Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Destruction of Pompeii

Most of us know the story of the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D, when Mount Vesuvius produced the most dangerous of its many eruptions. The result of this particular explosion was the burying of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the point of the two cities being lost for centuries. Some 16,000 died in the catastrophe. The volcano has erupted forty two times since 79 A.D, the last one occurring during World War II on March 18-23, 1944. On that occasion, 70-80 American aircraft were destroyed at a nearby Air Force base.

On the day of the eruption August 24th, 79 A.D, all was normal in the morning. There had been a series of small earthquakes in the days preceding the event, but they were ignored as normal behavior for the volcano. At one o’clock in the afternoon, the volcano violently exploded throwing a column of ash into the air. It is estimated that this column reached 98,000 feet and ejected ash at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second! The release of ash was followed some twelve hours later by a surge of fast moving lava down the west, south, and east sides of the mountain. These flows may have reached speeds of 450 miles per hour at an average temperature of 1000 degrees, so all living creatures that remained would have been overtaken and killed before they could escape.

Remarkably, by luck, we have accounts of the incident from reliable historical sources. Both Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger were twenty-two miles away across the Bay of Naples when the eruption began. Once he realized what was happening based on a message requesting a rescue, the Elder organized a rescue party and set out for the town of Stabiae, where he and his group stayed overnight. In the morning they were forced to try an escape, but Pliny died during the attempt possibly due to a heart attack. Pliny the Younger declined to join the rescue party, but observed the eruption and wrote about it in a letter to Tacitus.

Thank you for asking me to send you a description of my uncle's death so that you can leave an accurate account of it for posterity; I know that immortal fame awaits him if his death is recorded by you.  It is true that he perished in a catastrophe which destroyed the loveliest regions of the earth, a fate shared by whole cities and their people, and one so memorable that is likely to make his name live forever: and he himself wrote a number of books of lasting value: but you write for all time and can still do much to perpetuate his memory.  The fortunate man, in my opinion, is he to whom the gods have granted the power either to do something which is worth recording or to write what is worth reading, and most fortunate of all is the man who can do both.  Such a man was my uncle, as his own books and yours will prove.  So you set me a task I would choose for myself, and I am more than willing to start on it.

My uncle was stationed at Misenum, in active command of the fleet. On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance.  He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books.  He called for his shoes and climbed up to a place which would give him the best view of the phenomenon.  It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can be best expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed.  Sometimes it looked white, sometimes blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.  My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies, and as it happened he had himself given me some writing to do.

As he was leaving the house, he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat.  She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero.  He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.  He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone.  He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them.  Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain.  For a moment my uncle wondered whether to turn back, but when the helmsman advised this he refused, telling him that Fortune stood by the courageous and they must make for Pomponianus at Stabiae. He was cut off there by the breadth of the bay (for the shore gradually curves round a basin filled by the sea) so that he was not as yet in danger, though it was clear that this would come nearer as it spread. 

Pomponianus had therefore already put his belongings on board ship, intending to escape if the contrary wind fell.  This wind was of course full in my uncle's favor, and he was able to bring his ship in. He embraced his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom.  After his bath he lay down and dined; he was quite cheerful, or at any rate he pretended he was, which was no less courageous.

Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.  My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.  Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door.  By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out.  He was wakened, came out and joined Pomponianus and the rest of the household who had sat up all night.  They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro, as if they were torn from their foundations.  Outside on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones, even though these were light and porous; however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter.  In my uncle's case one reason outweighed the other, but for the others it was a choice of fears.  As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.

Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp.  My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous.  A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink.  Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up.  He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed.  When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

Meanwhile my mother and I were at Misenum, but this is not of any historic interest, and you only wanted to hear about my uncle’s death.  I will say no more, except to add that I have described in detail every incident which I either witnessed myself or heard about immediately after the event, when reports were most likely to be accurate.  It is for you to select what best suits your purpose, for there is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read.”

By the evening of the second day the eruption had ended and only a haze remained over the mountain and surrounding territory. The following drawing shows the extent of the debris field caused by the eruption.



I have a friend who visited Pompeii a month ago. He sent me some photos which I have included here as a slideshow.


The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. was only one of the catastrophes that occurred during the ill-fated two year reign of the Emperor Titus. A year after the Vesuvius eruption there was a large fire in Rome and then the plague visited the region and killed thousands. After the conclusion of the first games at the newly completed Coliseum in Rome, Titus travelled to the Sabine territories to visit a military camp, fell ill with fever and died at age forty-two.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Roman Class System and Social Structure

At its beginning, Rome was a group of egalitarian tribes living in proximity to each other on the hills surrounding a swamp that would become the Forum. Over time, the population grew steadily as new groups became affiliated, but the three original tribes, Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres, stood out as leaders and assumed a position of power over the other groups. They called themselves patricians and gave the name plebian to the other tribes made up of “common” people.

During the first hundred years of Rome, a status structure evolved into a class structure and then a political system. Those patricians with money or influence rose to the top -- one of them became king, while the others acted as advisors through their membership in the Senate. The latter numbered three hundred, one third from each of the three original tribes. The city was divided into voting districts called curia and citizens from these districts were allowed to participate in an assembly, which could pass legislation and elect magistrates. This structure was controlled by the monarchy for about two centuries until 509 B.C, when the king was overthrown and Rome became a Republic. The powers of the king were now divided among three men: two consuls and the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls served as chief magistrates of the Republic and served in office for one year. Each had veto rights over the other to prevent a dangerous accumulation of power. The Pontifex was the religious leader, tasked with predicting the future and making sure the gods were appeased at all times.

Beneath the political system, an informal system of patrons and clients operated as a shadow class. Patrons protected the interests of their clients, while the clients did favors for their patrons. Favors varied: run a business, organize a group for a specific purpose, or assault a person who had offended the patron were typical examples. Clients were compensated with money or helped with their careers and those plebs who were highly motivated could become wealthy with the help of their patron. Patrons benefitted from the relationship by expanding their authority through the recruitment of new clients who would be loyal to them. This system worked because it benefited both sides and helped appease the interests of those who sought upward mobility. As time went on, a middle class was built by the work of plebeians who became successful at business - merchants, manufacturers, shippers, money lenders, etc.

From the very beginning of the Republic, there was a conflict of classes - patrician against plebeian. As early as the 490s B.C, the plebs called a general strike to demand additional rights. The granting of these rights was stretched out over two hundred years by a reluctant Senate, although the slow pace helped keep the Republic stable over that period.

Early protests led to the creation of the tribunate in 494 B.C. (Lex Sacrata) -- the first magistracy representing the common people. Ten tribunes were elected for the term of one year with the right to physically and legally protect the plebs from harm caused by the upper class. The next important concession dealt with the publishing of laws, which had been previously kept secret by the upper class. In 449 B.C, the Twelve Tablets were displayed in the Forum as the first published list of rights that applied to all the Roman people.

Over the next hundred and sixty years, the class struggle was focused on the people’s right to office and their right to make laws. The magistracies in the Republic included tribunes, aediles (managers of public property), questors (treasurers), praetors (judges), censors, and consuls (senior magistrates), and, one by one, these were opened up to the common people. In 367 B.C, one consul was designated for a candidate from the lower class, with censor in 339 B.C and the praetor in 337 following. The watershed event on the legislative side was the passage of Lex Hortensia in 287 B.C. which granted the Concilium Plebis (people’s assembly) the right to pass laws binding on both patricians and plebeians. At last the plebs had reached something close to political parity with the upper class.

The great sociologist Max Weber used three social categories to describe man’s place in society -- status, class, and the power which flows for from them. Furthermore he described three types of class division: propertied, commercial, and social. A propertied class, as you can imagine, is defined solely by ownership of property. A commercial class is defined by one’s success in business as driven by markets. A social class is one with one with mobility that allows the individual free movement upward.

At the foundation of Rome, the patricians had status based on their control of government, they sat at the top of the propertied class, and they were able to exert power based on their monopoly of government administration and secretive control of the legal system. They did not pursue success in a commercial class (except by proxy) because of their hatred of business. The knights (Equites, or middle class) were originally given status by the monarchy as cavalry in the Roman Army because they had the financial assets to purchase equipment, including horses. Later they rose to the top of the commercial class because they were successful in business and as government bureaucrats. Commercial success allowed them to acquire land and achieve property status. The growing influence of the knights, coupled with the erosion of patrician control over government office and the making of laws, eventually took away patrician power and distributed it among the other classes.

Oddly, it was the patricians (Sulla and Caesar) who paved the way for the destruction of the Republic. Using their patrician titles as a basis for moral authority, they put power above tradition by introducing the new element of military authority. Control of the army would trump status and class to drive the Republic toward an empire.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Archaeological Dig Oppportunities

I received this e-mail recently and thought you might be interested.

Dear Mike,

I’m the director of ArchaeoSpain, which organizes international groups to join ongoing archaeological excavations in Spain and Italy. I was reading your Ancient History blog and I thought I’d write to you to let you know about our projects.
 
This summer our 18+ groups will be digging the necropolis of the Iron Age city of Pintia (which later became Roman) in Valladolid, the Byzantine church and surroundings of Son Peretó in Mallorca, and the amphora graveyard of Monte Testaccio in Rome.
 
And our high school groups will be excavating the Roman forum of Pollentia in Mallorca and the medieval Castle of Zorita in Guadalajara.
 
More information, photos, and videos can be found at www.archaeospain.com.
 
If you think our programs could be of interest to you and your work, please let us know.

best,

Mike Elkin

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Florence, 1100-1532, What a Republic!

Florence, in this blog? I thought this was supposed to be ancient history! Yes, but sometimes we can find value when we compare political systems from different times in history. The Republic of Florence an interesting case to compare to Republican Rome, because it gives us another example of how men try to build stable governments. Florence was a city republic like Rome but it was never able to expand in the same way because of the circumstances of its time. Still, its leaders faced the same challenges the Romans did – socio-economic class differences, economic interests, and cultural influences. In my last post I mentioned that those designing Republics, including America’s founding fathers, went to great lengths to insure their infant political systems would not revert to monarchies through the consolidation of power. Florence stands as an extreme case of this paranoia.

As one of the great merchant cities of the middle ages (Pisa or Antwerp would be other examples), Florence escaped participation in the feudal system because it had a strong capitalist engine and could operate as an independent political system. Feudalism could only take root where bureaucracy failed and it did not fail there. The Florentine political system certainly had its ups and downs, but it was business that moved Florence forward and politics were regulated by business.

By the year 900 A.D, the great cities of Europe had been weakened to a point where it was necessary to start from scratch. Commerce and artisanship had to be rekindled by recruiting citizens with the right skills from the outside, mostly from the agrarian economies of the surrounding territory. Florence always found aristocratic control unacceptable, so any tendency in that direction was continually resisted. Its leaders were a new class of man; middle class merchants we call burghers, who were independent, entrepreneurial, and confident. Between the years of 900 and 1250, these burghers turned Florence into an autonomous institution by resisting and expelling those who would attempt to impose on them some kind of hierarchical model of government. They were aided in this effort by the emperors and popes who wasted time and money fighting among themselves for control of Italy rather than attacking the city.

In the early days, Florence was probably managed by community groups and block organizations, who worked together to provide basic services. This was an incubator republic which evolved into rudimentary courts and militias as it became more formalized. No wealthy family was recognized as a leader and a pact between families (association) was put into place to show mutual dedication to the success of the city.

By the twelfth century, an executive committee of ten was in operation as the magistrate apparatus for governing. The committee derived its power from control of the local militias and utilized a temporary executive to manage the bureaucracy. One vestigial authority retained power over this structure; the Parlamentum, which was a general assembly of all citizens brought together in times of crisis to save the city. The Parlamentum was a destabilizing institution because it was unmanaged and its output was unpredictable. For example, it had been known to throw out the city’s constitution on occasion. Fortunately, the stability of Florence was more determined by power arrangements between the social classes than formal governmental systems.

In 1207, the city fathers (Grandi) decided to introduce a new magistrate from the outside called a podesta, the theory being that an outsider would not be subject to the bias of an insider. The role of the podesta was to arbitrate disputes between powerful families, but this hardly ever worked because he had little power and the families could treat with each other and solve their problems outside of his efforts. This useless office of podesta plodded along for centuries to no purpose.

During the early 1200s, Florence came to be dominated by two families with tongue-twister names: the Guelfs and the Ghibellines. These families were essentially political parties -- the Guelfs loyal to the Pope while the Ghibellines were loyal to the emperor. By the mid-century, a feud between them developed and assassination in the name of foreign policy became commonplace. At one point, each of the families set up their own republic within the city. Between 1250 and 1260 the Guelfs ruled and the Ghibellines were in exile. The situation was reversed between 1260 and 1267. Was this a republic? Hard to understand how it could have been called one.

In the midst of the strife and assassination, two important things occurred. Large numbers of the middle class were brought into the political system (like the knights of the Roman Republic), which had the effect of damping out conflict, and there developed, through Guelf influence, a sentimental opposition to monarchy.

The introduction of the middle class into government created a comic act of complexity in organization. Beneath the first level of magistrates previously described, a second level was built of middle class citizens. Now the government apparatus was well insulated against a power grab but it was also unworkable because no man could steer the city on his own. As William Everdell points out in his brilliant book End of Kings:

“In a kind of mitotic ecstasy, Florence between 1250 and 1450 multiplied offices beyond the capacity of historians to count them. There were so many, they ran out of names for them and came to call them by number of members and purpose -- seven of flood or ten of war. It was a glorious carnival of magistrates elected, chosen by lot, or appointed by a committee. So that no one would miss a chance to govern, terms of office were shortened to as little as two months, the shortest in republican history.”

In 1343, the most mature of the many Florentine constitutions was created. It defined hundreds of public offices and its rules were amazing to complicate. For example, an elected committee could appoint another committee to draw up list of candidates for committees and selections from the list were made by a third committee. The system was designed to keep everyone involved in the government so the aristocratic families could not consolidate their power, but it did so in a manner that defied logic. No doubt this mad matrix of offices prevented an accumulation of power -- bossism was prevented by through election by lot. Coups may have been possible until the army was disbanded in 1351 in favor of mercenaries. Meanwhile, Florence weathered wars with the cities of Tuscany, a credit collapse, and the plague without a scratch.

The Republican system was seriously threatened for the first time in 1390, when the opportunist Visconti decided he would like to control all Italy north of Rome. Starting with Milan, Visconti began to work his way south rolling up town after town. Once Pisa and Siena fell, only Florence was left to conquer. The Florentines never considered surrender and were prepared to fight Visconti to the death when a miracle occurred. Visconti died of the plague, his empire fell apart, and Florence was saved.

And now we unveil the true culprits behind the fall of the Florentine Republic -- the Medici. The first of their clan, Cosimo, while trying to protect his business interests, was able to constitute and control a committee charged with filling a hat with names of candidates for important offices. Cosimo used this authority to create a base of power and control. Before his death, Cosimo and his son Piero had become leaders of most powerful political party in Florence. When Piero died in 1469, key power blocks asked his son Lorenzo to lead the republic. Using public support to his benefit, Lorenzo gradually gained control of the most important magistracies and chipped away at the republic. When he died in 1492, power was consolidated in a way that republicans could no longer resist.

Finally, in 1530, the pope allied with the Habsburg emperor, defeated Florence in battle, and the republic was no more.

What have we learned from this story? We learned that republics are built to oppose monarchies, that they depend on unique circumstances for their creation, and that they require middle class participation to hold the aristocracy in check. These elements existed in Florence as they did in Rome. Both republics lasted nearly five hundred years, both were able to adapt their political systems to maintain stability, and both collapsed when an opportunist appeared who had no reservations about tearing down what had been successful for centuries.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Roman Transition to a Republic

As you may know from previous posts, the Roman Republic was born out of the overthrow of an Etruscan monarchy. When the break occurred in 509 B.C. the components of the Republican government were largely in place, so the transition to the first stable Republic in history was relatively smooth. Still, Rome was fragile for three or four decades while she built her confidence to a level that would see her conquer the western world.

What is a Republic, you ask? The word comes from the Latin res publica or thing of the people. In other words, a government without a monarchy that allows citizens with voting rights to have a say in government affairs through participation in assemblies. Voter eligibility rules required that a man had to be a property owner and citizen in good standing in order to cast a ballot. The assemblies were conducted in the Roman forum and only those attending could vote, so travel distance had an important impact on participation. Tribes located at a great distance would have to see the benefits to them of making the long journey before they would commit to it. In one famous case, remote tribes refused to attend a critical assembly meeting because they were in the middle of the harvest.

The history of the Roman monarchy is a combination of folklore and invention. It’s first king, Romulus, is apocryphal. The next four remain foggy in history, although the third of those, Tullus Hostilus, is credited for building the first Senate House. The next three include two Etruscans and one Latin, named, Servius Tullius, who was the most notable of the entire group.

The Roman government during the time of the monarchy consisted of the king, who was the principal administrator of the government and the guardian of the religious apparatus, the Senate, made up of one hundred men, from each of the three original Roman tribes, and the tribal assembly, called the comitia curiata. The latter was mostly a figurehead body, approving legislation passed by the Senate, but Servius Tullius created a second and more powerful assembly, called the comitia centuriata, which was modelled after the Roman army. Power was divided by wealth; cavalry at the top and common foot soldier at the bottom. The distribution of votes in the body was rigged in favor of the wealthy, who had a majority of the votes and could carry or block any initiative.

The last king, the Etruscan Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, received the nickname Superbus (arrogant) because of his autocratic behavior. He was ultimately expelled along with his family when the Roman people decided they had had enough of him and kings in general. The orchestrator of the coup was Lucius Junius Brutus, nephew of the king and a republican idealist. In the first act after the expulsion of Superbus, Brutus made the Roman people swear allegiance to the new political system:

Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.

To quote Livy, “By swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.

Brutus was named the first consul of the new Republic along with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, but almost immediately there was trouble. The former king tried to regain the throne by using his ambassadors to put together a conspiracy against the Republic, and the rebels included two of Brutus’ sons. Forced to abide by his principles and save the young Republic, Brutus had his sons executed along with other conspirators. Superbus then tried to wage war on the Rome, but he was repulsed for good at the Battle of Silvia Arsia. Brutus led the cavalry on the side of the Republic but did not survive the battle.

With the threat of the former king extinguished, the Republic was free to move forward in its new form. The administrative function of the king was given to a pair newly created magistrates (consuls) and religious authority was granted to a magistrate called the Pontifex Maximus. The consuls were given veto right over each other to avoid an accumulation of power and as a further brake on the latter, their term of office was limited to one year. A common element of republics throughout history has been the design of governmental structures that make it difficult to accumulate power, because republics are built by those who abhor a monarchy.

In the first decades after the removal of the king, Rome would face twin threats to her sovereignty: wars with her neighbors and an internal class struggle. In the former case, she was attacked by almost everyone: first Etruscans, Samnites, Latins, from nearby who were conquered and assimilated; and then the Volci and Aequi, tribes from the western edge of the Apennine Mountains, who fought Rome for nearly a century. We think of Rome in later times as imperialistic, but her posture here was totally defensive, and she was just trying to survive. Those early military victories sharpened her skill in battle and honed her cultural will for the future.

Class struggle would carry on for centuries and nearly everyone is familiar with the terms patrician and plebian, which survive to the present day as labels for rich and poor. The Rome of the monarchy had built a patronage system of mutual benefits -- patricians were able to use plebs to act as their agents and those plebs received protection and compensation in return. But that system was not enough to keep class differences under control once the Republic came into being. In 494 B.C, the plebs initiated a strike to demand a grain distribution to help those suffering from a famine. The Senate resisted at first, but was eventually forced to give in. Ultimately, the plebs spent a couple of centuries trying to achieve equality in office and equality in power. The Senate fought them all along the way but reforms were gradually put in place without a major disruption or civil war. Laws were written down in 451 B.C. and displayed in the Forum, offices that were originally restricted to patricians were made open to plebs, and a new magistrate was created, the Tribune, designed to protect the people from abuses of the upper class. The political relationship between classes remained stable until the period after the Punic Wars when the economic status of the lower class plunged to a point where it acted as a catalyst for social unrest and eventually civil war.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Geography, Personality, and the Fluorescence of Rome

If you analyze the great cultures of antiquity, you’d find their success was due to geography and personality -- the geography of their physical space and personality of the people in that space. There are countless examples in history where cultures failed to develop when one of these factors was missing. Geography is the obvious contributor because you can measure its influence -- living by the sea can foster shipping; flat open land will support farming; and the presence of natural resources can build a business trading that asset. Personality is harder to pin down because it’s intangible. What is it that makes one people motivated enough to drive cultural development and another less so? There are many cases in history where two groups occupied the same space and only one flourished, but we really don’t understand the reasons for this.

Fluorescence is a term anthropologists use to describe a period of rapid development, when the growth of culture accelerates. Often this growth is economically driven when markets open up for skills or goods. Other times, there is no obvious economic driver and it’s just human effort that pushes things forward. In the case of Mesopotamia, for example, it was technology that triggered the advance. Its fluorescent period began when the technical problems of irrigation farming were resolved and crops could be produced in large quantities.

In most instances, geography has been the mainspring of cultural development, serving as primary influence over food production, trade, raw materials, migration, and protection from enemies. In this post, however, we’ll present a different story -- one that saw personality as the prime mover in building the Roman Republic.

Rome is located on the eastern side of the Tiber River amongst its famous seven hills.
It’s latitude is forty one degrees north, slightly south of the position of Chicago in the United States, but unlike Chicago, Rome is blessed with a Mediterranean climate. Rome’s location in ancient times put it eighteen miles from the mouth of the Tiber where the river empties into the Tyrrhenian Sea. More importantly, there was a ford over the Tiber, near the ancient settlements and situated on the crossroads of a trading route, that allowed commerce to the other side of the river. Surrounding the site of Rome was flat farmland featuring rich volcanic soil put down around 10,000 B.C.

That’s the geographic set up. What about the people?

From the original settler’s point of view, the site of Rome offered protection from the west via the Tiber and protection at the site from the hills. Two of them, the Capitoline and the Palatine, were quite steep and difficult to climb. Between these hills sat a marshy swamp. There is evidence of settlements in this area dating to 8000 B.C. and by 800 B.C, there were at least two villages: Rumi on the Palatine Hill and Titientes on the Quirinal. The local inhabitants were mostly Latin and Sabine tribes, the latter a spinoff of the Sabine hill people living on the western slopes of the Apennines. Other tribes in the area included Umbrian’s, Samnites, and Oscan’s.

A “Latin League” was formed in the eighth century, with Rome as a member, to protect the Latin villages from the Etruscans, but over time, as Rome came under control of Etruscan monarchs, it separated itself from its former allies. Etruscan kings ruled Rome from the seventh century through 509 B.C. when they were forcibly expelled, because the Romans wanted to end the monarchy and live under a Republic. The Romans rejected not only the Etruscan king, but the Etruscan philosophy and way of life, co-opting some of its useful cultural elements as they moved on. By this time, the Roman ethnicity was separate from the rest of the Latins.

There was something about those Roman Latins that made them different; perhaps the time under the yoke of the Etruscans changed their personality, or maybe it evolved on its own. From the very beginning of the Republic, the Romans had a drive that set them apart from their neighbors -- a drive to build a Republican political system that would give the people more control than they had under an outsider, and use it to advance their agrarian culture. The idea of a Republic was not unique to Rome because the trend around the Mediterranean was in that direction. Many cultures, including the Greeks, were rejecting the monarchical model, but none of Rome’s neighbors had this inclination and none had the drive to grow and diversify their culture. As Rome grew, the Etruscan time would eclipse. As Rome grew, it would take over the Greek cities. Eventually, that small village of Latins would control Europe!

The Romans had another trait that set them apart -- their engineering mindset. I don’t imagine there has ever been a people on earth with a more structured view of their world and a greater desire to build things. Roads, aqueducts, buildings, army camps, and military discipline are only some examples of the Roman structural view. Oddly, this obsession didn’t leave room for a lot of original thinking. The Romans stole whatever they found interesting in other cultures, including gods, and improved on them. Thinking-wise they were never in a league with the Greeks, but employed them as physicians, educators, and philosophers.

Let’s revisit geography for a minute. The Romans were agrarians because they had high quality soil and they lived inland away from the sea. It never occurred to them to use the sea for their own purposes until they were forced to deal with Carthage at the beginning of the First Punic War. Still, there was nothing unique in their geography that could ignite a new culture on its own.

Rome became fluorescent when it first thought of getting rid of the monarch. The Senate and Assembly were already in operation so all that remained was the creation of an administrative magistrate’s role. The healthy agrarian economy would fund the young Republic and take it places its founders could never have imagined, but it was the people and their will that served as the engine. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Octavian Builds an Empire

In the last post we discussed the careful effort employed by Octavian to rid himself of rivals and take control of the Roman Republic. Now we move on to the building of the Principate, which was significantly more difficult. Many revolutionaries, throughout history, have attested to the difficulty of ruling once the battle is over. Indeed, the skillset is much different between tearing down and ruling. In Octavian’s case, he had to maintain the veneer of the Republic while building an authoritarian state. The fact that he was successful puts him near the top of the list of great politicians of all time.

Octavian had the savvy to build a political system that could operate successfully, the temperament to rule fairly, and strength of will to fight off threats which could have weakened or destroyed Rome. Sadly, as so often happens in human society, the attributes of a great ruler don’t often get carried forward to his successors. But that’s another story for later.

Remembering the intolerance of the ruling class for the flaunting of naked power, Octavian sought to disguise his rule under accepted Republican traditions. For the first eight years after Actium (31-23 B.C.), he served as consul using that office as a constitutional basis for power, but half way through that period, he returned control of the state to the Senate and people of Rome --  a brilliant political move which gave the appearance of restoring the ancestral system. At the same time, he was given authority to rule certain provinces, through governors, and the rest of the Roman territory was put under the authority of proconsuls nominated by the Senate. In both cases, the provincial authorities were professional administrators under tight control of Rome rather than greedy political climbers looking to line their pockets.

Still, Octavian made sure to influence the appointment of those governors and see that “new men” were mixed in with the patricians so that the ancient families would not be able to gain too much influence. He reduced the size of the Senate to 600 and enlarged its powers to include some judicial responsibility. Moreover he transformed the Senate from a political body to an administrative body to assist with the management of the new government.

Once these changes were put in place, Octavian renamed himself “Augustus” to strengthen his myth and avoid any name or title that would imply a quest for authoritarian power. The association of his new name with the word augurium went to the heart of Roman tradition.

During these years the Roman Empire continued to expand both in the east and west. Galatia was developed in Asia Minor and western north Africa became a client kingdom. In 23 B.C, Augustus visited Gaul and was helping to direct a campaign in Spain when his weak constitution failed him, he fell ill, and nearly died. Now believing he had to reorganize the governmental structure further, Augustus resigned from his consular posts. But he retained authority over his provinces and had himself granted imperium maius, which placed him above all provincial governors. Augustus was also designated as tribune of the people that same year.

Both of these titles carried authority without office – novel in the history of Roman governance. During the teens B.C, we see Augustus establishing a civil service for the first time in Roman history. The beneficiaries of this expansion of government were the knights who occupied the position of a middle class – professionals who were willing to do work patricians saw as beneath them but more educated and capable than the plebs. As Max Weber has told us, bureaucracy is a dangerous thing; too structured to be efficient and fundamentally wasteful. Still, bureaucracies are stabilizing forces in society that operate separately from the politics around them. Augustus’ bureaucracy would manage the business of Rome for hundreds of years.

Augustus’ careful building of the principate had taken about fifteen years to accomplish and the end result was stability in Rome. Still, the difficult problem of succession remained. Augustus had created such a unique title and span of authority that there was no other single person who could fill his position. No one had the qualifications. And on a practical level, he had extreme difficulty lining up an heir. The first candidate, Marcellus, husband of Augustus’ daughter Julia, died in 23 B.C. Nero Drusus, son of Livia, who was probably preferred over his brother Tiberius, died in Germania in 9 B.C. Then after Julia married Agrippa and they had two sons Gaius and Lucius, those boys were seen as successors. But by extraordinary chance, Gaius died in 4 B.C. and Lucius two years later. Now there was no question that Tiberius remained the sole successor so Augustus threw up his hands, adopted him, and made him heir.

Tiberius would succeed Augustus upon the latter’s death in 14 A.D. and fail to carry out his legacy. He was a sullen personality who would not get on with the Senate and so his years were marked by regression of the Roman political system and a steady march to tyranny. Tiberius indifference to governing coupled with the ruthless methods of his associate Sejanus undid much of what Augustus had accomplished. Should we be surprised?