Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 610-668

The next chapter in the history of the Byzantine Empire features two emperors, Heraclius and Constans. Their ability to survive an onslaught of wars that would have brought down many an empire would solidify the Byzantine model for centuries to come.

As mentioned in the previous article, Heraclius became successor to Phocas when he led a rebellion against him in 610. Heraclius reigned until his death in 641, and his military accomplishments were amazing as you will soon see.

The map shown above summarizes the military activity of the Byzantine Army during the reign of Heraclius. Click on the image to enlarge it.

            611 – The Persians attack and take Antioch
            613 – The Byzantine Army is defeated at Antioch by the Persians
            613 -- The Persians move south and take Palestine
            616 – The Persians attack and threaten Anatolia near Constantinople
            616 – The Persians attack Alexandria
            622 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians in eastern Anatolia.
            624 – The Byzantines capture Theodosiopolis and move into Armenia
            625 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians at Atropatene
            627 – The Byzantines defeat the Persians near Nineveh
            628 – The Byzantine–Persian War ends with a peace treaty

Meanwhile, starting in 622, Muhammad took over the Arabian Peninsula creating the kingdom of Islam, which he consolidated until his death in 632. Then in

            634 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Palestine
            636 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Damascus
            637 – The Islamic Army attacks and takes Ctesiphon, the Persian capital

The gap in the Byzantine–Persian War starting in 616, is explained by two factors. First, the Byzantines had to re-group after their initial losses, rebuild their army, and borrow money. Second, they were engaged in the Balkans fighting the Slavs, Goths, Bulgars, and Avars; enemies that had to be dealt with before the army could again be directed to the east again. At one point in 616, Constantinople, itself, was under siege by the tribes of the Balkans from the west and the Persians from the east.

Heraclius turned out to be the consummate war leader, who was able to withstand all the attacks on his empire, but died an ill man, broken by the pressure of war. His people did not appreciate all he was able to accomplish and did not miss him when he was gone.

Heraclius window, Martina, had a son with him, who she favored over Constantine the son of his first wife, Eudocia. Constantine was named emperor, but was sick with Tuberculosis, and died after three months as emperor. Martina supported her son Heraclonas as the replacement, but he was eventually pushed aside by the handlers of the eleven year old Constans, the son of Constantine. The boy matured quickly and by 645, ordered his navy to attack the Arabs (Islamists) at Alexandria. The attack force eventually had to abandon the effort when resistance stiffened. During the years 645-648, Constans was on the defensive as the Arabs attacked Byzantine Africa and Cyprus, but then his luck turned. The aforementioned losses were reversed and then in 654, as the Arabs were starting a major attack, an Arab civil war broke out.

Constans used the internal conflict between the Arabs as an opportunity to reorganize the Byzantine army, and he accomplished the task brilliantly. Creating a novel organizational structure called “themata” (themes), he divided the empire into geographical territories. Each theme was made up of a mobile army unit settled in a specific district that it was assigned to defend. Its soldiers were given land grants to tie them to the land and fund the purchase of supplies. This structure created loyalty because every man was now motivated to protect his own property. Each theme utilized a Greek name, such as Anatolian, Thracian, and Armeniac.

In 661, the Arab Civil War ended and from the Byzantine point of view, the wrong side won. The losing side had been easier to create treaties with than the winner, so Constans looked forward to a more hostile enemy. But he also had pressing problems in the west, so he put off going into battle with the Arabs, and sailed for Thessalonica in 662. After setting up a new theme on the Greek Peninsula, the emperor departed for Tarentum in the heel of Italy the next year. He fought the Lombards and was victorious over them before moving on to meet with the pope in Rome. Later that year, Constans moved on to Sicily which was strategic to his efforts to strengthen his control over Italy and Northern Africa.

In 665, there was an Arab attack on Africa which had to be fought off. Meanwhile the Arabs continued to peck away at imperial holdings in Anatolia. In 668, one of the Byzantine military leaders, Saborius, taking advantage of the emperor’s five year absence, declared himself emperor and put together an army force to attack Constantinople. On the way there, he fell off his horse and was killed. This good fortune enjoyed by Constans was short-lived, however, because the emperor was assassinated that summer while in the bath. Dead at 38, he had accomplished much – keeping the Arabs at bay and strengthening imperial holdings in Sicily and Africa.

Key words for this period – Hericlius, Mohammed, Islam, Byzantine Wars

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 518-610

The title of my last post included dates representing the time interval for the setup of the eastern empire and its separation from the west. Telling the story of the Byzantine Empire is such a large project, it demands that we divide it up into time intervals and focus on the highlights within each of them. The empire expanded and contracted over time based on its success at keeping the provinces in line and its ability to defeat those who would try and destroy it. Each period demonstrates a micro view through the events of the time, but also a macro view of the changing culture with respect to language, religion, and culture. Remember that the Byzantine Empire was an “empire” only by the loosest definition and never achieved status as a unified culture the way modern societies have.

When the Byzantine emperor Anastasius died suddenly in 518 AD with no heir, the imperial guard named the 68 year old Justin as the new emperor. Justin had an adopted son Peter, who also went by the name Justinian, a man was destined for greatness. Justin inherited two projects: the schism between the eastern empire and the papacy and a rebellion against the empire by Vitalian. He fixed both by mending fences with the pope and inviting Vitalian to serve as his master of horse to keep an eye on him. But his leadership skills were wanting so it was not long before Justinian began to accumulate power. He served as consul in 521 AD and was fully in charge at the time of Justin’s death in 527.

Justinian was an all-star in Byzantine history based on his dizzying list of projects and accomplishments. They would later have a far reaching impact on the empire and Western Europe. He started by shoring up the eastern army to protect the empire from the Persians. Then he appointed a council or jurists to create an official book of laws that would govern the empire. This effort produced the Justinian code which became the standard for European law for centuries to come.

Next, Justinian looked toward using his army to protect and expand the empire. He defeated the Persians and took Crimea. He defeated the Slavs and Bulgars in 530, making the Danube basin secure again. Justinian signed a peace treaty with the Persians freeing his up his eastern army to help attack the west. In 532, he planned an attack against the African vandals, but before he could depart, there was a coup against him in Constantinople which had to be put down. In 533, his general, Belisarius, defeated the Vandals and took Carthage. Belisarius also secured Sardinia, Corsica, and Gibraltar. This was the extension of the Roman Empire in reverse – taking back land that was part of the western empire for so many centuries.

But the prize – Italy – was still out there to be taken. How wonderful it would be to have Italy as part of the empire again, Justinian mused. Soon, he directed his two best generals to attack Dalmatia and Sicily -- both were taken. A nervous Ostrogoth king than made a secret pact to surrender Italy to Justinian’s troops. The pact was later rescinded, but the army of the east still prevailed at securing the Italian peninsula.

The king of Persia, seeing Justinian’s eyes turned west, decided to attack the Byzantines. Syria and Armenia were invaded and it took until 541 to end that conflict. That same year, the plague made its first appearance in southern Europe. By the spring of 542 it had spread to all seaports in the eastern Mediterranean, and there were 230,000 deaths in Constantinople alone. Justinian contracted the plague and became seriously ill, but survived.

The period of 542-548 saw wars, famine, and the plague as main actors in the story of the empire of the east. Then starting in 550, the emperor moved his army westward fortifying his control of Italy and conquering southern Spain. It took him another five years to stabilize the new western territories and then a calm period followed, only to be interrupted in by the return of the plague in 558. Then, more wars in the east ensued until 562, when the swords were finally still.
Justinian died in 565 at the age of 83, after a long a successful reign. The great frustration of his final years was his inability to unite the two warring Christian factions – Chalcedons and Monophysites -- and settle their argument over the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

Justinian was followed by Justin II, Tiberius, Maurice, and Phocas during the period ending in 610. Justin, as the immediate successor, tried too hard to be Justinian and had fewer gifts of leadership to apply to the task. He mostly ignored the new western territories, causing them to come under attack. He spent his time focused on Persia and when an attack on them failed in 573, his mind gave way, and it was arranged to have the leading general Tiberius named as successor. Tiberius was a better military man than administrator so isn’t surprising that he decided the army was underpaid and used money from the treasury to win them over. Like his predecessor, he ignored the west because a war with Persia loomed on the horizon. That war was won by the general Maurice in 582, but Tiberius died soon after.

Before his death, Tiberius named Maurice emperor. The general looked at the empty treasury that resulted from Tiberius’ generosity and tried to refill it by periodically eliminated the army’s compensation. That generated at least two revolts, one of which led to his assassination in 602. Maurice was able to maintain stability during his reign as a result of victories over the Avars in the Balkans and the Persians in Armenia and Mesopotamia, but with his death became the first eastern emperor to lose his crown since the time of Constantine.

Phocas is to be given some credit for remaining in power for eight years. He executed Maurice and his family to try and legitimize his power but lived in an unlikely time. Wars with Persia continued, the plague returned, and the cut off of grain shipments caused a famine in the empire. When the people’s level of pain and disruption grew intolerable, the general Hericlius started a revolt, captured Phocas, and accused him of ruining the empire. As he was about to be beheaded, Phocas wished him better luck during his reign.

The Byzantine Empire during this period was greatly divided. The recovered provinces in the Italian Peninsula and Spain were distant, Latin speaking, and hard to manage, while the east maintained a strong army and spoke mostly Greek. The Catholic Church remained divided over the nature of Jesus and the power of the pope, but did manage to convert the empire’s remaining pagans and accumulate great wealth and authority.

When paganism was suppressed, it took with it all the contributions of the Greeks, including their science, philosophy, and literature, so what remained was defined by a Catholic view of the world.

The Byzantine Empire was larger in 610 than when the west fell, but it was also less stable. The skills of the emperors had been variable, the treasury often empty, and wars commonplace. Whether the empire could survive another century was a question mark.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thanks a million to my readers

This morning the one millionth visitor accessed my site, marking an exciting milestone.

I'd like to take a moment to thank all my readers for their interest, comments, and suggestions. The popularity of the site tells me people like the content, and that motivates me to continue the research required to put these posts together.

The site has been visited by people from 117 different countries. The top five are the United States, Ukraine, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Of the 327 posts on the site, the most popular title is "The maniple as a tactical unit in the Roman Army", with 34,000 visits.

As we go forward, I would remind everyone to reach out and let me know what subject matter you'd like to see, and I will do my best to accommodate the request.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Byzantine Empire 284-518

The Byzantine Empire is one of the more important cultures of the pre-modern era, surviving for eleven hundred years after its creation out of the collapsing Roman Empire. Its story is interesting for what it tells us about human society, governments, and power, and its history features common themes, such as the influence of geography and religion. Having said that, there are certainly enough uniqueness in this culture to qualify it as a “one off”.

Purists might say I’m out of scope because the focus of this blog is ancient history and Byzantine Empire falls outside of the designated end date for antiquity (476 AD). But it was a child of antiquity and carried forward its institutions for centuries, making it relevant alongside any story from the ancient world. It was a thousand year empire born at the end of the Roman millennium.

The Byzantine Empire was made possible largely through the influence of two men: the Roman emperors Diocletian and Constantine. The former divided the Roman Empire into east and west in 284 AD and, for the first time, set up an emperor and administrative apparatus separate from the west. Then, in the early decades of fourth century AD, Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium to Constantinople, made it the capital city of the east, and designated Christianity the official state religion of Rome. It took more than the organization and names of two men to launch the Byzantine Empire, however. It also took strength of leadership and hard work to repel wave after wave of barbarian invaders until that threat came to an end.

Diocletian divided the empire into east and west for at least two reasons. First, Rome was constantly being attacked by tribes from the Balkans, which was difficult for the western army to defend against. Secondly, Persia had risen to the level of a formidable adversary in Asia Minor, so it made sense to base a powerful army in the east. Once the maps were redrawn, Diocletian gave himself the east and named Maximian the emperor of the west. Why did he do that? We can only guess but most likely he favored the east because it had a larger army and a more significant adversary in Persia. As the senior leader of Rome it made sense to him to take on the biggest challenge.

Diocletian served until 305 AD and then he retired. His successors were not strong enough to maintain stability and civil wars dominated the Roman landscape until Constantine gained control of east and west in 314, after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine ruled long and well, relying on subordinates to keep the Roman world together. In 324, he re-dedicated the city of Byzantium naming it New Rome (later renamed Constantinople), because he wanted create his own capital in the east to replace Nicomedia. Constantine re-fortified the city and began a large scale reconstruction effort designed to make the city worthy of its title as the capital of the east. He was also heavily involved in the philosophical battles within the Christian church during this period and he attended the Nicaean council in 325. Constantine was baptized as a Christian on his deathbed in 337.

The century and a half after Constantine saw significant infighting among the Romans for control of the empire and its territory, at the same time fending off invasions by the Goths and Huns. The most significant military event of the later fourth century was the Roman defeat at Adrianople in 376, which nearly destroyed the eastern army, and made it dependent on the armies of the west until it could rebuild itself. This Gothic invasion foreshadowed a period of wars lasting a century and included the invasion by Attila the Hun in 452. When the empire in the west collapsed in 476, the east was able to stand on its own as the legitimate successor state, but it took another forty years of fighting wars to end the threat and set the stage for the reign of Justinian.

The Byzantine Empire was not an “empire” in the way the dictionary would define it. It was, in reality, an artificial state which governed a diverse culture featuring Hellenistic philosophy, Christianity, and the Greek language. It survived for the same reasons any political system survives – strong leadership, a competent professional bureaucracy, and reasonable economic opportunity for its populace. Although its emperor’s sought to unify the empire’s religion as Christianity, they were never completely successful in this endeavor and, for the most part, chose to tolerate religious diversity.

There was no concept of patriotism in the Byzantine Empire in the way we understand it today, so language and religious differences did not rise to the level where they could destabilize the government. The people obeyed their emperors whether they liked them or not and lived their lives. They believed they lived in the greatest empire in the world but that didn’t have much to do with how big or strong the empire was and they never really resisted the idea that an emperor could be overthrown in favor of someone who might be better.

One might suggest that any perceived weakness resulting from the lack of structure in the Byzantine Empire was actually a strength because its “loose” cultural norms were not exclusionary based on any principle or set of principles.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

476 AD – So What!

What happened in 476 AD? Not much, if you look into the history.

By tradition, 476 AD marks the end of the Roman Empire and the end of antiquity: the latter transitioning to the Middle Ages, at least in Europe. I say “so what” because there is no catastrophic ending to the empire that year, only the minor event of the deposition of the last Roman Emperor Romulus Augutulus.

Romulus, aged fourteen, was proclaimed emperor on October 31st, 475 AD by his father Orestes, who was master of soldiers of the Roman army. He followed Julius Nepos, who had reigned for one year before being deposed and forced to flee by ship when Orestes took control of the Roman capital at Ravenna. Romulus was a figurehead covering the rule of his father and his status as emperor was disputed outside of central Italy from the outset. Ten months after his reign began, Romulus was deposed by Odoacer who invaded Italy, defeating and killing Orestes. Odoacer proclaimed himself King of Italy and not emperor of the west, ending the traditional line of emperors. Despite the change in title, Odoacer had the support of the Senate, so Rome (or more accurately) Italy had a king for the first time in nearly a thousand years.

What is there about the Empire in 476 that inspires me to use the term "minor event" to describe a change in rulers?

First of all, the span of control exerted by the western empire had shrunk down to Italy and parts of southern France by the mid-400s - hardly what we would call an empire. The emperor of the east had been an independent operator after 395 AD, so the western emperor had no say in the Balkans and points east. The Visigoths controlled Spain and shared southwestern Gaul with the Burgundians while the Franks controlled the north of Gaul. Africa was under the influence of the Vandals who had successfully attacked Carthage in 439 AD.

Second, Attila the Hun terrorized Gaul and the Italian peninsula between 440 and 451, so even the territory the empire controlled was ravaged. In 456 AD, Gaiseric the Vandal landed at Ostia and spent two weeks plundering Rome, after which he exited with thousands of captives. The imperial geography was not under control and was subject to attacks at any time. The word empire implies power and the western emperor had none.

Third, Rome was no longer the imperial capital, having ceded that role to Ravenna in 402 AD. You might even want to say that Ravenna was the fortress that protected the imperial court rather than the capital, because it didn’t represent the center of government. It was only chosen only because it was easier than Rome to defend. When the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD, they bypassed Ravenna because they figured (correctly) there was still enough left in Rome to plunder, and the swamps of Ravenna were not worth wading through.

The Senate was still in operation during this time and was propped up by Odoacer and subsequent Barbarian leaders who sought to protect it by making the leader of the Senate a key adviser to the king. The Senate was actually able to wield occasional power, as in the case of installing Laurentius as pope in 498 against the emperor’s wishes. Later in 552, many Senators were taken hostage and some were executed during a war between the Ostogothic king Theodahad and the eastern emperor Justinian. The latter eventually banned all Senatorial offices in Italy.

So we see that in the year 476 AD, the western empire controlled a small amount of territory without the means to govern or protect it. The western emperor had virtually no power absent the support of the army. The great institutions we think of as Rome – the monuments, the great army, the well-oiled political system, and the engineering – were all gone, so one last weak emperor’s deposition is hardly worth the headline.

It was the barbarians who held power over Rome and would eventually destroy it. Ironically, they would rather have had a strong and stable Rome as a partner, but the inner strength of the empire was gone and Rome did not have the capacity to continue. All that the Romans had accomplished during their thousand years was lost. Europe had to start over; re-inventing governments, laws, and new cultures. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

The Battle of Adrianople – Misunderstood Roman History

The Battle of Adrianople sits near the top of the list of misunderstood battles in history, being variously labelled one of the main causes of the fall of the Roman Empire and the battle that launched the medieval practice of knighthood by proving that cavalry was superior to infantry. 

Although these misrepresentations are nothing more than historians injecting fanciful thinking into a situation where detail is lacking, we don’t want to dismiss the battle as inconsequential. Adrianople was important because it showed, for the first time, the Visigoths ability to defeat the Roman army in a real battle, predicting events in the next century that would lead to the end of the empire in the west. But, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Where is Adrianople (current name Edirne)? It sits in near the Bulgarian Turkish border today, but was located in Thrace during the time of the Roman Empire. Greek mythology has the city founded by Orestes, son of the Spartan king Agamemnon, but its name derives from the Emperor Hadrian who named it as a Roman city during his reign from 117-138 AD. See the map below for the city’s location.

The story of the Battle of Adrianople is best told by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-391) in his book Res Gestae which chronicles the history of the empire from 96-380 AD. Ammianus’ account contains the usual biases in favor of the side he was representing. 
As his story unfolds in 376 AD, the Visigoths, led by Alavivus and Fritigern, asked Rome to allow them to settle in the Eastern Roman Empire, south of the Danube. Hoping that they would become farmers and soldiers, the Eastern Roman emperor, Valens, allowed them to cross the river and settle as allies. Unfortunately, the dishonesty of the provincial commanders Lupicinus and Maximus led the Goths to revolt after being mistreated. Valens then asked Gratian, the western emperor, for reinforcements to put down the revolt, so Gratian sent his general Frigeridus with reinforcements and, for the next two years, there were a series of minor battles with no clear victory for either side.
In 378, Valens decided to take control of the situation himself. He planned to bring his own troops from Syria and requested that Gratian bring his army from Gaul.
Valens left Antioch for Constantinople, and arrived on the 30th of May. He appointed Sebastianus, newly arrived from Italy, to reorganize the Roman armies already in Thrace. Sebastianus picked 2,000 of his legionaries and proceeded to Adrianople. Meanwhile Fritigern assembled the Gothic forces at Nicopolis and Beroe to deal with this new Roman threat.
Gratian had sent part of his field army by boat; with the rest traveling overland. After learning of Sebastian's success against the Goths and anticipating a victory of his own, Valens brought his army to Adrianople, where he met with Sebastian's force. On 6 August, reconnaissance informed Valens that about 10,000 Goths were marching towards Adrianople from the north, about 15 miles away. This gave Valens time to build a Roman field camp with ditch and rampart.
Gratian sent a letter asking Valens to wait for the arrival of reinforcements from before engaging the Goths. Valens' officers also recommended that he wait, but Valens ignored these warnings, remaining focused on his impending victory. Meanwhile, the Goths were spying on the Romans, and on August 8th Fritigern sent an emissary to propose peace and an alliance in exchange for some Roman territory. Sure that he would be victorious due to his supposed numerical superiority, Valens rejected these proposals. Unfortunately, his count of the enemy did not take into consideration the Gothic cavalry which was separated from the rest of the Gothic army.
On the morning of 9 August, Valens left Adrianople and headed north. Finally, after a seven hour march, the Roman army arrived, tired and dehydrated, within sight of a Gothic camp which had the advantage of elevation. The Goths, except for their cavalry, defended a wagon circle, containing their families and possessions. Fritigern's objective was to delay the Romans, so the Gothic cavalry had time to return. The fields were set on fire by the Goths to delay and harass the Romans with smoke, and they asked for negotiations for an exchange of hostages. These negotiations were frustrating to the Roman soldiers who felt they were in a stronger position, but they gained precious time for Fritigern.
At one point, Roman units began the battle without orders to do so, believing they would have an easy victory, and perhaps over-eager to finally defeat the Goths after two years of attempting to achieve a decisive victory. After a strong advance, the Roman left-wing reached the circle of wagons, but it was too late. The Gothic cavalry appeared in support of its infantry and turned the tide of the battle. As Ammianus tells it:
“The foot-soldiers thus stood unprotected, and their companies were so crowded together that hardly anyone could pull out his sword or draw back his arm. Because of clouds of dust the heavens could no longer be seen, and echoed with frightful cries. Hence the arrows whirling death from every side always found their mark with fatal effect, since they could not be seen beforehand nor guarded against. But when the barbarians, poring forth in huge hordes, trampled down horse and man, and in the press of ranks no room for retreat could be gained anywhere, and the increased crowding left no opportunity for escape, our soldiers also, showing extreme contempt of falling in the fight, received their death-blows, yet struck down their assailants; and on both sides the strokes of axes split helmet and breastplate. Here one might see a barbarian filled with lofty courage, his cheeks contracted in a hiss, hamstrung or with right hand severed, or pierced through the side, on the very verge of death threateningly casting about his fierce glance; and by the fall of the combatants on both sides the plains were covered with the bodies of the slain strewn over the ground, while the groans of the dying and of those who had suffered deep wounds caused immense fear when they were heard. In this great tumult and confusion the infantry, exhausted by their efforts and the danger, when in turn strength and mind for planning anything were lacking, their lances for the most part broken by constant clashing, content to fight with drawn swords, plunged into the dense masses of the foe, regardless of their lives, seeing all around that every loophole of escape was lost. The ground covered with streams of blood whirled their slippery foothold from under them, so they could only strain every nerve to sell their lives dearly; and they opposed the onrushing foe with such great resolution that some fell by the weapons of their own comrades. Finally, when the whole scene was discolored with the hue of dark blood, and wherever men turned their eyes heaps of slain met them, they trod upon the bodies of the dead without mercy. Now the sun had risen higher, and when it had finished its course through Leo, and was passing into the house of the heavenly Virgo, scorched the Romans, who were more and more exhausted by hunger and worn out by thirst, as well as distressed by the heavy burden of their armor. Finally our line was broken by the onrushing weight of the barbarians, and since that was the only resort in their last extremity, they took to their heels in disorder as best they could.”
The Gothic cavalry continued their attack and killing did not end until nightfall. Valens was abandoned by his guards, and when some soldiers tried to retrieve him, they were unsuccessful. His final fate is unknown and his body was never found.
Ammianus states that a third of the Roman army was able to retreat from the battle, but the losses were substantial. Many officers, among them the general Sebastian, were killed in the worst Roman defeat since the Battle of Edessa, fought 120 years before. Adrianople was a significant blow for the late Empire, resulting in the destruction of the core army of the eastern Empire, the deaths of valuable administrators, and the destruction of all of the arms factories on the Danube following the battle. Despite these losses, the battle did not mark the end of the Roman army because the imperial military power was restored soon after.
Ultimately, the Romans lost this battle due to their own mistakes: overconfidence, impatience, and poor planning. If Valens had waited for reinforcements, the outcome would probably have been different. His poor planned march left his army exhausted before battle (he didn’t learn the lesson of Trebbia), and weakened their endurance. He paid the ultimate price for his own stupidity.
The defeat at Adrianople showed that the barbarians, fighting against the Romans, had become powerful adversaries. The Goths, though partly tamed by Valens' successor Theodosius I, were never again expelled, exterminated, or assimilated. They remained as a distinct entity within the Roman frontier, for a time allies, and then later as victors over the empire.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Destruction of the Roman Middle Class: An analogy for America Today?

There have been many books written about the decline of the Roman Empire and the factors that made it happen. Gibbon stands out as the first writer to put significant effort toward the subject with his six volume opus first published in 1776. Gibbon characterized the causes of the fall of Rome as follows:

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."

Given the contemporary angst about the health of the middle class in the United States, I thought it might be interesting to examine the decline of the middle class in Rome and its contribution to the decline of the empire as a whole.

Like the United States, the Roman political system was stabilized by the development of a large and robust middle class. In the early days of the Republic, there were patricians and plebeians (rich men and common men), with a sharp line dividing them according to family lineage and property ownership. Then, as the Republic grew, a new class called the Knights (Equites) emerged, initially made up of individuals who were wealthy enough to pay for a horse and the supplies needed to serve in the cavalry. Later two factors helped expand this class of Equites. Patricians, who were averse to participating in business ventures because they were perceived a low professions, began to employ knights to run their businesses for them, and this allowed the Knights to become merchants, bankers, insurance men, and investors. As businessmen, the Knights were able to acquire wealth and move up the socio-economic ladder. Their wealth was “new money” in contrast to the “old money” of the patricians. The second factor which helped build the middle class occurred during the reign of Augustus, when the civil service system was greatly expanded by employing more and more appointed officials to independently manage the government infrastructure. These civil servants were known as “publicans”.

With wealth came influence and the Roman middle class grew and prospered over the centuries, acting as the balance point between the three socio-economic classes, but in the latter stages of the empire, the middle class came under such pressure, it nearly ceased to exist, and the vacuum created by its decline was one of the major causes of the collapse of the empire. Why did this happen?

During the third century AD, the combination of funding external wars and internal unrest caused rampant monetary inflation, wiping out the assets of the middle class. Moreover, the occasional efforts to return the empire to its former glory were centered more on rebuilding the army than funding public works projects in the cities, so the latter became degraded into a dilapidated condition. Civil service workers in the cities, once perceived as benefactors because of their wealth, were now pressed by the government to collect higher and higher taxes, which alienated them from the people they had previously governed, and caused them to lose interest in serving. They abandoned their posts and moved away, leaving the extremely wealthy and poor behind, with a vacuum in the middle. With a lack of candidates for civil service positions, the government began to support the concept of hereditary service, passed down from father to son. Perceiving their value to the empire and noting the distance separating them from the capital, these administrators began to defy the central government. The latter responded by passing laws designed to bring their administrators in line, but the end result was administrative paralysis and corruption as low pay forced civil servants to bribe and sell favors to those with the money to pay for them.

In this case, the authorities had tried to impose a regimentation that would create the funding needed to pay the army and support a bureaucratic imperial infrastructure, but what they accomplished was a destruction of the individual loyalty needed to preserve the political system. As it happens so often in history, a political system is taken to the point of collapse when its leaders become so isolated from the problems of the public and they forfeit the ability to maintain stability in the system. The Roman central government during the period of the third century AD was more interested in ceremony than understanding the needs of the people so the gulf between the two was advanced by a failure to communicate.

To put the impact of changes in the Roman middle class in the right perspective, we have to place it in the proper place among all of the factors that, together, helped to hasten the end of the empire. These include failure of the army and the social catastrophe that disrupted the lives of the Roman people and their ability to survive in the changing political landscape. The army failed because it was not large enough to police the empire. It was not large enough because conscription efforts did not produce enough recruits among a decreasing number of candidates and those who were available were actively trying to avoid service. Ultimately, Rome’s enemies became stronger than she by shear numbers.

Social catastrophe resulted from a lack of sympathy between the army and the people. The people were often terrorized by the military and yet were forced to fund their compensation through high tax rates. Other social factors include the problem of agricultural laborers driven to poverty who were forced to seek protection from whatever source was available. Their benefactors were military officers who negotiated with the government on their behalf or the wealthy landowners who agreed to take them in as tenants or laborers. Many, who were driven to poverty, turned to a life of crime as individuals or members of gangs. All of these problems were ignored by the uber-wealthy who continued to expand their positions without a care for the plight of the common man.

The destruction of the Roman middle class was an important component of larger collapse of the entire social fabric of the empire, and its collapse made the problems of the other classes more apparent. The wealthy class remained to enrich themselves, without any connection to the problems of the common man. The poor became more impoverished and were forced to be dependent on whatever benefactor they could depend on.

Today, in America, we see some of the same elements: a shrinking middle class less able to carry the tax burden of the country, an impoverished poor dependent on government for subsistence, and an arrogant wealth class out of touch with reality and focused on their own world of fantasy. How will these conflicting forces resolve themselves this time?