Gene Expression

Historical perspective

I’m reading The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather. Most people know I’m a classical history buff (e.g., I’ve read a fair number of the late Michael Grant’s works). Now, one thing that always strikes is this: 2,000 years ago a political organization existed which stretched from Scotland to Iraq, from Hungary to Morocco. How wild is that?


  1. #1 Rich
    December 24, 2006

    Great book, isn’t it?

    It’s even more wild when you think that there were Roman trading outposts in India, that Roman coin caches have been found in Malaysia, and that there’s a strong possibility that the Romans and Chinese exchanged ambassadors.

  2. #2 Axolotl
    December 24, 2006

    It’s not so wild when you consider that the Romans rarely considered negotiation with the enemy or “realism.” Diplomacy with nations in reach of the army involved little more than demanding protection money (tributes). When you brutally squash all outside political groups with the best army around, you can have jurisdiction over whatever you wish.

  3. #3 Borat
    December 24, 2006

    I believe it was more easy to manage considering the world population at the time was much much smaller. I also realize that communication was much less effective than today, however having areas of Europe that were barely populated at the time was adventageous to holding the territory.

  4. #4 Rich
    December 24, 2006

    Maybe that’s true of some cartoon version of Roman history but it’s not true of the real one. Even Roman relations with the peoples across the Rhine and Danube frontiers during the Principate and Dominate was considerably more subtle than that caricature, with substantial use of subsidies for friendly tribes called foederati (from feodus, “treaty”, hence our “federation”) as well as punitive expeditions against hostile ones, and considerable amounts of trade channeled through frontier posts.

    When it comes to the more civilised parts of the Mediterranean world it’s an even less accurate description. The Romans, at least until the later phase of the Republic, expanded considerably more slowly than they might have done and generally only annexed territory as provinces when it was necessary to secure Italy itself. Even Italy was, as late as the first century BC, not a Roman province but a network of theoretically independent allies (socii) bound to Rome by treaties.

    During the last decades of the Republic this changed as military conquest became the main method used by ambitious men of the senatorial class to gain prestige, but even then (and later) there was a collection of client states beyond the frontiers of the Empire proper.

  5. #5 Axolotl
    December 25, 2006

    There’s still brutality behind all that. Expansion may have happened slowly with each new threat, but the fact that they could just take a territory when necessary and hold it until the fall points right back to the effectiveness of their military (and the ruthlessness of their military strategy). Client states were always under threat from the Romans, and paid tribute to prove their loyalty in exchange for Roman protection. The client states were usually absorbed within a few generations, and were pretty much controlled by the Romans in the meantime. Augustus had numerous hostages from supposed allied client kingdoms living in his house.

    My point was that, once taken, the Romans held onto provinces by wiping out any opposition.

  6. #6 razib
    December 25, 2006

    My point was that, once taken, the Romans held onto provinces by wiping out any opposition.

    you made the romans sound rather like nazis though. that’s not really fair. wiping out opposition is normal for most states (or co-opting them).

  7. #7 Rich
    December 25, 2006

    I thought that Axolotl’s description made the Romans sound rather like Assyrians.

  8. #8 John Emerson
    December 25, 2006

    I am really changing the subject (apples and oranges), but here are some other interesting long-range networks which were not completely politically controlled (except under the Mongols):

    The Norse world in about 1066 reached from Newfoundland to Constantinople and Sicily, and the Norse raided as far as Baku. The Mongol Empire around 1300 reached from Vietnam to Korea to Hungary to Baghdad.

    I don’t know if the Madagascar Malays maintained contact with Malaya and Indonesia, and I believe that the Polynesians only had intermittent contact with their Filipino and Malay relatives — the Easter Islanders were completely isolated. But the Malayo-Polynsian world was enormous in space.

    The Turks spread from far NE Siberia to Greece and Russia.

    The Eskimos, with a fairly uniform culture, stretched from Siberia to Greenland. In the high latitudes distances are exaggerated on maps, though.

    All these extended networks came into existence during the Christian era.

  9. #9 razib
    December 25, 2006

    re: Assyrians, history is written by the conquerors….

  10. #10 Rich
    December 25, 2006

    Do you mean that the Assyrians have been misrepresented by the Babylonians and Medes who overthrew their empire? I don’t think this is the case as historical records from both inside and outside the Assyrian Empire show it to have been an intensely militarised and more than usually ruthless state, prone to deporting entire populations and ruling largely through terror. I think the Neo-Assyrian kings were rather proud of how widely they were feared.

  11. #11 razib
    December 25, 2006

    I don’t think this is the case as historical records from both inside and outside the Assyrian Empire show it to have been an intensely militarised and more than usually ruthless state, prone to deporting entire populations and ruling largely through terror. I think the Neo-Assyrian kings were rather proud of how widely they were feared.

    the deporations were real. nevertheless, i think moderns might overinterpret how totalitarian the assyrians were. i am not totally sure that ancient empire could engage in ‘reigns of terror’ because of the logistics. yes, mass slaughters and genocides, but the assyrian state is often depicted, to my mind, in a manner which is conditioned by post-french revolutionary experiences with authoritarian states.

  12. #12 Caledonian
    December 25, 2006

    “Oppressed” peoples often had reasons to exaggerate the barbarity of the civilizations that oppressed them. Consider the first destruction of Jerusalem – the Babylonians are presented as cruel tyrants in the Old Testament, but they treated subject peoples rather generously for the time. Particularly since they permitted ritual adherence to continue and scriptures to be maintained. The fact that the ancient Jews were able to complain in a medium which survived testifies to that.

    Truly oppressed people often didn’t leave any survivors to complain, much less historical records.

  13. #13 Rich
    December 25, 2006

    No, the use of terror during the Neo-Assyrian period was certainly nothing like that of the Committee of Public Safety or the use of fear within modern totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. However, I think the later Assyrians were much more willing than the Romans to openly use their military power to subjugate other peoples, and much more dependent on their army as an instrument of internal social control. While it’s true that all empires ultimately depend on military force, most of the successful ones have a much more balanced policy than the Neo-Assyrians. The kings of the Middle Assyrian period, for example, appear to have done.

    If we go back to talking about the Romans, then it’s clear that the great strength of their empire wasn’t their undeniably efficient army but their ability to make other peoples and, especially, their elites buy into the imperial system. Indeed, many cities retained their native institutions for the whole period of the Principate. It was only the massive reorganisation and expansion of the bureaucracy (in the service of the equally expanded military) during the early Dominate that caused the withering of these autonomous local systems by channeling talented people directly into the imperial service. By that time the distinction between Romans and their subject populations had been almost entirely erased, which was not something that ever happened in Assyria.

    I think that it was this ability to align the interests of the conquered people with the interests of the Roman state that gave the Empire its great resilience and reserves of stength and endurance sufficient to weather the crises of the third and (more or less…) fifth centuires. In contrast, as soon as the Assyrian Empire faced a serious crisis its economic and military reserves were rapidly depleted and the whole awesome edifice rapidly crumbled: in 627BC Assyria was a mighty power feared through the Near East but by 612BC it had been entirely swept away.

  14. #14 razib
    December 25, 2006

    good points rich! re: local elites, my understanding is that greek cities and their ruling classes were pretty robust and insulated for much of the classical roman period. i think it is a testament of the longevity of this alternative ‘non-roman’ channel for elite service that the first native greek speaking emperor didn’t show up until late in th 5th century (anastasius).

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