January 22, 2009

The fall of Rome, the rise of Empire

First, for anyone interested in the fall of Rome, I highly recommend two recent books, The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization by Bryan Ward-Perkins, who takes a materialist perspective, and The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, by Peter Heather, who is a more traditional textual historian.  I want to respond to a few points in Matthew Roberts’ post, Empire Undermines Tradition. I agree with its general thrust, but on the points about Rome.

– I doubt that there was much demographic replacement.  Genetics doesn’t suggest this (nor does detailed analysis of the purported numbers of the barbarian hordes after the fall of the Western Empire), and remember that ancient cities were population sinks.  Etruscan origins in Anatolia are clear in the Tuscan countryside, but the rural location might be critical to preserving this foreign injection of ancestry.

– Matthew is obviously correct that Caesar recruited foreigners such as Germans, but the “growth curve” for non-Italians in the military I’ve seen show that most of the shift occurred in the 2nd century, while the wholesale barbarization (the ubiquity of the foederati) begins in the 4th century. In other words, there was a major latency on the order of centuries toward the transformation of the Roman military into an alien entity after the first steps.  In fact, from what I can tell most people do not focus on Caesar as much as Gaius Marius’ opening of the army to the unlettered and unpropertied two generations before Caesar’s Gallic Wars as the key turning point in transforming an army of citizens into an army supported by the state.  With the shift toward those without any independent means the Roman legions became totally dependent upon the patronage of the generals who led them, so it is no surprise that a generation after Marius’ expedient act to replenish the ranks Sulla marched on Rome with the support of his soldiers. The army were now more loyal to their leaders than to the Republic.

– Though Emperors were of diverse origins, the devil is in the details. Many Emperors who were born outside of the Italian peninsula were of mixed origins. Septimius Severus, long characterized as an African Emperor because of his origin in Libya, was of Latin settler background on his father’s side and Punic on his mother’s.  Emperors whose origins were in Spain, such as Trajan or Marcus Aurelius, actually had Latin colonial background.  In other words just looking at where individuals were born loses important information.  To term a traditionalist like Diocletian a “Yugoslavian” (or “Croation” now I suppose) as I’ve seen in some places is exceedingly ahistorical.  The Roman elite, whatever their provenance, spoke the same Latin and Greek.  The emergence of local dialects to prominence likely had to do with the collapse of literacy as an elite marker after the fall of the Empire in the West.  Remember that in an ancient world characterized by illiteracy as the dominant state not until the early 6th century did a man become Emperor who could not read.

– The ethnogenesis of Rome itself is complex. Many cultural hallmarks of the Romans which distinguished them from the Greeks and other civilized peoples (e.g., men and women dining together) were inherited from the Etruscans, who were themselves settlers from Anatolia.  Some of the ancient patrician clans were from non-Latin backgrounds (e.g., the Claudii were Sabines).  Matthew refers to Italy, but the integration of Italy in toto into the Roman identity only occurred during the dying days of the Republic after the Social War. Vespasian, Emperor more than 150 years after the Social War, was the first of Italian provincial background with no roots in the city of Rome to become Emperor (the Julio-Claudians were obviously Roman aristocrats).

This is not to deny the general truths about the dangers of Empire. After all, a Roman traditionalist like Augustus, who reviled Eastern religions and aspired to resurrect enthusiasm for the local cults of the city of Rome, would have been shocked that a Jewish sect became the official religion of the state four centuries after his death. That in fact, that religion became the primary marker of Romanitas in subsequent ages to the people of Europe!

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