Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire’

The Battle of Adrianople

July 16, 2017

The fall of the Roman Empire in 476 (or at least the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern half survived  for a millennium after the “fall”) is one of the historical events which has attracted a lot of attention at least since Edward Gibbon’sThe Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” and probably since the Empire actually fell. All sorts of explanations have been given as the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire; moral decay, civic disengagement on the part of the political elite, the unworldliness of Christianity, even the lead pipes used in Roman plumbing. While these explanations have some merit, in the end the Roman Empire fell because of bad decisions made by several Emperors as well as bad choices made by generations of ordinary Romans. There was nothing inevitable or preordained about the fall of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire could have stood by centuries longer than it did, or it could have fallen centuries earlier. One of the decisions that, if it did not lead inevitably to the fall of the empire, at least weakened the Roman state and led to the destruction of the Roman army, was the decision by the Emperor Valens to admit the entire nation of the Germanic Visigoths into the Roman Empire, and several subsequent decisions by Valens which led to catastrophe.

Valens was the brother of the Emperor Valentinian I, who came to power in the year 364. By this time, the challenges of ruling the Roman Empire had become so great that it was believed one man could not possibly rule the entire empire alone and as often as not, an emperor would have one or more co-emperors to help manage the burden, and so Valentinian made his brother co-emperor shortly after his own accession to the throne. Valentinian kept control of the western half of the Empire for himself and put Valens in charge of the eastern half. In the year 375, Valens learned that a vast number of Visigoths had appeared on the Roman borders at the Danube.

Valens

The Visigoths were one of a number of German barbarians who lived beyond the Roman borders along the Rhine and Danube rivers. This border was always Rome’s greatest security threat, since the Germans often invaded Roman territories seeking plunder. The Roman legions had a difficult time repelling these raids and they were never able to actually conquer Germany because of the thick forests and fierce inhabitants. It was in the provinces along this border that were the most heavily defended in the Empire and where most of the legions were stationed. Of course, the relations between the Romans and the Germans were not invariably hostile. There was much trade across the borders and over time the Germans came to appreciate Roman civilization and even began to emulate the Romans. The Romans even hired Germans as mercenaries for their armies as Rome’s population began to decline and Romans became disinclined to join the army. Sometimes barbarians would be permitted to settle depopulated territories within the Empire, where they quickly became assimilated.

As it happened, the Visigoths did not come as invaders, but as refugees. The Huns had emerged from Central Asia and had invaded the Goths’ homelands in what is now the Ukraine. The Huns had already conquered the Visigoth’s kinsmen the Ostrogoths, and the Visigoths had decided that they would rather seek refuge inside Roman territory and become Romans themselves than be subjects of the Huns.

Valens was preparing for a war with the Persians, Rome’s traditional enemy to the east and he was delighted with the idea of filling the ranks of his army with trustworthy Visigoths, so he gave permission for some of the Visigoths who had been allies of Rome to enter. Because most of his troops were in Syria for the proposed war, there weren’t enough Romans in the area to properly supervise the crossing of the Danube and before long the entire Visigothic nation was settling in Roman territory. This might not have been a problem if the Gothic refugees had been properly handled. The Visigoths may have been barbarians but they were not strangers to the Romans. Many of these Goths had served in the Roman army and were familiar with the Roman Empire and its customs. Probably a great many of these barbarians spoke Latin or Greek. They were eager to become a part of the Roman Empire and if the Romans had settled them in the more depopulated regions of the Balkans and given them land to farm, while recruiting their young men for the army, the Visigoths would have a valuable asset to Rome.

That is not what the Romans did. The Imperial officials in charge of handling relations with the Goths were corrupt, greedy, and incompetent. They disarmed the Visigoths and settled them in refugee camps. The Emperor Valens had promised to distribute food to the Visigoths until they could provide for themselves, but these officials withheld the provisions to sell to the Goths at such exorbitant prices that they were obliged to sell their children into slavery to eat. The Romans made it clear that the Goths were barbarians who could never expect to become really Roman.

Naturally, the Goths were not inclined to put up with this treatment. They rose up in rebellion in 377 and defeated the Roman troops in the region. Now the Roman Empire had an enemy within its borders. The Gothic army won further victories against the local Roman forces and soon controlled much of the province of Thrace. Valens had to call off his war with the Persians and march west with his army to fight the Goths. Meanwhile, the Western Emperor Gratian, who had assumed the throne upon the death of his father Valentinian, prepared to march east to assist his uncle. By the summer of 378, Valens was ready to launch a campaign to subdue the Goths.

By August 9, 378 Valens’s army had caught up with the Visigoths outside the city of Adrianople. The Visigoths had camped on a hill with their wagons drawn up in a circular corral, rather like the settlers during an Indian attack in an old western. The Romans seemed to outnumber the Goths and the Gothic cavalry was off raiding. It seemed that the Romans would win an easy victory. Valens’s generals advised him to wait for Gratian’s reinforcements before engaging the Goths, but Valens didn’t want to share the credit for the expected victory with his nephew. Valens led his army out to meet the Goths.

Adrianople

The Gothic leaders were aware of their precarious position so they sent envoys out to parley with Valens hoping to buy time until their cavalry returned. The Roman soldiers, already tired after a seven hour march now had to stand at attention in the hot sun while their Emperor negotiated. Eventually the Romans had had enough and began to attack the Goths without waiting for orders. At first it seemed that the Romans would win the easy victory they expected, but the Goths pushed back their first assault. As the Romans were reorganizing for another attack, the Gothic cavalry returned from their raiding. The cavalry managed to surround the tired and thirsty Romans and the Roman army was routed.

The Battle of Adrianople

This was one of the worst disasters in the entire history of the Roman Army. The core of the East Roman Army, the best and most experienced soldiers who were led by the Emperor was destroyed and the Emperor Valens was killed. This was not the end of the Roman Empire. The Goths lacked the siege equipment to capture Adrianople and Valens’s successor, Theodosius I, slowly rebuilt the Roman Army and managed to defeat the Goths, ending the war on much the same terms as they had agreed to when they first entered the Empire. Yet, it was never the same afterwards. The myth of the invincibility of the Roman Army was shattered. The Romans had been defeated before and the Empire has been invaded many times, but always before the legions had managed to triumph in the end. After Adrianople, Rome was never entirely in control of its territory. In 410 these Visigoths sacked Rome and in 418 they established themselves as an independent kingdom in Gaul.

I can’t but wonder if there is some parallel between Valens’s incompetent handling of the Visigoths and some policies followed by present day leaders in Europe. They have permitted large numbers of immigrants from the Middle East to come into Europe to alleviate a post-war shortage of labor, but they didn’t try very hard to assimilate them. Instead they made it clear that these Muslims would never really be French or German etc. Naturally the immigrants started to resent this and sought refuge in their religion, increasingly radical forms of Islam. It hasn’t helped that Europe’s intellectual elite has since lost all confidence in their own Western Civilization and are now inclined to appease the Muslim minority, no matter how outrageous their demands, thus earning the contempt of the Muslim minority. Is there a twenty-first equivalent of the Battle of Adrianople in the near future?

The Rise of Rome

March 3, 2016

If I were to mention the Roman Empire in any sort of word association context, many people might respond with some variation of “decline and fall of”. It seems that every historian or history buff who is at all familiar with the history of the Roman Empire thinks largely in terms of its decline and fall and they all seem to have their favorite theories why the Empire fell; moral decay, economic collapse, climate change, etc. The impression seems to be that Rome was somehow doomed to fail and that the only lessons to learn from Roman history is what great powers ought not to do in order to avoid their own decline and fall.

Yet, Rome was an enormously successful state. For almost six hundred years, 146 BC to AD 410, Rome was uncontested ruler of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, a feat unmatched by any of the many great powers since, and even after the “fall” of the Empire in 476, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire manager to last for another thousand years. No other, more recent, great power has managed such longevity. Perhaps the question we need to ask about the Roman Empire is not how it fell, but how a small, Italian city-state rose to rule the known world, and how they managed to rule for so long.

This is the question which Anthony Everett seeks to answer in “The Rise of Rome”. In his book, Everett traces the history of Rome from its legendary, even mythical, beginnings to the generation before the rise of Caesar. Everett recounts the legends of Rome’s founder, Romulus, and its kings, the overthrow of Tarquin and the establishment of the Republic, and the wars in which the city fought for its life against its neighbors. Everett then considers what truth, if any, may be behind these legends based on the findings of archeology, while noting that the true events are less important than the fact that the Romans themselves believed the legends to be true and were influenced by them.

Rise+of+Rome+jacket

The Republic slowly came to dominate Italy, in part because of Rome’s military prowess, Rome was an aggressive, militaristic state, but also because the Romans repeatedly demonstrated a statesmanlike common sense in their relations with defeated enemies and in their own internal politics. Here we begin to have somewhat more reliable historical accounts and we can begin to understand what the Romans were doing right. The Romans did not seek to destroy their enemies once they were defeated, but to have their former enemies join them. Italians could become allies in league with Rome and perhaps even gain Roman citizenship. Rome suffered from the same sort of class conflicts as the Greek city-states, but while the Greek factions usually tried to destroy each other, the Roman ruling class generally managed to find some compromise which kept the city together. More than any thing else, it was the Roman refusal to accept defeat and determination to continue fighting, even when their cause seemed lost, that led to the many Roman victories, as such warlords as Pyrrhus and Hannibal discovered.

The Punic Wars were a turning point in Roman history. For the first time, Rome acquired territories outside of Italy, and by the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, Rome had come to dominate the Mediterranean. Rome had become a wealthy superpower. This success was not altogether favorable to the development of the character of the Romans. The Republican customs and institutions which suited an Italian city-state did not scale all that well to a mighty empire and the traditional good sense and willingness to compromise that had been displayed by Rome’s ruling class began to falter in the newly affluent society. Everett ends his account of the rise of Rome with the rebellion of Rome’s Italian allies, who, perhaps uniquely in history, did not seek to overthrow Roman leadership, but to be allow to become Roman citizens themselves, and rise and fall of the Roman generals and statesmen, Marius and Sulla, who set the precedents for Caesar’s dictatorship and the end of the Roman Republic.

I can highly recommend “The Rise of Rome” for anyone interested in the history of the Roman Republic, particularly the early centuries that do not get nearly so much attention time of Caesar and the early emperors. Maybe we could learn some lessons in how to manage an empire.

The Nativity According to Luke

December 20, 2015

Here is what Christmas is all about

 

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke. There are two accounts of Jesus’s birth in the New Testament, the account that Luke gives and the account that Matthew gives. Mark ignores the question of Jesus’s birth entirely, preferring to begin with Jesus’s public ministry while John actually begins his account before the nativity and moves from there to Jesus’ career. Here is Luke’s account.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.(Luke 2:1-21)

There is a considerable amount of skepticism regarding the census, both on the dating and the procedure. Most skeptics regard it as extremely improbable that the Romans would make people travel here and there to register in their home towns. As a matter of fact that is just how the Romans conducted their censuses.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.
But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.
Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.
But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.
To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

As the Roman Empire expanded and citizenship was given out to other cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean, I would imagine that every Roman citizen had to go to his native city to register. Presumably there were lists of citizens kept in major cities and in Rome. Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen at various times in Acts and you might wonder how he was able to prove it. Well, every Roman citizen had a sort of ID or diploma which would have been issued in his city.

But with the steady extension of the citizenship by individual grants to provincials isolated in peregrine communes, and with the informal settlement of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the provincial territories, a more effective means of registration became necessary. Formal documentation of the grant of citizenship to provincial soldiery appears first in 89 B.C., in the shape of a bronze tablet recording the decree of a proconsul enfranchising a unit of Spanish cavalrymen in the Social War, who are all named in a general list. Presumably each soldier received a copy. The cities of persons of higher status enfranchised by Octavian in c. 40 B.C. received a copy of a decree detailing all the privileges of their new status, while his auxiliary veterans could acquire copies of the enabling edict that enfranchised them. But it is only with the regularization of the grant of citizenship to the all time-expired auxiliaries by Claudius that a standardized document appears. This is the small bronze diptych known as the diploma civitatis, containing a brief and uniform formula conferring the Roman citizenship on the holder and his descendants, who is indicated by his name and military unit. These documents were not normally used for civilians, who received instead a copy in libellus form of the brief imperial warrant authorizing the registration of their enfranchisement in the archives at Rome.

Diplomata and libelli provided for new citizens. For the mass of the citizenry, for whom censorial registration at five-yearly intervals was an inefficient instrument, adequate provision was finally made by the creation of an official system of compulsory birth registration under the social legislation of Augustus (A.D. 4)… The Roman citizen was required to register the birth of his children within thirty days before a Roman official, and he received a wooden diptych recording the declaration, which acted as a certificate of citizenship for the child for the rest of his life. Like the military diplomata this contained the names of seven witnesses, and provided a presumptive proof of citizen status… Similarly the enfranchisement of freedmen, which depended upon a formal act, was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis. Citizens of diverse origins thus came to have some form of documentary evidence of their status.

Presumably Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census, obviously, Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses, but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that in this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. There would have been no need for her to travel. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much.

 

The Nativity According to Luke

December 22, 2014

The Gospel of Luke tells us what Christmas is all about

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.(Luke 2:1-21)

Luke is a historian of the Hellenistic school, like Herodotus or Thucydides. Although he tries to establish times and places, he is actually less interested in being precise than in understanding the meaning of the events he records. In fact, it wasn’t so easy to give exact dates in those times, given that every city and region had its own calendar and way of numbering or naming the years.

There is a considerable amount of skepticism about the census, both on the dating and the procedure. Most skeptics regard it as extremely improbable that the Romans would make people travel here and there to register in their home towns. As a matter of fact that is just how the Romans conducted their censuses.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.
But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.
Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.
But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.
To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

As the Roman Empire expanded and citizenship was given out to other cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean, I would imagine that every Roman citizen had to go to his native city to register. Presumably there were lists of citizens kept in major cities and in Rome. Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen at various times in Acts and you might wonder how he was able to prove it. Well, every Roman citizen had a sort of ID or diploma which would have been issued in his city.

But with the steady extension of the citizenship by individual grants to provincials isolated in peregrine communes, and with the informal settlement of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the provincial territories, a more effective means of registration became necessary. Formal documentation of the grant of citizenship to provincial soldiery appears first in 89 B.C., in the shape of a bronze tablet recording the decree of a proconsul enfranchising a unit of Spanish cavalrymen in the Social War, who are all named in a general list. Presumably each soldier received a copy. The cities of persons of higher status enfranchised by Octavian in c. 40 B.C. received a copy of a decree detailing all the privileges of their new status, while his auxiliary veterans could acquire copies of the enabling edict that enfranchised them. But it is only with the regularization of the grant of citizenship to the all time-expired auxiliaries by Claudius that a standardized document appears. This is the small bronze diptych known as the diploma civitatis, containing a brief and uniform formula conferring the Roman citizenship on the holder and his descendants, who is indicated by his name and military unit. These documents were not normally used for civilians, who received instead a copy in libellus form of the brief imperial warrant authorizing the registration of their enfranchisement in the archives at Rome.

Diplomata and libelli provided for new citizens. For the mass of the citizenry, for whom censorial registration at five-yearly intervals was an inefficient instrument, adequate provision was finally made by the creation of an official system of compulsory birth registration under the social legislation of Augustus (A.D. 4)… The Roman citizen was required to register the birth of his children within thirty days before a Roman official, and he received a wooden diptych recording the declaration, which acted as a certificate of citizenship for the child for the rest of his life. Like the military diplomata this contained the names of seven witnesses, and provided a presumptive proof of citizen status… Similarly the enfranchisement of freedmen, which depended upon a formal act, was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis. Citizens of diverse origins thus came to have some form of documentary evidence of their status.

Presumably Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census; obviously Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses, but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that in this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much. In the other hand, she was also of the line of David and perhaps her presence in Bethlehem might have been desirable. Again you must not imagine that Mary was on the point of giving birth as they traveled. They could have spent several weeks in Bethlehem.

 

 

Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor

September 9, 2013

Gaius Octavius Caesar, better known as Augustus is without question one of the most influential men in the history of the West. The story of his life and accomplishments is an astonishing one, and yet full of contrasts. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, yet he never used that title. Augustus began his life as the son of a relatively minor Italian aristocrat but became the most powerful man in Rome. He was the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar and used this connection to leap to the heights of Roman politics, yet his cautious personality was the opposite of Julius Caesar’s more flamboyant style. His rise to power showed a ruthless and often bloodthirsty deposition, yet when he had achieved absolute power, he governed justly and humanely. He had little military skill, unlike his grand uncle, but, with the aid of his friend Agrippa, he was able to defeat his rivals in the civil wars that ended the Republic. He was an absolute ruler, but he maintained the fiction that he had restored the Republic and scrupulously followed the forms of the old Constitution, while remaking Roman politics in a form that endured for the next two centuries. He always suffered from uncertain health, but he outlived nearly every one of his associates, including several possible heirs to his position.

English: A statue of the first Roman Emperor A...

 Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt is a wonderful biography about the first Roman Emperor. Everitt tells the story of Augustus from his boyhood to his climb to power and his death. This is a sympathetic biography and while reading it, one feels exhilarated by Augustus’s victories and sorry for his losses, especially in his last years when it seemed that no one would be able to maintain the political structure he so carefully built after his death. Everitt portrays Augustus as a statesman, who for all of his faults was concerned to leave Rome better than he found it. His influence lasted as long as the Empire lasted and on to the present day.

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 Augustus’s last words were reputed to be, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” He certainly had played his part well.

John Stossel and the Decline of the Roman Empire

August 1, 2013

Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, people have speculated on the cause of that fall. In general, those who have indulged in such speculation have seemed to believe that Rome had some fatal weakness that made its fall inevitable. They have often gone on to point out that their own country has flaws rather similar to Rome’s and that the fall of their nation’s power is likewise inevitable. We, Americans have not proven to be immune to the temptation of comparing ourselves to the Romans and wondering if the decline and fall of the American Empire is just around the corner. John Stossel ponders this question in his latest column at Townhall.com.

Unfortunately, the fall of Rome is a pattern repeated by empires throughout history … including ours?

A group of libertarians gathered in Las Vegas recently for an event called “FreedomFest.” We debated whether America will soon fall, as Rome did.

Historian Carl Richard said that today’s America resembles Rome.

The Roman Republic had a constitution, but Roman leaders often ignored it. “Marius was elected consul six years in a row, even though under the constitution (he) was term-limited to one year.”

Sounds like New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg.

“We have presidents of both parties legislating by executive order, saying I’m not going to enforce certain laws because I don’t like them. … That open flouting of the law is dangerous because law ceases to have meaning. … I see that today. … Congress passes huge laws they haven’t even read (as well as) overspending, overtaxing and devaluing the currency.”

The Romans were worse. I object to President Obama’s $100 million dollar trip, but Nero traveled with 1,000 carriages.

Tiberius established an “office of imperial pleasures,” which gathered “beautiful boys and girls from all corners of the world” so, as Tacitus put it, the emperor “could defile them.”

Emperor Commodus held a show in the Colosseum at which he personally killed five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros and a giraffe.

To pay for their excesses, emperors devalued the currency. (Doesn’t our Fed do that by buying $2 trillion of government debt?)

Nero reduced the silver content of coins to 95 percent. Then Trajan reduced it to 85 percent and so on. By the year 300, wheat that once cost eight Roman dollars cost 120,000 Roman dollars.

The president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Lawrence Reed, warned that Rome, like America, had an expanding welfare state. It started with “subsidized grain. The government gave it away at half price. But the problem was that they couldn’t stop there … a man named Claudius ran for Tribune on a platform of free wheat for the masses. And won. It was downhill from there.”

Soon, to appease angry voters, emperors gave away or subsidized olive oil, salt and pork. People lined up to get free stuff.

Rome’s government, much like ours, wasn’t good at making sure subsidies flowed only to the poor, said Reed: “Anybody could line up to get these goods, which contributed to the ultimate bankruptcy of the Roman state.”

As inflation increased, Rome, much like the U.S. under President Nixon, imposed wage and price controls. When people objected, Emperor Diocletian denounced their “greed,” saying, “Shared humanity urges us to set a limit.”

Doesn’t that sound like today’s anti-capitalist politicians.

Diocletian was worse than Nixon. Rome enforced controls with the death penalty — and forbid people to change professions. Emperor Constantine decreed that those who broke such rules “be bound with chains and reduced to servile condition.”

It might be useful to consider a few dates. Gaius Marius was consul in the years 107, 104-100, and 83 BC. The Claudius who ran for tribune is probably Publius Clodius Pulcher. He was murdered in 52 BC. Tiberius reigned as Emperor in the years AD 14-37. Nero reigned from 54-68. Commodus reigned from 180-192. Diocletian ruled from 284 to 305 and Constantine ruled from 306 to 337. The Roman Empire is generally considered to have fallen when the German warlord Odoacer forced the last Emperor Romulus Augustulus to abdicate in 476. This is not actually a very good date for the fall of the Roman Empire since government’s authority had collapsed outside of Italy about half a century earlier. Still, it seems that the excesses and follies of various Roman leaders which caused the fall of Rome took a long time to effect that fall.

Actually, Romulus Augustulus was not the last Roman Emperor. There was still a Roman Emperor in the East at Constantinople. The Eastern Roman Empire, usually called the Byzantine Empire survived intact up until the Arab invasions of the seventh century. Even then the Empire survived in Greece and Asia Minor with its capital at Constantinople until the Turks finally captured Constantinople in 1453. It is true that the average citizen in Constantinople in 1400 lived in a very different society that the Roman in 100 BC. He spoke Greek, not Latin, was ruled by an autocratic Emperor, not a republic, and was a Christian, not a pagan. Still, that citizen of Constantinople never doubted for an instant that he was a Roman a true descendant of the people who had once ruled the world.

The traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 BC. Modern historians do not take the legends about Romulus and Remus very seriously, but 753 is probably as good as any other date for the beginning of the Roman state. If we consider Rome as having begun in 753 BC and ending in AD 1453 than Rome, as an independent state in various forms lasted for an incredible 2206 years. That is an existence longer that any other nation with a continuous history except for China and ancient Egypt. Rome was a major power from about 300 BC until AD 1100 or 1400 years. Rather than asking what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps we should be asking how the Roman Empire lasted so long.

Are there lessons to be learned from Roman history? Perhaps. We should keep in mind that Ancient Rome was a very different society than modern America. The Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, in part, because Roman political leaders stopped following the unwritten Roman constitution. We may be able to learn something, though There are signs that many contemporary American politicians view our constitution more as a hindrance to get around than a basic law to follow. I don’t think that our situation in America is like fifth century Rome. There are no Visigoths ready to sack New York or Washington DC. I think it is more like Rome in the late second century BC, a republic whose institutions are starting to break down. I am afraid that there is a Julius Caesar or Augustus somewhere who is fated to fundamentally transform the American Republic into the American Empire.

The Emperor Julian 2

July 17, 2013

I left the story of the Emperor Julian yesterday as he was entering Constantinople to be made Emperor. Today I will write of what Julian did as sole Emperor of the Roman Empire.

Emperor Julian the Apostate

Julian decided that as Emperor, he would help to bring back the old traditions that had made Rome great. The early emperors had pretended that Rome was still a republic and made a great show of consulting the Senate and ruling within the laws. They were not dictators or kings, just the first citizens (princeps) of Rome. Over the centuries, times had changed and the pressures of foreign invasions and civil wars with usurpers had seemed to make it necessary for the Emperor to be an autocrat, ruling by decree. To avert assassinations, the later Emperors encouraged people to believe them to be more than human, the pagan Emperors became gods, the Christians, God’s representatives on Earth. Elaborate ceremonies had developed and Emperors now wore magnificent robes and had golden crowns. They kept courts full of servants and officials. Julian decided that all of this was unnecessary and expensive. He dismissed all of the useless courtiers who were cluttering the palace and tried to live the simple and virtuous life of a philosopher king.

 

 

Julian also sought to bring back the old Pagan religion of Greece and Rome. He reorganized the various priesthoods to make them more like the Christian clergy and encouraged acts of charity. He was so enthusiastic a participant in the old rites of sacrifice that his subjects started to refer to him as “the Butcher”. Julian did not persecute the Christians, except to forbid Christians from teaching classical literature on the grounds that they didn’t believe in the old gods. Julian knew that past persecutions had only strengthened the Christians, and in any event by then there were too many Christians for the church to be suppressed. What Julian did instead was to proclaim complete freedom of religion.It should be recalled that part of the reason Constantine had supported the Christians was to give the Roman people something to unify them. It did him and his sons no good if the Christian sects fought among themselves, so he and later Emperors liked to establish one sect as orthodox and others as heretics to be suppressed. Julian hoped that the sects would fight among themselves and so weaken and discredit Christianity.

 

 

The Roman Empire still had an unresolved war with the Persians, so Julian decided to prepare for a campaign to the east. The city of Antioch was chosen to be the staging ground for the campaign and Julian traveled there in May 362. He stayed in Antioch for nine months overseeing preparations. It was not a pleasant time for him. Antioch boasted one of the oldest Christian communities in the Empire and by then a majority of the citizens were Christians. They did not like their pagan Emperor, especially after he made the public relations blunder of moving a saint’s remains in order to restore a pagan temple.They also did not know what to make of an Emperor who eschewed ceremony and tried to portray himself as their equal.  He did nothing to repair the damage to his relations with the people and even composed a satire called “the Beard Hater” which savagely mocked the Antiochenes. Everyone was relieved when it was time for Julian and his army to march to war.

 

 

Julian was confident and ambitious about the upcoming campaign. This was not to be a mere border war as the Romans and Persians or Parthians had been fighting for centuries. Julian wanted to settle matters with the Persians. Julian believed that if he could be the new Julius Caesar in the west, he could be the new Alexander the Great in the east.

 

 

He began the campaign in march 363. At first Julian was as successful against the Persians as he had been against the Germans. He was able to bypass or defeat the Persian forces sent against him and won a major battle at the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. He was unable to capture the city however, and his officers were growing increasingly uneasy over the likelihood of the Roman supply lines being cut off by the Persians. .This was a dangerous possibility because  the withdrawing Persians had waged a scorched earth policy making it difficult for the Romans to live off the land of their enemies and  in order to engage the Persian forces defending Ctesiphon, the Romans had had to cross the Tigris, which now lay between the Roman army and Roman territory. Julian was somewhat reluctant to abandon his conquests but upon receiving news of a large Persian army approaching to relieve Ctesiphon, he agreed to withdraw. The Romans fought another battle with the Persians at Samarra.The battle was indecisive but Julian was mortally wounded. He managed to live for two days and then died of his wounds. His last words were allegedly,”You have won, O Galilean.” If he didn’t actually say this, he might as well have.

 

 

Julian's Campaign

Julian’s Campaign

The Roman army, still pursued by the Persians and on the wrong side of the Tigris, quickly selected a Christian named Jovian to be the new Emperor. In order to permit the Romans to return to their territory, Jovian was obliged to make a treaty with the Persians that was very much in their favor. He restored Christianity to a privileged position but he only reigned eight months before dying of natural causes. From Jovian’s time onward, Rome was to be a Christian Empire, and the old pagan religion faded away. By 380, the Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity Rome’s official state religion and ended all support of competing faiths. The Olympic Games were ended and pagan temples were destroyed. The Galilean had won.

 

 

I have to wonder if Julian would have been more successful if he had lived longer. I doubt it. He was working against all the trends of his times and against the beliefs of his most prominent subjects.  I do not doubt that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was sincere, but he was a shrewd enough politician to see that Christianity was the future of the Western world. The Christians were better organized than any competing faith and their religious doctrine was more appealing. Even without Constantine’s support, the Christians were becoming a majority, especially in the Eastern Empire. Julian would have been a better Emperor if he had not tried to spend so much effort in reviving a dead past.

 

 

 

 

The Emperor Julian 1

July 16, 2013

A little while back, I mentioned the Roman Emperor Julian in passing. He was the Emperor who tried to restore paganism as the state religion of the Roman Empire, after Constantine had legalized Christianity. He was actually quite an interesting historical figure, so I thought I would write a little more about him.

IMPERATOR - imperator DOMINVS·NOSTER - our lor...

Julian (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Julian was born Flavius Claudius Julianus in May or June ofA.D. 331 or 332. His father was Julius Constantius, the half-brother of the Emperor Constantine I and his mother was named Basilina. Both parents were Christians so Julian was raised as a Christian. When Constantine died in 337, his three surviving sons; Constantius II, Constantine II, and Constans divided the Roman Empire among them. (Evidently Constantine was not too original in naming his children.) Constantius II got the wealthier eastern half of the empire while the other two brothers each received a share of the western half. The three brothers then slaughtered every remaining member of their family who could possibly have a claim to the throne. Only Julian and his half-brother Gallus were spared because of their youth.

Julian grew up in the province of Bithynia under the care of his maternal grandmother and was taught by Eusebius, the Bishop of Nicomedia and a eunuch named Mardonius. He had a Christian education and had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which he used later in life to attack the Christian faith. He was also educated in the old Greek and Roman classics. Meanwhile his cousins fell out among themselves and began to quarrel over their inheritance. Constans and Constantine II fought a war in which Constantine was killed in 340. Constans turned out to be a cruel ruler and was killed by the usurper Magnentius in 350. Julian lived an uncertain life, sometimes exiled to one of the imperial estates, sometimes summoned to play a role at court.

It may be the savage behavior of Julian’s cousins that turned him against Christianity. He may have decided that if that was the way Christian rulers acted, he wanted no part of it. His continuing studies in philosophy probably also played a role in his conversion to paganism. He began to study Neoplatonism in 351. In 355 he moved to Athens, which had become something of a university town, to continue his studies in philosophy. While he was in Athens, he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mystery cult. Julian would probably been happy spending the rest of his life in Athens, studying and teaching, but that was not to be his fate.

In 351, Constantius made Julian’s brother Gallus Caesar over the Eastern Empire, while he marched west to deal with Magnentius. In the late Roman Empire, “Caesar” was a title given to a junior Emperor while “Augustus” referred to the senior Emperor. Gallus was corrupt and brutal so when Constantius finished his business in the west he had Gallus arrested and executed. In 355, Constantius  summoned Julian to Mediolanum (modern Milan) which had become the western capital of the Empire and made him Caesar over the West, charging Julan with the task of driving out the German tribes which were raiding into Gaul. Over the next three years, Julian revealed an unexpected talent for military affairs. His soldiers were victorious in nearly every battle with the Germans and not only did he drive them back across the Rhein, but he even invaded Germany and compelled several kingdoms to submit to Roman authority. His soldiers adored him and hailed Julian as the new Julius Caesar.

Constantius II

Constantius II

Back east, Constantius was not happy.  He had been having difficulties with the Sassanid Persians and Julian’s successes made him look bad in comparison. Constantius also knew that over successful generals had a way of becoming Emperors. In 360, he sent orders west for half of Julian’s forces to be transferred east for the war with Persian. Julian’s troops did not want to leave Gaul so they proclaimed him Augustus. It is not known to what extent this was something Julian wanted, but he must have realized that he had no choice but to go ahead and allow himself to be made Emperor. Constantius would never have believed that it wasn’t Julian’s idea so he had to either fight or die.

Julian marched with his army east while Constantius left Constantinople to meet Julian in battle. Fortunately, the Roman Empire was spared yet another civil war. In November 361, Constantius died of natural causes. In his will, he declared Julian to be sole Augustus or Emperor. Julian quickly traveled to Constantinople to be made Emperor.

This post is longer than I had expected so I will cut it in half. I will post the rest of the story of the Emperor Julian tomorrow.

Attacking the Messenger

January 26, 2013
English: Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus ...

At least he tried to solve his country’s problems. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That may be what the government is doing with the credit rating agencies if Tyler Durden  is right in this post he wrote at Zero Hedge.

Early in the 4th century, Emperor Diocletian issued an infamous decree to control spiraling wages and prices in the rapidly deteriorating Roman Empire.

As part of his edict, Diocletian commanded that any merchant or customer caught violating the new price structures would be put to death.

This is an important lesson from history, and a trend that has been repeated numerous times. When nations are in terminal economic decline, governments will stop at nothing to keep the party going just a little bit longer.

I thought of Diocletian’s desperation a few days ago when I read about the recent sanctions imposed on US rating agency Egan-Jones. It’s a similar story–

For years, major rating agencies (S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch) have championed the outright fraud of our financial system by pinning pristine credit ratings on insolvent governments and their heavily inflated currencies.

In doing so, the rating agencies are effectively claiming that the greatest debtor that has ever existed in the history of the world is nearly ‘risk-free’.

Clearly this is a ridiculous assertion. With a debt level over 100% of GDP, the US is so broke that the government must borrow money just to pay interest on the money it’s already borrowed. They’ve lost over a trillion dollars a year since 2008, yet they still spend money on things like drones and body scanners. It’s crazy.

As with any good scam, the government must maintain public confidence.  The moment someone says ‘the Emperor has no clothes,’ that shallow, fragile confidence will come crashing down and expose the scam. Dissent must be vigorously and swiftly pursued.

So when S&P finally downgraded the US one notch in August 2011, the SEC and Justice Department announced that S&P was under investigation, just two weeks later.

Egan-Jones, a smaller rating agency, has been even more aggressive, downgrading the US credit rating three times in 18 months. And while the federal government may not have imposed Diocletian’s death penalty, they are just as willing to squash dissent.

In a country that churns out thousands of pages of new regulations each week, it’s easy to find a reason to go after someone. As you read this letter, in fact, you are probably in violation of at least a dozen regulatory offenses.

In the case of Egan-Jones, the SEC brought administrative action against the agency within two weeks of their second downgrade. And a few days ago, the case was settled.

I’m sure you have already guessed the ending: Egan-Jones is banned from for the next 18 months from rating US government debt. They’ve effectively been silenced from telling the truth.

The lesson here is obvious. Just as in Roman times, bankrupt nations today will stop at nothing to keep up the scam just a little bit longer.

Given that all this is happening at a time when Congress is voting to suspend the debt ceiling entirely, these actions are the clearest sign yet of just how desperate the government has become.

Could the warning signs be any more obvious?

His knowledge of ancient history is a little off. The Roman Empire lasted another one hundred seventy years in the west and more than a thousand years in the east, so Diocletian’s reign hardly marked a terminal decline of the Empire. It is easy for us to consider Diocletian as a sort of villain or tyrant because of the harshness of some of his actions and the fact that he enlarged the Roman government and made it more autocratic. In fact, Diocletian ended the crisis of the third century with its continuing civil wars between short-lived emperors and the near total collapse of the Roman economy. Diocletian saw that the old system of pretending that Rome was still a republic and the Emperor just another citizen made it too easy for emperors to be overthrown. Although some of his reforms, like the Edict of Maximum Prices, were ill-advised, Diocletian did manage to stabilize the economy, in part by reverting to barter. He defeated Rome’s enemies and secured the borders. He also devised a system of regular succession for Emperors in order to prevent future civil wars. The plan was ignored by his successors, but he can hardly be blamed for that.

Tyler Durden is absolutely correct about our financial situation, though. We are in a lot of trouble, and no one seems to be willing to acknowledge the problem, much less try to solve it. We simply cannot continue to spend a trillion dollars more than we take in every single year. Contrary to what President Obama may think, we do have a spending problem, and a lot of it is his fault.

Which is more that you can say about him

Which is more that you can say about him

We are heading off the cliff very fast and it won’t be pleasant when we crash.

 

The Inheritance of Rome

January 8, 2013
Cover of "The Inheritance of Rome: Illumi...

Cover via Amazon

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham is the second book in the series the Penguin History of Europe, following The Birth of Classical Europe. Like the earlier book, The Inheritance of Rome is more concerned with the uses the people of the era made of their understanding of the past than with giving a straightforward chronology of the era. In other words, this book deals with the inheritance the Roman Empire bequeathed to the peoples living in the centuries after its collapse in the West. These peoples, whether of the post Roman kingdoms of Western Europe, the Roman remnant of the Byzantine Empire in the East, or the Islamic invaders made differing uses of the institutions and cultural norms left behind by the Romans, each society adapting Roman ways to their particular needs.

The Inheritance of Rome covers the centuries between 400 and 1000. While these endpoints may seem somewhat arbitrary, in neither case do they indicate any sort of sharp division, they nevertheless are appropriate as the endpoints for the transformation of Europe from a continent dominated by a centralized empire to the decentralized, feudal Europe of the Central Middle Ages.  At the beginning of this period, the Roman Empire was still the same empire that had existed for centuries. No one could have guessed that the western half of the empire would soon be overrun by invaders within 80 years would be gone. For centuries afterwards, no one quite believed that the Roman Empire had actually passed away and much of the history of the Early Middle Ages is the history of trying to restore the Empire, culminating in the great Carolingian project.

The Carolingians very consciously made use of the rhetoric of restoration in their policies. They sought to create a universal Christian Empire and were, at least in theory, concerned with the souls of their subjects as much as their lives. The project failed in the end when the Carolingian dynasty died out. The Ottonians tried to continue this legacy, but Europe, under attack from Vikings, Arabs, and others was less inclined to see itself as a whole towards the end of this period. In fact, starting in the middle tenth century, we can begin to speak of the modern nations of Europe, France, Germany, etc. Europe was beginning to grow beyond the inheritance of Rome.

The period covered in this book is often referred to as the Dark Ages. Wickham deals with this question through his book. On the one hand, the era was not nearly as dark as is sometimes supposed. There were some strong continuities between the society and institutions of the Roman Empire and the post-Roman polities that succeeded it. The Germans invaders did not simply sweep away Roman institutions and customs, but were rather, eager to adopt Romans ways. On the other hand, Wickham describes a clear simplification and localization of the economies of the entire region, particularly in the centuries of the worst crises, about 500-700. There was a step backwards for much of the region for which the reasons are not entirely known.

The Inheritance of Rome is an excellent way to learn about an interesting and important period of our past.


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