Power is always grandiose and self-glorifying. But it is also self-destructive. It is the great error of productive people that they blindly obey power and contribute to its stupidity. Nonetheless, power always seems to hit its limits, where it rots in place and finally comes undone.
Continued from last week…
A POST-MORTEM ANALYSIS
Rome, in its own way, follows a pattern that we have seen in both ancient Mesopotamia and in the Greeks: Virtue, creation and production at the beginning, which is usurped by semi-plunderers or outright plunderers, who end up getting credit for the entire enterprise. Note that very few people know anything of the Roman Republic, but they do know the Roman Empire with Julius Caesar, Nero fiddling while Rome burns, gladiators, stadiums and mass spectacles.
Following the Dark Age of the Greeks, Rome organized itself and adopted the best virtues that they could find, from whatever source they found them. They took freely from both Etruscans and Greeks, and almost certainly from the Phoenicians as well. They made the virtues of these foreign peoples their own. This gave them useful views of reality and respect for technology. They used these in their own ways, to be sure (for example, the Romans majored in engineering rather than "pure sciences" such as physics), but they used them vigorously.
Rome, from the origin, had a very short, practical set of laws (the Twelve Tables), which aided not only in basic governance, but was also a great boon to commerce, by making it relatively safe in every place to which the Empire had extended. Even though commerce was looked down upon by the agricultural Romans, the amount of trade was immense. As Professor Lionel Casson of New York University reports:
The Roman man in the street ate bread baked with wheat grown in North Africa or Egypt, and fish that had been caught and dried near Gibraltar. He cooked with North African oil in pots and pans of copper mined in Spain, ate off dishes fired in French kilns, drank wine from Spain or France… The Roman of wealth dressed in garments of wool from Miletus or linen from Egypt; his wife wore silks from China, adorned herself with diamonds and pearls from India, and made up with cosmetics from South Arabia… He lived in a house whose walls were covered with colored marble veneer quarried in Asia Minor; his furniture was of Indian ebony or teak inlaid with African ivory…
This was the first global economy. Trade has always been surprising in its range (traders being the unsung heroes of world history), but never like this. And, along with traders came new ideas. For the first time, ideas passed from one end of the known world to the other in a relatively short period of time.
In a coastal town of northern England, there is a Roman funerary monument dedicated to a 30-year-old woman named Regina. It is dated to about 200 A.D., at the height of the Roman occupation of Britain. It tells us that she was originally a slave from a town near London, and was then freed by a man named Barates, from Palmyra in Syria, whom she then married. Barates, it should be noticed, was more than 4,000 miles from his home, and certainly conducting business of some sort. Note also that this trader was from a province and not the city of Rome or from Italy, where trade was ill-regarded.
Rome had wonderful effects for global business. Romans governed their provinces with a small bureaucracy cooperating with the local hierarchy to run the place as usual. Rome demanded its annual tax take and the right to station legions there if needed, but apart from that they imposed no monetary system, no education system, no rules and regulations and, aside from basics, no laws, either. Under the Empire, you could more or less do as you wished, so long as you paid the required taxes (generally low by modern standards) and didn't make trouble. Rome's arrival opened up the massive economic network that was the Roman Empire. The map below shows the extent of the Empire at its greatest reach in the 2nd century A.D. (You will also see from this map why the Mediterranean was sometimes referred to as a "Roman Lake.")
The Roman Empire At Its Zenith
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
But, again, early virtues gave way to later corruption. The Romans were proud of their original legal code, but lawmaking expanded endlessly, regardless of occasional attempts to cut it back. By 533 A.D., when the eastern Emperor Justinian published a Digest of Roman Law, he and his men had to condense this new work from 2,000 volumes. As one of Rome's own historians, Tacitus, says: The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates.
Likewise, Roman rulers began fairly well and ended very, very badly. The greatest example of Roman virtue was also one of the earliest: In 458 B.C., the very highly regarded Cincinnatus was happily plowing his field as Rome fell into military danger. The Senate sent messengers and called upon Cincinnatus to assume absolute power in Rome and to save the city from assault. Grudgingly, he agreed, and led a successful defense. And, as soon as the danger was past, Cincinnatus went back to the Senate, resigned as Dictator, and returned to his field. This sort of relinquishing of power was rare in the ancient world, and Cincinnatus became Rome's shining example of virtue above power.
By the time of the Empire, this virtue was utterly gone. Rome's "Five Good Emperors" were most definitely the exceptions and it is not certain that they were as exemplary as advertised.
A common example of imperial conduct is this: The unclaimed property of those who died with no will became a great source of state income, along with the property of anyone who had been condemned on a criminal charge. So when the emperor Tiberias faced a shortfall, he drummed up a charge against the richest man in Spain. Tiberias accused this man, Sextus Marius, of having committed incest with his daughter. Consequently, Marius was thrown off the Tarpeian rock in Rome, and Tiberius seized his extensive gold and copper mines.
From the start of the Empire in 27 B.C. until the end of the Western Empire in 476 A.D., there were 90 emperors. Of these nearly three in four were killed, usually by their own troops, or committed suicide. No one became or stayed emperor without blood on his hands. The terror of losing immunity upon becoming a private citizen played a part, as did the prospect of losing status and respect, however artificial respect for an emperor may have been.
One structural problem was that the Roman army was never fully removed from politics. Every emperor depended on the army's political power as well as its military power, and the army expected its kickback. At some point, the emperor's personal soldiers (the Praetorian Guard) realized that it was they who made the emperor, and not the emperor who made them. From that point on, the "idea of Rome" no longer played a significant role in the daily life of the emperor. Rome's virtues died alongside, and all that really mattered was naked power.
The details regarding the end of the Empire are illuminating:
The Roman Empire exerted authority over its provinces because it had an army ready to punish anyone who stepped out of line. This army was paid out of the taxes that the provincials raised. If you consider this for a moment, you can see that this is the same slave economy pattern, only writ very large. The Romans didn't treat the provinces especially poorly (much as they did not usually mistreat their slaves), but they did siphon off their surplus production. And, like local slave production, it had limits. Once stretched beyond those limits, the economies failed.
The empire suffered serious financial setbacks in the 3rd century A.D. (called the Crisis of the 3rd Century), after limits were reached and the structure could no longer sustain itself. Rome's hold over its distant provinces weakened. In 376 A.D., a group from the east, the Huns, attacked the peoples on the borders of the Roman Empire and chased them into the Empire proper. Rome did not have the ability to reach out any further and deal with the Huns, so the Huns continued and the western empire was flooded with terrified Germanic people. And, since these Germanic people did not share in the awe of Rome, they were not nearly as easy to rule as the provincials who were raised with it.
It must be remembered that by this time, all of the virtuous conduct and values that created the grand ideal of Rome were long absent. Many Romans, holding to this ideal as the core of their identities, were blind to the distinction. (It is a common human trait to fill in gaps with things previously accepted as true.) The Germanics, however, could see that the Roman ideal had no connection to reality, and they knew that they were at or beyond the fringes of Rome's military effectiveness. They had no willingness to obey and they were no longer afraid. Thus, they could not be ruled.
Very shortly, "barbarian"1 kingdoms formed all along the periphery of the empire, even into Italy itself. Realizing their tentative positions, the local Roman elites began colluding with these new kingdoms, against the Empire. As a consequence, tax revenue was creatively diverted and remained in the local kingdom. Without their resource supply, Rome was no longer able to raise armies and force the provinces back into obedience. Rome's borders weakened.
Roman central authority could now issue what orders it liked, but no one had any real need to obey, because they knew there would be no consequence. Rome had finally failed. In 476 A.D. the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was quietly paid to go live in Campania by the "barbarian" Odoacer, and the Empire was gone. The provinces allowed an "emperor" to remain as the titular head of the Roman Empire, but these emperors had no power, took orders from the provincial rulers and could do little but watch as, once again, centralized power slowly devolved during a long, dark age.
One thing that doomed the Romans was their fetish for stability and permanence. To the Romans, change implied failure. Romans reinforced this perspective by using the past to act as a guide to the present. This left them psychologically unable to adapt and to choose another method of economy once their agricultural, slave and plunder economy reached its limits. All else was forbidden. They had staked their very identities to the exemplum of the past. Their basic concept of organization was inalterably rooted in the ideal of the initial Roman families of a past era: reliable, solid, held together by bonds of affection, the foundation of stable society. This, of course, was tied to piety, which bonded gods and men and nourished them.
This is also why the early Christians were persecuted – they cast off these bonds, which Romans took as either a deep insult to their way of life (thus insulting all Romans, past and present) or, as a direct threat, by making the gods unhappy, or, as undermining the spirit of Rome. In this way, the Romans were no different from modern people who expect doom if proper conduct is not maintained by every person (or at least the overwhelming majority) in a society. Saying "God will judge us for our culture's immorality" is little different from what the Romans did, save that very few moderns resort to violence2.
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1In the classical era, the term meant foreigners, not bad conduct.
2In fairness to the Romans, it must be said that the number of Christians who were actually killed in Roman persecutions is far lower than is popularly thought, possibly as low as 10-20 thousand over a roughly 300-year period. Also, there is no evidence that any Christians were ever fed to lions in the Coliseum. It is certainly possible that a few died there in gladiatorial fights, but even this is speculation.
To be continued…
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