Welcome! This is going to be the first of a new sort of post we’ll do from time to time where I answer a number of shorter questions posed by my patrons over at Patreon who are at the Patres et Matres Conscripti tier, which entitles them to a seat in the ACOUP Senate (which is apparently more like the imperial senate, given that it has a strict wealth requirement). Questions that get posed for these posts which end up being too long and complex will go back to the ACOUP Senate for a vote to determine which topics get full posts dedicated to them.
As for the title of this post type, in Latin the phrase referre ad senatum (‘to refer to the Senate’) meant that a magistrate would convene the senate and pose a question for debate (the final decision of the Senate in such debates, expressed as an up-or-down vote on a proposal, was called a senatus consultum or ‘the advice of the Senate;’ such advice was, in the Republic, non-binding – it was not a law – but nearly always followed). So these posts are Referenda ad senatum, ‘things which must be referred to the Senate’ (Latin can be a wonderfully compact language sometimes).
I do want to note at the outset that the answers to these questions aren’t quite the same as a planned and researched blog post; these are mostly off-the-cuff responses and should be taken as such.
But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
Q: Vitali asks: How did the Romans feel about the crumbling of the Republic and the emergence of the Empire? Did people in the provinces notice? What about people in Rome?
A: Note of course that we are talking about the collapse of the republic (so the first century BC) not the collapse of the empire (in the fifth eentury AD).
The Romans themselves had a lot of thoughts about the collapse of the republic. First, we should note that they were aware that something was going very wrong and we have a fair bit of evidence that at least some Romans were trying to figure out how to fix it. Sulla’s reforms (enforced at the point of a much-used sword) in 82-80 BC were an effort to fix what he saw as the progressive destabilization of the the republic going back to the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus (133). Sulla’s solutions were hamfisted though – he assumed that if he annihilated the opposing faction, crippled the tribunate and strengthened the Senate that this would resolve all of the problems. Cicero likewise considered reforms during the 50s BCE which come out in his De re publica and De legibus. The 50s were a time of political turmult in Rome while at the same time the last years of the decade must have been loomed over by the knowledge of an impending crisis to come in 49. Cicero was never in a position to enact his idealized republic.
Overall the various Romans who contemplated reform were in a way hindered by the tendency of Roman elites to think in terms of the virtue of individuals rather than the tendency of systems. You can see this very clearly in the writings of Sallust – another Roman writing with considerable concern as the republic comes apart – who places the fault on the collapse of Roman morals rather than on any systemic problem.
We also get a sense of these feelings from the literature that emerges after Augustus takes power in 31, and here there is a lot of complexity. There is quite a lot of praise for Augustus of course – it would have been profoundly unwise to do otherwise – but also quite a lot of deep discomfort with the recent past, revealed in places like Livy’s deeply morally compromised legends of the founding of Rome or the sharp moral ambiguity in the final books of Vergil’s Aeneid. On the other hand, some of the praise for Augustus seems to have been genuine. There was clearly an awful lot of exhaustion after so many years of disruption and civil war and so a general openness to Augustus’ ‘restored republic.’ Still, some Romans were clearly bothered by the collapse of the republic even much later; Lucan’s Pharsalia (65 AD) casts Pompey and Cato as heroes and views Caesar far more grimly.
We have less evidence for feeling in the provinces, but of course for many provincials, little would have changed. Few of Augustus’ changes would have done much to change much for people living in the provinces, whose taxes, laws and lives remained the same. They were clearly aware of what was going on and among the elite there was clearly a scramble to try to get on the right side of whoever was going to win; being on the wrong side of the eventual winner could be a very dangerous place to be. But for most regular provincials, the collapse of the Roman Republic only mattered if some rogue Roman general’s army happened to march through their part of the world.
Q: Dillon asks: How did living standards and technology compare between Rome and later medieval Europe?
A: This is a frequent question and obviously a full response would require several books to write, but I think I can briefly chart some outlines of what an answer would look like.
The first crucial question here is exactly when in the Middle Ages one means. There is a tendency to essentialize the European Middle Ages, often suggesting that the entire period reflected a regression from antiquity, but the medieval period is very long, stretching about a thousand years (c. 500 to c. 1500 AD). There is also the question of where one means; the trajectory of the eastern Mediterranean is much different than the western Mediterranean. I am going to assume we really mean western Europe.
While I am convinced that the evidence suggests there was a drop in living standards and some loss of technology in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, most of that drop was fairly short-lived. But exactly when development in medieval Europe meets and then exceeds the same for antiquity (typically we’re comparing the second century height of the Roman Empire) also depends on exactly what kind of measure is being used.
If the question, for instance, is agricultural productivity on a per capita basis (the most important component of per capita economic production), medieval Europe probably moves ahead of the Roman Empire fairly quickly with the introduction of better types of plow and widespread use of watermills for grinding grain. My understanding is that by c. 1000AD, watermills show up fairly frequently in things like monastic charters, suggesting they were reasonably widespread (the Romans used watermills too, though their spread was uneven) and by that point, plow technology had also moved forward, mostly through the development of plow types better suited to Europe’s climate. So as best we can tell, the farmer of c. 1000 AD had better tools than his Roman predecessors and probably had such for some time.
If the question is technology and engineering, once again what you see depends on where you look. Some technologies don’t appear to have regressed much, if at all, ironworking being one example where it seems like little to nothing was lost. On the other hand, in western Europe, the retreat in architecture is really marked and it is hard to say when you would judge the new innovations (like flying buttresses) to have equaled some of the lost ones (like concrete); certainly the great 12th/13th century Cathedrals (e.g. Notre Dame, the Duomo di Sienna and I suppose the lesser Duomo di Firenze, if we must include it) seem to me to have matched or exceeded all but perhaps the biggest Roman architectural projects. Though we have to pause here because in many cases the issue was less architectural know-how (though that was a factor) as state capacity: the smaller and more fragmented states of the European Middle Ages didn’t have the resources the Roman Empire did.
If one instead looks for urbanization and population as the measure of development, the Middle Ages looks rather worse. First and Second century Rome is probably unmatched in Europe until the very late 1700s, early 1800s, when first London (c. 1800) and Paris (c. 1835) reach a million. So one looking for matches for the large cities and magnificent municipal infrastructure of the Romans will have rather a long wait. Overall population is much more favorable as a measurement to the Middle Ages. France probably exceeds its highest Roman population (c. 9m) by or shortly after 1000AD, Italy (c. 7.5m) by probably 1200; Spain is the odd one out, with Roman Hispania (est. 7.5m) probably only matched in the early modern period. So for most of the Middle Ages you are looking at a larger population, but also a more rural one. That’s not necessarily bad though; pre-modern cities were hazardous places due to sanitation and disease; such cities had a markedly higher mortality, for instance. On the flip-side, fewer, smaller cities means less economic specialization.
So one’s answer often depends very much on what one values most. For my own part, I’d say by 1000 or 1100 we can very safely say the ‘recovery’ phase of the Middle Ages is clearly over (and I think you could make an argument for setting this point substantially earlier but not meaningfully later), though even this is somewhat deceptive because it implies that no new technological ground was being broken before then, which is not true. But the popular conception that the whole of the Middle Ages reflects a retreat from the standards of antiquity is to be discarded.
Q: Casey Larkin asks: When did you know that you wanted to study history as a career? Was there a specific event or have you always been interested in it?
A: History has always been something I’ve been interested in. I am one of those rare creatures who entered college majored in exactly the degree I walked out of the door with. The only major question I had was what sort of history I wanted to study, though the draw to Rome was always very strong (I had taken Latin in high school). When I was very young I was mostly drawn to the flashy parts of history – battles, kings, etc. As I got into college, I found myself drawn into what I’d describe as ‘imperial dynamics’ – investigating the extremely complex structures of very large states and the ways those structures shaped the lives of people who lived in those states (often for the worse). I took a wide range of coursework trying to figure out exactly which mega-state I wanted to specialize in, but Rome spoke to me the most.
In particular, from that question, Rome suggested itself because it is far more often held up as a model of ‘success’ on those terms – in expansion, encouraging provincial buy-in, improving quality of life, etc. The actual Rome doesn’t quite live up to that rose-tinted hype (it was, after all, an exploitative tributary empire), but it comes a lot closer than most historical empires. It is, after all, very rare for an empire to fall and then have its former exploited subjects spend the better part of a millennia at least trying to reinvent it. That said, that very process of trying to mobilize the memory of Rome in support of new imperial projects is part of what leads to the excessively rosey reputation Rome enjoys.
I should note I do have a post planned discussing what graduate school and getting a Ph.D in history is like, so I won’t steal my own thunder there. I will say that, while I’ve always been interested in history, actually delving into the work of history itself has changed around my interests a fair bit. Often it seems to me many history ‘buffs’ want to relive or experience history and certainly as a kid that was me, but at some point that impulse only gets one so far (because, after all, you can’t actually relive a historical moment) and one begins to seek to understand history rather than experience it vicariously. That shift fundamentally changes the kinds of questions you ask and the evidence you look at.
Q: Adam Haun asks: Zombie Apocalypse! How would ‘zombie tactics’ work against a modern-system army with NBC (Nuclear, biological, chemical protection) suits. What about logistics issues?
A: This is in a way a bit of a trick question. The core components of the modern system – cover and concealment, maneuver offensives, and the acceleration of operational tempo beyond the opponent’s ability to adapt – none of these are really applicable to a war against mostly unthinking enemies who employ only melee combat and don’t have morale or coordination to speak of. So a lot of the operational art behind the modern system wouldn’t be applicable. But the tools and training developed to make the modern system work, it seems to me, probably would. The whole reason the modern system emerged was because it became clear that no amount of concentration or élan could actually achieve offensive breakthrough against modern firepower.
That said, first we need to concede that it is certainly possible to craft a fictional zombie apocalypse so severe that this doesn’t matter. If your zombie apocalypse is the result of an airborne pathogen which is lethal in 99.99% of cases well then nothing much here is going to matter. But at that point, I should also note that the zombies are entirely incidental to the pathogen in terms of causing destruction. So here I am going to assume the classic forms of zombie transmission: either by bite or by the dead reanimating on death. If that’s the transmission method, I am actually very confident in a modern military’s ability to contain a zombie outbreak.
First, we want to dispense with ‘the soldiers fire uselessly, not realizing they need to hit the zombies in the head’ issue. Modern rifle bullets move very fast and deliver lots of energy; they do not punch a neat hole in a target, but instead create a brief, much larger cavity produced by the transfer of kinetic energy, which stretches and damages tissue around the point of impact. While zombies may lack vital organs and might not be able to bleed out, they do rely on the basic physics of muscles and bones in order to move. I suspect the world’s armies would discover fairly rapidly where they needed to shoot to actually disable a zombie target, but in the meantime, concentrated rifle fire is likely to work on isolated zombies, particularly since zombies cannot regenerate damaged tissue. It does not matter that zombies feel no pain: if their leg or arm is shot off, or their spine shattered, or their muscle-tissue is reduced to goo, being able to move is a question of physics, not determination. Moreover, because these bullets are moving fast with a lot of energy, striking an unarmored human target (that is, a zombie) is not going to stop them; clustering lots of zombies up will mean bullets or bullet-fragments exiting the first zombie and striking the next. And the next. Barbed wire would also be effective; we’ll actually talk about this in a few weeks, but a zombie whose clothing or skin is caught on the wire would be every bit as stuck as a human, giving abundant time to be shot, stabbed, etc.
For large groups of zombies, I think the issue here is that Hollywood and popular culture often don’t have a clear grasp on how lethal modern high explosive munitions are. A grenade goes off in a movie and it kills the two guys in the physical dust-cloud of the effect; an actual grenade, like the M67 fragmentation grenade is lethal in a radius of 5 meters and can produce grievous (and also potentially lethal) injuries out to 15 meters and beyond. Something like the 2000lbs Paveway III (GBU-27) is supposed to be lethal in excess of 350 meters radius around the point of impact. Now we’ve discussed before how concealed or entrenched positions can evade or endure that fire, but zombies don’t dig in – a crowd of zombies moving down a road or over a field is exceptionally vulnerable to that kind of firepower. Again, you don’t need to ‘aim for the head’ if your bomb shreds everything within two hundred yards. I am put in mind here of the ‘ineffective’ M270 MLRS barrage at the ‘Battle of Yonkers‘ in World War Z where the rockets are ineffective because the zombies are tightly packed; the actual M270 MLRS fires the M26 rocket (twelve of them) each of which deploys something like 600 (I’ve seen different numbers) cluster-bomblets, each with about the anti-personnel capability of a hand-grenade and enough punch to beat up to 4 inches of armor. There is no amount of ‘tight packing’ which is going to make that not cause head injuries to (zombie) infantry caught in the open. Bone and tissue isn’t a meaningful obstacle to the shrapnel created by those cluster-munitions, so packing in the zombies just increases the lethality of the strike. And let’s keep in mind just how long even ‘fast’ zombies would be under artillery fire; the M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer has a range of 13 miles. Assuming our zombies run at around average human sprinting speed (most athletes can sprint around 15mph) and they maintain it continuously (a thing humans cannot do) they’re still under fire for an hour. And also being handily outpaced by the cars following the speed limit in the right hand lane.
Zombie fiction often papers over this by making the zombies tremendously, inexhaustibly numerous, but again, assuming we’re working on the traditional bite-infection model, the humans merely need to achieve a modestly favorable casualty ratio in order to run the zombies out of zombies. And I think achieving that sort of a ratio wouldn’t actually be an enormous challenge. By and large, combatants with automatic weapons tend to have a considerable edge on combatants reduced to clawing and biting (two methods of attack regularly thwarted by clothing). We haven’t even gotten to things like the use of armor (by which I mean vehicles) – a tank, with the crew buttoned up, doesn’t even need to shoot to be effective, because a 50+ ton armored object moving at 30mph is weapon enough (the top road speed of the M1A2 is 42mph, so you are faster than zombie Usain Bolt). Taking the ‘Battle of Yonkers’ example again, the entire fight could have been won by simply driving the tanks up and down the highway (RIP the highway, but also the zombies). Tanks have awful gas mileage, but they have appropriately massive fuel capacity to cope; the M1A2 has 265 miles of operational range. Tanks are designed to resist hostile entry by intelligent humans with tools and potentially explosives; zombies trying to scratch in with their nails are unlikely to succeed. You might well easily drive down the highway, say 20 miles, crushing as you went, turn around and drive back and have time to refuel while the zombies (average human running speed of 5-6mph) are still running to catch you
And while we’re talking about zombie numbers – a lot of zombie fiction relies on creating great hordes of zombies that equal or exceed the populations of humans they’re derived from. But definitionally, zombie numbers are limited to the supply of living humans at the onset of the outbreak. Assuming again this isn’t some hyper-contagious airborne zombie-pathogen with extreme lethality, the zombies are not going to wildly outnumber the humans initially.
And herein we have the zombie-lethality-problem: a zombie, even a fast one, is not actually a very lethal opponent. Zombies attack with fists, finger-nails and teeth and you only get new zombies when bites actually penetrate. But biting through even fairly thin fabric is extremely difficult! Humans, unlike cats or dogs, do not have mouths and teeth designed to disable resisting prey (which is why we needed tools to do that). Our canine teeth are kind of pathetic – and penetrating thick fabric with teeth or claws is not a sure thing for animals like cats and dogs that do have developed claws and fangs. By contrast, an adult human with a good kitchen knife or a frying pan (much less a home defense firearm) is substantially more lethal! Sharp, metal things like shovels and knives can penetrate skulls just fine (much less things like machetes or weaponized entrenching tools). In the absence of mass numerical superiority that lets zombies mob down individual humans, it’s hard to see how they achieve that higher-than-1:1 casualty ratio they need to not simply fizzle out, even against civilians with improvised weapons.
Honestly, given opponents who can only attack with their teeth and fingernails, I’d go further and say that the advantage is probably held by any disciplined, iron-age or later army if the issue came to an actual battle rather than an issue of epidemic disease control. Even thick clothing – much less modern riot armor or combat armor – is likely to be extremely resistant to zombie attack unless the wearer can be pulled down and held down. The thing is, a dense mass of heavy infantry – be it modern soldiers with rifles and bayonets (a thing we still issue to troops, by the by) or just men with spears – is effectively immune to such mobbing tactics. Spanish military performance in the conquest of the Aztecs and the Inca demonstrate what happens when close-order heavy infantry are engaged by far, far larger numbers of enemies whose weapons have at best limited effectiveness against armor. By way of example, at the Battle of Vilcaconga in 1533, an Inca force of several thousand caught an ambushed a Spanish force of 300, on favorable terrain (a hillside where the Inca had the high ground), with the element of surprise, against an exhausted foe (the Spanish had marched all day)…and still lost (to be clear, it wasn’t guns that won that battle, but swords and pikes). The Inca took some 800 killed-in-action to the Spanish five. And those were clever, careful-planning, intelligent Inca, not mindless zombies; it’s also a sign as to why ‘fast zombies’ don’t actually change much here – Inca warriors were presumably every bit as fast. Again, you can propose massively oversized zombie hoards, but remember they need to achieve at least a 1-to-1 casualty ratio; getting beat 800-to-5 over and over is going to make short work of your zombie apocalypse.
(The Battle of Vilcaconga and the technological and tactical conditions that produced it, discussed in J.F. Guilmartin, “The Cutting Edge: An Analysis of the Spanish Invasion and Overthrow of the Inca Empire, 1532-1539” in K.J. Andrein and R. Adorno, Transatlantic Encounters (1991): 40-69)
So unless the initial infection is hyper-lethal, extremely fast moving and can compromise NBC equipment (but then again, why isn’t your story about super-ebola, rather than zombies), my money would be on industrialized armies and their massive firepower and failing that, on disciplined tight-order formations wearing any kind of armor (including just improvised layered textiles) and using whatever kind of sharp, metal weapons they can get. If the zombie apocalypse comes down to the zombies matching arms with still functional human militaries, the zombies are hosed.
And that’s it for this week’s deliberations. There were a lot more questions in the first round of question-asking which were very good and on my to-answer list (I’m hoping to keep a rough balance of historical questions to profession ones to fun, silly ones) so fret not if your question didn’t get answered here, we will get to it eventually.