I’ve just finished Mike Duncan’s epic 74-hour podcast series, The History of Rome. What took me four months to devour was nearly five years of Duncan’s life in the making. An interesting side-effect of this time compression is that, while flying through about 1000 years of Roman history, thanks to Duncan’s personal remarks throughout the series I’ve also zoomed through a handful of Christmases, Mothers’ Days, his move from Portland to Austin, and the birth of his first child. To my delight, this kept me aware of the fact that it was another human being–not an impersonal textbook or Wikipedia article–telling me the story of Rome. Mike’s sense of humor as well as his frankness about the limits of his (and history’s) knowledge contributed to the effect.
The podcast covers the story of Rome from its mythical founding in the eighth century B.C. to the various events in the fifth century AD that collectively (and each potentially) might be called the fall of the Western Roman Empire. I specify the Western Empire because while culturally quite different, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, which survived until the fifteenth century, is historically very much a branch of the Roman Empire. While Duncan ends his podcast with the West’s fall in the fifth century, he makes clear that it’s highly contested whether the history of Rome ends there. After five years of podcasting, he may have stopped simply from exhaustion.
What Was Rome?
It may seem an odd question, but one thing I’ll take away from this experience is that Rome was so many things throughout its history: both city and sprawling empire, from republic to dictatorship within a few generations, Italian and cosmopolitan, pagan and Christian, civil bureaucracy and military regime. Like the fasces carried by its imperial bodyguards, Rome was ever a bundle of contradictions that, against all odds, mostly stayed bound together–until, of course, they didn’t.
Rome began as an Italian city-state, one of many, that by luck and guile conquered her neighbors–the Latins, Samnites, and Etruscans prominent among them–to become a regional power. After a series of wars with the Carthaginians in North Africa, which Rome nearly lost but which ended with the destruction of Carthage, Rome expanded its dominion to Africa and ascended toward empire. Soon, Julius Caesar would make a name for himself capturing territory from the Gauls north of Italy. After his famous coup and the resulting civil war, assassination, and then another civil war, Caesar’s successors would keep right on expanding further into northern Europe as well as Asia. Eventually, it became clear that the empire was too large for one man to rule, so Diocletian divided it in two and installed a senior and junior emperor in each half. This system, called the Tetrarchy, worked pretty well until Diocletian wasn’t around to make the four rulers behave themselves, and East and West split apart. The equally shortsighted but more vulnerable and less fortunate West would fall a few centuries later.
Why Was Rome?
By this I mean, why was the Roman Empire so successful for so long? The most notable reasons I’ve found are these:
- Roman armies were great at the boring, nerdy stuff like logistics. Ancient battles tended to be fairly evenly-matched affairs because the technological differences between armies were so slim (they’re all basically dudes with swords and shields). As a result, small advantages tended to have outsized impact. Often, it was the army that had an easier march or a better breakfast who would carry the day, and Roman roads and supply lines were instrumental in securing those advantages.
- Rome knew how to divide and conquer. Rome was great at playing its neighbors against each other, or against themselves by favoring a wealthy few to keep a troublesome many down. As the Western Empire began to splinter, the Huns would use this tactic against the Romans themselves.
When Rome was sacked by “barbarians” in 410 AD, I had always pictured a bunch of random, fur-clad brutes sweeping down to pillage the city and bring an end to the empire. There’s a lot mistaken about this notion:
- These weren’t random barbarians. For over a hundred years prior, Rome had been encouraging the settlement of “barbarian” peoples within Roman borders because internecine conflict left few able-bodied men alive to farm the land.
- Because of immigration and frequent trade, barbarian and Roman culture were blended. Barbarian peoples were far less culturally “other” than movies portray them.
- For the same reason, Rome had been filling the ranks of its dwindling armies with barbarian peoples, often as a result of peace terms. Hardly a fur-clad brute, Alaric, the Gothic king whose army sacked Rome, was himself a commander in the Roman army. He sacked Rome after fruitless negotiations with the court at Ravenna for a promotion. Rome had had plenty of barbarian generals (like Stilicho) and even Emperors (first Maximinius Thrax in 235 AD, then a series of Illyrians).
- Speaking of Ravenna, at the time Rome was sacked, Rome wasn’t the capital of the empire. Rome is a pretty easy target, which was fine when Rome was untouchable. But as the empire’s power dwindled, the imperial court was moved first to Milan, and then to Ravenna, a city surrounded by swampland that was as defensible as it was unglamorous. So the sack of Rome, while symbolically grave, was of little strategic consequence.
Why Did the Western Empire Fall?
Duncan was fond of joking that there are 256 different reasons why the empire fell, though that’s probably true at a certain level of granularity. Much more abstractly, my impression is that the empire fell because people stopped believing in it. They stopped paying taxes, stopped enlisting in the legions, and, crucially, honest men stopped running for office to change things. Like a marriage gone sour, the fall of the Western empire seems a story of gradual, mutual estrangement between the state and the people. Certainly, there were precipitating factors–one spouse loses a job (famine), the other has an affair (barbarian immigration), either one of them converts to a new religion (the rise of Christianity)–any or all could lead to separation, but only when one underlying factor is present: a lack of willingness to keep on fighting for it.
This is of course a wild oversimplification of an incredibly complicated situation. Taking a few steps back, here are six major factors that worked to bring the Western Empire to its knees:
- Political: Government entered a downward spiral as Rome’s luck with capable emperors ran out. The thing about autocracy is that while a great emperor can do some great things, a rotten emperor at the top has a way of rotting the entire system from within. Before long, good men avoided civil service because it was so corrupt, further starving the government of talent.
- Economic: Unscrupulous currency devaluation on the part of the government led to rampant inflation, which destroyed the middle class and further widened the gulf between rich and poor. As we’re learning in America now, without a strong middle class to pay taxes, the government soon runs out of money. In Rome, the burden of funding the government fell largely on the poor, as the rich could easily evade their tax obligations.1 Despite truly awful treatment by for-profit tax collectors contracted by the government, the poor were chronically unable to pay up, starving the Roman state for cash. The resultant degradation of the army and infrastructure hastened its demise.
- Military: The once-mighty and proud Roman army was by the end of the fourth century starved of talent: bad emperors hired bad generals; the privileged refused to enlist; uncertainty of pay kept regular Romans from enlisting, and wealthy landowners hid their most able-bodied men when the conscriptors came knocking. Thus, the state came to rely on Germanic mercenaries, first as hired soldiers and then as entire armies. And outsourcing your national security leads to certain, well, conflicts of interest for those you hire to preserve it.
- Social: While escalating class tensions were tugging at the fabric of Roman society, a gradual and then overwhelming influx of barbarians tore the fabric asunder. For centuries, Rome had been allowing (and sometimes forcing) barbarian peoples to settle within Rome in order to make up for the lack of able-bodied farmers than resulted from its endless civil wars. But these people were always seen as second-class citizens. The Italian aristocracy’s racial prejudice prevented capable barbarians from realizing their potential. Indeed, the Illyrian (barbarian) emperors saved Rome in the fourth century, but in the fifth, the senate refused to grant real power to the capable barbarian generals Stilicho and Aetius. This prejudice not only robbed Rome of administrative talent, but eventually led the effective, discontented Alaric to take what would not be given.
- Religious: When Christianity was just a backwater cult of Judaism or later an actively persecuted sect, there was a big incentive to foster unity; however, once it became the de facto state religion of Rome, the new power at stake led Christians to persecute pagans and feud with each other over theological quibbles.2 In an already talent-starved empire, capable pagan administrators were spurned on religious grounds. And at a time when Rome needed to pull together to solve pressing problems, religious feuding fanned the flames of discord.
- Environmental: Finally, climatic fluctuations between 250 and 550 AD threw Roman agriculture into chaos. The dysfunctional state was already having a hard time feeding the masses, and famines even further compromised its legitimacy.
Before turning my back on Rome for a bit (and picking up the story of the Eastern Empire with The History of Byzantium), let me end with two major themes that impressed themselves upon me:
That’s it for the Republic? Really?
Before Julius Caesar seized supreme power in 49 B.C., Rome was a republic and damn proud of it, ruled by two annually elected consuls. Romans deposed their last king, Tarquinius, in 509 B.C. and for nearly five centuries the most life-threatening accusation you could level against a politician was that he wanted to be king. Which is why I find it bizarre that, after Caesar was assassinated for precisely this reason, his successors were allowed to maintain absolute power with barely any agitation to put it back in the hands of the people. Certainly, some of this had to do with Caesar’s immediate successor, Octavian (a.k.a. Augustus) brilliantly styling himself a man of the people and foregoing the more regal titles for simply princeps or “first citizen.” And of course the senate was allowed to keep existing, though mostly toothless. Beyond that, perhaps the people just found it easier to trust a single man–often an experienced military commander–than a few hundred old rich guys in the Senate.
We Take Political Legitimacy for Granted
Say what you will about the dysfunctions of our modern political system, but when someone is elected president it’s a pretty sound bet that they will, in fact, be president. But Roman emperors were never elected,3 and succession was often an uneasy affair. Sometimes emperors would name a successor (usually adopting him posthumously in a weird imitation of hereditary rule). Sometimes when an emperor died the first general to make it back to Rome would assume power (anticipating our modern ritual of calling “shotgun”). And once, the Praetorian Guard assassinated an emperor without thought to who would succeed him, and then hastily proclaimed as emperor someone with no interest in being one (the ascension of Claudius).
Here in the United States, legitimacy flows from relatively few sources. People in power are generally either elected or personally chosen by someone else who was elected. What I found most interesting about Rome is the great number of factors contributing to political legitimacy. Some examples are, in no particular order: relation to a previous emperor, selection by a deceased emperor, holding high office, favor with the senate, military success, the size of one’s army, favor with the people (usually from expanding welfare or sponsoring games), and bribes paid to the Praetorian Guard. I don’t know whether succession was so uncertain because of all these factors or whether there are so many factors because succession was so uncertain.
Every so often (such as when a new ruler came into power) there would be a widespread cancellation of debts. Through bribes or litigation beyond the means of the poor, the Roman rich could avoid paying their taxes until such an event, at which point they would no longer have to. ↩
For example, arguments about whether God is superior to Christ, as Arian Christians believed, or whether the two are co-substantial, or “of the same stuff”. The high-profile Council of Nicaea was finally called to solve this and other squabbles, but those it ruled against did not simply change their opinions with such matters as eternity at stake. ↩