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January 21, 2006

The Roman Way, Part I

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus." - Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 3

Have you ever wondered why the Romans have gotten such good press over the last 15 centuries? I mean, Edward Gibbon’s opinion above might be a tad extreme, but it has been echoed by countless other writers over the centuries. The more I’ve read about Rome and thought about it, however, the more peculiar this positive glow cast over either Republican or Imperial Rome appears. Rather than one of the high points of civilization, Rome increasingly strikes me as an essentially perverse episode in human history.


How exactly did a small trading village on the Tiber end up not only taking over Italy but the entire Mediterranean world? Well, to put it bluntly, Rome was ruled by the most aggressive and militarized aristocracy in world history. Compared to the Senatorial class in Rome, the Spartans were a group of gentle pacifists quietly minding their own business. For Roman aristocrats, warfare was business and conquest was their ‘business model.’ As Charles Freeman remarks in his book, “Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean”:

For the aristocratic elite [of Rome] war provided the main avenue to political success, the only way an individual could achieve glory and status, while the fruits of victory, in plunder and slaves, made war attractive for the luxurious lifestyle and status it brought.

This same opinion is echoed by John Keegan in his “A History of Warfare”:

Rome certainly did not need to find food for a growing population, as Athens did, since rich lands were easily annexed within a short campaigning distance from the city...Rome grew rich by conquest, and its empire’s expansion fed on itself…

Mr. Keegan identifies the key military innovation that supported the Roman aristocracy’s ‘business’ strategy—the remarkably early conversion of the Roman army into a professional force:

By the fourth century [BCE], Rome…was paying the legionaries a daily stipend. This development marked the most important divergence of the Roman [military system from the] Greek military system. Rome’s smallholders, at the dictate of an increasingly dominant political class, ceased to be attached to and supported by their land and became a recruiting pool for a professional army which campaigned, year after year, farther and farther from home. [Emphasis added]

During the early Republic this Senatorial class had felt it necessary to share (perhaps voluntarily, perhaps under compulsion of social unrest) the grim profits of conquest with the mass of ordinary Romans. However, as Rome’s power overshadowed all others in the Mediterranean basin, an ever-more-entitled Senatorial class bought or seized very large estates and staffed them with slave labor captured in its wars of conquest. It was impossible for small proprietors to match the economies of scale achievable on these larger estates (although the productivity of both large and small estates was painfully low even by the mild standards of early modern Europe). Paradoxically, however, the resulting degradation of the small farmer actually made the Roman war machine work better than ever. By roughly 200 BCE Rome’s once-universal obligation of military service among property-owners had been effectively abandoned, because there were now so many willing volunteers that the state could fill its legions by selecting only the best men for a six-year term of service. This new selection process was known as the dilectus. John Keegan notes:

…The adoption of the dilectus reflected a worsening of the small farmers’ circumstances, and indeed the expanding estates of the rich were extinguishing the basis of smallholding…

But for the Senatorial class, whose greed really knew no bounds, this was all to the good. Because the system worked: war certainly paid. As Keith Hopkins of Cambridge University notes in his essay “On the Political Economy of the Roman Empire” (which can be read online here):

The larger the Roman empire became, the more people it subjected, the more taxes it exacted. The more wealth the Roman state controlled, the more territory it was able to acquire and defend. For example, between 225 and 25 BCE, the period of Rome's striking imperial expansion, the population subject to Roman rule increased perhaps fifteenfold, from about four to sixty million people. But the government's tax revenues rose by at least a hundredfold (from about 4 - 8 million HS in 250 BCE to over 800 million HS in 25 BCE, at roughly constant prices)… And the aggregate wealth and income of the aristocracy, broadly understood, was probably as great as or greater than the tax income of the central government.[emphasis added].

Note: HS stands for sestertii, the standard Roman silver coin. While the population under Roman rule never expanded greatly—if at all—beyond the numbers controlled at the time of the collapse of the Republic, that didn’t stop the share of society’s wealth that flowed to the Roman political class under the Empire from continuing to rise, whether in good times or bad. (And the times under the later Empire could get very bad indeed). Mr. Hopkins lays this out:

Under the emperors, aristocrats increasingly owned estates spread over the whole empire. Over time, aristocrats collectively owned a significant share not just of Italy, but of the whole Mediterranean basin. In the middle of the first century CE, six senators were reputed (of course it was an exaggeration, but a straw in the right wind) to own all Tunisia. Aristocrats’ aggregate wealth increased, as did the fortunes of individual aristocrats. A few illustrative figures will suffice. Cicero in the middle of the last century BCE wrote that a rich Roman needed an annual income of 100 -600,000 HS; in the late first century, Pliny a middling senator, had an annual income of about 1.1 million HS per year. In the fourth century, middling senators in the city of Rome were said to enjoy incomes of 1333 - 2000 Roman pounds of gold a year, equivalent to 6-9 milllion HS per year. In sum, aristocratic fortunes…had doubled or trebled in the first century of the Principate and had again risen more than sixfold between AD 100 and 400. Monarchy and the politico-economic integration of the whole empire, however superficial, had enabled aristocrats to become very much richer.

The depth of the hatred roused by the depredations of the Roman political class in the conquered and annexed territories—particularly those of the comparatively wealthy eastern Mediterranean—can be seen an incident that occurred during the war between Rome and Mithradates, the king of Pontus, during the first century BCE. Mithradates invaded the Roman province of Asia (modern-day coastal Turkey, then an exceptionally wealthy area). Seeking allies, he called on the Greeks to rise up and slaughter Roman ‘businessmen’ and their families, many of whom were involved in tax farming. Apparently some 80,000 were killed in a single night, so ferocious was the hatred of Roman exploitation.

So, to sum up, the Roman empire was a large-scale, essentially piratical ‘business venture’ that succeeded in subjecting the entire Mediterranean economy to the control of the Roman political class via what might be termed a series of ‘hostile takeovers,’ with revenue coming in the form of war indemnities, plunder, the enslavement and exploitation of prisoners of war, tax farming, expropriation of valuable land, and finally rents collected from same. And over the centuries, the Roman political class extracted an ever-larger piece of a fairly stable economic pie as a result of their tight relationship with the coercive apparatus of the all-devouring Roman state.

So when I come across the very numerous examples of writers, politicians and intellectuals who, over the centuries, have shown signs of nostalgia for Rome (and particularly the Roman Empire), I’ve begun to wonder whether they were just ignorant of the true nature of the Roman state or perhaps (unconsciously?) eager to emulate the ruthless and exploitative aspects of the Roman political class.


The more I’ve learned about ancient political, social and economic history, the more amusing I find the wailing and gnashing of teeth over how ‘barbarian hordes’ overthrew the high civilization of the ‘noble Romans.’ While there were unquestionably practical problems connected with the disruptive barbarian invasions, at least on a moral level it’s unclear to me in what dimension of savagery the Germanic invaders could be said to outdo (or even equal) their erstwhile ‘victims.’ My strong suspicion is that the German ‘barbarians’ would have come off as ‘just plain folks’ in comparison with the weird (and very scary) products of elite Roman culture.

For example, the sheer persistence of Roman war making, overseen by generation after generation of elite Romans, caused John Keegan in his book, “A History of Warfare” to reiterate an observation originally made by classical historian William Harris:

…Roman imperialism was in large part the result of quite rational behaviour on the part of the Romans, but it also had dark and irrational roots. One of the most striking features of Roman warfare is its regularity—almost every year [for century after century] the Romans went out and did massive violence to someone—and this regularity gives the phenomenon a pathological character.

This judgment is not just anachronistic moralizing by wimpy moderns, either. The irrational or pathological aspect of Roman war-making was noted by the ancients, as well. The Roman historian Polybius, for example, described how the Senatorial aristocrat Scipio Africanus, after storming New Carthage (modern Cartagena) during the Second Punic War,

…directed [his soldiers], according to the Roman custom, against the people in the city, telling them to kill everyone they met and to spare no one…The purpose of this custom is to strike terror. Accordingly one can see in cities captured by the Romans not only human beings who have been slaughtered, but even dogs sliced in two and the limbs of other animals cut off…” [emphasis added]

The Roman elite weren’t any kinder toward their own, either, as Norman F. Cantor, author of “The Civilization of the Middle Ages” notes:

The Roman aristocracy …developed a tough, aggressive educational system that took little notice of individual talents and almost none of feelings or emotional development. Children were regimented, and physical force was used to make them learn. Boys were turned over to tutors (often slaves, and frequently frustrated, sadistic men) at the age of six or seven and forced to learn their letters…language and literature were, in fact, the whole of their curriculum…A society dominated by an aristocracy is one in which the rulers need to learn nothing but language; they do not need science or the arts, they do not need new knowledge of technology or sources of wealth, but they must communicate—they already have power, which they will exert through communication…The Romans were psychologically damaged by their educational system, as evidenced by their violence, aggression, sadism, hostility to women, and other unattractive characteristics. Children were treated badly, indeed, and many of them grew up to be sadomasochists.

In fact, all family relations among the Roman elite were quite unsentimental. Rodney Stark, in his book “The Rise of Christianity” notes that from its inception,

[Rome]…was a male culture that held marriage in low esteem. In 131 B.C.E., the Roman censor Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonius proposed that the senate make marriage compulsory because so many men, especially in the upper classes, preferred to stay single…As Beryl Rawson has reported, “one theme that recurs in Latin literature is that wives are difficult and therefore men do no care much for marriage.”

And if women were ‘difficult’, then newborn infants were, um, completely disposable. Again, Mr. Stark notes:

One reason for [low fertility among the Roman elite] was infanticide—far more babies were born than were allowed to live. [The Roman aristocrat and writer] Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace. [The Roman historian] Tacitus charged that the Jewish teaching that is “a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child” was but another of their “sinister and revolting” practices…The Twelve Tables—the earliest known Roman legal code, written about 450 B.C.E.—permitted a father to expose any female infant and any deformed or weak male infant… [emphasis added]

The entire family culture of the Roman world, and particularly the Roman elite, has often been characterized as foreign to the assumptions of most of humanity. James C. Caldwell addresses this point in his “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?” which appeared in the Journal of Population Research, May 2004 and can be read online here:

Much of the analysis of the [Roman] family supports Aries's (1962) postulate on the lack of resemblance to the modern Western family… marriages were arranged by families with a view to preserving or increasing the patrimony, wives' property was distinguished from that of their husbands, divorce and remarriage for social, family and financial advantage were common, infants were frequently fostered or exposed (left in the market place, often apparently to become slaves), with many children being reared by others than their parents…parent-child relationships were often so formal that disposing of infants or even older children was usually not emotionally difficult…Nevertheless, it was the willingness of many parents to do this [i.e., abandon their children to either death or slavery] that has led many modern commentators to conclude that the Roman family and its internal relationships were alien and perhaps incomprehensible. [emphasis added]

The overriding importance of economic motives for such brutal relationships, paticularly among the Roman elite, is quite clear, as Mr. Caldwell points out:

What is not contentious is that the upper classes were deeply concerned that the family patrimony should not be disbursed among a large number of surviving children. Once both parents were dead the inheritance had to be shared equally among children of both sexes... The patrimony had usually been handed down from earlier times when it had been acquired through warfare or high military or public office during that warfare. Wealth made it possible for family members to obtain high public office, usually not legally remunerated, and to augment their wealth by successful marriage strategies. There was little sympathy for poverty: men were expelled from the Senate for debt or impoverishment…

…and so ‘excessive’ children had to be ‘disposed’ via either slavery or the grave. The public consequences among the Roman political class of such private brutality were both obvious and predictable. As the political logic of what might be termed “the Roman way” became more fully worked out and openly acknowledged in the late Republic and particularly under the emperors, internal ruthlessness and lawlessness became the norm. Mr. Hopkins notes that:

Emperors in the first century…repeatedly created a reign of terror, which would have made Ivan the Terrible seem mild.

And this ruthlessness of Romans towards other Romans only intensified under the pressure of the political, economic and military crises of the later Empire. Mr. Freeman writes:

The details of the period 354 to 378 [A.D.] are so well known because they are covered by one of the finest of the Roman historians, Ammianus Marcellinus (330-c.395)…He can create, as Tacitus could, the atmosphere of terror emanating from a man who had absolute power…he details the cruelty which spread from the top down during the reign of Constantius, for whom he had a particular aversion. In Pannonia [a Roman province stretching from modern day Austria to Serbia] one of the prefects, Probus, attempted to ingratiate himself with the emperor by gathering taxes with such force that the poor were sometimes reduced to suicide while the rich moved to escape his depredations. This is the picture which has survived of the fourth century in general, one in which Roman rule became increasingly brutalized [!].

In my next post I’m going to take up the economic and demographic aspects of ‘the Roman way”.



posted by Friedrich at January 21, 2006


Well, the continuing popularity of ancient Rome just shows once again, that people love a winner.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 21, 2006 06:35 PM

I'm not sure how relevant this is, but Tacitus in his Germania paints a fairly positive picture of those "barbarians" from across the Rhine. He doesn't whitewash either. One (suspected) flaw I detect is that he over-generalizes, for instance: "In every home the children go naked and dirty, and develop that strength of limb and tall stature that excite our admiration". ("The Agricola and the Germania" Penguin Classics, 1985 printing, Section 20.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 21, 2006 06:54 PM

One thing bugs me here. If the Romans were so awful how come they were so successful? In our day and age, and this goes back a few centuries now, the good guys win and the bad guys, whether they be the Soviets, the Nazis or French Revolutionaries, go to the wall.

Posted by: Patrick Crozier on January 21, 2006 07:53 PM

One thing to keep in mind is that the relentless offensive under the Roman Republic slowed down when Augustus, the first emperor, won supreme power. He believed that Rome was better off conserving its vast winnings than trying to push outward into ever more hostile regions. This was more or less the imperial policy ever after (with numerous exceptions, of course).

Thus Gibbon's praise of the 2nd Century AD is understandable: under the five so-called "good emperors," a vast region was largely at peace under a government that, while not creative, was neither maniacal nor irrational.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 21, 2006 10:18 PM

Priscus and Tacitus sometimes used barbarians as mouthpieces to express their own criticisms of Roman life. They weren't necessarily trying to describe the barbarians accurately; certainly not only that.

According to Heather and Wolfram, the Goths were not an independent native people with a homeland. They were an armed hodge-podge with a core of German-speaking migrants from the Baltic area, who clustered around the Roman borders and sometimes served as border guards, and sometimes raided. Their goal was probably to bust into the empire and gain the rights of citizen-soldiers, as many of the Alans, for example, did. But when Rome failed to make payoffs, they switched permanently into raiding mode, and the Romans weren't able to respond.

After the fall of Rome the Goths and later the Franks tried to keep things going, but there was depopulation, a shrinking of cities, a decline in literacy, a shrinking economy, decline in trade and so on. Between about 600 and about 700, in Catholic Europe there were apparently almost no books at all written, and the books I've seen written between 525 and about 800 were unoriginal, often ignorant, almost unreadable, and of purely historical interest: Isadore of Seville, Paul the Deacon, Gildas, Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, the Venerable (now Saint) Bede -- take a try at them.

So there was a cost to liberation. And I think that for that period it's fair to take literacy as an index for a lot of other good things, such as political order and prosperity. It wasn't just a change in recreational habits to live music and dancing.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 22, 2006 09:45 AM

Mr. Emerson:

You write:

But when Rome failed to make payoffs, they switched permanently into raiding mode, and the Romans weren't able to respond.

Given that the Roman Empire controlled a population of at least 60 million people, and the Germanic war bands could have realistically constituted no more than a few thousand warriors at best (coming from a culture without cities and certainly without sophisticated logistical support), why do you think the Roman Empire was unable to respond? Even those who point to the demands that the Persian "superpower" was making in the East on the Empire don't suggest that the need to defend against the Persians tied up more than one third of the Roman military machine. That was actually the starting point of my thinking: that there must have been something seriously wrong with the Roman Empire as a form of social and economic organization for it to have been unable to respond to such modest forces as those of the Germans. But I'll get into my speculations along those lines in my next posting.


After the fall of Rome the Goths and later the Franks tried to keep things going, but there was depopulation, a shrinking of cities, a decline in literacy, a shrinking economy, decline in trade and so on.

All the trends you note except for those affecting literacy--that is, depopulation, shrinking of cities, shrinking economy, decline of trade, etc.--occurred, or at least were well-begun, long before the fall of the Roman Empire, and can be accounted for on an internal basis.

Something was rotten on the Tiber, and the Danube, etc., etc.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 22, 2006 10:31 AM

The Goths basically were the border guards. Citizen soldiers were rare by that time. That's why the Romans were unable to respond. There were also fiscal problems, and the East and the West were pretty much separate by that time (the East went along merrily for another thousand years) -- the East actually played tricks to send Attila west at one point.

The Goths were more like a mercenary / plundering army that travelled with its dependents, rather than a real nation. They were much more heavily mobilized than Rome was, since war was their business (one way or another) -- and since they were Roman military contractors much of the time, they were actually part of the Roman forces. I think that you also guessed wrong on their population size, but in any case it's a mistake to think of a Gothic nation facing a Roman nation.

There's a difference between a declining trend and a collapse. By all evidence there was a collapse after the Gothic conquest, and a major depopulation.

Posted by: John Emerson on January 22, 2006 12:16 PM

Mr. Emerson:

We could go back and forth on this for weeks, but I think it would make more sense to postpone the discussion until after my next post, when I try to tease out exactly what I think went wrong for the Roman Empire. Obviously, the collapse was a result of many factors; I however want to highlight some that don't usually seem to get much attention, and which I think were serious contributors to the overall problem.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 22, 2006 01:25 PM

Mr. Emerson,

What are you talking about? Bede is a good writer and a great read.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on January 22, 2006 01:49 PM

At some level war was the "business model" for the elite in almost all powerful pre-capitalist states (which is a major reason why capitalism is such an epochal improvement from previous systems). The Romans were just particularly good and particularly vicious. Golden age Athens certainly had colonialism and the resulting tribute as a major source of wealth, and the roots of Greek democracy in many ways lay in war -- citizen soldiers demanded participation.

I'm surprised you didn't point to the horrible Roman treatment of slaves in industrial ventures like mining. The death rates for slaves in the mines seem to have been extremely high, amounting to mass murder.

I think you're presenting a somewhat one-sided picture of the Roman achievement though. The empire seems to have generated wealth more effectively than states for many hundreds of years before its rise or after its fall. Part of this was due to economies of scale in trading (including the creation of the world's largest free trade zone up until that time) and agriculture. But part was due to the amazing level of Roman skill in civil engineering and administration. By pretty much all of the indirect measures of wealth and market development we are able to use -- population, city size, number of cities, road networks, division of labor, financial institutions, etc. -- Rome was wealthier than Europe in the late middle ages and some argue even in the early modern period. (Look at Peter Temin's work for the argument that Rome was as wealthy as 17th century Europe; I'm don't think I buy it but he has lots of good and interesting arguments). The Romans were brutal, destructive, creative, and constructive all at the same time, and looking at just one side will lead you to caricature them.

Posted by: MQ on January 22, 2006 06:31 PM

I think a lot of your complaints are correct, but misleading. The family structure, especially, was very different from modern western families, but that's because the modern western family is the aberation.

Also, I think a lot of people don't praise Rome, but just say it was better than the dark ages that followed. John Emerson seemed to be saying something like this.

Posted by: L on January 22, 2006 07:11 PM

What are you talking about? Bede is a good writer and a great read.

As are Paul the Deacon and Gregory of Tours. Gregory contains one of history's most incredible stories, the bitter rivalry between the Frankish queens Fredegund and Brunhild. I'm surprised no one in Hollywood has ever taken this on.

Posted by: J.Cassian on January 23, 2006 06:45 AM

Incredibly interesting. Thanks for the post.

"The Awful Revolution" by F.W. Walbank (a flawed work) makes the interesting suggestion that, because most technological advances come from in-depth practical knowledge; and because most practical work in Rome was performed by slaves; and because most slaves would see no benefit from improved technology and incresed productivity, a social model so extensively based on slavery was predisposed towards slow, even nonexistent technological improvements. The Roman model was therefore flawed at its very base because of its reliance on slavery.

I am sure you are aware of the essay by MI Finley (contained in "Aspects of Antiquity") which carefully relates the consensus mid-20th-century view on the Roman Empire's problems. Lack of productivity improvements was one of the key reasons stated.

FvB: I have one criticism of the above that you have probably anticipated. You concentrate on infanticide among the upper classes, but surely the problem of depopulation is primarily caused by practices in the middle and lower classes, who were much more numerous.

I look forward to your next post and share your horror at the Roman Empire. I am not a Christian but my reading on the subject of the Empire makes me understand with great sympathy the appeal of ethical monotheism.

Posted by: jult52 on January 23, 2006 09:40 AM

MQ writes: "The empire seems to have generated wealth more effectively than states for many hundreds of years before its rise or after its fall."

Walbank makes the assertion that the Pax Romana and large-scale roadbuilding made communications and trade much, much easier and efficient than in the past. I don't see a disconnect between this view and what FvB wrote. Peace, decrease in brigandage and better communications marked an improvement that may very well have been more than offset by a predatory aristocracy.

Posted by: jult52 on January 23, 2006 09:44 AM

I think you swing too far to the other side. Clearly Rome was a military power where conquest and plunder was part of the expansion of the Empire. However, if it were only conquest and plunder, it would have crumbled soon afterwards as we saw with the barbarian conquests that took down the Empire (in the West), consumed the wealth, and ushered in a dark ages.

Posted by: Jason Pappas on January 23, 2006 10:47 AM

“Rather than one of the high points of civilization, Rome increasingly strikes me as an essentially perverse episode in human history.”

Have you read “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization” by Bryan Ward-Perkins? He cites evidence of a level of trade throughout the Mediterranean and Europe during the Roman Era that went unmatched for a thousand years after the fall.

I for one would be eager to read further debate between Mr. Emerson and Mr. FVB.

Posted by: CC on January 23, 2006 11:27 AM

One touch on the HBO "Rome" that will stay with me is the scene of Julius Caesar's installation (inauguration?) as emperor, with his blood-dyed face and the ritual strangling of the Gallic warlord. For that moment at least, the Romans were a bit less our Noble White-Marble Cultural Forefathers and a bit more rich and strange, Aztec or Mongol or Zulu as you like.

Since at least the Renaissance, we've traced the lineage from Greece and Rome so many times that we tend to overlook the deep differences. To take it a bit farther back: we're so used to thinking of the Romans as the militarists par excellence that we forget what a terrifically brutal and successful innovation the Greek phalanx (and its drill and discipline) had been. Read Keegan's _History of Warfare_ on that; if he's right, well before Alexander the Greeks virtually invented _la guerre a outrance_. Until then, you screamed, hurled some spears, drove the enemy from the field and settled down to party -- but the folks who gave us philosophy and democracy systematized high-intensity, high-casualty combat followed by pursuit, slaughter, and (in one form or another) incorporation of the losers' polity into their _oikumene_.

Posted by: Monte Davis on January 23, 2006 01:10 PM

I’m not so appalled at the brutality of war in Ancient Greece and Rome. What is so appalling is the brutality during peace time that Friedrich documents so well. But haven’t we always been aware of the brutality of the Roman Coliseum, which, by the way, continued and worsened (by some accounts) in the centuries after Rome became a Christian Empire in the 4th century?

Plato raises the important issue in the Republic. How do you train a warrior class to be brutal enough to fight and defeat the enemy yet remain civilized and benign during peacetime? On the other hand, our founding fathers, in the run-up to the revolution, read England’s John Trenchard’s polemic against the dangers of standing armies; the colonial patriots favored citizen militias. Finally, it may be said of “the Greatest Generation” that they were able to fight vigorously and yet return home and rejoin civilization. Perhaps we’ve answered Plato: it can be done.

Victor Davis Hanson has some excellent books. He sees our military as part of the tradition going back to Ancient Greece.

Posted by: Jason Pappas on January 23, 2006 01:57 PM

Hanson does indeed make that point, many times, in his "Carnage and Culture". The Greeks do seem to have been something new in their approach to warfare, and the Romans built on that.

Another contrast that's hit me is w/ respect to the current worries about people become desensitized to violence through popular entertainment. When you consider what popular entertainment was like under the Romans and just how relentlessly much of it there was, you have to wonder. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 23, 2006 02:20 PM

Good point about popular entertainment. And just because it is “virtual” doesn’t allay my concern.

Posted by: Jason Pappas on January 23, 2006 02:39 PM

Your characterization of the "brutal Roman" is a generalization which does not hold up well to scrutiny. A civilization which can produce a Virgil, a Horace, a Livy, a Julius Caesar and fabulous archetectural masterpieces is not the stereotype of hedonism you describe. What if America is defined centuries hence in terms of pornography, inner city crime and corrupt military-industrial business associations? Humanity is neither good nor is both. It may be hard to admire the Romans because of their acknowledged brutality, but the great achievements of their civilization are, in the balance, on the positive side.

Also, in regard to how the Romans became so rapacious in the Republican era, we must never forget that the primary reason for this moral and ethical degradation was the horror of the war with Hannibal. Hannibal pretty well destroyed the yeoman farmer class of Latium, the area surrounding Rome, which cost the Romans more than just a reliable source of soldiery. It completely destroyed the agricultural foundations of the city state and place power in the hands of the city-bred aristocracy. After Hannibal, there was nothing to go home to. The discharged soldiers, those who survived, joined the city rabble. The land to the south, ruined by Hannibal's depridations, fell into the hands of the remaining wealthy elite in Rome. If you study the behaviour of the Romans prior to Hannibal, you will be amazed at the contrast with the Romans who followed that agonizing 20 year period.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 23, 2006 06:35 PM

Mr. Griffon:

I'm afraid that you're not well acquainted with Julius Caesar's (admittedly remarkable) military career. You may recall that he conquered modern France and Belgium (58-54 BCE) without any meaningful provocation, and when the locals revolted he put down that revolt savagely (54-51). Along the way, by his own account, he annihilated 60,000 Belgian Nervians, exterminated the entire tribes of the Menappii and the Eburones and he took the stronghold of Bourges, killing 39,000 inhabitants. And those were only some of the highlights. As one description puts it:

Six million people had been living in Gaul before Caesar arrived in 58; one million had been killed and one million had been sold as slaves when he left in 50. Caesar himself wrote in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul that peace had been brought to the whole of Gaul. It is not hard to see that this was the peace of a graveyard.

Moreover, in the Civil Wars of himself and his designated heir, Octavian (Augustus) more Roman soldiers died than had previously perished in all conflicts with with the extra-Roman world.

Hey, Julius was a remarkable guy, but his best friend would have had to admit the justice of describing him as "brutal."

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 23, 2006 11:19 PM

Or, you could accept another accounting of the human cost of the conquest of Gaul:

According to Plutarch, the whole campaign resulted in 800 conquered cities, 300 subdued tribes, one million men sold to slavery and another three million dead in battle fields.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 24, 2006 03:12 AM

Yes, Friedrich, I've heard all this before and I am quite conversant with the bloodshed of ancient history. But you are missing the larger point. Because there is no history worth the name covering the ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples, we cannot enumerate THEIR murderous deeds as we can those of CIVILIZED nations who produced sophisticated personalities like Julius Caesar and Tacitus to write it down for us. It was a brutal age. Consider that slavery was ENDEMIC to the world at large, not just a Roman vice. And it was not Caesar who first initiated the conflict between Gaul and Roman, it was the Gaul. They competely destroyed Rome in 310 B.C. when Rome was a minor power. Or did you miss that part of their history? Caesar's horrific campaign in Gaul 250 years later brought to that area a period of peace and prosperity that lasted virtually four hundred years. It was that breathing spell which allowed Gaul to become the economic lynch-pin of the west in the middle ages, and, after Charlemagne, the most powerful, the wealthiest, and the most culturally innovative nation in Europe till the middle of the 19th century. If I were you, I would not try to second guess the complex events of history. Far more powerful minds than yours or mine have attempted to find the key to history's meaning. Looking for it in the shifting sands of contemporary morality while sifting through the evidence of ancient "statistics" is not likely to end this controversy.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 24, 2006 10:23 AM

Wow. I'm learning more from 20 minutes reading this post and the comments, than I learned in 4 years of high school and 4 years of undergraduate work. Let the fireworks continue.

Posted by: David on January 24, 2006 11:18 AM

The thing that is so striking about the ancient world is its pitylessness. Say what you will about Christianity, before its advent there was no notion of compassion for "the other," none whatsoever.

Posted by: ricpic on January 24, 2006 02:37 PM

I wish to correct an error I made in my last contribution. The sack of Rome by the Gauls occurred in 390 B.C. instead of 310 B.C.

There was, however, a more recent invasion of Italy by a combined host of Gauls and Germans which occurred as late as the end of the 2nd century B.C. It was in the process of being repeated when the entire host was annihilated around 102 B.C. by Marius. The memory and fear of the Gauls was still prevalent among the Romans when Caesar made his incursions, making his victories seem almost miraculous to the Italians, a kind of religious event...a salvation of sorts.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 24, 2006 03:19 PM

Mr. Griffin:

Although it might be hard to tell, I'm actually not trying to sit in judgment on the Romans. They, and their victims, are long dead. My point is really about the negative consequences of the Roman "business model" which continues to function in many parts of the world to this day. The Romans function as such a pure example of this business model that they make a terrific case study. Anyway, please grant me the opportunity to make all this clearer (I hope) in my next posting.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 24, 2006 07:01 PM

You're doing fine, Friedrich. Carry on.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 24, 2006 07:40 PM

A book in the vein of the Roman Empire as a warped business model is Ramsey Macmullen's _Corruption and the Decline of Rome_. It offers an interesting and somewhat half-baked explanation for the fall of the Western Empire: the degradation of the Republican client-patron system. A flexible, half-private, half-public administrative system became corrupt, according to Macmullen, and milked even more private profits from the public purse. Ultimately, the purse couldn't pay the foederati and couldn't supply the troops.

Unfortunately, while he is persuasive in the cause, he doesn't really have a reason why the client-patron relationship, which worked for centuries, stopped working.

You can't help but think of the Mafia when you read of the power those proto-feudal landowners of the Western Empire accumulated and how they became shadow governments -- and protectors from an even worse central authority.

Finally, why should we excuse the Romans from a moral tally sheet as we subject modern authoritarian and totalitarian regimes to it? USSR: engineered famines but they really got that electrification thing going. Fedual Japan: great art and samurai testing their swords on the most convenient peasants. (Insert your favorite Nazi example here.)

The Romans were brutal even for their time though the gladiator games were, if I remember right, an inheritance from the Etruscans.

The Romans do put to rest that old peacenik notion that, if politicians had to go to war themselves, we'd have no war. Roman rulers didn't have any hesitation to personally engage in combat.

Look forward to the next posting on this topic.

Posted by: Randy Stafford on January 24, 2006 10:37 PM

For all the corruption at the top, someone was commanding each manciple in the army, laying out aqueducts with a few simple tools, making sure that the grain ships left Egypt on time, delivering the mail...

That's what impresses me about the Romans: not that Republic or Empire were as bad as they were, but that they worked, more or less, for as long as they did. A lot of unnamed and unremembered bureaucrats and functionaries did their jobs well enough for long enough.

Posted by: Chas S. Clifton on January 26, 2006 01:54 PM

"The thing that is so striking about the ancient world is its pitylessness. Say what you will about Christianity, before its advent there was no notion of compassion for "the other," none whatsoever."

THe notion of compassion was clearly recognized, it's a basic human emotion, and in some ways even in traditional warfare there was a place for it. But it didn't have the moral or religious primacy that Christianity gave it. Stength, not compassion, was the central virtue. Of course one could definitely argue that in our actual judgements and behavior we continue to value strength over compassion.

Posted by: MQ on January 26, 2006 10:55 PM

Sorry I am late to this discussion, but I think St. Paul had it about right concerning what life was like for average folk in ancient Rome: "the whole creation groans in agony and travail." It was the nadir of civilization, at least in the Old World (Aztecs may have been worse).

Posted by: Lea Luke on February 1, 2006 05:27 PM

But what are we to compare Rome with, Lea? That is the rub, you see. It's not enough to simply run around saying that things aren't what they should be. The only way to make a valid case against Rome is to do a minute study of their social system as compared to others OF THE SAME PERIOD. Those kinds of studies reveal that if you were to be transported to Rome in the first century A.D. and allowed to live anywhere you chose, you could make a far worse choice than Rome. Beware of descriptions of the Roman Empire which originate in Christian scripture. The Pax Romana was a Golden Age. When it passed, the Mediterranean was plunged into brutal chaos. Early Christians of the first two centuries never really understood that they were living in an advanced civilization. Greek and Roman architectural, literary and poetical masterworks made no impression on their minds. Sadly, they were almost entirely ignorant of the incredible legacy of men like Plato and Archimedes.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 1, 2006 09:03 PM

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