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?