Collections: The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans, Part V: Saving And Losing an Empire

This is the fifth and final part (I, II, III, IV) of our series asking the question ‘Who were the Romans?’ How did they understand themselves as a people and the idea of ‘Roman’ as an identity? Was this a homogeneous, ethnically defined group, as some versions of pop folk history would have it, or was ‘Roman’ always a complex identity which encompassed a range of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious groups? This week we are at last going to look at the end of the empire.

In the first four parts of this series, we established that by any reasonable measure, the Roman world ought to have been considered ‘diverse,’ from its very beginnings as a frontier town sitting at the crossroads of several different cultural zones in Italy through Rome’s experience incorporating the culturally and linguistically diverse peoples of pre-Roman Italy into its army and later into its citizen body, to the Roman Empire of the third and fourth centuries AD which encompassed a bewildering array of peoples from all over the Mediterranean basin. The Romans didn’t merely conquer and subjugate a wide variety of peoples (though they did that), they also steadily incorporated those people in a process that was mostly motivated by expediency and the desire to wring the maximum amount of military power out of Rome’s conquests but which had the side effect of minting new Romans out of conquered peoples.

Consequently, by the end of the first century BC, the populus Romanus had come to include the many different peoples of pre-Roman Italy and Cisalpine Gaul. Over the decades that followed, Roman identity, rooted in the legal status of citizenship (but often having also linguistic and cultural expressions) would filter through the elite all over the Roman Empire, slowly expanding downward until in 212 the Constitutio Antoniniana extended citizenship to all free people in the Roman empire. People that ‘joined’ the populus Romanus this way didn’t give up their other identities; as we’ve seen their identities tended to layer, with the Roman toga added on top (though as we’ve also seen, that Roman identity, once obtained, tended to be a very important identity).

By this point, I should hope that the Hollywood vision of Rome as a culturally homogeneous society at any point in its history, speaking the Queen’s Latin, has been well and truly vanquished. Yet that vision of Rome ends up being used to support a particular vision of the causes for Rome’s rise and fall which, having now established the nature of our evidence for diversity in Rome, it is time to approach. The argument – a form of it notably made in 2015 by Niall Ferguson (conspicuously not a Roman historian, I might note) – goes thusly, that Rome was once homogeneous, that the superior power of a homogeneous society allowed Rome to expand, that expansion made Rome diverse and that this weakened Rome such that it fell. Often it appears in the more simplistic form that ‘Rome fell because they let the barbarians in’ with lots of attendant political implications for current policy.

Now we already know at the outset that the front half of this argument – the assumption that Rome was initially homogeneous and able to expand because of that – is fatally flawed, because Rome was never homogeneous in that way. But what about the second half of that argument? Did letting all of these folks from Spain, Gaul, Britain, North Africa, the Levant, Greece, the Balkans and so on, did that somehow dilute the special alchemy that made the Romans successful?

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The Gravity of the Situation

I want to start with the observation I offer whenever I am asked (and being a Romanist, this happens frequently) ‘why did Rome fall?’ which is to note that in asking that question we are essentially asking the wrong question or at least a less interesting one. This will, I promise, come back to our core question about diversity and the fall of Rome but first we need to frame this issue correctly, because Rome fell for the same reason all empires fall: gravity.

An analogy, if you will. Imagine I were to build a bridge over a stream and for twenty years the bridge stays up and then one day, quite unexpectedly, the bridge collapses. We can ask why the bridge fell down, but the fundamental force of gravity which caused its collapse was always working on the bridge. As we all know from our physics classes, the force of gravity was always active on the bridge and so some other set of forces, channeled through structural elements was needed to be continually resisting that downward pressure. What we really want to know is ‘what force which was keeping the bridge up in such an unnaturally elevated position stopped?’ Perhaps some key support rotted away? Perhaps rain and weather shifted the ground so that what once was a stable position twenty years ago was no longer stable? Or perhaps the steady work of gravity itself slowly strained the materials, imperceptibly at first, until material fatigue finally collapse the bridge. Whatever the cause, we need to begin by conceding that, as normal as they may seem to us, bridges are not generally some natural construction, but rather a deeply unnatural one, which must be held up and maintained through continual effort; such a thing may fail even if no one actively destroys it, merely by lack of maintenance or changing conditions.

Large, prosperous and successful states are always and everywhere like that bridge: they are unnatural social organizations, elevated above the misery and fragmentation that is the natural state of humankind only by great effort; gravity ever tugs them downward. Of course when states collapse there are often many external factors that play a role, like external threats, climate shifts or economic changes, though in many cases these are pressures that the state in question has long endured. Consequently, the more useful question is not why they fall, but why they stay up at all.

And that question is even more pointed for the Roman Empire than most. While not the largest empire of antiquity, the Roman empire was very large (Walter Scheidel figures that, as a percentage of the world’s population at the time, the Roman Empire was the fifth largest ever, rare company indeed); while not the longest lasting empire of antiquity, it did last an uncommonly long time at that size. It was also geographically positioned in a space that doesn’t seem particularly well-suited for building empires in. While the Mediterranean’s vast maritime-highway made the Roman Empire possible, the geography of the Mediterranean has historically encouraged quite a lot of fragmentation, particularly (but not exclusively) in Europe. Despite repeated attempts, no subsequent empire has managed to recreate Rome’s frontiers (the Ottomans got the closest, effectively occupying the Roman empire’s eastern half – with a bit more besides – but missing most of the west).

The Roman Empire was also, for its time, uncommonly prosperous. As we’ll see, there is at this quite a lot of evidence to suggest that the territory of the Roman Empire enjoyed a meaningfully higher standard of living and a more prosperous economy during the period of Roman control than it did either in the centuries directly before or directly after (though we should not overstate this to the point of assuming that Rome was more prosperous than any point during the Middle Ages). And while the process of creating the Roman empire was extremely violent and traumatic (again, a recommendation for G. Baker, Spare No One: Mass Violence in Roman Warfare (2021) for a sense of just how violent), subsequent to that, the evidence strongly suggests that life in the interior Roman Empire was remarkably peaceful during that period, with conflicts pushed out of the interior to the frontiers (though I would argue this almost certainly reflects an overall decrease in the total amount of military conflict, not merely a displacement of it).

The Roman Empire was thus a deeply unnatural, deeply unusual creature, a hot-house flower blooming untended on a rocky hillside. The question is not why the Roman empire eventually failed – all states do, if one takes a long enough time-horizon – but why it lasted so long in such a difficult position. Of course this isn’t the place to recount all of the reasons why the Roman Empire held together for so long, but we can focus on a few which are immediately relevant to our question about diversity in the empire.

Diversity in the Roman Army

As we’ve seen, there had always been non-Romans fighting alongside Roman citizens in the army, for as long as we have reliable records to judge the point. In the Republic (until the 80s BC) these had consisted mostly of the socii, Rome’s Italian allies. These were supplemented by troops from whatever allies Rome might have at the time, but there was a key difference in that the socii were integrated permanently into the Roman army’s structure, with an established place in the ‘org. chart,’ compared to the forces of allies who might fight under their own leaders with an ad hoc relationship to the Roman army they were fighting with. The end of the Social War (91-87BC) brought the Italians into the Roman citizen body and thus their soldiers into the legions themselves; it marked the effective end of the socii system, which hadn’t been expanded outside of Italy in any case.

But almost immediately we see the emergence of a new system for incorporating non-Romans, this time provincial non-Romans, into the Roman army. These troops, called auxilia (literally, ‘helpers’) first appear in the Civil Wars, particularly with Caesar’s heavy reliance on Gallic cavalry to support his legions (which at this time seem not to have featured their own integrated cavalry support, as they had earlier in the republic and as they would later in the empire). The system is at this point very ad hoc and the auxiliaries here are a fairly small part of Roman armies. But when Augustus sets out to institutionalize and stabilize the Roman army after the Battle of Actium (31BC) and the end of the civil wars, the auxilia emerge as a permanent, institutional part of the Roman army. Clearly, they were vastly expanded; by 23 AD they made up half of the total strength of the Roman army (Tac. Ann. 4.5) a rough equivalence that seems to persist at least as far as the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212.

Of course it was no particular new thing for the Romans to attempt to use their imperial subjects as part of their army. The Achaemenid army had incorporated a bewildering array of subject peoples with their own distinctive fighting styles, a fact that Achaemenid rulers liked to commemorate (see below). The Seleucid army at Magnesia (189) which the Romans defeated also had numerous non-Macedonian supporting troops: Cappadocians, Galatians, Carians, Cilicians, Illyrians, Dahae, Mysians, Arabs, Cyrtians and Elamites. At Raphia (217) the Ptolemaic army incorporated Egyptian troops into the phalanx for the first time, but also included Cretans, Greek mercenaries, Thracians, Gauls and Libyans, inter alia. Most empires try to do this.

Via Wikipedia, a relief from the tomb of Xerxes I (r.486-465) at Naqsh-e Rostam showing the various ethnicities of his army.

The difference here is the relative performance that Rome gets out of these subject-troops (both the socii and the auxilia). Take those examples. Quite a number of the ethnicities on Xerxes monument both served in the armies of Darius III fighting against Alexander but then swiftly switched sides to Alexander after he won the battles – the Ionians, Egypt, and Babylon greeted Alexander as a liberator (at least initially) which is part of why the Achaemenid Empire could crumble so fast so long as Alexander kept winning battles. Apart from Tyre and Gaza, the tough sieges and guerilla resistance didn’t start until he reached the Persian homeland. The auxiliaries in the Seleucid army at Magnesia famously fell apart under pressure, whereas the Roman socii stuck in the fight as well as the legions; our sources give us no sense at any point that the socii were ever meaningfully weaker fighters than the legions (if anything, Livy sometimes represents them as more spirited, though he has an agenda here, as discussed). And the Ptolemaic decision to arm their Egyptian troops in the Macedonian manner won the battle (turns out, Egyptians could fight just as well as Greeks and Macedonians with the right organization and training) but their subsequent apparent decision not to pay or respect those troops as well as their Macedonians seems to have led quite directly to the ‘Great Revolt’ which crippled the kingdom (there is some scholarly argument about this last point, but while I think Polybius’ pro-Greek, anti-Egyptian bias creeps in to his analysis, he is fundamentally right to see the connection, Plb. 5.107. Polybius thinks it was foolish to arm non-Greeks, but the solution here to saving the Ptolemaic kingdom would have been arming the Egyptians and then incorporating them into the system of rule rather than attempting to keep up the ethnic hierarchy with a now-armed, angry and underpaid underclass. The Greek-speakers-only-club system of Ptolemaic rule was unsustainable in either case, especially with Rome on the horizon).

By contrast, the auxilia were mostly very reliable. The one major exception comes from 69 AD – the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ to give some sense of its chaos – when the Batavian chieftain Julius Civilis (himself an auxiliary veteran and a Roman citizen) revolted and brought one ala and eight cohorts drawn from the Batavi (probably around 4,500 men or so) with him, out of an empire-wide total of c. 150,000 auxilia (so maybe something like 3.3% of the total auxilia). Indeed, the legions had worse mutinies – the mutiny on the Rhine (Tac. Ann. 1.16ff in 14AD) had involved six legions (c. 30,000 troops, nearly a full quarter of Rome’s 25 legions at the time). This despite the fact that the auxilia were often deployed away from the legions, sometimes in their own forts (you’ll see older works of scholarship suggest that the auxilia were kept logistically depend on the legions, but more recent archaeology on exactly where they were has tended to push against this view). Indeed, the auxilia were often the only military forces (albeit in small detachments) in the otherwise demilitarized ‘senatorial’ provinces (which comprised most of the wealthy, populous ‘core’ of the empire); they could be trusted with the job, provided they weren’t the only forces in their own home provinces (and after 69, they never were). And the auxilia fought hard and quite well. The Romans occasionally won battles with nothing but the auxilia, was with the Battle of Mons Graupius (83 AD, Tac. Agricola 35ff) where the legions were held in reserve and never committed, the auxilia winning the battle effectively on their own. Viewers of the Column of Trajan’s spiral frieze have long noted that the auxilia on the monument (the troop-types are recognizable by their equipment) do most of the fighting, while the legions mostly perform support and combat engineering tasks. We aren’t well informed about the training the auxilia went through, but what we do know points to long-service professionals who were drilled every bit as hard as the famously well-drilled legions. Consequently, they had exactly the sort of professional cohesion that we’ve already discussed.

Why this difference in effectiveness and reliability? The answer is to be found in the difference in the terms under which they served. Rather than being treated as the disposable native auxiliaries of other empires, the Romans acted like the auxilia mattered…because they did.

First of all, the auxilia were paid. Our evidence here is imperfect and still much argued about, but it seems that auxilia were paid 5/6ths of the wages of the legionary counterparts, with the cavalry auxilia actually paid more than the infantry legionaries. While it might sound frustrating to be systematically paid 1/6th less than your legionary equivalent, the legions were paid fairly well. The auxilia probably made in wages about as much as a normal day-laborer, but the wage was guaranteed (something very much not the case for civilian laborers) and while the cost of their rations was deducted from their pay, that deduction was a fixed amount that seems to have been set substantially below the market value of their rations, building in another subsidy. Most auxiliaries seem to have been volunteers, because the deal in being an auxiliary was good enough to attract volunteers looking to serve a full tour of duty (around 20 years; this was a long-service professional army now so joining it meant making a career out of it).

And most importantly, eventually (perhaps under Tiberius or shortly thereafter) the auxilia began to receive a special grant of citizenship on finishing that tour of duty, one which covered the soldier, and any children he might have had by his subsequent spouse (including children had, it seems, before he left the army; Roman soldiers in this period were legally barred from contracting legal marriages while serving, so the grant is framed so that it retroactively legitimizes any children produced in a quasi-marriage when the tour of service is completed). Consequently, whereas a soldier being dragooned or hired as a mercenary into other multi-ethnic imperial armies might end his service and go back to being an oppressed subject, the Roman auxiliary, by virtue of his service, became Roman and thus essentially joined the ruling class at least in ethnic status. Auxiliaries also clearly got a share of the loot when offensive warfare happened and while there is a lot of debate as to if they also received the praemia (the large retirement bonus legionaries got), epigraphically it is pretty clear that auxiliaries who were careful with their money could establish themselves fairly well after their service. I should also note that what we see of auxiliaries suggests they were generally well armed (with some exceptions, which may have more to do with stereotyped depictions of certain kinds of ‘barbarians’ than anything else): metal helmets, mail shirts (an expensive and high quality armor for the period), oval shields, a spear and the spatha – a Roman version of the classic Gallic one-handed cutting sword – are the standard visual indicator in Roman artwork for generic ‘auxiliaries.’ That is actually a fairly high-end kit; it is no surprise that the auxilia could win battles with it.
Via Wikipedia, Roman auxiliaries crossing a pontoon bridge during Trajan’s invasion of Dacia, as seen on Trajan’s Column (c. 110) in Rome.

The attentive should already be noting many of the components of the old socii system now in a new form: the non-Roman troops serve under similar conditions with the Romans, get similar pay and rations (forts occupied by the auxilia show no deviation from the standard Roman military diet), a share of loot and glory and can finally be rewarded for loyal service by being inducted into the Roman citizen body itself (which could mean their sons might well enroll in the legions, a thing which does seem to have happened, as we do see a fair bit of evidence for ‘military families’ over multiple generations).

(For those looking for more detail on the auxilia, a lot of this is drawn from a book I have already recommended, Ian Haynes, Blood of the Provinces: The Roman Auxilia and the Making of Provincial Society from Augustus to the Severans (2013). Also still useful for the history of the development of the auxilia is D.B. Saddington, The Development of the Roman Auxiliary Forces from Caesar to Vespasian (1982); this is, alas, not an easy book to find as it is – to my knowledge – long out of print, but your library may be able to track down a copy.)

Helping Helpers

That frankly unusual structure for a multi-ethnic imperial army brought three principle benefits for the Roman army and consequently for the Roman empire itself.

The most obvious of these is manpower. Especially with a long-service professional army, capable and qualified recruits are in limited supply. The size of the Roman army during the imperial period ranged from around 300,000 to around 500,000, but in 14 AD (the year of Augustus’ death) there were only 4,937,000 Roman citizens (Res Gestae 8.11), a figure which probably (a word I using the gloss over one of the most technical and complex arguments in the field) includes women and children. Needless to say, keeping something close to a fifth of the adult male citizen population under arms continually, forever was simply never going to be feasible. After his victory in 31 BC at Actium, Octavian (soon to be Augustus) had acted quickly to pare down the legions, disbanding some, merging others, until he reached a strength of just 28 (25 after the three legions lost in 9 AD were not replaced). It was a necessary move, as the massive armies that had been raised during the fever-pitch climax of the civil wars simply could not be kept under arms indefinitely, nor could a short-term service conscript army be expected to garrison the hundreds of miles of Roman limes (‘frontier, border’) in perpetuity.

Harnessing the manpower of the provinces was simply the necessary solution – so necessary that almost every empire does it. By their very nature, empires consist of a core which rules over a much larger subject region, typically with far greater population; securing all of that territory almost always requires larger forces than the core’s population is able or willing to provide, leading to the recruitment of auxiliaries of all kinds. But whereas many imperial auxiliaries, as noted above, turn out to be potential dangers or weaknesses, Rome’s auxilia seem to have been fairly robustly ‘bought in’ on the system, allowing Rome to access motivated, loyal, cohesive and highly effective manpower, quite literally doubling the amount of military force at their disposal. Which in turn mattered a great deal because the combat role of the auxilia was significant, in stark contrast to many other imperial armies which might use auxiliaries only in subsidiary roles.

The auxilia also served to supply many of the combat arms the Romans themselves weren’t particularly good at. The Romans had always performed very well as heavy infantry and combat engineers, but only passably as light infantry and truly poorly as shock cavalry; they generally hadn’t deploy meaningful numbers of their own missile cavalry or archers at all. We’ve already talked a lot about how social institutions and civilian culture can be important foundational elements for certain kinds of warfare, and this is no less true with the Romans. But by recruiting from subject peoples whose societies did value and practice the kinds of warfare the Romans were, frankly, bad at, the Roman skill-set could be diversified. And early on, this is exactly what we see the auxilia being used for (along with also providing supplemental heavy infantry), with sagitarii (archers), funditores (slingers), exploratores (scouts) and cavalry (light, heavy and missile), giving the Romans access to a combined arms fighting force with considerable flexibility. And the system clearly works – even accounting for exaggerated victories, it is clear that Roman armies, stretched over so long a frontier, were both routinely outnumbered but also routinely victorious anyway.

Via Wikipedia, another panel from the Column of Trajan in Rome. You can see auxiliary archers in the top left wearing scale armor. In the bottom center, you can see the legionaries, with their distinctive squared-off shields (the scutum) and their segmented armor (today called the lorica segmentata, though this is not an ancient term); to their right you can see more auxiliaries, wearing what may be mail under a textile cover and using oval shields. They are fighting Dacians, who occupy the right half of the panel.

As Ian Haynes notes, the ethnic distinctiveness of various auxilia units does not seem to have lasted forever, though in some cases distinctive dress, equipment and fighting styles lasted longer. Most auxilia were posted far from their regions of origin and their units couldn’t rely on access to recruits from their ‘homeland’ to sustain their numbers over the long haul (although some number of recruits would almost certainly come from the military families of veterans settled near the forts). But that didn’t mean the loss of the expertise and distinctive fighting styles of the auxilia. Rather skills, weapons and systems which worked tended to get diffused through the Roman army (particularly in the auxilia, but it is hard not to notice that eventually the spatha replaces the gladius as the sword of the legions). As Ovid quips, Fas est et ab hoste doceri, “It is right to learn, even from the enemy” (Met. 4.428); the Romans do that a lot. The long-service professional nature of these units presumably made a lot of this possible, with individual cohortes and alae becoming their own pockets of living tradition in the practice of various kinds of fighting and acclimating new recruits to it. Consequently, not only did the Roman army get access to these fighting-styles, because the auxilia were actually integrated into the military system rather than merely attached to it, they also got the opportunity to adopt or imitate the elements of the fighting styles that worked.

Finally, the auxilia system also minted new Romans. We’ve already mentioned that auxilia veterans received Roman citizenship on retirement, but that wasn’t the extent of it. We can see in inscriptions that the degree of cultural fluency that soldiers in the auxilia gained with Roman culture was high; they often adopted Roman or Romanized names and seem to have basically always learned Latin (presumably because their Roman officers wouldn’t have spoken their language). While some units of the auxilia kept distinctive national dress as a sort of uniform, most of the auxilia seem to have adopted a style of dress that, while distinct from the legions, was generally in keeping with the Roman tradition of military dress (which was not quite the same as Roman civilian dress). They also partook of the Roman military diet (Roman soldiers kept a similar diet all over the empire, even if that meant shipping thousands of amphora of olive-oil and sour wine to northern England) which would have given them a diet in common with many work-a-day Romans too. Once retired, auxilia soldiers tended to settle where they served (rather than returning to their ‘home’ provinces), which meant settling in frontier provinces where their citizenship set them apart as distinctively Roman, wherever they may have come from.

From the British Museum, a Roman military diploma (inv. 1930,0419.1), the official document granting citizenship to an auxiliary (here a fellow named Gemellus) at the end of his tour of service. This one is dated July 17, 122 AD and was found in Brigetio (modern Szőny, Hungary).
You can imagine a proud auxiliary veteran posting this on the wall of his home for everyone to see. To have been produced in bronze, as this one is, marked the value of it.

Exactly how many auxilia would have retired like this requires a degree of number crunching. Given a 20-year tour of service and zero mortality, we might expect around 7,500 men to pass through the auxilia each year. But of course, mortality wasn’t zero and so we have to expect that of our c. 20-year-old recruits, some number are going to die before retirement. Using some model life tables (following B. Frier, “Demography” in CAH^2 XI (2000)), we should figure that very roughly one third of our recruits will have died before reaching discharge. We then we need to adjust our recruitment figures to retain the same total strength and we get something like 9,000 new recruits each year to keep a strength of c. 150,000 with mortality counted for and 20 year tours. That gives us roughly 6,000 auxilia living to retirement each year. That may seem a small number, but that graduate accretion matters when it runs for decades and centuries and the newly enfranchised family units (recall that the citizenship grant covers children and sort-of-kind-of his spouse*) tend to settle on the frontiers, which is a really handy place to have communities of citizens. If we assume that these new citizen families mostly reproduced themselves (or more correctly that they went extinct or split with multiple children at roughly the same rate with no natural population growth), then we’d expect this process to produce perhaps something like 1.5 million new citizen households up until the Constitutio Antoniniana. Being very back of the envelope then, we might – once we account for women and children descendants of those soldiers – assume that on the eve of the general grant of citizenship in 212, there were perhaps 4 million Romans whose citizenship status was a product of service in the auxilia somewhere in their history; perhaps representing something like 7% of the entire population (including non-free persons). Were we to assume larger households (which seems wise, given that retired auxiliaries are probably more likely than average to be in an economic position to have a larger family), that figure would be even higher.

(*Note on the coverage of the spouse. The grant of citizenship covered any biological children of the discharged auxiliary but did not extend citizenship to his wife. It did however, give an auxiliary the right to contract a lawful marriage with effectively any free woman, including non-citizens and the children resulting from such a union would be citizens themselves. Consequently, it extended one of the core privleges of citizenship to the non-citizen wife of a discharged auxiliary: the right to bear citizen children. Since the wife would be part of the retired auxiliary’s household (and then later, if he predeceased her, potentially in the household of her male citizen children) she’d be legally covered in many cases because a legal action against her would generally be an action against her husband/child. Given that a number of the rights of citizens simply didn’t apply to women in the Roman world (e.g. office holding), this system left the wife of a retired auxiliary with many, but not all, of the privileges of citizenship, so long as her husband and her marriage survived. That said, the legal status remained vested in her husband or her children, which made it more than a little precarious. One of these days, we can talk more about the structure of the Roman familia.)

That is a very meaningful number of new Romans. And those figures don’t account for some of the other ways Roman citizenship tended to expand through communities both through manumission but also the political networks citizenship created (your Latin-speaking former-auxiliary citizen neighbors are a lot more likely to be able to help intercede to get you citizenship or get your community recognized as a municipia with that attendant citizenship grant). And not only are those new Romans by legal status, but new Romans who have, by dint of military training and discipline, absorbed quite a lot of Roman culture. As best we can tell, they tended to view the Roman Empire as their polity, rather than as a foreign or oppressive entity. They were ‘bought in’ as it were. Again, this does not seem to have been the Roman intent, but rather an opportunistic, self-serving response to the need to maintain the loyalty of these troops; citizenship was, after all, a free benefit the emperor might bestow at no cost to the treasury (since citizens who lived outside of Italy still owed taxes) or himself.

Of course that fits the auxilia in to a later pattern in the provinces which becomes perhaps most apparent as the Roman Empire begins to collapse…

Kicking, Gouging and Screaming

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West (please, right now, just mentally add the phrase ‘in the west’ next to every ‘the fall of Rome’ and similar phrase here and elsewhere) is complicated. I don’t mean it is complicated in its causes or effects (though it is that too), I mean it is complicated in its raw events: the who, what, where and when of it. Most students are taught a fairly simple version of this because most of what they need to actually learn is the cause and the effects and so the actual ‘fall’ part is a sort of black box where Huns, Vandals, Goths, plague, climate and economic decline go in and political fragmentation, more economic decline and the European Middle Ages come out. The fall itself ends up feeling like an event rather than a process because it is compressed down to a single point, the black box where all of the causes become all of the effects. That is, frankly, a defensible way to teach the topic at a survey level (where it might get at most a lecture or two either at the end of a Roman History survey or the beginning of a Medieval History survey) and it is honestly more or less how I teach it.

But if you want to actually try to say something intelligent about the whole thing, you need to grapple with what actually happened, rather than the classroom black-box model designed for teaching efficiency rather than detail. We are…not going to do that today…though I will have some bibliography here for those who want to. The key thing here is that the ‘Fall of Rome’ (in the West) is not an event, but a century long process from 376 to 476. Rome power (in the West) contracts for a lot of that, but it expands in periods as well, particularly under the leadership of Aetius (433-454) and Majorian (457-461); there are points where it would have really looked like the Romans might actually be able to recover. Even in 476 it was not obvious to anyone that Roman rule had actually ended; Odoacer, who had just deposed what was to be the last Roman emperor in the west promptly offered the crown to Zeno, the Roman emperor in the East (there is argument about his sincerity but James O’Donnell argues – very well, though I disagree on some key points – that this represented a real opportunity for Rome to rise from defeat in a new form yet again).
Via Wikipedia, a map of the fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire, but also noting Majorian’s considerable reconquests. One wonders, had he not been killed by Ricimer in 461 what he might have achieved.

Glancing even further back historically, this wasn’t even the first time the Roman Empire had been on the brink of collapse. Beginning in 238, the Roman Empire had suffered a long series of crippling civil wars and succession crises collectively known as the Crisis of the Third Century (238-284). At one point, the empire was de facto split into three, with one emperor in Britain and Gaul, another in Italy, and the client kingdom of Palmyra essentially running the Eastern half of the empire under their queen Zenobia. Empires do not usually survive those kinds of catastrophes, but the Roman Empire survived the Crisis, recovered all of its territory (save Dacia) and even enjoyed a period of relative peace afterwards, before trouble started up again.

The reason that empires do not generally survive those kinds of catastrophes is that generally when empires weaken, they find that they contain all sorts of people who have been waiting, sometimes patiently, sometimes less so, for any opportunity to break away. The rather sudden collapse of the (Neo-)Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC) is a good case study. After having conquered much of the Near East, the Assyrians fell into a series of succession wars beginning in 627; their Mesopotamian subjects smelled blood and revolted in 625. That was almost under control by 620 when the Medes and Persians, external vassals of the Assyrians, smelled blood too and invaded, allying with the rebelling Babylonians in 616. Assyria was effectively gone by 612 with the loss and destruction of Ninevah; they had gone from the largest empire in the world at that time or at any point prior to non-existent in 15 years. While the Assyrian collapse is remarkable for its speed and finality, the overall process is much the same in most cases; once imperial power begins to wane, revolt suddenly looks more possible and so the downward slope of collapse can be very steep indeed (one might equally use the case study of decolonization after WWII as an example: each newly independent country increased the pressure on all of the rest).

Yet there is no great rush to the doors for Rome. Instead, as Guy Halsall puts it in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West (2007), “The West did not drift hopelessly towards its inevitable fate. It went down kicking, gouging and screaming.” Among the kicked and gouged of course were Attila and his Huns. Fought to a draw at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, his empire disintegrated after his death two years later under pressure from both Germanic tribes and the Eastern Roman Empire (and the standard tendency for Steppe empires to fragment); of his three sons, Ellac was killed by revolting Germanic peoples who had been subject to the Huns, Dengizich by the (Eastern) Romans (we’re told his head was put on display in Constantinople) and the last, Ernak just disappears in our narrative after the death of Dengizich. The Romans, it turns out, did eventually get down to business to defeat the Huns. But the Romans doing all of that kicking, gouging and screaming were not the handful of old families from the early days of the Repulic; most of those hard-fighting Romans were people who in 14 AD would have been provincials. And indeed, the Roman Empire would survive, in the East, where Rome wasn’t, making for a Roman Empire that by 476 consisted effectively entirely of ‘provincial’ Romans.

Instead what we see are essentially three sets of actions by provincial elites who in any other empire would have been leading the charge for the exits. There were the kickers, gougers and screamers, as Halsall notes. There were also, as Ralph Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul (1993) has noted, elites who – seeing the writing on the wall – made no effort to hasten the collapse of the empire but instead retreated into their estates, their books and their letters; these fellows often end up married into and advising the new ‘barbarian’ kings who set up in the old Roman provinces (which in turn contributes quite a bit to the preservation and continued influence of Roman law and culture in the various fragmented successor states of the early Middle Ages). Finally, there were elites so confident that the empire would survive – because it always had! – that they mostly focused on improving their position within the empire, even at the cost of weakening it, not because they wanted out, but because ‘out’ was inconceivable to them; both Halsall and also James O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire (2009) document many of these. If I may continue my analogy, when the exit door was yawning wide open, almost no one walked through; some tried to put out the burning building they were in, others were content to be at the center of the ruins. But no one actually left.

During the Crisis of the Third Century, that set of responses had been crucial for the empire’s survival and for brief moments in the 400s, it looked like they might even have saved it again. For all of the things that brought the Roman Empire down, it is striking that ‘internal revolts’ of long-ruled peoples weren’t one of them. And that speaks to the power of Rome’s effective (if, again, largely unintentional) management of diversity. The Roman willingness to incorporate conquered peoples into the core citizen body and into ‘Roman-ness’ meant that even by 238 to the extent that the residents of the Empire could even imagine its collapse, they saw that potentiality as a disaster, rather than as a liberation. That gave the empire tremendous resiliency in the face of disaster, such that it took a century of unremitting bad luck to bring it down and even then, it only managed to take down half of it.

(As an aside, those provincial Romans were correct in the judgement that the collapse of the empire would mean disaster. The running argument about the fall of the Roman Empire is generally between the ‘decline and fall’ perspective, which presents the collapse of the Roman Empire as a Bad Thing and the ‘change and continuity’ perspective, which both stresses continuity after the collapse but also tends to try minimize the negative impacts of it, even to the point of suggesting that the average Roman peasant might have been better off in the absence of heavy Roman taxes. That latter view is particularly common among many medievalists, who are understandably quite tired of the unfairly poor reputation their period gets. This is an argument that for some time lived in the airy space of narrative and perspective where both sides could put an argument out. Unfortunately for some of the change-and-continuity arguments about living standards, archaeology has a tendency to give us data that is somewhat less malleable. That archaeological data shows, with a high degree of consistency, that while there is certainly some continuity between the Late Antique and the early Middle Ages the fall of Rome (in the West) killed lots of people (precipitous declines in population in societies without reliable birth control; probably this is mostly food scarcity, not direct warfare) and that living standards also declined to a degree that the results are archaeologically visible. As Brian Ward-Perkins notes in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), the collapse causes cows to shrink, speaking to sudden scarcity of winter fodder (which in turn likely speaks to a general reduction in available nutrition). Some areas were worse hit than others; Robin Flemming, Britain After Rome (2010) notes, for instance, that in post-Roman Britain, pot-making technology was lost (because ceramic production had been focused in cities which had been largely depopulated out of existence). The fall of Rome might have been good for some people, but the evidence is, I think, at this point inescapable that it was quite bad for most people. Especially, one assumes, all of the people who got depopulated.)

Via Wikipedia, the Roman world after the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476; fragmentation in the West, though Rome survives in the East. Again, speaking to the complexity of the collapse, each of those successor ‘barbarian’ kingdoms has their own complicated story about how they ended up with that particular chunk of the empire.

Foederati Failures

But if the Roman Empire (in the West) went down fighting, why did it collapse? Of course there is no simple answer to that question. The mass migrations of the fourth and fifth century clearly played a very large role, but then the Romans had defeated other such migrations (recall the Cimbri and the Teutones) before. There are strong indicators that other factors, unrelated to our current topic were also at play: the empire had been economically weakened by the Crisis of the Third Century, which may have disrupted a lot of the trade and state functions that created the revenue to fund state activity. At the same time, the Crisis and the more challenging security situation after it meant that Roman armies grew larger and with them the burden of paying and feeding the soldiers which further hurt the economy. Meanwhile, long exposure to Roman armies on the frontiers of the empire had begun to erode the initially quite vast qualitative advantage the Romans enjoyed; the gap between Roman and ‘barbarian’ military capabilities began to shrink (although it never really vanished altogether in this period). But some of the causes do bear on our topic but in quite the other direction from what the Niall Fergusons of the world might assume.

Let’s start with the foederati.

After the Constitutio Antoniniana, there was no longer much need for the auxilia, as all persons in the empire were citizens, and so the structure distinction between the legions and other formations fades away (part of this is also the tendency of the legions in this period to be progressively split up into smaller units called vexillationes, meaning that the unit-sizes wouldn’t have been so different). But during the fourth century, with frontier pressures building, the Romans again looked for ways to utilize the manpower and fighting skill of non-Romans. What is striking here is that whereas in some ways (discussed above) the auxilia had represented almost a revival of the attitudes which had informed the system for the socii, the new system that emerged for using foreign troops, called foederati (‘treaty men’) did not draw on the previously successful auxilia-system (which, to be clear, by this point had been effectively gone for more than a century). Instead, the Romans signed treaties with Germanic-speaking kings, exchanging chunks of (often depopulated, war-torn frontier) land in exchange for military service. Since these troops were bound by treaty (foedus) they were called foederati. They served in their own units, under their own leaders, up to their kings. Consequently, all of the mechanisms that encouraged the auxilia to adopt Roman practices and identify with the Roman Empire were lost; these men might view Rome as a friendly ally (at times) but they were never encouraged to think of themselves as Roman.

The reason for this different system of recruitment seem to be rooted in financial realities. The Roman army had already been expanded during the Crisis of the Third Century and only grew more under Diocletian and Constantine, probably by this point being between 400,000 and 500,000 men (compared to 300,000-350,000 earlier in the empire). Moreover, Diocletian had opted to reform the empire’s administration with a much more intensive, top-down, bureaucratic approach, which imposed further costs. Taxes had become heavy (although elites were increasingly allowed to dodge them), the economy was weak and revenues were short. The value of the foederati was that the empire didn’t have to pay them; they were handed land (again, in war-torn frontier zones) and expected to use that to pay for their military support. At the time, it must have seemed a brilliant work-around to get more military power out of a dwindling tax-base.
Via Wikipedia, the porphyry statues of the tetrarchs, the four emperors under Diocletian, now in Venice. While the artist is drawing attention to their notional unity (thus all of the hugging), it is also notable how much the Third Century had changed the job of emperors. During the first two centuries, Roman emperors were more often depicted in their civilian dress than as soldiers, but here the martial imagery, including the hands gripping tight the hilts of swords, is strongly pronounced. The emperor was, by this point, a soldier first and a civilian administrator second.

(I feel the need to note that I increasingly regard Diocletian (r. 284-305) as a ruinous emperor, even though he lacked the normal moralizing character flaws of ‘bad emperors.’ While he was active, dedicated and focused, almost all of his reforms turned out to be quite bad ideas in the long run even before one gets to the Great Persecution. His currency reforms were catastrophic, his administrative reforms were top-heavy, his tax plan depended on a regular census which was never regular and the tetrarchy was doomed from its inception. Diocletian was pretty much a living, “Well, You Tried” meme. That said, to be clear, Diocletian wasn’t responsible for the foederati; it’s not quite clear who the first foederati were – they may have been the Franks in 358, which would make Julian (as a ‘Caesar’ or junior-emperor under Constantius) the culprit for this bad idea – he had a surplus of those too.)

The problem, of course, is right there: the status of the foederati made it impossible for them to ever fully integrate into the empire. They had, after all, their own kings, their own local laws and served in their own military formations. While, interestingly, they would eventually adopt Latin from the local population which had already done so (leading to French, Spanish and Italian) they could never become Roman. That wasn’t always their choice, either! As O’Donnell (op. cit.) notes, many of these foederati wanted to be ‘in’ in the Roman Empire; it was more frequently the Romans who were busy saying ‘no.‘ It is striking that this occurs in a period where social class in the Roman world was generally calcifying. Whereas citizenship had been an expanding category, after the Constitutio Antoniniana, the legal categories of honestiores and humiliores (lit. ‘respectable’ and ‘humble’ people, but in practice, ‘wealthy’ and ‘commoners’) largely replaced citizenship as the legal dividing lines of Roman society. These were far less flexible categories, as economic social mobility in the ancient world was never very high. Even there, the tax reforms of Diocletian (with some ‘patches’ under Constantine) began, for tax purposes, to tie tenant farmers (‘coloni‘) to their land, essentially barring both physical and economic mobility in the name of more efficient tax collection in a system that strongly resembled later medieval serfdom.

Nevertheless, the consequence of this system of organization was that as often as the foederati provided crucial soldiers to Roman armies, they were just as frequently the problem Roman armies were being sent to address. Never fully incorporated into the Roman army and under the command of their own kings, they proved deeply unreliable allies. Pitting one set of foederati against the next could work in the short-term, but in the long term, without any plan to permanently incorporate the foederati into Roman society, fragmentation was inevitable. The Roman abandonment of the successful older systems for managing diverse armies (on account that they were too expensive) turned the foederati from a potential source of vital manpower into the central cause of imperial collapse in the West.

Losing the Habit

This trend towards calcification had been matched by the loss of Rome’s (admittedly opportunistic and unevenly applied) religious tolerance. This is often attributed to Christianity itself, but is perhaps better understood in light of the increasing demands of emperors during and after the Crisis of the Third Century to insist on unity through uniformity. The first empire-wide systemic persecution of Christians, the Decian Persecution (250 AD) was exactly this – an effort to have all Romans everywhere sacrifice for the safety of the emperor as an act of unity to strengthen his reign which rather backfired because it seems not to have occurred to Decius that Christians (of whom, by 250, there were many) would be unable to participate. Diocletian likewise launched the Great Persecution in 303 as part of a program to stress unity in worship and try to bind the fractured Roman Empire together, particularly by emphasizing the cults of Jupiter and Hercules. From that perspective, Christians were a threat to the enforced, homogeneous unity Diocletian wanted to foster and thus had to be brought back or removed, though of course in the event Christianity’s roots were by 303 far too deep for it to be uprooted.

That is part of the context where we should understand Constantine (r. 306-337). Constantine is famous for declaring the toleration of Christianity in the empire and being the first emperor to convert to Christianity (only on on his death-bed). What is less well known is that, having selected Christianity as his favored religion, Constantine – seeking unity again – promptly set out to unify his new favored religion, by force if necessary. A schism had arose as a consequence of Diocletian’s persecution and – now that Christianity was in the good graces of the emperor – both sides sought Constantine’s aid in suppressing the other in what became known as the Donatism controversy, as the side which was eventually branded heretical supported a Christian bishop named Donatus. Constantine, after failing to get the two groups to agree settled on persecuting one of them (the Donatists) out of existence (which didn’t work either).

It is in that context that later Christian emperor’s efforts to unify the empire behind Christianity (leading to the Edict of Thessalonica in 380) ought to be understood – as the culmination of, by that point, more than a century of on-again, off-again efforts by emperors to try to strengthen the empire by enforcing religious unity. By the end of the fourth century, the Christian empire was persecuting pagans and Jews, not even a full century after it had been persecuting Christians.

These efforts to violently enforce unity through homogeneity had the exact opposite effect. Efforts to persecute Arian Christians (who rejected the Nicene Creed) created further divisions in the empire; they also made it even more difficult to incorporate the newly arriving Germanic peoples, who had mostly converted to the ‘wrong’ (Arian) Christianity. Meanwhile, in the fifth century, the church in the East splintered further, leading to the ‘Nestorian’ (the term is contested) churches of Syria and the Coptic Church in Egypt on the ‘outs’ with the official (Eastern) Roman Church and thus also facing persecution after the Council of Ephesus in 431. The resentment created by the policy of persecution in the East seems to have played a fairly significant role in limiting the amount of local popular resistance faced by the Muslim armies of the Rashidun Caliphate during the conquests of Syria, the Levant and Egypt in the 630s, since in many cases Christian communities viewed as ‘heretical’ by Constantinople could actually expect potentially better treatment under Muslim rule. Needless to say, this both made the Muslim conquests of those regions easier but also go some distance to explaining why Roman/Byzantine reconquest was such a non-starter. Efforts to enforce unity in the empire had, perhaps paradoxically, made it more fragile rather than more resilient.


Reaching back to our initial question, we now have some answers. While the Romans are often presented in popular culture as a homogeneous society consisting of white Northern Europeans who uniformly speak their Latin with a decided British accent, the truth is both more complex and more interesting. At every stage of their development, the Romans were a diverse bunch. Initially this reflected Rome’s origins as a frontier town, positioned at the meeting point of several different cultural, linguistic and religious groups. The Romans themselves understood their own deep past to have been diverse, with Rome drawn together out of peoples from all over Italy and while their founding myths aren’t particularly accurate, on this point the archaeology backs up the fundamental truth that earliest Rome was a fusion-society. That diversity only grew as Rome expanded, first incorporating the different peoples of Italy and then the different peoples of the Mediterranean more broadly.

Contrary to the popular image, Rome was a diverse society, by any definition, from the foundation of the Republic (if not earlier) to the collapse of the empire in the West. This was true when it came to language, culture, and religion. It was also true when it came to skin-color, although this tended to be quite a bit less important to the Romans than it is to many people today. While popular media tends to portray the Romans as uniformly white, typically using British actors, the actual Romans stretched close to the full range of human skin-colors. There was no particular arrangement of skin color, hair color or type , no particular ‘phenotype‘ which was distinctively Roman. There were fair-skinned Romans, dark-skinned Romans and Romans at every point in between. That diversity of appearance was true within Roman Italy but became radically more true in Rome’s Mediterranean-spanning empire. Instead, Roman identity was marked by a legal status, citizenship, which defined belonging in the group; visually, Roman citizenship was conveyed by clothing (the toga in particular), rather than skin, hair, facial structure, etc. The ‘Queen’s Latin’ vision of a Rome homogeneously white is wrong in all respects.

Consequently the theory of empire that is often built up on that cracked foundation, which supposes that the strength of a homogeneous Roman society forged their empire and that the diversity of that empire doomed it is fundamentally flawed, based on an amateurish and catastrophically mistaken understanding of Roman history. Rome was never homogeneous and so there is no pristine, unmixed Roman society to hearken back to. Again, the Romans themselves knew this and declared it openly.

Instead it was Rome’s opportunistic but well-honed ability to effectively manage diverse populations which led to their success. Doubtless this skill had at least some of its origins in the fact that Roman political leaders did not come from a monoculture; the relatively ‘hands off’ strategy (with a strong emphasis on local self-government) Rome had to take to deal with the diversity of Italy provided an effective training ground for managing a vast empire. The Romans do not seem to have ever intended to forge a vast, multi-cultural polity out of their imperial conquests; they were, for the most part, in it for the loot, taxes and military glory. But that Italian toolkit and the habits of politics in Rome’s diverse Republic were things every Roman aristocrat brought with them when they went abroad as a general or a governor (coincidentally, the same job in the Republic and in the Empire, but that’s a story for another day). Indeed, diversity was the root of Roman success. What made the Roman Empire possible, both to create and to hold, was the willingness of the Romans to opportunistically include conquered peoples in the Roman project.

In the end though, when Rome’s conquests ceased, and with the frontiers defended against migrations of fresh peoples into the empire, the Romans clearly got out of the habits that had won them the empire. Emperors more strongly emphasized unity through conformity, particularly in religion, and when the Romans once again had need of non-Romans in their armies, they made the crucial mistake of keeping them separate, rather than incorporating them as they had before. Diversity did not destroy the Roman Empire, but intolerance of diversity contributed greatly to its fall.

Of course part of the reason we are discussing all of this is that these examples – often in their deeply flawed, ‘Queen’s Latin’ form – are mobilized as support for political ends. I am not a policy expert, so I am not going to suggest what particular policy these conclusions lend themselves too. But I am a Roman history expert and so when policy makers are thinking about the examples of history to try to craft effective policies, they should consider the actual Romans rather than the image of Rome crafted by the BBC and Hollywood. Those Romans were not neatly homogeneous, they did not neatly map on to modern racial categories, but nor were they enlightened multiculturalists. They were frequently shrewd and self-interested empire builders who recognized that it actually is true that diversity is strength.

That Rome, the real Rome, the one that exists in our literary sources, in the archaeological record, in Roman artwork (and in my classroom), the real Rome was always diverse.

That’s why they won.

173 thoughts on “Collections: The Queen’s Latin or Who Were the Romans, Part V: Saving And Losing an Empire

  1. Is it “Arrian Christians” or “Arian Christians”? I’ve usually seen it the latter way.

    (The people who think Jesus wasn’t God, just God’s son, right?)

    1. The exact nature of Jesus and how the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost worked was, on the evidence, something just about everybody not just the church hierarchy cared passionately about. To call the differences of various sects finely parsed is an understatement but the issues were widely understood and opinions were vehemently held and defended.

      1. yep. ironically, the various points of contention that we know of tend to be stuff that seems to be on par with “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” as far as importance goes. (the nature of the trinity and the nature of jesus’s mortal vs divine state sure seem like pointless debate nowadays), but i suspect that is because the more practical doctrinal aspects of those sects in regards to ritual, behavior, charity, legal interactions, etc just didn’t get much records given over to them.

        1. An infinite number. Angels are spirits and do not have bodies, therefore they neither exclude other objects from space, nor are excluded.

          Notice this is independent of the questions of whether there is infinite angels, or even angels at all, since it proceeds from the definition.

        2. Yes it all seems very academic today yet on the evidence large numbers of believers cared intensely about these issues. We see the same popular involvement with theology a millennium later during the reformation. These fine points were very real and material issues in their time.

    2. Only in Italian this particular heresy (not that Jesus wasn’t God, they don’t go *that* far, but that he wasn’t co-eternal with the Father but begotten by him within time) is spelt with double r, “arrianismo”.

  2. Is it possible that, ironically, the fact that diversity was the source of strength leads directly to a narrative that it is not? If you’re an Emperor who is certain, dead certain, that what the Empire needs is more unity – but then all these diverse people get in the way – but things get worse the more all these diverse people try to fight your homogenising programs it is plainly apparent that the problem was in the diversity and not the programs. Does this appear in the sources? Might this at least give a veneer of historical evidence to the modern homogenity=success arguments in the same way that Romans writing about decadence helps to give the Fremen Mirage a degree of undeserved historic legitimacy.

    1. That does make sense.

      It also seems like the strengths of incorporating it wasn’t really argued or described in some sort of outright way (“We Romans won because make our italian friends like citizens and our Greek enemies do not…” I know this isn’t exactly what the post says, but you get the general idea), and Roman and other imperial diversity and systems for organizing people don’t map to how modern countries tend to do these things, so modern people who don’t look carefully miss how important these systems were completely.

  3. > by virtue of his service, became Roman and thus essentially joined the ruling class at least in ethnic status.

    shouldn’t it be in legal status, rather than ethnic?

    1. also the description of the auxilia system reminds me a little of the modern French foreign legion, with recruitment open to foreigners, who then become citizens through their service (I’m not clear on when they get in the French case) and learning French from their French officers

      1. I don’t think they called it the Foreign *Legion* for nothing, it was created at a time when many officers would still have a very deep grounding in Classical studies, so almost certainly building explicitly on Roman Auxiliary type ideas (although also on traditions of mercenary hosts – e.g. loyalty is explicitly sworn to the Legion, not to France)
        Citizenship requires at least 3 years of service (to start the process of acquiring citizenship), or a serious wound (Français par le sang versé – ‘French by lost blood’)

    2. The Romans saw them themselves as a ethnic group that is bound by a common constitution not by blood

      1. Basically one of the purest forms of Legalism. “Are you Roman?” – “Well, the Law says I am”

        1. That’s one answer to “Are you an American?” It has always been the dominant one, but it has always been under pressure from the view that Americans are an ethnicity.

        2. St Paul and the centurion had basically that conversation.

          C: “Hey, I’m a Roman. I paid good money for it, too.”
          St. P. “I’m a Roman, too — by birth….”

  4. Studying the fall of the Roman empire must be the most depressing part of being a romanist.


    “The size of the Roman army during the imperial period ranged from around 300,000 to around 500,000, but in 14 AD (the year of Augustus’ death) there were only 4,937,000 Roman citizens (Res Gestae 8.11), a figure which probably (a word I using the gloss over one of the most technical and complex arguments in the field) includes women and children. Needless ”

    “(a word I using the gloss over one of the most technical and complex arguments in the field)”
    Should be “A word I am using to gloss over” I think?

  5. Wonderful conclusion to an (as usual) great series! Though I wonder about the dress of Roman Emperors, even in portraits of the earlier Emperors they are often wearing the Muscle cuirass-paludamentum combo of a general (for example Vespasian, Domitian, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius are often depicted as such). Though from what I have found too (mostly on Wikimedia) there does seem to be a decline in togate or heroic nudity statues from the Third Century Crisis onwards

  6. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the fall of the Roman Empire in the province of Britannia was due largely to two factors – the foolish attempt of a general to make himself Caesar, which led to stripping the province of the resident legions and auxilia; and the foederatii agreements made with a bunch of mercenaries from Jutland (Jylland) and what is still named Angeln in Northern Germany and what is now the state of Lower Saxony in Northern Germany, and the region known as Greater Frisia. Under the land for service agreement, which the Romano-British magnate/king Vortigern reputedly reneged on, they were to defend the province against attackers from the north and the east in place of the regular Roman army.

    It is ironically a frustrating period to study. I’m not fond of empires, yet to see the long-term gains acquired over a few hundred years so casually thrown away for minor short-term political gains …

  7. Bridges can be perfectly natural, even when made of stone, and they fall down too. It may be useful to analyze natural and artificial ones separately, but being “deeply unnatural” is not a contribution to such analysis.

    1. The entire series is talking about a complex (and deeply unnatural) work of humans. The Roman Empire was built, not found.

      1. Yes, so it would be wiser to choose an analogy that doesn’t contradict it. One could point out that bridges are inherently unstable and then naturalness would not be a question.

        1. Well, I suppose I wouldn’t use the term “bridge” for a natural arch, either; because of the association with the verb from (to bridge).

    2. A more physically accurate description could be that they occupy what’s called a metastable equilibrium: they stay up, but their potential energy is far from the lowest it could be, and a small but finite perturbation can push them out of that equilibrium zone.

      1. This is how I interpreted it, but you have phrased it better than the author of the post did.

        The conventional bridge analogy is in some ways a rather poor one. A bridge made from ants clinging to one another might be a better one, actually.

        1. I think you all misunderstand the point of metaphors. It is not to create 100% accuracy in all possible cases of the metaphor and comparison but to communicate an idea in simple terms. And that is what this metaphor did.

  8. To get an idea how long Rome’s time in existence compares to other empires, something i was mulling over/thinking out while reading these posts:

    Rome as “the political entity run by Rome the city” lasted about 1000 years. Rome as “the continuous political entity” is about 2000 it looks like. Rome as “a big empire” is maybe 1000 to 1500ish or so. (I’ll say maybe around 200 BC as it conquers stuff outside of Italy to the higher hundreds AD as byzantine territories get reduced to Balkans and Anatolia) Other political entities that last a similar amount of time seem to be:

    Various Western European countries. England, Scotland, France all seem around 1200-1300 years or so, depending when you say they are founded, Holy Roman Empire and some scandinavian countries might be considered about this long, maybe Italian city states lasted awhile also (I don’t know their histories that well, Venice i remember as lasting a long time)

    Egypt, depending on what you consider continuous. If you lump the whole history together, ancient Egypt lasts a long time. If you could the intermediate periods as breaking up the political entity and starting a new one, Egypt has nothing that lasts as long.

    Some Mesopotamian cities may have lasted a long time.

    India doesn’t seem to have anything that lasted this long, though i don’t know the individual histories that well.

    China’s political entities have to be combined in iffy ways to last a similar amount of time, with Warring States and the period after the Han as obvious periods of breakup, plus some outside invasion later on that might count as breaking continuity. To get a thousand years of one continuous thing, you have to either lump Shang and Zhou periods together (counting that Zhou taking power as a change within the system rather than an outside conquest), or ignore later periods of breakup.

    Japan seems to ben somewhat continuous from the first kingdom to warring states times, around 1000 years, but I don’t know the history that well.

    You can combine Parthian and Sassanian periods to get around 800 years, though this isn’t how most people do it.

    So to get a political entity that lasts as long as Rome does, it really is either smaller places that don’t conquer much, or iffy combinations of empires/dynasties that controlled a particular region. Of course, as a guy reading and writing stuff on the internet, there may be some things I’m missing. (and apparently Western European places can last a long time, possibly a mix of being hard to unify from the outside, leaving relative safety, and possibly the nobility system lets would be invaders or rebels buy into the system more. Am thinking of, say, Canute or two of the Williams here, who invaded England, but than more or less slotted into the existing system.)

    1. Depends how you define Empire really. You could also say – I know people who do – that the Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to 474, because they don’t consider the Republic and Empire the same, and that Byzantium wasn’t really the Roman Empire. It depends a lot on what you consider Rome’s defining traits.
      There are good arguments to say that Assyria, Egypt and Iran are all longer-lived than Rome.

      1. Part of the problem is the confusion (in English at least) between two meanings of the word “empire.” The imperium romanum, the chunk of the world under the command (imperatum) of Rome, could be said to have begun as soon as Rome started dominating Italy, and certainly after it conquered overseas provinces in the second century BC. But we also tend to associate “empire” with the emperors (imperatorum, lit. “commanders”) beginning with Augustus, although the convention for clarity among historians is to uses the term principate (from princeps, Augustus’ “title”) instead.

      2. Part of the problem is the confusion (in English at least) between two meanings of the word “empire.” The imperium romanum, the chunk of the world under the command (imperatum) of Rome, could be said to have begun as soon as Rome started dominating Italy, and certainly after it conquered overseas provinces in the second century BC. But we also tend to associate “empire” with the emperors (imperatorum, lit. “commanders”) beginning with Augustus, although the convention for clarity among historians is to uses the term principate (from princeps, Augustus’ “title”) instead.

        1. I’m German. We call it “Römisches Reich”. Now, Reich simply means state, and “Römisch” doesn’t specify wether it’s the Roman people, or the City of Rome. As a result, I grew up being taught that Byzantium and the Roman Empire were to distinct entities. Might be a relic of the Holy Roman Empire, which obviously had a vested interest in distinguishing between the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire and the dead Western Empire. So basically, many Germans consider the Monarchy, Republican Period, Western Empire and Eastern Empire to be four different states.
          I’m therefore more open to simply calling Egypt, for instance, a single Empire, rather than the dozen-or-so dynasties that de-facto ruled Egypt.

          1. I’m American, and I was taught more or less the same thing. I think it’s the standard Western European view. From what I understand, it’s only in the West that we call it the “Byzantine” empire at all; they called themselves Roman.

          2. It was most definitely a consequence of the HRE wanting to dilute the claims of Constantinople to be the inheritor of Rome – the term Byzantine Empire is imposed on them by Western Europe; they always called themselves the Roman Empire – Βασιλεία τῶν Ῥωμαίων. The Ottomans called them Rûm, and the Ottoman name for the Eastern Orthodox community in their empire was “millet-e-rûm”.

      3. That’s why I wrote “political entity”, even if you think of Republic and Empire as different things, they clearly are running the same set of territory, provincial governors and other governing structure, which people consider themselves a member of said entity, why and how said people do so, etc. And why I’m a bit loose with what counts as continuity.

        1. Well, Egypt for instance had basically the same government and administrative structure for three thousand years. Sure, it was absorbed into foreign Empires twice, but local administration rarely changed. Foreign conquerors who didn’t have huge pre-existing Empires were quickly khemetisized (is this a word?) and adopted Egyptian culture and government. See the Hyksos, Nubians and Greeks, all of which adopted the title of Pharao for themselves. So for 3,000 years, the people in charge were the same. Obviously individuals died, ruling families changed etc, but Cleopatra ruled in a tradition dating back to Namer himself.

          That is not to say that Egypt was one monumental culture that never changed or adapted, but then, neither was Rome. Maiorian ruled a very different Empire from Augustus, and one that would have probably been completely alien to Tarquin the Elder. But that’s still the same tradition, still the same heritage.

          1. Mehmed II was proclaimed Caesar after taking Constantinople; did the Roman Empire therefor last until the end of WWI?

          2. In a way, yes, the Empire did continue to exist until WW1. Though ultimately, the only thing that makes you a state, is if other states think you are a state, and the state you claim to be. So I’d call it a matter of perspective.
            At the very least, the Ottomans should not be ignored and take their rightful place as one of the great successor states to Imperial Rome, along the HRE, Spain, Russia and the various Italian city-states.

          3. “the only thing that makes you a state, is if other states think you are a state”

            I disagree. You’re a state if your own people think you’re a state. Other states agreeing is helpful but not strictly necessary.

          4. Your own people, isn’t really enough in itself, otherwise Sealand would be a state. As a reminder that’s that decommissioned oil platform in the territorial waters of the UK, that two people live on both of whom claim it’s a state. (they also have a self-proclaimed royal family that lives in the UK since living on an oil platform kinda sucks, they also think it’s a state).

          5. My only objection to calling Sealand a state is that its population is too small to really behave like a state.

            Imagine there was an island somewhere with a king, and laws, and a court system, but it was so remote no other state bothered to formally recognize it? I would say that it would still be a state.

        2. If you think of the Republic and the Empire as distinct entities, shouldn’t you also break English history into distinct entities with Oliver Cromwell? Would modern France be the same entity as Pre-revolution France?

          1. In German, we call all French states Frankreich – the Empire of the Franks. But I thought in the Anglosphere there is a pretty clear distinction between the Frankish Kingdom, and the Kingdom of France. Because the Frankish Kingdom was a Germanic monarchy during the Merovingian period, but became a more Roman system because of Charlemagne.
            However, I think that Rome should be considered one state from it’s founding all the way to 1453 – at the same time, I’d call the Achaemenids, Macedonians, Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanids simply dynasties of the 1st Empire of Greater Iran.

          2. There have been arguments for doing exactly that. (or at other distinct points, like the customary dividing line of 1066)

            It’s a fun game you can play if you want.

    2. I do note that eg. certain chinese dynastic changes could probably be compared to the Crisis of the Third century in scope: IE a period of fragmenation followed by reunification. Others do not of course.

      But there is a point there that “How long did X empire last?” is going depend a lotof how you definet hings.

    3. The Habsburgs had a very respectable run from 1278 to 1917, though they didn’t actually become Holy Roman Emperors until 1440, closely comparable to the Ottoman Empire.

    4. This doesn’t seem like you’re comparing apples to apples. You’re being *very* generous to the Roman timeline in ways that you’re not to China or Egypt. The Crisis of the 3rd Century really is analogous to the Sanguo Shidai, even down to having a three way split, similar number of years (traditionally 49 for 3rd century crisis, 60 for Sanguo Shidai), and even happening at the same time (235-284 vs 220-280). The First Intermediate Period of Egypt is definitely a large disruption of continuity, but not nearly as large or as long lasting as the division of the empire. If we were to apply the standard you used for Egypt or China, we’d probably be limiting the Roman Empire to well under a thousand years, with a potential very pedantic one being about 262 (Augustus becomes first Emperor to 3rd Century Crisis; a comparable standard for China produces 441 years, from ascension of Qin Shi Huang to the generally agreed upon date for the Sanguo Shidai).

      And of course it’s not really addressing Dr. Deveraux on the argument he’s making: he is arguing about the polity generally understood in English as “The Roman Empire,” meaning the Western Roman Empire, that has a periodization largely understood (and explicitly so here) to end in 476. I’m happy to entertain largely sophist arguments about the Roman Empire ending in 1917 or what have you, but it is really not a very reasonable interjection here.

      1. On the three kingdoms period: There’s quite a large gap between the Han and Tang controlling big parts of China, of which the three kingdoms period is but one part, and involved quite a few combinations of political entities controlling the region, without straightforward continuity between them.

        For Egypt: Egypt did in fact split up into several competing regions during the first period, though whether this counts is up to people in question as described in the first post. It doesn’t matter too much anyway, since Rome being the longest or one of the longest doesn’t matter to the general argument.

        The second paragraph is obviously nonsense.

      1. French polities change sufficiently frequently that they are numbered for convenience. Of course Rome also goes from a kingdom to a republic to an empire. But France has managed five republics, two empires, that Vichy bit and what I think ought to be considered at least four distinct monarchies (Merovingian, Carolingian, Capetian and a constitutional period 1814-1848).

        It seems to me, that context, that the continuity of the French polity is up to rather quite a lot of debate. You absolutely could argue 1500 years for a single polity, but just as easily argue no less than 12 different polities in the same period.

        1. Yeah sure. But if Augustus and Constantine (or 7th century breakdown of the East, which was politically even more drastic change than 5th century West, if I am not mistaken) do not count as “changes in polity”, then it seems roughly equivalent imho that France had none of those changes since 5th century.

  9. Question: When historians talk about Roman auxiliaries or legionaires serving for 20 or 25 years, what did that mean in practice? Were they continually on active service for that time, with their units and in the field, or does it include periods where they would be inactive and have a civilian life?

    1. Not a civilian life, but much of it in garrison just doing drill and guard duty. Interspersed with building roads, bridges and aqueducts (the Army was also the Roman department of public works)

      1. And the garrisons were in cities. The three legions in Britannia in the Antonine period were based at Isca Augusta (Caerleon, II Augusta), Eboracum (York, first IX Hispania and then VI Victrix) and Deva (Chester, XX Valeria Victrix). York and Chester were the two great cities of Northern England until the industrial revolution. Isca Augusta was a big city in Roman times, but the border between Wales and England led to the main port on the Severn being Bristol (on the other side of the border) in later years. I don’t know the continental limes as well, but I believe that Köln (Cologne) was a legionary garrison, among others.

        There were plenty of civilians in those cities. Even the smaller garrison towns on the limes themselves still had substantial civilian populations – Vindolanda, the garrison on Hadrian’s Wall where all the letters were preserved, had lots of civilians living there.

  10. What would happen to the children of an auxiliary who didn’t survive his term of service?

      1. For comparative perspective – all the Biblical rules about special economic allocations to widows and orphans are there on the assumption that these are people with zero private support network.

      2. “the fatherless in general had a really rough time in the era”–especially those considered illegitimate, which would have been the case for children of men in active service.

    1. The following is mainly guesswork.

      Those old enough may be recruited into the auxilia, or married to auxilia soldiers. Of those too young for that, the lucky ones would get adopted, or the wife would remarry another auxilia soldier. Bear in mind the Old Testament laws on the subject are unique only in that they were written down; our great strength as a species has always been that we take care of our own.
      And the guy who died fighting next to us would normally qualify as “our own”.

  11. Great series! Hugely enjoyed reading it.

    It brings me to mind though of the class on Machiavelli I took long ago, specifically the bit about “Don’t look at why the empire fell, look at why it lasted so long”, especially since according to Machiavelli’s class analysis framework, the Empire *should* have been deeply unstable and collapsed within decades, tops, and the fact that it didn’t vastly perplexed the man.

    Still though, at least in my superficial sort of way of looking at it, the Romans did seem to have a propensity to fighting each other. Civil wars certainly seem more common in Rome than they did in other ancient empires. Is this assessment correct? And if it is, what made the Romans more prone to fighting over the throne the way they did?

    1. Romans never seem to have managed to establish clear rules of succession and it was a rare Emperor who had a clear male heir anyway. The five Good Emperors managed five peaceful successions through the adoption of sound heirs and associating them with the Emperor. Commodus famously ended this run of luck. IMO the problem was he got power too young and ran amuck, young successors tend to be disproportionately bad rulers. But it would have been impossible for Marcus Aurelius to pass over his son as a successor and in all fairness Commodus doesn’t seem to have shown any serious failings during his father’s lifetime. Contrary to movies like Gladiator and The Fall of The Roman Empire there’s no evidence Commodus started out nuts.

      1. I think there’s a pretty robust argument that there is a tension between a reliable succession and wanting leaders of high ability.

        Hereditary sucession gets you a reliable selection of ruler, that is, you know exactly who you’re getting. But that means that you have to put up with them if they suck – but also, you have to have a way to govern the place if they can’t be bothered and just want to party. Which generally means creating a self-sustaining bureaucracy, then the emperor can lead that if he wants to, or just leave it be.

        The more legitimate it is to say “this emperor sucks, I’ll be better” and take over, the greater the premium on emperors that don’t suck, but also the more likely you are to get coups and civil wars. Rome, even down to 1453, never created a system where a merely OK emperor could just get out of the way and let the bureaucrats run the place.

        [As an aside, modern democracies provide a way to have a competition for leadership, so raising the quality of leaders, without enduring coups and civil wars; for all their imperfections, that does resolve a bunch of issues that neither ancient nor mediaeval kingdoms and empires could match]

        1. I like to say the essence of non-direct democracy isn’t electing leaders, but unelecting them. Choosing a leader at random but having easy recall elections would be more democratic than an elected monarchy-for-life even if the latter had universal suffrage (which they usually didn’t.) Basically, error correction: “whoops, these leaders aren’t working, try another one.”

          Legislatures can be seen as elective oligarchy, per the “iron law of oligarchy”, but having a formal oligarchy you can identify and peacefully change is a big deal.

          Though I still like the element of Swiss direct democracy where it’s easy for the people to snipe unpopular laws, via referenda within a few months. I’m less committed to initiatives, though you need that power to easily push through electoral reforms contrary to the self-interest of legislators.

        2. Yes, the real success story of modern representive democracy is the easy deposing of bad leaders.

      2. (As an aside, this also very much is a response to Richard Gadsden, but I can’t figure out a way to respond to two people at once in this format)

        I think in addition to succession issues, (or perhaps in conjunction with them) the Roman Empire had a problem in that it had a narrow “selectorate”. While it was dressed up with a lot of other stuff, pretty much the entirety of the lifetime of the Empire had the Emperor as a generalissimo in modern parlance, and the only group that someone really needed to make their claim stick was the army. And the empire was too big, and too widespread for any one person to personally oversee the military. They needed to have generals on the frontiers with enough authority to see how things were going and make decisions without communicating with the capital, a process that could take months round trip.

        What that meant in practice is that any general who could assure the loyalty of even a few legions to himself presented a serious threat and chance to march back to the capital and declare himself emperor. It wasn’t just that there was a relatively high degree of legitimacy for seizing the throne with naked force, but it was relatively easy to seize the throne in the first place.

    2. It’s possible to overexaggerate the Roman propensity to civil war. Between 30 BC and 193 AD there was one civil war, which means that the Roman Empire and the United States had an equal number of civil wars in their first 220 years, and ours was four times as long. The Republic, meanwhile lasted over 400 years before its first civil war.

  12. I had hoped you would discuss the Goths in this article, as it would have illustrated your point very well. The Goths wanted to enter the Roman Empire due to Hunnic raids, and the Romans, rather than welcoming and incorporating them, reluctantly let them in and horribly abused them, which caused them to rise up in revolt. This led to the Roman defeat at Adrianople, which, though not immediately fatal, did considerably weaken the empire.

    1. The Vandals were in a similar situation if I’m remembering correctly. They also wanted to move into the Empire because of pressure from other Germanic tribes encroaching on their territory, but the Romans refused, which led to conflict between the Romans and Vandals and the migration of the Vandals first to Spain and then to North Africa.

    2. even more apt, the eventual gothic king that conquered the western roman empire tried to set himself up as the leader of the roman empire (not necessarily as emperor) and it was hostility from the emperor in the east and a refusal to acknowledge his claims along with religious tension tween the arian goths and the nicean roman elite that foiled his plans to transform his conquered “barbarian” kingdom back into a Roman empire.

  13. I increasingly get the feeling that Diocletian himself was basically the ancient-world equivalent to a nationalist strongman. His solution to instability was a hard crack-down against religious minorities, blowing the Imperial Military vastly out of proportion and turning it’s economy into life support for the army. There definitely are parallels to certain 20th century regimes, though I would not go so far as to call him a pseudo-fascist.
    As for the trouble of the late Empire and the religious devision; do you think a more concilliatory approach would have been better? Maybe an Emperor who publicly protected Christianity, while also continuing to support the other religions within the Emperor. Kinda like Constantine did, though that practice seems to have been abandoned by his successors.

    1. I’m not sure how much nationalism entered into it (Diocletian himself was an Illyrian anyway). But strongman certainly, and more (such as “despot”). Whereas the Romans had a dyed-in-the-wool horror of kings, and for all that Rome had been an effective monarchy for 300 years, Diocletian’s predecessors had always used euphemisms like “first citizen,” “commander” and the co-opted family name Caesar; Diocletian insisted on being addressed as “dominus,” usually translated as “lord,” but with far greater implications: “dominus” was the form of address of a slave to his master. He wore a diadem – the “crown” of a Greek king – and those approaching him had to prostrate themselves on the ground. We have come a long way from the style of Augustus or Marcus Aurelius.

      1. Of course nationalism is a very modern idea, but Hitler was Austrian, Stalin was Georgian and Napoleon was Corsican. Ironically, the most jingoistic leader don’t even really come from the areas they rule over.

      2. Though it is true Diocletian made those customs official, many of them relating to the Emperor had already been happening for a long time. For example Pliny regularly adresses Trajan as dominus in his letters, and Roman sources claim both Heliogabalus and Aurelian used diadems

      3. Though it is true Diocletian standardised those customs, many of them had already been happening for a long time. For example Pliny regularly adresses Trajan as dominus in his letters, and ancient sources claim both Heliogabalus and Aurelian used diadems

      4. Full disclosure, I first got the idea from watching “An unbiased history of Rome”, which feels a lot like Roman nationalist propaganda. Nationalism wasn’t really a thing back then, of course, though certain groups like the Romans or the Assyrians certainly did have a strong ethnic identity linked to a powerful state apparatus. But I do get the impression that Diocletian wanted society to be more homogenous – his crack-down on Christianity happened because they didn’t want to publicly worship Diocletian and the Roman state. I don’t think he cared much about religion in general – he didn’t attempt to persecute any of the thousands of minor religions residing within the Empire. His opposition to Christianity was political in nature, not religious. Diocletian simply did not act like a religious fanatic. I therefore think it’s plausible that he was motivated by some sort of vaguely nationalist or unitarian sentiment (if only to strengthen the military). Of course, I am not a historian, and most of my knowledge is internet-derived, so I’m probably wrong.

    2. Dr. Deverueax is being WAY harsher on Diocletian then he deserves. He was a good emperor that solved a lot of problems. The residual hatred for him has filtered in because of his persecutions of the christians and sort of percolates in modern western society in a way that make people down on him in ways that constantine, the dude who made several messes, is glorified because he was the first christian emperor.

      But Diocletian effectively reformed the empire and put in place new strong institutions that revitalized the empire. He was a good and effective leader. The problem is that his reforms required maintaining that later emperors simply failed to do. His system of succession was discarded almost immediately, but it was an attempt to stop the constant civil wars that crippled the empire on succession.

      His tax system was, frankly, amazing. He conducted a vast survey of wealth and prosperity and successfully built a system to extract it. But it was also, essentially, frozen in time. Further emperors would have to update the tax rolls, and they largely failed to do so. So what was a strong taxation system when Diocletian sets it up, falls apart in a couple generations because it no longer reflects the reality of the tax base. Note this is a failure that screwed a couple of Chinese Empires too.

      So, Diocletian set up the empire for success, but it would take work and agreements to continue that success, and subsequent emperors simply did not continue this work. They were too busy trying to get a hold on this new religion sweeping the empire and dealing with migratory peoples. Oh and killing each other to try and control the whole empire.

      1. The Tetrarchy collapsed and burned basically the minute he was out of office. His taxation system fell out of use because it was bureucratically taxing for the Empire. Christianity would completely annihilate Roman paganism and the Sun cult within a century of his death. Excepting his military reforms, everything he did was a failure long term.
        If your reforms are to difficult to maintain for your successors, then they are bad reforms. Because above all, politics need to be practical.

        1. The Overly Sarcastic Productions (YouTube) “Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century” gives IMHO a nice summary of what was going on leading up to Diocletian.

          Just about everything people and governments do is a “failure long term”. The problem for Diocletian was trying to hold the Roman empire together in the immediate short term, and that he did manage. When you’re in a crisis, trying something new, even if it turns out not to work, is usually better than continuing with a system that isn’t working.

          That doesn’t mean he can’t be criticised, I’m not saying that he was a fantastic Emperor. Was he better than the alternatives? The decades pre- and post- Diocletian suggest yes.

          1. I think it’s notable that Diocletian’s reforms *did* solve the immediate problems: They caused new ones obviously, but those were the problems for his successors, and that is case for all reforms.

      2. Diocletian was obviously trying to stabilize the empire but his chosen methods proved too rigid to be effective. Since change was regarded as a Bad Thing that rigidity was probably inevitable. Give Diocletian an A for effort.

    3. Aurelian, Diocletian and all the other emperrors of the Crisis were working with a systemic failure. The population was crashing due to disease (Antonine plague), the supply of precious metals was constantly reduced because of exhaustions in mining (this was evident in coin debasement), the army was no longer a juggernaut (Marcus Aurelius had a hard time defeating barbarians in Pannonia while Trajan had simply swept away everything in Dacia). Nothing worked as before and there was no proper answer for this situation. These emperors also had to fight civil wars (this includes Marcus Aurelius wih the rebellion of Cassius). There were more subtle changes as the trade and economic activity in Roman teritories declined and never recuperated after the 3rd century crisis.
      Overall there was no possibility of keeping the old system and performing small changes. Something big was happening and it had to be addressed with big reforms.This is where everything went wrong because no solution seemed to work.

  14. My sense from reading Ward-Perkins is that he puts economic considerations first, and specifically the economic rent-collection required to sustain the city of Rome proper, as the key to the fall of the Western Empire. That is, he says that:

    — for the Western Empire to keep going, Rome-the-city needed to be a strong and sustainable capital
    — for Rome-the-city to be that, it needed enormous supplies of taxed-in-kind grain from North Africa
    — so when the Vandals took North Africa and cut off the grain supplies, Rome-the-city and thus the Western Empire became unsustainable.

    What’s your sense of this arguments? And if it’s an important part of the truth, how does the diversity story intersect with it? Did the foederati system and/or the religious persecutions specifically contribute to the Vandal conquest happening, for instance?

    1. Not sure I’d go with this? If there’s one thing the Crisis of the Third Century proved, Rome the city was not the center of power, the Emperor and his legions were. This had been trialed before, like with Domitian, but Rome as a center of power (as well as its institutions like the Senate) really fell during this period, hence why we see Emperors start to set up shop in Milan or Trier or Syrmium, places by necessity much closer to the frontiers as presser never stopped building. Diocletian famously didn’t visit the city for nineteen years. The strategic pressures meant a city halfway down a peninsula nowhere near the Germans or Sassanids was not somewhere the emperor could spend extended time, this rationale ultimately fulfilled by Constantine with his purpose-built capital much closer to where the action is. That Rome maintained it’s humongous size was a mixture of token acknowledgement of its symbolic importance and inertia, and after the first major disruption that was the first sack in 410 that’s when its population begins serious decline.

      1. Does the fact that the papacy remained in Rome (except for all the times it didn’t) suggest that there was still some practical importance to Rome in the late Western Empire & following centuries? Or was it just the value of the walls and roads?

        1. I wouldn’t forget or underestimate the symbolic value either.
          The papacy drew a lot of it’s legitimacy from being specifically the bishop of Rome. In their tradition this bishopric was said to have been founded by st. Peter himself (and St. Paul) and was also where Peter was crucified. (I think they also used to believe that Peter was the first bishop there, but I’m not sure when exactly that changed).

          Rome was thus theologically “special” (having been founded by an apostle, and the one identified as the head of the church at that, as well as being where he was martyred) in a way that the other large cities that might compete for being the seat of the papacy on practical grounds wasn’t.

          1. I’d say it’s mostly symbolic value. Rome’s location made a lot more sense as capital of the Mediterranean than as capital of Western Europe.

        2. There is also the ongoing dispute with Constantinople over primacy, where Rome’s claim of primacy would be rather weakened by moving out of Rome.

  15. Separation of Church and State was totally not a thing up to modern times. The assumption made by the late Emperors that religious uniformity was necessary to stability lasts over a millenia. Religious persecutions were at least as political as they were religious. The infamous Spanish Inquisition was very much an instrument of state and that belief that religious and national identity were indivisible was responsible for a lot of suffering.
    Abrahamic religions are noted for surviving even under heavy persecution precisely because their adherents tend to be deeply committed to their faith and care intensely about its doctrines.

    1. Separation of Church and State isn’t what Bret is referring to; it’s a tolerance of non-dominant religions, and acceptance of some non-uniformity within the dominant religion. And this is a *very* common thing in multi-religious empires (which is, historically, almost all of them).

      For example, the early Caliphate did not work very hard to impose Islam on its non-Muslim subjects, despite being quite literally a theocracy.

      1. Though for most empires it wasn’t so much an acceptance of some religious non-uniformity than an impossibility to enforce uniformity

      2. At least in part because a large body of dhimmis existing on sufferance had certain advantages. When the advantage lessened so did the tolerance.

      3. From a pagan point of view, they weren’t different religions. They weren’t even comparable to heresies among Christians. They were more comparable to different devotions. Rome might expel the worshippers of Isis as foreigners, but likewise might use the rite of evocatio to lure Aphrodite away as the tutelary deity of a city (and then identify her with Venus). The problems were not doctrinal differences, on account of the doctrine being vague.

  16. > I increasingly regard Diocletian (r. 284-305) as a ruinous emperor, even though he lacked the normal moralizing character flaws of ‘bad emperors.’ While he was active, dedicated and focused, almost all of his reforms turned out to be quite bad ideas in the long run even before one gets to the Great Persecution

    Is mass-scale religious persecution not considered as enough for moralizing flaw, even if it is not strictly character one?

    1. Looking at the historiographical reception of Diocletian, generally no. He has tended to be viewed positively by historians (in part because he gets pretty good press in the non-Christian source tradition).

    2. “religious freedom” simply wasn’t a thing in the ancient world, in the sense we think of it as an element of liberty and a human right. Some states (notably Rome, mostly) may have practiced de facto religious toleration as a pragmatic policy, but nobody thought that enforcing religious uniformity was a moral outrage.

      1. Practicing as your fathers did was regarded as the right thing to do, but the outrage would be that the gods were offended, not that the worshippers’ right to worship as they pleased were. (No one had the right to worship as he pleased. The gods would be offended.)

  17. Regarding your mention of the Decian Persecution, I had always heard that there was a political rationale to it, namely that since his predecessor, Phillip the Arab, had a general pro-Christian reputation and thus would have garnered their support, the empire-wide sacrifice was an attempt to isolate and marginalise a group who would not be very happy that Decius, no matter how reluctantly in the official telling, overthrew him.

    Also, I’m surprised that the (first) Sack of Rome escaped mention, since in part it was refusal to let Alaric into the Roman hierarchy that finally pushed him to do it. I felt that was a ironclad example of the growing intolerance you talked about.

  18. Where does the repeated persecutions of barbarians(As in Olympius’s massacre of the Foederati, the post-Zeno massacres of Isaurians, etc) fit in?

  19. Great series!


    As we’ll see, there is at this quite a lot of evidence

    The Romans occasionally won battles with nothing but the auxilia, was with the Battle

    three principle benefits — principal, I think

    a word I using the gloss

    Rome power (in the West) contracts

    ‘no.‘ — closing backquote

  20. With regards to intolerance, you mention the persecution of religions on the out (first Christians, the heretics) but what about intolerance towards those barbarians who did manage to join the Empire, men like Stilicho and others like him?

    You sometimes get the impression that there was more racism, for want of a better word, around in Rome towards the end of the Western Empire than there had been before, even to the point of pogroms against barbarians. Would you say that was accurate and why all of a sudden?

  21. I’m sure I’m wa-a-ay behind once again, but here’re the proofreading corrections I noticed this time . . .

    finally collapse the bridge -> collapsed
    there is at this quite -> at this what? quite (time? point? point in time?)
    prosperous than any point -> than at any point
    point very ad hoc and -> ad hoc (for consistency, italicize ad hoc)
    no particular new thing -> particularly
    logistically depend on the legions -> dependent
    auxilia, was with the -> auxilia, as was with
    debate as to if they -> as to whether they
    word I using the gloss -> I am using to gloss
    generally hadn’t deploy meaningful -> hadn’t deployed
    The reason…seem to be -> seems
    (only on on his death-bed) -> one instance of the word on is sufficient
    A schism had arose as -> either had arisen OR arose
    a vast, multi-cultural polity -> multicultural

    1. I cannot figure out why WordPress has ceased to recognize my “check” for “Notify me of new comments…” when I post my comment (as above), forcing me to come back and Reply to my own comment???

  22. You mention that the various affiliated forces were often proficient in forms of warfare that Romans were not particularly suited to, such as cavalry, light infantry, missile troops, scouts, and that this was a significant military asset. This makes me wonder, how did the Roman military cope with the end of the auxilia? After all, it was over a century before they could rely on the foederati to provide a similar sort of specialization.

    If it was in part the structure of civilian life and culture that gave the Romans such effective heavy infantry, then did new citizens assimilate over time into those same patterns of competence? Do we observe what we expect, a noticeable decline in the competence of Roman cavalry and light infantry detachments?

    I’m also curious about the changes to military culture after the Constitutio Antoniniana. Presumably before the Constitutio, the legions and their heavy infantry must have been by default the most prestigious branch of the military because they were citizens. Does this change when the legions must become responsible for everything? Were commanders of mixed units drawn evenly from the various specializations? What consequences did this have for Roman strategy and tactics?

    1. I’m bad with dates, but I’m prety sure the system of commitatenses and limitanae was established after the end of the Auxillia. These formations were mixed forces with commitatenses favoring heavy cavalry (often including cataphracts in the east) while limitanae favored light infantry and scouts. I suspect the end of the auxillia contributed to the death of the traditional heavy infantry legion.

    2. As a tabletop gamer I’ve got some secondary sources that cover the Roman armies at various periods. Adrian Goldsworthy is the historian most often recommended for a more detailed look.

      When the auxilia became citizens, the composition of the army doesn’t seem to have changed because of that. A Roman army still needed cavalry and some lighter armed infantry than the heavy legionnaires. The Gauls, Illyrians, etc who were good at being cavalry or skirmishers or whatever didn’t stop being so when they became citizens, so the Roman army still had access to those troop types. Difference in historical records seems to be mostly that the cavalry etc units now had proper ‘Roman’ sounding names.

      The new citizens do seem to have been able to assimilate into competent heavy infantry. Roman, or at least western Roman, armies were still relying on a core of disciplined professional close fighting infantry right up to the end of the 4th century. It isn’t until the eastern Roman / Byzantine army of the 6th century that cavalry takes over as the prestige arm.

      But it’s hard to tell because the Roman army was adaptable and changed over the centuries as the foes changed. A 3rd or 4th century CE Roman army is organised and armed differently to those of Julius Caesar, and our pedantic host has reminded us a few times that armies reflect the social structure of society. So yes, military culture probably did change as the citizenry did. But there were other reasons to change too (at least for armies that don’t want to be defeated) and from this far away it’s hard to say.

  23. Constantine is famous for declaring the toleration of Christianity in the empire and being the first emperor to convert to Christianity (only on on his death-bed).

    Ahem. There is a certain diversity of practices whereby the Christians of the imperial era did not all practice as modern day ones did, or even as in different centuries, or among themselves. In this era, partly owing to a heresy that taught that baptism could wash away every sin, but some sins could be remitted in no other way — commit ’em after baptism and be certainly damned– many sincere Christians put it off for a long time.

    When the Christians in Milan were bitterly disputing over their next bishop (over the Arian heresy), there was a catechumen who addressed them, trying to prevent violence. Whereupon they decided on their next bishop: Ambrose, the catechumen, and no one regarded his not having been baptized yet as an obstacle. (Ambrose ran away and hid, the emperor passed a law saying that giving him refuge was a crime, and he came out to be baptized and become bishop.)

    1. Were Last Rites created to reassure believers that post baptismal sins could be forgiven?

      1. I don’t think so. It’s not in principle different from the sacraments that not dying people receive.

        1. The Epistle of James states that presbyters shall anoint the sick with oil so that they may be healed. That is probably the beginning of what later became the last rites.

  24. On Diocletian – one historian noted that the from the late 2nd century the ruling classes tended to be drawn more and more from the equites – the senior administrators – rather than the old aristocratic class. These folk had a managerial outlook, and saw uniformity and standardisation as the way forward – a path that culminated in Diocletian. There may be a parallel with the British Empire in its last days, when an influx of administrators into previously lightly-ruled territories led to resentments and revolts.

  25. You sold me on the Roman Empire as diverse and that the diversity was a core part of its strength. Nevertheless, you don’t strike me as so far from the “Queens Latin” pundits (if not the TV shows) as you claim since these days they tend to emphasize legal immigration followed by assimilation, not “WASPs only” as they once did. While I get the layered identities (love that concept!), the Romanized identity of the auxiliaries you describe seems pretty close to the old melting pot model in which immigrants were encouraged to become Americans by assimilating into a shared national identity. That’s in contrast to the more common way today of talking about multiculturalism by celebrating those different identities. Prior to this last entry, I thought there were sharp differences between you and those who see multiculturalism as the downfall of Rome. But this post’s focus on assimilation of the auxiliaries makes me think there’s more in common than you give it credit for.

    1. You may want to go back and reread the discussion of how identities layer, rather than replacing each other. Just because retired auxiliaries start being Roman and acquire Latin doesn’t mean they stop holding whatever other identities they had before.

      1. True, but that was the idea behind the “melting pot” approach, at least as I’ve always understood it. James didn’t say assimilation into a shared national identity meant shedding old identities. The immigrants comes in, bringing their own language and customs with them, pledging allegiance to the new nation, making it their next identity layer. By the same token, the new nation samples the immigrants’ food, language, etc., and if the impact is big enough, the immigrant culture becomes another layer on the host nation’s identity.

        1. Exactly. The melting pot ideal was entirely consistent with what Prof. Devereux calls “layered” identities. New immigrants are welcome to eat bagels, celebrate the feast of the seven fishes, etc., but they are also expected to embrace liberal democracy, celebrate the Fourth of July, and venerate George Washington as the father of their country. That program stands in contrast to the modern academic consensus, that liberal democracy is a bulwark of white supremacy (see, e.g., Richard Delgado), that the Declaration of Independence was a device for the perpetuation of slavery (see, e.g., the 1619 Project), and that memorials to Washington should be obliterated (see, e.g., the Minneapolis protests). Rome’s experience with foederati demonstrates that a polity which abandons assimilationist goals will cease to exist.

          1. Exactly.
            Modern multiculturalism rejects an American Identity altogether in favor of balkanized and mutually hostile groups based on ethnicity

          2. I’m not sure we all mean “assimilation” in the same way. Assimilation is often meant as *cultural* assimilation, whereas according to prof. Deveraux Romans didn’t use it that way. They required respect for the *laws* of the Empire. Becoming a full citizen was a next step of assimilation and it meant acquiring a *legal* status. It seems that aside from human sacrifice, they didn’t care about your culture.

          3. It’s because ‘assimilation’ is often mixed with ‘acculturation’.
            Roman policies were mostly assimilationist but rarely ‘acculturationist’ (if only because of the difficulty at the time) : that’s the idea of the ‘melting pot’/’layered identities’.

            Thing is, the two often go hand in hand.

            At first one adopt assimilated cultural practices on top on already embraced ones. But then the old cultural identity is further and further replaced by the new one ; most Italians at the fall of the Roman Empire were Romans first and foremost.

            Rome didn’t forgo assimilationist policies as much as make assimilation without immediate acculturation impossible. You could stop being a Goth and become a Roman but you couldn’t really be both Goth and Roman.

          4. Did you only hear about these things from Tucker Carlson? Its true that the south became more amenable to independence only after slavery was outlawed in England. Nobody outside of teenagers is arguing that liberal democracy is a vehicle for white supremacy, though they may be arguing that with current social and economic conditions modern liberal democracy allows white supremacy to continue. As for toppeling memorials to washington, why not? Making men into symbols is dangerous, it can lead to uncritical support for all of what they did which can easily translate to bad policies. Originalism (which just means whatever its proponents want it to mean) is an excelent example of this.

          5. @Lewyts: And the current dominant alternative to originalism, the “living Constitution” model, has the same problem, except even worse.
            Meanwhile, having a blase attitude towards the destruction of common symbols indicates a serious lack of understanding of a shared mythos to a polity. People have to share something in order to make the government work, and you cannot base a national identity on self-loathing.

          6. “couldn’t really be both Goth and Roman”

            How do you figure that? I haven’t read anything here or elsewhere that newly minted Roman citizens were required to surrender any part of their culture or allegiances, at least as long as they didn’t conflict with Roman law. The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen yet still conducted himself as a Jew, and later Christian, using each identity layer where it applied.

          7. In the text up there?
            The status of fœderati didn’t lead to citizenship and there was no other easy road to it, nor cooptation of the Goth elite.

            As opposed to the situation of non-citizens before the Edict of Caracalla/Constitutio Antoniniana, where there was a path to citizenship via military service, by extension of citizenship to allies or by recommandation by other citizens.

            So if you wished to stay in your people and become a Roman citizen, you better be a Jew than a Goth.
            So here I’m mostly guessing that the best way you could still gain citizenship was by attaching yourself to a Roman patron but then you’re mostly renouncing your Goth identity.

  26. Fascinating stuff! Just a note: the link to Part IV on this post actually directs to Part II.

  27. After reading The Great Sea by Abulafia, I have become less convinced that where we traditionally put these dividing lines makes sense. Rome was conquered in 476, but it is back in the hands of the Empire again by 538.

    It seems to make more sense to have a Migration and Reconquest period from 376 to the early 600s, when the Arab invasions permanently break the power of Rome in the Mediterranean.

    Do you think that this division of the chronology is more helpful?

  28. One thing that should probably be discussed with regards to the collapse of the roman empire and the worsening situations for people is that there is often a kind of complicated drawing of lines. In that it is hard to separate the consequences from the collapse of the roman empire withe causes of that collapse, if that makes sense. The question of “was the collapse of the empire bad” only makes sense if you contrast the choice for the person living at the time of the collapse, not with the “pristine” roman institutions of the High Empire but with what they looked like at the time. (whcih wer enot just Diocletians despotic reforms but the decayed and often-not-patched versions of said reforms)

    There were a whole lot of things that made life in 500 worse (climate change, new epidemics) that were unrelated to the Empire as such, and some things (tax burden and similar) that in attemping to deal with the problems of the empire further made life less pleasant for the subjects of the Empire. (and IIRC, most of the negative outcomes that are associated with the fall of the Empire actually starts well before the actual collapse)

    Another point that should probably be stressed with the foederati is that they, on their side, there is a not a somewhat flippant argument that says that when Alaric sacked Rome he did so basically in order to get a job: The barbarians were not so much looking to replace the Empire as to join it: To get seize positions in the roman elite. Even Odovacar continues this trend. Even for the “barbarians” there seems to take a long time (and arguably a good chunk of the middle-ages) for them to even consider that the Empire CAN fall: Rather they are trying to carve out spaces within it. (often quite literally)

  29. “I think, at this point inescapable that it was quite bad for most people. Especially, one assumes, all of the people who got depopulated.)”

    A very Pratchettian line there. Nice.

    This essay has been really useful – I’m planning an rpg set in the period, and it’s got a lot of food for thought.

  30. The conclusions of your series sounds like the description of the book “Why Nations Fall” by Robinson and Acemoglu. It’s on my reading list.

    “The authors contrast two types of institutions: extractive — aimed at excluding the majority of society from the process of political decision-making and income distribution, and inclusive — aimed at including the widest possible strata of society in economic and political life. With the exception of broad strata of society, the political decision-making process, according to the authors, inevitably leads to an attack on the economic rights of all who do not belong to the elite. And the lack of reliable guarantees of property rights and the opportunity to receive income from their enterprises among wide sections of society leads to a halt in economic growth. Therefore, in the absence of pluralistic political institutions, achieving sustainable development, according to the authors, is impossible.

    The authors cite numerous historical examples in support of their point of view, refer to the studies of many other historians and economists: the bibliography of the book contains more than 300 scientific works.”

    1. Not read the full book, but dabbled in their other writings. The contrast is overdrawn – complex societies are a mix of inclusive and extractive – often inclusive internally to extract externally (this series is a good example – Rome was inclusive in order to generate the military muscle to extract (conquer, loot, extort from) those not included. Very inclusive societies tend not to have very slow economic growth, because their is little surplus to invest (examples might be peasant communes or forager societies) – they just make small improvements slowly. For that matter, a lot of northern wealth before the Civil War came from southern extraction from slaves – sugar and cotton money flowed to New York, where some went into canals and railroads and importing European advances.

      1. I think they mean inclusive/extractive within the borders of a single state. From that perspective the institution of socii and foederati was largely INclusive. It sounds like you expect Rome to run international institutions. Rome could be *morally* responsible for its actions outside its borders (conquer, loot, extort from) but not according to law.

        1. Err, I meant socii and *auxilia* were largely inclusive. Foederati was the system that was superficially similar but managed to alienate the allies.

    2. The Acemoglu and Robinson model is deeply interesting and was, in my opinion, a refreshing windfall for economics. However, beware of two things: first of all, none of it is empirically proven. There was a famous attemp by the same authors, using settlers mortality as instrumental variable, but it was honestly laughably bad for a whole lot of reasons. Secondly, like all model that claim to be all-encompassing, it has some serious pitfalls.
      While shifting the focus from policies to institution might be very wise, and something economics very much needed, if done too much can obfuscate the very important fact that some policies in the end are bad, and some are good, no way around it, and sometimes you can very inclusively choose a bad policy or very exclusionary choose a good one. While it is true that with better institutions it becomes more likely to end up in the good equilibria, sometimes you are trapped in bad equilibria (be it because of the game the economy is in that moment, because time discounting does not allow otherwise, or a myriad of other reasons). Whilst institutions can in theory be transplanted, their efficacy is highly depended on day-to-day processes that are highly cultural specific. Moreover, whilst it was extremely refreshing to posit that incentives are not determined only by economic but also by political factors, their view kind of ignores how much incentives are shaped by cultures, and how much decision making is shaped by worldviews and heuristics (be they cultural or not).
      I have the impression that all the criticisms above (if you want a deeper and better argued version of those criticisms I suggest this amazing paper rend the model much more flawed if we tried to apply it to the ancient world, where the resource limitation and difficulties in trade made much more easier to be trapped in a bad equilbrium, where the general ignorance made heuristics and worldviews much more important, and the limitated political participation (even in polities that were nominally democracies) made the fact that leaders were able to choose good policies much more important

      1. Oh culture definitely makes a difference. Finland is famous for very low corruption. One of their tricks is a law which makes taking bribes punishable, but *giving* bribes not punishable. Part of the reasoning is that a corrupt official is usually much more damaging than a corrupt plain citizen. And when you think about it, an official taking a bribe would live in fear, because there’s no common interest anymore. The citizen giving the bribe can afford to talk about it.

        Anyway, that particular law was introduced in some western part of Russian Federation, maybe Kaliningrad Oblast. It quickly failed. The citizens giving bribes WERE punished, even if not directly. Officials were vindictive.

  31. How does one pronounce ‘socii’? My wikipedia doesn’t even have a page for the term.

    1. Wiktionary does.

      (Classical) IPA(key): /ˈː/, [ˈs̠ɔkiː]
      (Ecclesiastical) IPA(key): /ˈso.t͡ʃi.i/, [ˈsɔːt͡ʃiː]

      I’m not 100% sure how to read those pronunciations, but I think the Classical is SOE-kee-ee and the Ecclesiastical is SOE-chee-ee.

  32. This is an amazing series and a truly important, eye-opening one.

    Definitely seconding a series on the Roman familia. Not one book I’ve ever read bothered to explain Mediterranean family structures OR property or landholding structures, and it leaves me picturing a social structure a lot like ours until some clearly alien concept has to be explained (like Roman clients.) I think I’ve pieced most of it together from implications but I really don’t know.

    1. Same here. I particularly would like to know more about the patron/client system, which I’ve never seen explained in great detail.

      1. Good suggestion. Like Feudalism clientage is a lot more complex and nuanced than it seems at first glance. Satirists’ focus on the grifters at the lowest level, which included themselves, and patrons who treated their clients contemptuously. But clientage must have involved very complex social and political networks as well as trees of client and patrons climbing upward to the heights of the imperial court. Clients had their own clients and patrons in turn had higher ranking patrons.

    2. I found A History of Private Life Vol I (Harvard University Press, 1987) to provide pretty good insight on Roman family structures. I’m no academic, so maybe the state of understanding has moved on since then, but I thought it was pretty good.

    1. Yes . . . definitely interesting. It would also be interesting to hear what our host would have to say about it.

  33. >Even there, the tax reforms of Diocletian (with some ‘patches’ under Constantine) began, for tax purposes, to tie tenant farmers (‘coloni‘) to their land, essentially barring both physical and economic mobility in the name of more efficient tax collection in a system that strongly resembled later medieval serfdom.

    Which was first – chicken, or the egg? Diocletian reforms, or medieval serfdom? I mean did Diocletian reforms inspire medieval serfdom, or Diocletian was following a trend already running at the time? Or maybe the was no cause and effect relationship at all?

    1. Serfdom is a recurring answer to a common problem – so happens in several times and places (ones I know of are late Empire, early-mid medieval Europe, east Europe from 1550s, Thailand, various times in China). The problem is that the pre-modern state cannot be maintained (ie tax extracted or an administrative class maintained) without an agricultural base. Where labour is scarce and land abundant, agricultural labourers can move outside the system – ie to land outside the state’s (landlord’s) control – whether internally or across the borders. The ‘solution’ is to tie them to the land legally – serfdom. There are some other factors at play – among them lack of alternative revenue sources and compelling military needs.

        1. No – not simple, and not perfect. But tried often enough, for long enough, that it was a workable (for the state and landlords) solution. Pre-modern farming was a communal affair, and while individuals might move easily, villages did not

          1. Modern studies of English serfdom indicate that those village communities were a lot more self directed than originally believed. Communalism also gave them a certain collective bargaining power and many landlords respected the unwritten rules set by that community for the sake of peace and regular revenues. Frankly put oppressing the peasantry took a lot more time and effort than most landlords were willing to put in. Anything for peace’ and regular rents, seems to have been the general rule. Bar the occasional sadist of course.

    2. I am just slogging through Wickam, Framing the Early Middle Ages, monstrous book that I originally bought to keep me occupied through lockdown period, and it did not disappoint. He argues that Roman equivalent of serfdom, to the extent that it existed (its prevalence is unclear) disappeared with the empire. Bulk of the peasantry were for a few centuries relatively free from aristocratic domination (with emphasis on relatively; compared to Roman period) and then they got, um, “enserfed” again later in medieval period.

      1. As I recall, that is basically what Howarth’s “1066” says about England–on the eve of the Norman conquest, the peasantry were for the most part legally free. Not that they necessarily had anywhere to go.

        1. Wickham argues quite forcefully that Anglo-Saxon peasants lost their land rights in the 8th and 9th centuries, faster even than on the continent. They did retain their personal freedom and even some degree of political participation.

  34. Very nice end to the series! These arguments complement Halsall’s, who stresses how “unnatural” it is for the non-Mediterranean draining parts of Europe to be joined in one state with the southern ones, and how this only worked because of the huge prestige of Rome in the Principate, and later because of the emperors’ personal presence in Treveris. Halsall also mentions reputedly 70000 Sarmatians reputedly settled by Constantine without any trouble, a few decades before the fated Goths.
    I don’t like Diocletian or Constantine either, but I wonder if there was an alternative way to reunite and maintain the empire at that point.

    1. Fleshing out the remark about the Sarmatians: if Constantine was able to settle and integrate 70 000 (according to the sources, which probably exaggerate) Sarmatians in the first half of the 4th century, who disappear from our later sources because apparently they blended in with the Romans, then you may be right that the Foederati system was set up a bit later under Julian.
      Halsall’s argument is that taking the Goths in needn’t have been any problem and was simply bungled due to incompetent Roman administrators, since with so many other earlier settlements, up to the Sarmatians, it hadn’t been a problem. Apparently Halsall doesn’t consider that in the meantime there had been a change in treatment. If you are right, then Julian’s makeshift solution to take the Alamanni in on the cheap very rapidly proved a disaster with the Goths.

      1. Another historian makes the point that the terms of trade shifted markedly from the early/mid empire to the later empire. Rome could dictate terms to the small tribes of the 1st to 3rd centuries. By the 4th, a combination of development and sustained Roman pressure had produced large tribal federations (Alamanni, Goths, Franks) which still wanted in – but not on the old terms. They wanted in as a group, under their own leadership, and they were strong enough to make refusal a real issue. A bunch of desperate refugees could be handled, a tribe with an army not so much.

    1. Despite seeing that Mulan song very recently, I only noticed this after your comment.

      While jokingly mulling over how this blog could cover Disney movies (“Like Rohan, the Lions and Hyenas both have militaries rooted in civilian culture. (next section) Auxiliaries: Timon and Pumbaa”) I realized you could legitimately do a post about Mulan. Steppe nomads, military training, it’s there.

  35. “the Niall Fergusons of the world”

    This feels a bit dismissive of a guy who, whatever you may think of his politics (and I don’t think much) is still probably the foremost financial historian going, even if he is conspicuously not a Roman historian.

    The Boston Globe column that your linked abstract is reacting against doesn’t strike me as brilliant, but it’s a Boston Globe column. I think the case you can make here is that historians probably shouldn’t write political columns using areas of history about which they admit to knowing little as metaphors, but I’m not sure Ferguson can be accused of having expressed an actual bad opinion about history so much as a bad opinion about politics.

  36. > (Walter Scheidel figures that, as a percentage of the world’s population at the time, the Roman Empire was the fifth largest ever, rare company indeed)

    Looking back at the addendum to the production of grain about rice, I instantly noted that the top 3 (and I think a majority of the top 10) are all from China. The extra population density rice affords makes these empires much more formidable in this metric, wow!

  37. “That archaeological data shows, with a high degree of consistency, that while there is certainly some continuity between the Late Antique and the early Middle Ages the fall of Rome (in the West) killed lots of people (precipitous declines in population in societies without reliable birth control; probably this is mostly food scarcity, not direct warfare)”

    I was under the impression that skeletal remains showed that Roman standards of living were worse.

  38. Particularly interested to see your aside on Diocletian. My casual understanding had always been that he was one of the great reforming emperors, a new Augustus who stopped the rot and ensured the preservation of the Empire. But the more I have read, even in works which tend to be pro-Diocletian in their perspective (Gibbon!) the less he seems to have really accomplished: all the systems he put in place collapsed almost immediately before he was even in the ground: none of his colleagues or successors (save possibly Galerius) really seems to have believed in the Tetrarchy, and his religious and economic efforts fared little better. Overall, his reputation seems far in excess of his results.

    A part of me is thinks that rather than Augustus, the proper comparison is really with Sulla.

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