel and subjugation of Judah, are chiefly remembered for their extraordinary cruelty, and the Assyrian Empire may well be the first state in history to recognize that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun time (though the Assyrians never practiced genocide, as the Israelites did against the Amalekites).  In this regard Assyria might be seen as the spiritual precursor of ISIS, setting a standard of cruelty that even the Caliphate has not matched; it has apparently not yet occurred to them to decorate trees with severed heads or flay captives alive, standard Assyrian practice.  On the other hand, the centuries of Assyrian civilization produced a body of art, architecture and literature, while it appears the Caliphate will leave nothing more than promotional videos.

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

King Jehu of Judah submitting to Shalmaneser III

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyrians flaying rebels

Assyria had a long history.  The Assyrian heartland was what is now northern Iraq, and the city of Assur on the northern Tigris River dates back to the 26th century BC, though it was only a Sumerian (southern Iraq) administrative outpost and not actually Assyrian.  The Assyrians, speaking an east-Semitic language, appeared in perhaps the 24th century, but until the mid-21th century Assyria, then known as Subartu, was dominated first by the Akkadian Empire, centered south of Baghdad, and then by the Neo-Sumerian Empire of 3rd Dynasty Ur, located far to the south.  With the collapse of the Empire of Ur in c. 2000 BC Assyria seems for the first time to have become an actual urban kingdom rather than a collection of tribes.

The new kingdom enjoyed independence until the 1750s, when it fell to the Babylonian Empire of Hammurabi.  After his death in 1750 it was independent again until the 15th century, when it was conquered by the Mitanni immediately to the west.  The Mittanni were destroyed in c. 1350 by a coalition including Assyria under King Ashur-uballit I, who established the Middle Assyrian Empire, expanding west into former Mitanni territory and briefly controlling Babylon.  It was during this period, in the reign of Shalmaneser I (1274-1245), that Nimrud was built.  This all came to an end in the 11th century because of internal problems and the great Catastrophe, a movement of Indo-European peoples south and east through the Balkans and Anatolia that fractured the entire power structure of the Near East.  From 1077 to 911 the Assyrian state was weak and occupied with domestic disturbances, but remained intact amidst the general collapse.

From 911 to 824 Assyria was an imperial state again, the King’s armies campaigning almost every year.  During this period Assyria was the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, controlling territory from the Persian Gulf through Syria almost to the frontier of Egypt.  Ashurnasirpal II (883–859) moved the capital from Assur to Nimrud but also began extensive building in Nineveh, which then became the capital and heart of Assyria, as subsequent kings, especially Sennacherib (704-681), lavished their attention on it.  By the seventh century BC Nineveh was possibly the largest city in the world, encompassing some 1900 acres behind its seven and half miles of walls and supporting a population of more than 100,000.

Nineveh - restored gate

Nineveh – restored gate

Neo-Assyria Empires

Neo-Assyria Empires

From 824-744 Assyria stagnated, but then Tiglathpileser III (744-727), establishing a new ruling dynasty, initiated phase two of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, during which it became easily the largest empire the Near East had yet seen, stretching from the Gulf to Armenia and from the Zagros Mountains of Iran west through Syria and Palestine and south to Nubia.  It was also the most modern.  Tiglathpileser reformed the administration of the state, achieving the internal stability that had eluded the Assyrians for centuries, and created what appears to be the first professional standing army in history.  He also replaced, where possible, the subject states with a system of provinces governed by Assyrian officials, and woe to those who revolted.

Tiglathpileser III

Tiglathpileser III

The Assyrians terrorized (and stabilized) the Near Eastern world for more than a century, but maintaining the Empire consumed vast amounts of wealth and manpower, and by the last quarter of the seventh century the state was exhausted.  And surrounded by enemies.  In 625 Babylonia broke free under the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonians), and the Assyrians were unable to recover this valuable territory.  In 615 Assyria was invaded by a new group, the Medes, an Indo-European people who had established themselves in northwestern Iran, and they were soon joined by the Chaldeans, Scythians and Cimmerians.  Nineveh finally fell in 612, and Assyria simply ceased to exist as a state, although the last Assyrian king, the usurper Ashur-uballit II, did not disappear until 610.

The world rejoiced.  “Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?  Whence shall I seek comforters for thee?” said the Hebrew prophet Nahum.  Nineveh was never again occupied, and today its ruins stand on the Tigris River in Mosul, now occupied by ISIS, which has already destroyed stretches of the original city wall.  Two and a half millennia later Nineveh is being laid waste again.

The Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire absorbed Assyria and much of its empire, but its days were also numbered.  In 539 Babylon was captured by the Persian king Cyrus II the Great (559-550), who had defeated the Medes in c. 550 and united the Iranian people under his rule.  Cyrus then proceeded to conquer just about everything from the Aegean to the Indus River; his son Cambyses II (530-522) added Egypt.  The Achaemenid Persian Empire made that of Assyria seem small (though much of the eastern provinces were junk territory), and it was a far different operation.  Fear of the Persian military of course helped secure the Empire, but Persian policy emphasized respect for local populations and cultures, presaging the greatest political structure of antiquity, the Roman Empire.

The Persian Empire ended in 330 with the assassination of its last king, Darius III, whose throne passed to Alexander the Great.  After the Macedonian’s death in 323 the Asiatic part of the Empire, including Assyria, fell to his general Seleucus, whose descendants would rule the area for the next century and a half.  During the period of Seleucid rule the Empire continually shrank, as a new force, the Parthians, a former subject people in northeastern Iran, expanded westwards and ran up against the frontiers of Roman power in Anatolia and Syria-Palestine by the end of the millennium.  Parthia and Rome would duke it out for the next couple of centuries, when in AD 227 the Arsacid Parthian dynasty gave way to the Sassanid Persians, who would rule the area until the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD.  Throughout this period the wealthy fortress city of Hatra, southwest of Mosul, played a key role in the constant wars.  And now it is being razed by a group that makes the Mongols look polite.

Parthian Empire

Parthian Empire

To identify the ISIS barbarians with the Assyrians would be an insult to the Assyrians, for all that they were known for their cruelty.  Assyria was a state that existed for the better part of two millennia, playing a crucial role in the history of the ancient Near East and producing a wealth of art and architecture.  ISIS is nothing.  That the Iranians are now playing a serious role in the fight against the Caliphate scum may be a good omen: after all, it was Iranians – the Medes – who initiated the destruction of the Assyrian terrorists.

Of course the presence of the Iranians concerns the US, especially the with-us-or-against-us conservatives, who have trouble understanding the complexities of foreign affairs.  (One is reminded of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.)  America has conveniently forgotten that the Iranians certainly have reason to be pissed off at us, inasmuch in 1953 the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddegh and subsequently supported the increasingly oppressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.  Pity, the Iranians strike me as natural allies, despite their whacko government.  Not only is the Shia the more cultured segment of Islam, but the Iranians, at least the urban populations, are secular, certainly when contrasted with our 7th century friends in the Gulf.

Shah Mohammad Pahlavi

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Mohammad Mosaddegh

Mohammad Mosaddegh

 

 

Advertisements

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

The Flavian dynasty came to an end with Domitian’s death, but circumstances conspired to prevent a repeat of 68. The Senatorial conspirators had their own candidate ready, a respected sixty-year old Senator, M. Cocceius Nerva, who was far more careful than Galba.  He had the actual murderers of Domitian executed and adopted as his heir the popular general M. Ulpius Trajanus, whom he made co-ruler.  So well trained was the military by the Flavians that these measures were enough to secure their acquiescence to the assassination of Domitian.  Nerva, who died in 98, was in some ways the Gerald Ford of the Principate, keeping the imperial seat warm for a military leader acceptable to the legions.  His important achievement was preventing another civil war and inaugurating a period of excellent government, the apogee of the Empire, the age of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Nerva was the first.

Nerva

Nerva

Trajan was the great warrior Princeps, violating the dictum of Augustus and dramatically extending the Empire. The Dacian Wars made strategic sense, eliminating the centuries old Dacian kingdom, which under Decebalus had been engaged in constant raiding across the Danube.  The two Dacian provinces he created (the heart of present-day Romania) were rich in gold and fairly easily defended in normal times; they were abandoned during the Anarchy.

Suicide of Decebalus

Suicide of Decebalus

Trajan

Trajan

His attempt to find a final solution to the problem of the Parthian Empire, an irritant rather than a serious threat on Rome’s eastern frontier, is far less easy to defend. Their rich western territories, essentially Mesopotamia, were easily conquered, but the Parthians simply fled east to Iran.  By the time Trajan reached the head of the Persian Gulf, revolt was already erupting behind him.  The problem was not conquest; it was occupation.  The area already possessed a millennia old non-classical civilization that could not be easily assimilated, as were the Hellenized eastern provinces or the barbarian western.  This meant extensive internal occupation would be required, and the Roman military simply did not have the manpower to secure these new provinces.  Trajan died suddenly of a stroke in 117 and was subsequently remembered as the Optimus Princeps for his excellent administration and relations with the Senate and his stirring conquests.

It was reported that on his deathbed that the childless Trajan had adopted his nearest male relative, a second cousin, P. Aelius Hadrianus, and while this may be untrue, the army accepted it.  Trajan had cultivated good relations with the Senate, dispelling the ill will of the Flavian era, and Hadrian attempted to follow his example, actually requesting that the Senate approve his nomination as Princeps, which of course they had little choice but to do.  He returned to a defensive policy, wisely abandoning Trajan’s eastern conquests, a very bold and less than popular move for a Roman emperor.  He wanted to evacuate Dacia as well, but sensed that popular opinion would not tolerate this.  Otherwise, Hadrian was the great peripatetic Princeps, constantly touring the Empire to insure that the military, essentially a garrison force, maintained a high standard of efficiency.  And to see the sights – he was also the great tourist Princeps, especially taken by anything Greek, which may account for his wearing a beard, which became the fashion for subsequent emperors.

Hadrian

Hadrian

The one great tragedy of Hadrian’s reign was the Second Jewish Revolt, which could possibly have been prevented. Diaspora Jews were already causing serious trouble before Trajan’s death, and Hadrian, in a rare instance of inept policy, decided to rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem as a purely gentile settlement with a temple of Jupiter where the Jewish temple had once stood.  The result was a revolt that took the Romans three years to crush and devastated Judea, killing several hundred thousand people, both Jews and non-Jews.

Hadrian died in 138, apparently from tuberculosis. His adopted heir was the Senator T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, who gained the cognomen Pius for convincing a Senate hostile to Hadrian to deify him.  To secure long term stability Hadrian also compelled Antoninus to adopt his own nephew, the seventeen year old M. Annius Verus, and curiously, also the seven year old L. Ceionius Commodus, whose father, also L. Ceionius Commodus, was his first choice, now dead.  Antoninus’ reign was essentially peaceful and his relations with the Senate excellent, and when he died in 161, he was succeeded by his well-trained nephew, known now as M. Aelius Aurelius Verus.

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

Upon his succession Aelius took the name M. Aurelius Antoninus and made L. Ceionius his colleague under the name L. Verus Commodus. This was the first time the Empire had actual co-rulers, but fortunately for Rome the indolent Verus died in 169, leaving Aurelius sole Princeps.  In 177 his natural son, M. Commodus Antoninus, became co-emperor and obvious heir, a decision that would prove to be disastrous for the Empire.

It can be said that the decline of the Roman Empire began with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, perhaps ironically, given his character and dedication. He was the great Stoic emperor, in many ways the philosopher ruler that Plato had dreamed of.  Possessing a fine intellect, he was early on attracted to Stoic philosophy and almost certainly would have preferred to spend his life in conversation with his friends rather than shouldering the burden of rule.  But he was a citizen of the cosmopolis, the world polis, which Roman Stoics, with some justification, had identified with the Roman Empire.

Greek Stoicism had sought apathē, a state of emotional equilibrium in which the individual was disturbed by neither bad nor good developments.  This naturally inclined the Stoic to withdraw from the disturbances of the world, but the Roman character could not accept such rejection of duty, and Roman Stoics, prominent among the Senatorial elites, felt the need to serve.  And Aurelius was not just a citizen of the cosmopolis, but designated to become the First Citizen, a duty he could not refuse.

And that duty was onerous. In 161 the Parthians invaded Armenia and Syria, and after some setbacks – the eastern legions were never as tough as the northern – they were repulsed and Parthia was invaded.  By 166 the Parthians were defeated and their capital, Ctesiphon, destroyed, leaving them quiet for the next thirty years.  Unfortunately, the returning troops brought with them the “Antonine plague,” probably smallpox, which rapidly spread across the Empire, leaving entire districts depopulated, and it may have been the cause of Verus’ death in 169.

The removal of so many northern units for the Parthian War encouraged barbarian tribes north of the Danube, themselves under pressure from Germans in central Europe, to cross the river. The north central provinces were over run, and one group crossed the Alps and besieged Aquileia, the first time barbarians had entered Italy in almost three hundred years.  The barbarians cleared out, but the storm soon broke again, and one group, the Costoboci, penetrated as far as Athens.  Aurelius spent most of his remaining years on the Danube frontier fighting the Marcommani, Iazges and Quadi and was apparently on the verge of thoroughly pacifying the districts north of the river when he died in 180.

Marcus Aurelius is virtually unique among heads of state in western history in that we are able to peer into his very soul. He was accustomed to jot down his innermost thoughts, and these writings were preserved and published as the Meditations, apparently contrary to his intentions.  What we see is a man who was compelled to perform his duty to the Empire, but who did so with a kind of detachment, spending those long years fighting on the Danube frontier yet believing that in the end none of it really mattered.  Life was transient, fleeting, as he eloquently puts it: “Yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes.”  He was, in short, the noblest man to rule the Empire.

The imperial situation had been restored, but the Empire was still in dire straits, short of money and manpower from the plague and constant warfare. Had it not been for the attention paid to the military establishment by his predecessors and Aurelius’ diligence in dealing with the growing barbarian tide, the Empire might actually have begun collapsing.  Even a competent successor would have faced serious problems, and unfortunately Rome was left in the hands of a seriously incompetent ruler, Aurelius’ son, M. Commodus Antoninus, who had been made co-emperor in 177.

Why Aurelius allowed his unpromising son to succeed him is something of a mystery, and there is evidence that at his end he realized his mistake, too late. Commodus, who was with his father in the north, promptly made peace with tribes, undoing much of his father’s work, in order to return to the pleasures of Rome.  Commodus was corrupt, indolent and brutal and preferred to leave the government of the Empire at this critical time to a succession of favorites, who unlike Pallas and Narcissus under Claudius were far less interested in the state than their own power.  (One is perhaps reminded of the American Congress.)  Unsurprisingly, he did not get along with the Senate and executions abounded, while he indulged himself fighting as a gladiator in the arena, a slap in the face of Roman dignity.  By 191 he seems to have become completely deranged, playing the role of Hercules and renaming Rome Colonia Commodiana.  Meanwhile, the Senatorial class was decimated and the treasuries empty, despite the practice of selling state offices, and the Empire was surviving because of the diligence of his commanders.  His favorites saw the handwriting on the wall, and on the last day of 192 he was strangled, and his memory was damned.

Commodus

Commodus

Commodus’ assassination was followed by a replay of the Year of the Four Emperors, this time on a larger and more destructive scale. The conspirators selected a respected army commander, P. Helvius Pertinax, but although the Praetorians initially accepted him, they really did not trust him, especially when he paid only half the promised bribe.  He lasted three months before he was murdered, and the Guard, at a loss for a candidate, auctioned off the Empire to the highest bidder, a rich Senator named M. Didius Julianus.  This humiliating moment in the history of the Principate angered everyone, and Julianus’ days were numbered in any case.  Once news of the death of Pertinax had reached the headquarters of the Danubian army, the troops had proclaimed L. Septimius Severus emperor, and he was already marching on Rome.  Septimius promised the Praetorians their lives if they abandoned Julianus, and he was murdered on the first of June 193.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus

Pertinax

Pertinax

Didius Julianus

Didius Julianus

 

Thus began the last dynasty of the Principate. Septimius disbanded the Praetorian Guard and created it anew, this time with veterans from outside Italy, and soon after he stationed a legion in Italy.  Meanwhile, a challenger, C. Perscennius Niger Justus, former general and present governor of Syria, was proclaimed emperor by his troops, and Septimius marched east and defeated him in 194.  Septimius then invaded Parthia, and though successful, he was soon called back west to face another challenger, D. Clodius Albinus.  Septimius had made Albinus, the governor of Britain, his “Caesar,” a sign that he was to be the successor, but in 195 or 196 he was proclaimed emperor by his forces, probably because he feared betrayal by Septimius.  He was defeated in 197, and Septimius returned to the east, where by 199 he had chased the Parthian king east and created a province of Mesopotamia.  He died in 212, fighting Caledonians in Britain.

Clodius Albinus

Clodius Albinus

Perscennius Niger

Perscennius Niger

According to his wish, Septimius’ sons, M. Aurelius Antoninus Caracallus and P. Septimius Geta, became co-rulers, but they already hated one another, and Caracalla had his younger brother murdered in 212. Caracalla, though cruel and cowardly and lacking in any charm, understood the importance of keeping the army happy, and while he had no particular military talents, he did useful work on the northern frontiers.  Pursuing his dream of becoming a second Alexander the Great, in 216 he invaded Parthia and occupied northern Mesopotamia without encountering any resistance.  In the spring of the following year, however, he was assassinated on the orders of his Praetorian Prefect, M. Opellius Macrinus, who himself feared that Caracalla was about to arrest him. Two days later Macrinus was proclaimed emperor by the army.

Geta

Geta

Caracalla

Caracalla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreshadowing the Anarchy, Macrinus was the first emperor who was not of the Senatorial order. He was initially not unpopular after the vindictive tyranny of Caracalla, but though without vices, he was also lacking in any talent, and he alienated his troops by buying peace from the Parthians and keeping his northern legions in Syria.  Meanwhile, the Severan family was not idle.  Caracalla’s aunt, Julia Maesa, had two grandsons, and she put it about that the elder, Bassianus, was the natural son of Caracalla, and this along with the now customary bribe caused the nearest legion to proclaim him emperor in 218.  Troops began deserting to Bassianus, and soon defeated, Macrinus and his son and co-emperor, Diadumenianus, were killed.  Thus began the reign of easily the most worthless man ever to rule the Emperor.

Macrinus

Macrinus

The fifteen year old Bassianus officially took the name M. Aurelius Antoninus, but as chief priest of an orgiastic Syrian deity, he had adopted the name of his god, Elagabalus. His obsession with this alien religion, shared by his mother Julia Soaemias, quickly led to disaster.  He made Elagabalus chief god of Rome, engaged in rites such as ritual prostitution and cross-dressing and even married one of the Vestal Virgins.  Depravity became the means of access to high office.  Everyone was disgusted, and fearing for her own position, his grandmother convinced Elagabalus in 221 to adopt her other grandson, the thirteen year old Alexanius, a youth of entirely different character.  In 222 Alexander’s mother Julia Mammaea bribed the already resentful Praetorians to murder Elagabalus and his mother, who were dragged through the streets and thrown in the Tiber.

Elagabalus

Elagabalus

Julia Maesa

Julia Maesa

M. Aurelius Severus Alexander became the last Princeps, if that term may still be applied. In effect the government was run by his grandmother and after her death his mother, and although their administration saw a return of respect for the Senate and some economic revival in the Empire, the soldiery grew impatient with the unwarlike Alexander. In 227 the Sassanid Persian dynasty put an end to the exhausted Parthian Empire and occupied the Roman province of Mesopotamia, and in 231 Alexander invaded the new Persian Empire, but failed to recover Mesopotamia. In 234 he responded to German incursions across the Rhine and Danube by concentrating an army near Mainz, but he first attempted to buy off the barbarians, perhaps influenced by his mother, who was present.  The disgusted northern legions murdered him and his mother in 235 and proclaimed C. Julius Verus Maximinus, a one-time Thracian peasant who had risen through the ranks, emperor.  The Anarchy had begun.

Maximinus

Maximinus

Alexander

Alexander

Politically, things had certainly changed. By 235 the Senate had become a virtually powerless institution, no longer proposing decrees and no longer having any control over the magistracies and governmental appointments.  Its only power was to grant or withhold deification of a dead emperor, and that was constrained by the whims of the new ruler.  Further, less and less did the Senate represent the old Roman noble families.  It was not simply new Italian families, such as the Flavians, but increasingly also provincial nobility, a process that went all the way back to Caesar.

This growing cosmopolitanism was also reflected in the Princeps and the Empire as a whole. Trajan and Hadrian were Spaniards and Septimius Severus from north Africa, as Roman as Caesar but without the pure bloodlines of the old families.  This “democratization” ultimately extended to even the lowest: in 212 Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire – the so-called Antonine Constitution.  Caracalla did this in order to increase revenues and the citizenship had become essentially politically meaningless, but it represents something virtually unique in the history of empire.  A man whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought the legions now had the same legal status as one who could trace his line back to the early Republic.  This enfranchisement of the Empire, together with Septimius’ stationing of a legion in Italy, paved the way for the ultimate evolution of Italy into just another set of provinces.

This “democratization” was also impacting the military. Traditionally, the officer class came from the Senatorial nobility, and the highest a ranker might rise to was chief centurion, the Roman equivalent of Sergeant-Major. This barrier was already crumbling as emperors made increasing use of the Equestrian class for commands and high posts (the lesser nobility, traditionally involved in business and lower administrative posts), further marginalizing the Senate.   Septimius dramatically increased the opportunities for rankers and especially their sons to gain Equestrian and even Senatorial status, thus opening the way for the highest offices, including Princeps, as Maximinus demonstrates.  The replacement of the traditional soldiers’ cult of the legionary standards with a sort of emperor worship is a sign of the increasingly intimate relationship between army and ruler.  In fact, veterans had become a favored class in the state, enjoying many special privileges; this is the “militarization” of the Empire.

Military pay had risen steadily and donatives by newly elevated emperors were now the common practice, but the army remained an efficient and disciplined force. Frontier fortifications were becoming more common – Hadrian built a wall from the Tyne to the Solway Firth and further north Antoninus constructed an earthen rampart and ditch from the Forth to the Clyde – but the legions remained a field army, ready to be moved to any critical spot, and a point defense remained the grand strategy of the Empire.  The provincial auxiliaries had become virtually identical to the legions, especially in the wake of the Antonine Constitution, and were very Romanized, but the practice of creating numeri, cheaper but thinly Romanized native and even barbarian units on the frontiers, was a growing threat to imperial stability.  Finally, Parthia and subsequently Persia was becoming an imperial obsession and drain on resources, as lower quality rulers sought to emulate Alexander the Great.

One might include the period after the assassination of Commodus in the Anarchy, but while the Severans are certainly a sort of Coming Attractions for the Anarchy, they are still substantially different from what will follow. They do present a relatively stable, if weak, dynasty lasting forty-two years (compared to the twenty-seven of the Flavians), and the military has not yet declined into an inefficient and completely undisciplined mass, supporting whomever will make their lives easier, Empire be damned.  The idea of a Princeps working in partnership with the Senate has of course atrophied into an all-powerful emperor, backed by the army, dealing with a virtually powerless institution.  But the idea is still there, if now completely at the whim of the autocrat.  It disappears completely during the Anarchy, and the emperor of the Late Empire is no longer a First Citizen but a Dominus or Lord, answering only to himself and soon enough, the Christian god.

 

96-180 The Five Good Emperors 

   96-98 Nerva 

   98-117 Trajan 

            101-102 First Dacian War

105-106 Second Dacian War

114-117 Parthian War

117-138 Hadrian 

            132-135 Second Jewish Revolt 

138-161 Antoninus Pius 

   161-180 Marcus Aurelius 

161-169 Lucius Verus 

            177-180 Commodus 

            161-166 Parthian War

167-175, 177-180 Danubian barbarian wars 

   180-192 Commodus 

193 Jan-March Pertinax 

193 March-June Didius Julianus 

193-235 Severans 

193-211 Septimius Severus 

            194 Defeat of Perscennius Niger

195, 197-199 Parthian war

197 Defeat of Clodius Albinus

211-217 Caracalla 

211-212 Geta 

            212 Antoninian Constitution

214 ParthianWar 

   (217-218 Macrinus [and Diadumenianus]) 

218-222 Elagabalus 

   222-235 Severus Alexander

             227 Sassanid Persians replace Parthians

230-233 Persian War

235 – 285 Anarchy

 285 – 5th Century   Dominate or Late Empire

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.