Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Land of the Spartans

In the south central Peloponnese lie two mountain ranges: the Taygetos and the Parnon. Each reaches eight thousand feet above the central valley -- a valley so fertile there can be two harvests in a single year.

In the middle of this valley we find Sparta; the ancient Greek city which, for the entire world, has symbolized obsession, devotion, and military might. Five towns became Sparta in the 700s B.C; Amyklae, Pitana, Limnae, Mesoa, and Cynosura. Amyklae was three miles distant, lying to the south of the others. These were Dorian towns and the citizens spoke Dorian Greek.

For the first five hundred years there was no wall around the city. Perhaps it was impractical to include Amyklae, and to exclude it was unacceptable. Then again, the Spartans considered city walls effeminate.

It was Lycurgus who, in a time of great stress, convinced the Spartan people to adopt a new way of life – create a warrior class to protect Sparta from a revolt of the Messenian Helots. But it was a pact with the devil, because the subjugation of a people as slaves, requires the military might to hold down the inevitable revolts.

So the Agoge was adopted; twenty years military training for all young men starting when they reached age seven. Living together and fighting together – a lifelong bond between warriors.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Democracy in America? Not According to the Greeks.

What we call democracies in the western world, especially in the United States, would be seen as something less by the ancient Athenians. They would assert that there is very little democracy here because Americans are not able to participate directly in their government.

The first Athenian democracy was created by Cleisthenes in 507 B.C, when the people elected him along with others who were dedicated to replacing the aristocratic oligarchy. This political change was accomplished through legislation, not violence.

The Athenian political system, before the reforms, had many elements of a democratic system, but was heavily influenced by the aristocratic class. The principle legislative body was the Assembly (Ecclesia) which consisted of all citizens who came to the assembly meetings. Because of the unwieldy character of so large a group, a council of 500 was created to debate and consider new legislation before it was brought before the assembly. Governmental administration was handled by ten senior magistrates, called Archons, who were elected by the people. When an Archon’s term of office ended he could become a member of the Areopagas, an aristocratic council of elders who acted as a court of appeal. Lastly, there was a elected board of ten generals who were in charge of commanding the army and navy during time of war. Aristocratic influence was seen in the Council of 500 which was heavily tilted toward the upper class. Archons, themselves, were wealthy aristocrats, and the Areopagas was made up of former Archons.

The new laws sought to break the aristocratic hold on high office by removing their influence. Candidates for Archon were now chosen by lot from the Council of 500. A system of ostracism was introduced to prevent accumulation of power. Any senior official deemed to be corrupt could be banished for ten years by a vote of the Assembly. Other changes included limiting the power of the Areopagas to appeal for murder trials, and transferring supervision of the conduct of government to the Council of 500.

This great Athenian democracy thrived through the time of Pericles 462-429 B.C, but was degraded during the Peloponnesian War, which ended in 404. The Athenians were defeated by Sparta and would never again experience the great democracy they had invented.

If we agree that the definition of democracy is anything we want it to be, then I suppose America has a democracy, but it’s funny how the term has be used by feminist types to suggest the Greeks didn’t have a democracy because women couldn’t vote. In their view, only contemporary America would meet the true definition. How absurd! Democracies are defined by the ability of people to have a say in government, not whether one class or the other has equal rights.

A political system will only be strong if informed citizens vote. That is citizens who are intelligent enough and motivated enough to analyze the issues before voting. Those who vote without knowledge of the issues or support candidates because they are told who to support are corrupt. Quality government comes from quality votes, not the number of them.

The other problem we have in the United States is that the people’s power ends with their vote. Because they elect representatives and do not participate in government themselves, their surrogates are open to the kind of corruption that makes them beholden to the rich and powerful rather than the people they represent.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Hannibal’s Roman Holiday

The map below documents Hannibal’s time in the Italian Peninsula during the second Punic War. Year numbers are written over the location of his winter quarters for each year of the conflict. Most of you know that Hannibal traveled through the Alps over the winter of 218 B.C. and spent the rest of that winter near Torino (Turin).

The next winter found him in the Ampulia district on the opposite side of the Apennine Mountains from Rome. Following his victory at Cannae, Hannibal adopted a strategy of attacking Campania, hoping to get Rome’s allies to revolt and join him. This effort was largely unsuccessful and he was eventually forced to retreat south into the Bruttium district.

The Romans, after their defeat an Cannae, adopted a plan of avoiding large scale battles against Hannibal and only attacked him on a small scale when they were sure they could win. They put a great deal of effort into preventing reinforcements, which proved to be an important factor in their ultimate success. The most serious attempt at reinforcement occurred in 207 when Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal tried to move an army down the west side of the Apennines and link up with him. Hasdrubal was trapped by the Romans and killed. It must have been disheartening for Hannibal, after waiting eleven years for reinforcements, to have his brother’s head tossed into his camp as a signal that no help would be coming.

Reinforcements were critical because, as time went by, Hannibal had fewer and fewer of his original troops and more local mercenaries. He found himself trapped in Bruttium because his army was Bruttian and they refused to fight outside their district. Then, in 203, with the Romans attacking Carthage directly, Hannibal left Italy to help in the defense of his homeland.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Factors in the Development of Ancient Greek Culture

The following chart shows a timeline comparing Athens and Rome during the period 800-450 B.C.

It’s obvious from the chart that the Greeks were a couple of hundred years ahead of the Romans in developing their culture. In 625, when the Romans were living in mud huts and working at draining the swamp that would become the Forum, the Athenians were already 125 years removed from establishing their colonies in Italy and well on the way toward defining a unique and advanced culture. Architecture forms were well developed, large sculptures were being produced, and pottery had already passed through its orientalizing period. The polis had become a mature political system as it broke new ground in human rights and political participation. At the same time, the Greek army had evolved advanced battle tactics including use of the Phalanx.

So why the disparity between Athens and Rome?

There are both environmental and cultural reasons for this. Rome and the Italian peninsula had similar experiences to Europe in the middle ages with respect to development of their political systems. This similarity is based on two factors: personal leadership and a collective unity and equality of tribesmen. In other words, their political systems grew out of leadership based on personal charisma which encompassed regal, military, and political elements. The society was flat with a leader and his associates on top and everyone as equals below.

The early Greek experience was different because it was influenced by unique factors: tribal kings were weak financially, the Aegean was isolated geographically, and Greek life was simpler than Roman life.

Since the early kings were not wealthy, their attempts at power were overcome by military leaders who excelled at forming superior tactics. Without money kings could not buy power. The isolation of the Aegean and its geography was also a factor because it prevented foreign threats and the influence foreign invaders could exert on evolving Greek political systems.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect was the simplicity of Greek life. The Greeks looked at the world through an intellectual lens: embracing science, mathematics, philosophy, and the arts, rather than pure wealth building. Greek philosophy dictated that possessions were not the route to happiness in life and that logic demanded equality among free people. The Greeks believed that all possess inherent rights to justice, participation in government, and equality under law.

Ultimately Rome would come to dominate Greece because its unity and the power derived from it would overcome the Greeks independence. In this case, Greek philosophy was the liability because it kept the Greeks form creating a powerful empire which could compete against Rome.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Are We Barbarians? Do we think we’re better than the Romans?

I suppose if you asked someone to describe the difference between ourselves and the Romans they might answer, “They lived crude backward lives without modern conveniences” or “They were Barbarians. We’re not.” There is a tendency to think everything is better now; that human beings have progressed over the last two thousand years to a higher form – ruled by logic and not fists. I wonder if the “We’re not barbarians” comment is accurate.

I’m a fan of the Showtime series The Tudors, and have observed with curiosity the many beheadings shown in the episodes. I found it surprising that parents brought their children to these “events” held five hundred years ago. Wouldn’t we label this barbaric behavior? Why would a mother bring a child to witness a beheading, watching the head fly off and blood shoot all over? Is this any different from gladiators in the Coliseum?

The word barbarian comes from “baba”, the Greek term for speech they couldn’t understand, particularly those of the backward tribes to their north. To the Greeks, barbarians were people who didn’t speak Greek and were, therefore, unrefined. A barbarian to them was an uncivilized person, or by our modern definition, a person lacking in moral or intellectual advancement - not humane, ethical, and reasonable.

Were all Romans barbarians because the games in the Coliseum were barbaric? I doubt it. Like any society, the Romans must have had a range of ethical and moral standards among the people. There must have been those who considered violence against human beings barbaric. We can’t say how many or what percentage, but any society includes those who oppose violence.

Now we come to the present day to ponder the following statement: “If there are barbarians now, then we have not become more civilized.” Alas, we can readily observe them operating in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Isn’t cutting off the hands of thieves, like the Saudis do, barbaric? This modern age, like the past, has a range of moral behavior from the “very civilized” of the west to “very uncivilized’ in some other parts of the world. I bet the majority of Americans would say we are the most civilized nation on the planet. After all, we’ve taken being civilized to the limit. We not only won’t kill people, we won’t insult them. In contemporary America, calling a person “fat” is uncivilized.

But we still have our murders and rapists acting uncivilized. Five point four percent of the United States population is in jail. These people must be barbarians, right? Or maybe the white collar criminals aren’t because their crimes were committed in a civilized manner.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part V (last in the series)

We have talked about the fall of the Republic and the reasons for it, but have not analyzed what it means to us. To find meaning, we have to consider the problems of Rome and see if they apply today.

As we have said in previous posts, the central revolutionary drivers in the Republic were poor governance leading to a power vacuum, class instability, and the army as a kingmaker. Which of these issues, if any, could destroy the American Political System? To answer this question, we have to squint into the future. The United States has only existed half as long as the Roman Republic so it could be stable for a long time yet. The fact that there are no serious problems now should not lead one to believe the coast is clear for the future, however. In another century or two the American Political System could die from fatigue like so many others have done in the past.

In the meantime, let us consider Rome’s problems directly. I see poor governance as an issue today; particularly if paired with class instability. I don’t see the military as a factor. The American Armed Forces have no tradition of opposition to our political system and the fact that they report to the President makes for a strong link to the national government.

Bureaucracy is a risk factor. Max Weber considered bureaucracy as one of the great evils of the modern capitalist society. He saw its dangers as the de-personalization of humanity and the rise of a structure designed to serve its own interests rather than those of policy makers. The more socialist the society, the more bureaucratic it must become -- interesting in light of the current debate over the role of government put forward by the Obama administration. Because bureaucracy can’t be undone, it threatens to use up dollars that should go to recipients of the programs the bureaucracy was created to help.

There is greater danger to our political system than bureaucracy – the power of corporations. As corporations consolidate and grow more international, their power widens. Inside the United States, they use lobbyists to influence legislation in ways that do not serve the public. Many corporations control vital industries which could be used as leverage points for power. Imagine, for example, the extortion possible by oil companies or electric utilities.

A corporation is a selfish thing; dedicated to its own survival and the survival of those who run it. Unchecked, corporations could gain so much influence over government they would be essentially controlling it. What would happen if we reached a point where corporations saw the government as The enemy rather than an ally? Look at our current economic situation. As the mortgage crisis unfolded, the U.S. government forced banks to take bailout money and live with government control, but the subsequent behavior by the banks was unanticipated by politicians who do not understand business. Rather than using security of government funding to relax their apprehension over loaning money, the banks did nothing. Most want to pay the government back quickly because they don’t want to burden of being told how to operate their businesses, and Congress is powerless to do anything about it. Is this a microcosm of a bigger corporate conspiracy? Only time will tell.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Caesar Against Vercingetorix – The Siege of Alesia

In 52 B.C. Julius Caesar, near the end of his war against Gaul, had one great enemy left in his path – Vercingetorix. The latter was a young Arvernian - charismatic, confident, and incited against Rome. Expelled from Gergovia, for being too rash, Vercingetorix raised an army on his own, and assumed the role of commander. His strategy against Caesar was simple -- use superior cavalry to harass the Romans and drive them away. Caesar, understanding his own weakness, compensated by recruiting Germans to strengthen his own cavalry units. Then, after a series of reversals, Vercingetorix was forced to retreat to the walled city of Alesia for protection. Alesia had a five mile perimeter wall six feet high with a trench in front of it. The surrounding terrain favored the defenders because it was uneven with many hills and small rivers.

No obstacle would deter Caesar, however. He knew direct attack was impossible because of the hilltop position of the city, so he planned a siege to starve the Gauls into surrender.

Caesar ordered construction of a ten mile perimeter defense almost completely surrounding the city. Eight camps were placed in strategic positions with twenty-three lookout towers placed at equal intervals. Noting the construction and realizing he was being caught in a trap, Vercingetorix sent out his cavalry to break through and seek reinforcements. Informed of the break-out, Caesar decided he needed a more elaborate defense. His men dug a twenty-five foot wide trench, twenty-five feet deep, with vertical sides. Six hundred yards behind this trench two others were dug: both fifteen feet wide -- one filled with water. Behind the twin trenches, a twelve foot palisaded rampart was constructed. Towers were placed at one hundred and thirty yard intervals along the wall.

When this inner defense was complete, Caesar ordered the construction of a fourteen mile outer wall to protect against attack from reinforcements. The outer wall also had twin trenches on the outside.

In time, a relief force of eighty thousand Gauls arrived. Both Gallic forces attacked the Romans – the besieged army from the inside and the reinforcements from the outside. Caesar sent his cavalry against the relief force while his army fought off an attack from Vercingetorix' army. Neither Gallic army was able to penetrate the Roman fortifications. The next day Vercingetorix concentrated a new attack force against a weak spot in the inner defense. His army successfully broke through but was attacked from behind by Roman cavalry that had ridden around the outer ring to their rear. Caesar, himself, appeared with the cohorts trying to close the gap and the Romans were ultimately successful.

With their reinforcements routed, and no further hope of breaking the siege, Silesia surrendered and handed over Vercingetorix to Caesar, who had him paraded in Rome before his execution.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part IV

In the last three posts we have described the personalities and the events that led directly to the fall of the Roman Republic. From that point when Sulla left the scene, Crassus, Pompey and Caesar carried on a mutually beneficial arrangement (The Triumvirate), which lasted until Crassus’ death and the death of Pompey’s wife (Caesar’s daughter). Any one of these three men could have made dictator. Caesar succeeded because of the death of Crassus and the hesitation of Pompey.

The Republic broke down as a political system and was superseded by authoritarian rule. Why? What is it exactly, that allowed this change to happen?

I started thinking about this in the context of a modern view of revolutions and their causes: the conceptual models of Kornhauser in The Politics of Mass Society or Greene’s Comparative Revolutionary Movements can be used as a reference. But, In truth, the Roman situation is much simpler than the complex forces Marx and other revolutionary theorists conjured up.

In any political system, stability depends on confidence. If the people believe their system will allow them to achieve their goals in life, they will not look for a change. In the period 140-80 B.C. the common people of Rome became economically disadvantaged and a weakened (or arrogant) Senate did nothing to help them. As a consequence, the people looked to popular leaders, such as Marius, to take control of the republic and make their lives better. During this period there was a enormous amount of violence. Whether or not it was purposeful or just a consequence of the battle for control, does not matter. Violence breaks down the institutions of government and drives the people toward any system that will produce stability. In the end, stability was the dictator, and the dictator held his power by controlling loyalty of the army.

Revolutions take the right man at the right time. Caesar was power hungry, but also brilliant – educated, courageous, and innovative. Still the ultimate political solution for Rome was not accomplished by Caesar who, in the end, was a transitional figure. The future of Rome depended on the brilliance of another man – Octavian, the man who became Caesar Augustus. Octavian, in creating his “Principate”, was successful at painting a Republican veneer over the top of a dictatorship. Octavian served as consul for the first eight years of his rule. Then, with a carefully crafted system in place, he declared he would transfer power back to the people – restore the Republic. In return he received the power to control Rome and its provinces through administrators appointed by himself. The Senate’s role was enlarged to further the illusion. In the end Augustus separated politics and administration: letting the Senate be the politicians while he controlled the apparatus of government and held the real power.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part III

Our history of the fall of the Republic now takes us to the last player in the drama – Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man who had no reservations about destroying the Republic. Sulla never understood that his attempts to fix the Republic could not overcome the things he did to destroy it, so by the time he left the scene, Rome was ready to fall to any power hungry candidate who would be bold enough and strong enough to take it.

As his first important military appointment, Sulla was ordered to command an army and defeat King Mithridates of Pontus in 88 B.C. after the king had overrun Athens and killed many Italians. Before leaving, however, his command was superseded by one of the Tribunes, Sulpicius, who had dangled Sulla’s command in front of Marius to pull him out of retirement. When Sulla and his followers tried to intervene, an armed clash took place and Sulla was forced to go into hiding.

After recovering from this political embarrassment, Sulla joined the army he was to lead in the East, turned it around, and attacked Rome. Sulpicius was hunted down and killed. Sulla then took the steps he thought necessary to stabilize the Republic including allowing the consular elections to be held. He left for war against Mithridates, after a promise from the consuls to move forward with his programs.

Almost immediately, the consul Cinna rescinded the edicts of Sulla and brought old Marius back from exile. Marius commanded a series of reprisals which murdered thousands, but he died the next year. Cinna controlled Rome for three more years naming himself consul each year.

In 82 B.C, the war in the East was under control, so Sulla once again marched on Rome and took the city. One of his first acts was to organize a mass murder that made Marius’ slaughter look amateurish. Sulla proclaimed himself dictator and set about re-designing the Republican government along conservative lines. He broke the power of the tribunes and changed the law courts to put them under the Senate rather than the Knights. He doubled the size of the Senate and made it easier to become a member. Oddly, he had all these measures passed through the traditional assemblies as if his power as dictator prevented him from creating new legislation.

Sulla resigned as dictator in 81 and was elected consul. Then in 80 B.C he retired to live in the country and died the following year.

The naïve attempts by Sulla to turn back the clock on the Republic failed completely because he had not taken into account the essential economic and social problems facing the Roman people. His legacy was to empower the leaders of the army to replace the authority of the Republican system whenever they felt inclined to do so. The Senate and the people were about to lose their power forever.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part II

As I mentioned in the last post, the Gracchi brothers took popular reform to a new level during the years 133-122 B.C. The projects of Tiberius which led to his murder in 133, were taken up and extended by his brother in 123, so the commons experienced the frustration of Senate’s intransigence for more than a decade. The door to popular control of the government was open a crack, but the people themselves could only go so far. Mobs do not make revolutions. Mob leaders do.

So we move on to Marius – the last Republican who was willing to work within the system.

War broke out in Africa in 112 when a young renegade African prince, Jugurtha, massacred the Italian residents of Numidia. The first two Roman expeditionary forces sent to destroy him accomplished nothing. Then, in 109, a more competent general, Metellus, was sent out to get the job done. Again, two years of trying and two years of failure.

Frustrated to the limit, the public demanded that one of Metellus’ deputies, Gaius Marius, be appointed commander of the army. Overcoming modest origins, Marius had built a career as a knight and publican before distinguishing himself in the military. Seizing the opportunity to cap his career, Marius obtained a consulship for himself in addition to the commander’s role.

Before going to war against the Numidians, Marius trained his soldiers extensively and modified Roman battle tactics. He also made his soldiers professionals by removing the property qualification. Even though this new motivated army won a series of impressive battles in Numidia, Marius was unable to defeat Jugurtha until the young prince was captured by a treachery in 104. His capture was arranged by Marius’ deputy Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Marius was elected consul for five consecutive years from 104-100 B.C. During that time he developed of habit of aligning himself with men who were willing to act as his political surrogates. The first of these was Saturninus who put through programs to provide land for Marius’ veterans. It wasn't long, however, before Saturninus got out of control and started to murder his political opponents. Marius, unwilling to stand for wholesale lawlessness, removed his support and raised an improvised army which destroyed Saturninus and his followers. During this period of instability, Marius’ lack of principle was exposed and he decided to go into retirement.

Then in 87 B.C. another opportunist named Sulpicius brought Marius back to Rome as a military backer for a set of reforms designed to weaken the Senate. These measures were a direct attack on the emerging power of Sulla who marched on Rome and took the city.

Marius fled to Africa but returned again to join the conspiracy of Cinna who was able to retake the Rome while Sulla was in the east during the year 86 B.C. Marius died of a heart attack the next year.

The legacy of Marius makes him a central figure in the fall of the Republic. Although he wanted to work within the system, his tolerance for violence and his lack of political skill fostered a series of unscrupulous political actors who used his power for political ends, and contributed to the instability that destroyed the Republic.

April Fooled? Blame the Romans

Although the origins of April Fool’s Day are obscure, they most certainly have some connection to ancient Roman festivals which celebrated the first day of spring and the advent of planting season.

As Christianity spread through Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire, some countries decided to make the first day of the year more significant by placing it on the Easter Holiday. As late as 1400, France still had Easter as the first day of the new year.

The British used March 25th (Feast of the Assumption) as New Year’s Day for centuries, typically following it with a week of festivals ending on April 1st. There is a 1766 reference to “people making fools of each other” at the end of the festival. Perhaps these festivals and an evolved “foolish tradition” is the source of April Fools Day.

The other popular theory relates to the Julian calendar, which was implemented by Caesar in 46 B.C. One of the changes he made was to move the first day of the year from March 21st to January 1st. Eventually all of the European countries adopted this change, but those folks who continued to celebrate the new year on April 1st would be labeled fools for continuing the old practice.