How Rome Fell

Death of a Superpower

By Adrian Goldsworthy
Yale University Press. 560 pp. $32.50
August 23, 2009


Chapter One

The Kingdom of Gold

'Reflect upon the rapidity with which all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight. For substance is like a river in perpetual flow ... and ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, in which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in the midst of all this is puffed up with pride, or tormented, or bewails his lot as though his troubles would endure for any great while?' - Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius died sometime during the night of 17 March 180. Rome's sixteenth emperor was just a few weeks short of his fifty-ninth birthday and had ruled his vast empire for nearly two decades. Later there were rumours of foul play - there nearly always were when any emperor died - of doctors ensuring his death to please his son and heir Commodus. This is very unlikely, and in fact it is in many ways surprising that he had lived as long as he did. Never a robust man, he had driven himself hard during a reign troubled by war and plague. Even so, later generations remembered him as the ideal emperor, and the senator Dio writing in the next century described his reign as a 'kingdom of gold'. Marcus' remarkable Meditations - the diary-like collection of his philosophical ideas, which was never intended for publication - reveal a man with a profound sense of duty and an earnest desire to rule well. This was not from a desire for reputation - 'It is the king's part to do good and be ill spoken of' - but because it was the right thing to do and the best for everyone. Reputation meant nothing to the dead, and he, like everyone and everything else was destined to die: 'in a short while you will be no one and nowhere, as are Hadrian and Augustus'. Death, and the need to accept it without resentment, is a constant theme, which suggests that he was never quite able to convince himself. His private letters reveal his deep emotion at the loss of friends and family. Yet change was the nature of the world, and even those historians who deny that the Roman empire ever declined or fell describe its transformation. Before looking at this process it is worth examining the world of Marcus Aurelius.

Educated people like Marcus knew that the world was round. Greek philosophers had first realised this, but for centuries the Romans had also spoken of the globe or orb. There were occasional suggestions to the contrary, but the trend amongst philosophers was to claim that the stars and planets revolved around the Earth rather than the Sun. Knowledge of the night sky was considerable in many cultures of the ancient world, in part because people had a deep-seated belief in astrology. Emperor Hadrian was supposed to have been able to predict even the smallest events in minute detail, including the day and hour of his own death. The world was round, but only three continents were known - Europe, Asia and Africa - and there was no clear idea of the full extent of the last two. Around the land masses was the vast encircling ocean, broken only on its fringes by a few islands like Britain. In the centre of the continents was the Mediterranean, the middle sea. This was the heart of the world, and of the Roman Empire.

In Marcus' day the empire stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine and Danube, and from the line of the rivers Forth and Clyde in northern Britain to the Euphrates in Syria. This was a vast area - by far the greatest part of the known world as far as its inhabitants were concerned. It was all the greater in an age when transport was never faster than a ship could sail across the sea or a horse could gallop overland. It was some 3,000 miles from the easternmost fringes of the empire to its northernmost tip, and yet we know that people made such journeys. In 1878 a tombstone was found near the site of the Roman fort of Arbeia at South Shields overlooking the mouth of the Tyne. It commemorates Regina - Queen or perhaps Queenie - the thirty-year-old 'freedwoman and wife' of 'Barates of the Palmyrene nation'. Palmyra was a wealthy oasis city in Syria and it seems likely that Barates was a merchant, and judging from the size and quality of this monument, a successful one. His wife was more local, a Briton from the Catuvellaunian tribe who lived north of the Thames. Originally she had been his slave, but he had given her freedom and then married her, a not uncommon arrangement. On the tombstone she is shown seated and dressed in the finery of a Roman lady, with a bracelet on her wrist and necklace at her throat, her hair pinned up in one of the ornate styles dictated by fashion. On the husband's part at least there does seem to have been genuine affection. Most of the inscription is in Latin, but the last line is in the curving script of his own native tongue and reads simply, 'Regina, the freedwoman of Barates, alas.'

Neither Barates nor Regina were Roman citizens, but their marriage and presence in northern Britain were all due to the empire. So was the fact that the monument was in Roman style and largely in Latin. The world they lived in was Roman, although never exclusively so. Each proudly identified with peoples that had once been independent. Barates spoke his own Semitic language and Regina is likely to have spoken the Celtic language of her people. Latin was only common in the western provinces and Greek remained the principal means of communication and culture in the east. Throughout the empire many different languages and dialects continued to be spoken locally. There were other differences, too, of religion, customs and culture, and yet the striking thing about the empire was the number of similarities from one province to another. The great public buildings - basilicas, temples, theatres, circuses, amphitheatres and aqueducts - looked much the same in Africa as they did in Gaul, Spain and Syria.

Yet it was more than just a question of architectural style and engineering technique. People dressed in similar and distinctively Roman ways, and particular fashions spread widely. Hadrian was the first emperor to wear a beard, expressing his fondness for this Greek custom, although others said that he just wanted to hide the blemishes on his skin. Many men copied him. Similarly women aped the hairstyles adopted by the emperors' wives and daughters, shown on their portraits throughout the provinces. Virtually identical coiffures can be seen on sculptures from the Rhineland as on funerary portraits from Egypt. These painted portraits decorated coffins containing bodies mummified according to the ancient custom of the region. Becoming Roman rarely, if ever, meant complete abandonment of local traditions.

The Roman Empire was created through conquest, which was often an extremely bloody business. Julius Caesar was said to have killed a million people when he overran Gaul in 58-50 BC, and sold as many more into slavery. This was exceptional, and the numbers are probably exaggerated, but the Romans were ruthlessly determined in their pursuit of victory and the cost could be appalling for the vanquished. The Roman historian Tacitus made one tribal leader proclaim that the Romans 'make a wasteland, and call it peace'. Very few provinces were created without at least some fighting and Caesar himself felt it was natural for the Gauls to fight for their freedom, even if it was entirely proper for him to deprive them of it in the interest of Rome. Yet in Gaul as elsewhere, there were always some communities and leaders who welcomed the legions, seeking protection from hostile neighbours or hoping to gain an advantage over rivals. The Iceni tribe of the famous Queen Boudicca had welcomed the Roman invaders in 43 and only rebelled in 60 when the royal family was mistreated. The legions were as efficient and brutal in suppressing a rebellion as they were in fighting any other war, and the revolt of the Iceni ended in utter and very costly defeat.

Rebellions often occurred about a generation after the initial conquest, but were extremely rare in most areas after that. By the second century it is very hard to detect any traces of a desire for independence from the overwhelming bulk of the provincial population. Partly this acknowledged the dreadful power of the legions, but the army was not large enough to have held the empire down by force and most regions never saw a soldier, let alone a formed body of troops. More importantly, enough people prospered under Roman rule to want to keep it. The Romans had no wish to occupy a wasteland, wanting provinces that were peaceful and rich. In some periods there was substantial settlement of Roman and Italian colonists in communities in conquered territory, but these were never more than a minority amongst the indigenous population. Provinces would never have been peaceful and paid the required taxes without the efforts of the provincials themselves.

Those to benefit most were the local aristocracies, many of whom kept their land, status and wealth. Local communities were left to run their own affairs for much of the time, since central government had neither the desire nor the capacity to interfere. Some laws were imposed, especially those for incidents involving Roman citizens or to regulate relations with other communities. Usually these communities were cities, which administered the lands around them. Many pre-dated Roman occupation, but where none existed they were usually created. The culture of the empire was primarily urban and local aristocrats were encouraged to become magistrates and city councillors. This gave them prestige, authority and sometimes the chance for an even greater career in imperial service. Many were granted Roman citizenship, but Rome had always been generous with this and it was also extended to many less well-off provincials. In the middle of the first century the Apostle Paul, a Jew from the city of Tarsus in Asia Minor, was a citizen, although there is no evidence that he could speak Latin. His family was able to give him a good education, but do not seem to have been more than moderately wealthy. On a grander scale, entire cities could formally become a Roman town or colony with constitutions modelled on that of Rome itself.

Most of the provinces were artificial creations of the empire, combining different tribes, peoples and cities into divisions that would have had no real meaning before the Romans came. Tribes and cities continued to inspire real emotion. Paul would boast of being a citizen of Tarsus, 'no mean city', as well as a Roman. In the second century cities were at their most prosperous and were fiercely competitive with their neighbours, striving to out-do them in splendour and prestige. Grand public buildings were constructed as physical symbols of a city's importance. Only a fraction survives from what once existed, but such monuments today provide many of the most spectacular reminders of the Roman era. Magistrates were expected to contribute plenty of their own money when presiding over such projects, commemorating this in great inscriptions set up on the completed buildings. Sometimes ambition got out of hand. At the beginning of the second century Pliny the Younger was sent to govern Bithynia and Pontus - modern northern Turkey. He found that Nicomedia had spent over 3 million sesterces on an aqueduct, which had never been completed. Nearby Nicaea had spent 10 million on a theatre that was already collapsing. These were vast sums - a legionary soldier was paid only 1,200 sesterces per year - and give an indication of the huge amounts lavished on improving cities. Most projects were more successful. There were always local peculiarities of custom and ritual, but it is striking just how similar civic life was throughout the empire.

However dreadful initial conquest by Rome may have been, if it created a wasteland, then it was never permanent. The famous Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was a reality, and we should not forget how rare prolonged peace was in the ancient world. Before the Romans arrived warfare and raiding were a common occurrence everywhere, and in some regions endemic. Tribes, peoples, cities, kingdoms or leaders fought each other frequently, and in many cases were wracked by internal violence and civil war. This was as true of so-called barbarian tribes as it was of the Greek world - democratic Athens had proved extremely aggressive in its foreign policy. The Romans, however, stopped all of this. Rome was the most successful imperialist of the ancient world, but it was most certainly not the only expansionist state. It is a mistake to think of conquered peoples as mere victims of Rome rather than aggressive in their own right. The Romans had a unique talent for absorbing others and managed to convince the provinces that remaining loyal to Rome was better than the alternative of resistance. This element of consent was ultimately what made the empire work. By 180 no one could seriously imagine, let alone remember, a world without Rome.

Violence was not completely absent from the provinces. Banditry was a serious problem in some areas at some periods and may at times have had a social or political element to it. Both pirates and bandits figure regularly in Greek and Roman fiction, suggesting that they captured the imagination, which does not necessarily mean that they were common in real life. However, there is frequent mention in a range of sources of other organised or casual violence - of landlords against tenants or any group against the vulnerable. We need to be a little careful, since crimes - especially violent crimes - attract disproportionate attention in today's media, quite simply because no one wishes to report or hear about days when nothing happened. There was no organised police force above a local level and the empire was certainly not without crime, but then this has also been true of other large states. Serious rebellion was very rare. Judaea rebelled under Nero (66-73) and again under Hadrian (132-135), while the Jewish population in Egypt, Cyprus and several other provinces rose against Trajan (115-117). In each case the fighting was bitter and costly, but eventually the Romans brutally suppressed the revolt.

The Jews were unusual in having such a strong sense of nationhood, reinforced by religion, and traditions that emphasised resistance to invaders. There were Jewish communities dotted throughout the cities of the empire, but also many living outside, within the great kingdom of Parthia. The Parthians were the only significant independent power on the empire's borders, ruling a realm that covered much of today's Iraq and Iran. The Romans treated them with a degree of respect unmatched in their diplomacy with other peoples, but never as equals. Parthian cavalry armies were formidable in the right circumstances and had in the past inflicted a number of defeats on Roman armies, although conflicts invariably ended with a treaty favouring Rome. Yet their power should not be exaggerated and was dwarfed by the empire. Trajan had launched a major invasion and had sacked the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon. There was never any prospect of a Parthian army threatening Rome itself. Between Parthia and Rome lay the kingdom of Armenia, which clung on to a precarious independence. Culturally it had more in common with the Parthians, and its throne was frequently occupied by members of their royal family. However, the Romans insisted that only they could grant legitimacy to a new king.

Trajan attempted to annex much of Parthia, but was thwarted by a spate of rebellions in the newly conquered territories and his own failing health. His successor Hadrian withdrew from the new provinces and Parthia gradually recovered some of its strength. Elsewhere along the frontiers Rome faced communities far smaller in scale. The vast majority were tribal peoples, politically disunited and frequently hostile to each other. Occasionally a charismatic leader emerged to unite several tribes for a while, but his power rarely survived to be passed on to a successor. The bulk of the Roman army was deployed on or near the frontiers to face whatever threats emerged. This in itself suggests that serious rebellion was considered unlikely in most of the internal provinces. Writing in the second century, the Greek orator Aelius Aristides compared Roman soldiers to the wall protecting a city.

(Continues...)



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