the sun

there’s nothing new under it, is there?

just reading Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World which picks up at the end of the roman empire, and boy does a lot of this sound awfully familiar! the scenario is not exactly the same as what we’ve got today, but a lot of the elements certainly seem to be — electing a new people, debasing the currency, robbing peter to pay paul (i.e. increasing taxes to pay off one’s pals), a general lack of foresight on behalf of so-called leaders. fascinating, but a bit depressing to see the same sorts of behavioral patterns being repeated over and over again. maybe time really is a flat circle. =/ kindle locations 234-263, 278-289:

“Political power within the Empire had long been a juggling act in which participated the senate, the army, and of course the emperor, but all three institutions up to the death of Commodus in 192 had been largely Italian. Over half of the senators were from Italy, and the remainder were, with few exceptions, drawn from the most strongly Latinized provinces-Spain, Africa, and Gallia Narbonensis. Moreover, since they had to invest a considerable amount of their wealth in Italian land, were required to attend meetings regularly in Rome, needed permission to travel outside of Italy, and tended to intermarry extensively, senatorial families of provincial origin rapidly became Italian, just as at a lower level of society, military families were becoming provincial. This senate owed its importance to constitutional, economic, and social factors. First, the constitutional tradition obliged an emperor to select senators to command all of his legions except the one in Egypt, to govern major frontier provinces, and to command the armies. Second, while the senate possessed a strong hereditary nucleus, it was in every generation open to a certain number of candidates who, along with the old established senatorial families, controlled enormous wealth, principally in land. This was especially true in the West, where even in times of crisis the poverty of the imperial treasury often contrasted with the private wealth of individual senators. Finally, through their networks based on political dependents and landholding throughout the Roman world, the influence of senators reached into every corner of the Empire. When provoked, the senate could be a formidable opponent to even the most ambitious emperor.

“Prior to the third century, the military power on which rested imperial control was still primarily found in the Praetorian Guard, that elite body of approximately 10,000 soldiers who served (and sometimes selected or eliminated) the emperor and his household. They were required to be Roman citizens, and, like the senators, were, until the end of the second century, largely drawn from Italy. Thus they too maintained the centrist Latin character of the Empire.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the emperors had all come from Italian families of senatorial rank. Whatever the differences between emperor, senate, and army-bitter, bloody, and brutal as they often were-these conflicts had been among parties that shared major cultural, social, and political values.

“With the reign of Septimus Severus (193-211) [who was only half roman-h.chick], the commander of the Danube army who was proclaimed emperor by his troops, began an important new phase of Roman history. The defenders of the provinces, and particularly those of the West, now came into their own as control of the Empire passed into the hands of those who had saved it — the frontier armies and their commanders. From the perspective of the old Italian senatorial aristocracy and the inhabitants of more settled and civilized areas, this was a period of disaster and crisis. A succession of provincial military commanders, often openly scornful of the senate, were raised to the purple by their armies, fought each other for hegemony, and were usually assassinated for their efforts when they proved incapable either of bringing victory against internal and external foes or of sufficiently enriching their supporters. The senate’s attempts to control the selection of the emperor was constantly thwarted by the tendency of the provincial armies to view succession as hereditary, particularly when the new emperor had come from the military. However, from the perspective of those in the frontier and particularly from Pannonia, it was a golden age. The Western legions had demonstrated their strength and their vitality, and as the Severans sought to consolidate their position they looked to the personnel and the models of their border armies for support.

“Initially Severus himself was willing to work with the senate of which he had been a member, but senatorial opposition led him to rely on the provincial army, which he and his successors rewarded with considerable pay increases, donatives or special bonuses, and the right to marry. The added expenses of this military largesse were financed through the liquidation of the vast wealth he confiscated from the senatorial opposition. His son, known to posterity by his military nickname Caracalla, expanded his father’s promilitary policy, raising soldiers’ pay by 50 percent. To finance this he resorted to two measures. First, as his father had done earlier, he debased the denarius, the silver coin used to pay the troops; within a few decades, this led to the total collapse of imperial coinage. Second, he doubled the traditional 5 percent inheritance tax paid by all Roman citizens, and, to expand the base of this tax, made all free inhabitants of the Empire Roman citizens. This latter measure acknowledged a largely de facto situation, since the distinction between citizen and foreigner no longer had much real significance. However it did strengthen the relative position of provincials in the Empire who, henceforth, from Britain to Arabia, looked upon themselves as Romans with the same rights and possibilities as Italians. These measures, like the increase of military pay, tended to strengthen the position of those peoples on the periphery of the Empire at the expense of those at the center, and those in a position to benefit most from these changes were soldiers and veterans….

“These crises, which led to an even more expanded role for the military, had ironically been caused by it. Because the Severans could never trust the senate to support them, they were forced to find ways to circumvent the role of the senate in commanding the military and to constantly augment the army salary to maintain its good will. This was financed by still more confiscations of senatorial property for real or imagined plots and by drastic devaluation of the silver coinage. This naturally further alienated the senate and brought about enormous problems in the financial stability of the Empire. Exacerbating all this was the fact that the provincial armies, having gotten a taste of their power as emperor-makers, set about it with tremendous vigor, assassinating emperors and raising others at a great rate. Between the death of Severus Alexander (235) and the ascension of Diocletian (284), there were at least twenty more or less legitimate emperors and innumerable pretenders, usurpers, and coregents. The longest reign during this period was that of a pretender, Postumus, who established himself as ruler of Gaul, Britain, Spain, and at times parts of northern Italy for nine years.

“The restoration of order by Diocletian solidified the increasing role of the military. Although credited with having separated civil and military administrations, under him and his successors the civil service was reorganized along military lines, hardly a surprising development given that during the third and fourth centuries the route to high office normally meant military service. Thus many ambitious civil servants either rose primarily through the military or spent some time in it. By the beginning of the fourth century, military organization and structure, along with the soldier’s cultural and political values, had become the primary model along which Roman society was ordered. But these soldiers were no longer the Italian peasants of an earlier age-increasingly they were the very barbarians they were enlisted to oppose.

which reminds me of a passage from another (very politically correct) book — Rome and its Frontiers: The Dynamics of Empire — that i quoted in a comment a while back [pgs. 205-212]:

“[I]n the later Roman Empire frontiers became softer and immigration control more lax at the same time as citizenship and ethnic distinctions within the Empire were becoming blurred. The universal grant of citizenship by the Constitutio Antoniniana of 212 AD was only a formal recognition by the state of a long process that had diminished the concept of citizenship and eroded the distinction between cives and peregrini in the provinces. By the fourth century status and wealth counted for more socially and legally than citizenship….

“To sum up, far from the homogenization of what the Constitutio Antoniniana called the patria communis, that is, the population of the Roman community, internal, social divisions became stronger. Ironically, however, the refinements of status distinctions and social divisions served as a more effective vehicle than any legal measure to allow immigrants to integrate at all levels. What mattered was not whether you were a citizen but whether you could attain equal social or economic status. In this respect, the Roman Empire of the fourth century was the reverse image of the nation-state in the nineteenth century. The juridical personality of the citizen was almost eliminated as frontier controls relaxed and as immigrants were accomodated in ever greater numbers….

“Immigrants provided substitutes for rural recruits, thus leaving agricultural workers on the land to increase state revenue, since they increased the capitation tax and added extra income through the system of adaeratio, which bought them exemption from the military levy. There clearly were concerns in the imperial chancellery for the tax regime and for the rents from imperial estates, which was reflected in contemporary legislation….

“These fiscal and economic benefits to rural production coincide with the concern expressed by the Gallic panegyricists about agri deserti and high taxes, and hence their praise for ‘so many farmers in the Roman countryside’, both as immigrants and as returning prisoners…. The essential point, however, is that…immigrants were officially perceived as good for the economy by bringing down the price of food and by servicing local markets through increased production.

“Whether the peasants of the Gallic countryside felt the same pleasure at the fall in market prices is another matter, and it may have provoked resentment. If modern experience is any guide, there is a sharp difference between economists, who calculate that immigrants are essential to economic growth, and popular opinion, which always believes that immigrants are undesirable because they depress the labor market. But there is no evidence to show that there was institutional, social discrimination against foreign-born workers, once settled inside the Roman Empire….”

(note: comments do not require an email. what have the romans ever done for us?!)



  1. The Roman Republican and very early empire were an Italian affair. The middle and late Empire were an international affair. I think it was Bury who noted that empires, while good sometimes for the provincials, tend to destroy the host population that made the empire possible in the first place. One certainly sees this with the Romans. Or a more recent example: the displacement of America’s old WASP elite.

    Interestingly, the Merovingians still spoke a Germanic dialect, not Gallo-Romance. What’s also interesting is that when the Lombards took over N. Italy, many of the towns were allegedly nearly empty (devastated by both plague and war).

    Just some random thoughts…


  2. “Spain, Africa, and Gallia Narbonensis” is an odd list. The last is just the Latin name for the province, offered without help as to its whereabouts to the modern speaker of English. The first is more useful, since “Spain” is a modern country that approximates, albeit roughly, to the Roman Hispania. But the middle one is a bonkers choice: it’s the Roman term, but completely misleading for the modern English speaker since it refers to, essentially, Tunisia.

    In other words, if you use “Africa” you should use “Hispania”. If you use “Spain” you should use “Tunisia”. If you use Spain and Tunisia you should use, I suggest, Provence, or even just The South of France.


  3. The parallels are indeed uncomfortable, but I’d be wary of extrapolating further. The population replacements, currency debasement and military-industrial complex of Rome were symptoms of Rome’s sickness, not the cause. Its sickness was overextension – the provinces simply didn’t pay for themselves after they had looted all of the accumulated wealth of the states they conquered. Egypt and to a lesser degree Anatolia were the only bits of the empire that ran a surplus, and as the bureaucracy expanded and taxes rose, the empire entered a death spiral from which it could never recover. The locals wanted more autonomy, to which Rome responded by extending more bureaucratic tentacles with which to strangle the provinces, which sucked up more tax revenue and made resentment even worse. From the point of view of your average peasant, collapse was preferable!

    How much does this apply to the USA? Well, Americans do have a bureaucracy that grows like Japanese knotweed, and may be considered “overextended” in the sense that every military adventure catalyses the next 3, it can still pull back if it wishes. If the Americans cut the military budget, there’ll be a loss of international prestige and whoever was behind it will face mass domestic shame. They’ll probably even lose some client states. If the Roman Emperor cut back on military funding there’d be a coup and some provincial general would try to form his own breakaway state. If the Americans cut down on the bureaucracy it’ll greatly annoy the rent-seeking sector of the economy. If the Romans cut down on bureaucracy they’d basically be giving away territory.

    Productivity and wealth is high enough in America that Americans can potentially, grudgingly, support a state that grows to an arbitrary size. For the Romans, the state growing meant less calories full stop.


  4. You must read Gibbon. Also look into complexity of systems failure for a theory on Roman collapse. Just the energy and cost to maintqin became too much. Plus Rome’s economy was based on plunder, and they had plundered all they could.


  5. Here is “austrian” economic explanation of the fall of Rome:

    In contrast the the Byzantine empire had a very strict rule about not debasing their currency which was accepted all over the world(the sign of prudent management and a good currency). This made the empire wealthy:

    “In Marco Polo’s great book of travels, he talks about a coin called the bezant circulating in Kublai Khan’s Mongol Chinese empire. The emperor, like the vast majority of politicians, found the lure of paper money irresistible. In his case, however, it was money printed on pieces of mulberry tree bark. The same disastrous effects, seen everywhere else in history, followed. Prices increased, and the gold bezant took on increasing importance for the people as the government debauched the irredeemable fiat currency. Abuse of paper money helped lead, notes Antony Sutton, to the expulsion of the Mongol dynasty from China. Government demands that the people accept printed mulberry bark as equivalent to metallic money had no effect.

    The bezant, however, was minted not by the Chinese, but by the Byzantine Empire. For ten centuries Byzantine coins were accepted all over the world, and Byzantium dominated trade for thousands of miles in every direction from Constantinople. Even the royal accounts of medieval England, says Dr. Sutton, were kept in bezants. The Byzantine Empire only declined when it debased the bezant, adding more cheap alloys and removing gold.”

    Debasement is the sign of decline of a state. Whereever you have debasing you have degeneracy but why does this happen in the first place?

    Argentina was an economic powerhouse in the last 19th century, as hard as that is to believe today. They were among the top 5 richest countries in the world. But by the 30’s they were already on the road to the state we know today. This is a bit of a mystery but examining the likes of Argentina from our time might give us a clue how other great nations could fall so quickly.


  6. “there’s nothing new under it, is there?”

    An almost true statement. The only exception I can think of is modern technology and the capital it embodies, starting, I guess, with the steam engine. But then to that list I guess we should add (thanks to hbd*chick!) outbreeding and the things that follow in its train, including individualism, the rule of law, rational reason, science, democracy, human righys, and . . . lo and behold, capitalism, modern technology and the capital it embodies.

    So it all comes down to a new form of the family, I guess?


  7. “The Byzantine Empire only declined when it debased the bezant”: which was cause, which effect?

    Be that as it may, that was a fascinating comment Revyen.


  8. Was there an official state ideology/religion celebrating the dispossession of the Romans
    who (after all) deserved it for all their past evil deeds? Early Christianity played that role to some extent.


  9. @ckp – “The population replacements, currency debasement and military-industrial complex of Rome were symptoms of Rome’s sickness, not the cause. Its sickness was overextension….”

    eh, i agree with the overextension, but i think the population replacement must’ve been of paramount importance, too. why should the barbaians be able — let alone want — to run roman society the way romans had arranged it? they likely would’ve had very different thoughts and feelings as to how society ought to be run.


  10. @sobl – “You must read Gibbon.”

    i read some of gibbon in college, but to be honest, it didn’t mean much to me then. i should read his history again — in its entirety this time.

    @sobl – “Plus Rome’s economy was based on plunder, and they had plundered all they could.”

    probably very important, yes.


  11. @fnn – ” Early Christianity played that role to some extent.”

    heh. yeah, that was my first thought as i was reading your question. certainly early christianity welcomed in everybody with a universalistic attitude that seems awfully familiar….


  12. I agree with currency debasement as the technical cause. The next question is why was it debased? The answer to that would be over-extension imo – a republic with critical advantages over its neighbors turns into an empire and expands as far as it profitable to do so but that profitability includes a one-off first looting bonus e.g. the operating profit from Gaul included n gold mines but it also included the one-off bonus of all the collected product of those gold mines from previous centuries. So empires will always tend to expand past the point of profitability to the point where they are making an operating loss and start needing to debase their currency to pay the bills.

    (The same need drives the deliberate lowering of labor costs which is equally counter-productive.)

    So I think the America – Rome analogy is exact pretty much. The solution – if there is one – would then be to contract the empire to a profitable core and build a wall.

    I assume that would be the cause of Byzantium’s longevity? They had a defendable, profitable core for a long time?


  13. @Grey
    The solution – if there is one – would then be to contract the empire to a profitable core and build a wall.

    I assume that would be the cause of Byzantium’s longevity? They had a defendable, profitable core for a long time?

    “The Varangian Guard (Greek: Τάγμα των Βαράγγων, Tágma tōn Varángōn) was an elite unit of the Byzantine Army, from the 9th to the 14th centuries, whose members served as personal bodyguards of the Byzantine Emperors. They are known for being primarily composed of Germanic peoples, specifically, Scandinavians (the Guard was formed approximately 200 years into the Viking age) and Anglo-Saxons from England (particularly after the Norman Invasion).”

    and I think, the Norman crusaders defeated the anglosaxons a second time when Constantinople fell!


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