|A Europe of Regions: A Köppen-Geiger Climate Map of Europe, thanks to Wikipedia.|
Let me start by disclaiming originality in pointing out that you can draw a map of the Roman Empire off a Köppen-Geiger climate map of the continent, though I don't remember who I owe the insight too. Let's say Braudel. He's the smart guy around here, and if there's one thing you learn when you're trying to read your way into a subject well enough to put it into one of those sweeping histories that make all the money (he said naively), it's who the smart guys are. You're reading one of those edited conference proceedings, and one paper makes you think to yourself, "I could do better than that!" And the next is so luminously smart that you go green with envy, especially as you realise that the one of your clever insights into the period that's actually correct is old news to the smart people in the field, who must be very frustrated that they can't get it across to the larger public.
That's no surprise, of course. If your subject is something like Roman numismatics, and you're using your expertise in the field to reconstruct what you can of Roman fiscal policy in the context of Ancient macroeconomics as revealed by poststructural archaeology, you're going to need animations with dinosaurs and narration by Keira Knightley* with lots of funny to get people's attention.
And pirates, too.
(It turns out that the world's so big that there's even someone with a sense of humour rescoring Pirates of the Caribbean clips.)
Not to bury the lede or anything, but the smart money says that the pirate was a guy named Carausius. And, apparently, he tried to save Roman Britain by issuing good silver coins. Diocletian destroyed him, because an independent western silver standard would have meant that the Romans would have had to abandon their military adventures in Iraq.
Well, that and the fact that Carausius was a piratical usurper.
Here's where we start to see tension between sources and the ideally ordered world of our past. Wikipedia tells us that Carausius was then appointed head of the Classis Britannica, a historically-attested fleet based in the Channel associated with the so-called "Saxon Shore" forts, known as such from their association with the "Count of the Saxon Shore" attested in the late fourth/early fifth century Notatum Dignatarium.
The panegyric does not say this. What it says is that Carausius was given command of a fleet to suppress Frankish and Saxon pirates, and that he was remarkably successful at it. The Classis is ill-attested at the best of times, and all evidence of it disappears by the middle of the third century. The inference that it existed for Carausius to command in 286 is circular logic. Which is not really that big a deal. Although we might infer that Carausius was a sufficiently big wheel locally to conjure a naval militia out of thin air, we would already be led to that suspicion by the success of his rebellion in the first place. What matters (somewhat) is our understanding of what the Saxon Shore forts were, and why they were built. As anti-piracy establishments, it is a little hard to understand why they are the earliest Roman forts built to a design actually intended to stand siege (no, seriously) archaeologically attested, and why they seem to have had no interior buildings. In 1993, Cotterill argued that they were supply depots for a Roman civil war --perhaps a Carausian overseas expedition. As such, they make more sense, and the argument can be pushed to minimise the actual extent of the piracy that Carausius was appointed to control.
Then, however, per the panegyric, it was discovered that he was keeping some of the booty seized from the pirates and reselling it. Evading punishment, Carausius in 286 led a mutiny of the three legions of the British garrison and another legion in Gaul and became a "tyrant" and separatist emperor in Britain and northern Gaul, only 12 years after the suppression of the Gallic Empire by Aurelian. Finds and other attestations reveal that he controlled Rouen and Boulogne on the continent and the fact that he was not finally defeated until after a campaign against the Franks leads to the inference that the area under his control extended north into "Frankish" territory. This is identified as an island at the mouth of the Rhine, but given the geography, I, personally, would just wave at "the Maze" rather than taking it as a reference to a specific location.
The events of Carausius' transition from a subordinate to Maximian to an usurper are thus rather rushed. So my thinking, no doubt anticipated by the experts, is that the issue wasn't so much barbarian piracy as a coming-unglued of Channel trade, Two, or perhaps three years later, Maximian attempted to invade Britain and defeat Carausius, per the panegyric, and we have a brief reference in Eutropius.
"While disorder thus prevailed throughout the world, while Carausius was taking arms in Britain and Achilleus in Egypt, while the Quinquegentiani13 were harassing Africa, and Narseus14 was making war upon the east, Diocletian promoted MAXIMIAN HERCULIUS from the dignity of Caesar to that "of emperor, and created Constantius and Maximian Galerius Caesars, of whom Constantius is said to have been the grand-nephew of Claudius15 by a daughter, and Maximian Galerius to have been born in Dacia not far from Sardica.16 That he might also unite them by affinity, Constantius married Theodora the step-daughter of Herculius, by whom he had afterwards six children, brothers to Constantine; while Galerius married Valeria, the daughter of Diocletian; both being obliged to divorce the wives that they had before. With Carausius, however, as hostilities were found vain against a man eminently skilled in war, a peace was at last arranged. At the end of seven years, Allectus, one of his supporters, put him to death, and held Britain himself for three years subsequently, but was cut off by the efforts of Asclepiodotus, praefect of the praetorian guard."
This invites the usual reading between the line. Specifically, Drinkwater thinks that Eutropius is obliquely hinting that the sequence of events was consequential enough to inspire Diocletian's trip to the west, and, subsequently, to his establishment of the Tetrarchy. Carausius might be at the edge of the world, but he was not inconsequential.
So what did Carausius do that was such a big deal? The claim is that his coinage is the issue.
Carausius . . . . used coins for more sophisticated propaganda. He issued the first proper silver coins that had appeared in the Roman Empire for generations . . . . Some of these silver coins bear the legend Expectate veni, 'Come long-awaited one', recognised to allude to a line in the Aeneid by the Augustan poet Virgil, written more than 300 years previously. . . . Some of the silver coins bear the legend RSR . . . Since 1998 these letters have been recognised as representing the sixth and seventh lines of the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, which reads Redeunt Saturnia Regna, Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto, meaning 'The Golden Ages are back, now a new generation is let down from Heaven above'.
Clearly, Carausius was the traditional sort of British politician. I bet that he liked to row a boat around Oxford, too, although he probably attended fewer actual classes. (Or whatever they have in lieu of classes at Oxford. There's a guy in a funny robe who stands at a balcony and makes cutting remarks, and that's all I've got.)
More to the point is the quality of the coinage and what it meant for the Empire as a whole. Britain is a source of silver, and, to a much lesser extent, gold. As a self-sufficient government, it can have the coinage it wants. As a part of the Empire, that might not fly.
The issues here are tangled up in the uncertainties of the numismatic database, but D. M. Abad believes that he can reconstruct a monetary history of Spain (284--395) from a huge database of found bronze coinage. The details of his investigation are less interesting than the demonstration that hoards alternate with periods of rapid circulation. This is the claim that I thought was so insightful, but which, in fact, lots of people have seen before me. Hoards, or rather, a failure to recover deposits in certain periods, reflect period of monetary crisis, which were common, recurrent, and, to an extent, local, in the period. J. Banaji thinks that the takeoff of gold circulation in the East reflects the fact that the Eastern empire experienced prosperity once it went onto the gold standard, something that happened gradually and not-entirely under anyone's control during the course of the fourth century. Lo Cascio explains how monetary policy could fall out of central control by pointing out that the main issue for minting authorities must have been the need to draw metal out of hoards.
Lo Cascio singles out the Severan reforms as signalling the beginning of this concern, and, for this reason, the beginning of a nominal-value silver coinage. The third century has also long since been identified as the period in which the British everyday economy was "monetarised." Lo Cascio wants the scare quotes in order to perhaps ratchet down the importance we place on the idea of economic monetarisation, but it remains the case that in one of the most comprehensive reviews of coin loss patterns in northwestern Europe, the authors (and, not to imply that I've read more than I have, Richard Reese, summarising the work for the Journal of Roman Archaeology), find evidence for an overall coin shortage in this region. Hoard evidence suggests a peak of non-recovered hoarding in the period of the Gallic Empire, indicating an increasingly severe shortage of ready money. This is addressed by a rash of "counterfeited" bronze coinage, perhaps a local demand money that circulates throughout Northwestern Gaul and Britain. While the Constantinian regime introduces new coins of higher quality, silver content decreases over time. English authors think that there was a hiatus in bronze coinage under Constantine. Others disagree, but, whatever the cause, few coins are lost to be found in the 4th century. Per Abad's model, this is an argument for a shortage of money, but one no longer marked by local hoarding. R. P. Duncan-Jones uses what hoards have been recovered to show that gold is flowing out of the west and into the East during the fifth century, just as Howgego's more tentative tracking of Severan coins suggests a westward flow of silver coins, albeit a very slow one, presumably indicating that the major mechanism of transfer was intermittent: returning soldiers, in short.
We probably shouldn't go all in for the idea that Roman coinage and its circulation patterns were all about money. Nor does the British crisis of the third century lead in direct trajectory to the collapse of the fifth. On the contrary, while Roman-British cities decline in the fourth century, the villa evidence is usually used to indicate widespread rural prosperity in the first half of the fourth century, followed by signs of early crisis in the latter half, including a recurrence of (silver) hoarding, this time including clipped coins and even plate.
Michael Fulford theorises that we're seeing the evidence of the commercial power of the Roman capital at Trier. This is what we expect of a "pre-modern" capital city in a general way (insert your favourite donnish, waspy comment about Bourbon Naples here), and I suppose that our eyes are supposed to be led, via Carausius and a comment about Julian having grain brought over from Britain to meet famine along the Rhine, to the Maze.
Yeah, not buying it. Sure, Fulford can plausibly argue that much of the long-range overland trade of the Principate made little sense except in terms of imperial subsidies. And given sufficient determination to subsidise, one can imagine bulky British goods reaching the Rhineland in preference to local supplies. The crazy part here is the choice of route. I mean, sure, water transport is cheaper than land transport --given infrastructure. But we have no evidence of a Roman presence along the lower Rhine sufficiently embedded in the landscape to dredge out sand bars and maintain towpaths. What we do have is patterns of coin finds and road and fortress excavations in a continuous band from the Pas de Calais to the Moselle.
There is no freaking way that grain, or anything else that had to be carried, was brought from Britain to Trier overland through Belgium in sufficient quantities and routinely enough to support a half-century-long boom in rural building in Britain. Military horses are, of course, entirely another matter. Horses that would have, one assumes, carried men and their bullion out of the West on a regular basis.
Lo Cascio is sure that there are no financial instruments equivalent to cash in the Roman Empire. I'm not quite as confident, given social embeddedness. That being said, when credit is purely social credit, I assume that it is located at the core of social relations embodying credit in its larger senses of truth, honour and faith. The religious transformation of the Roman Empire with the coming of Christianity, not to mention Diocletian and Constantine's habit of looting the temples, would have had a serious impact on anyone trying to save wealth in any form but (bullion) coins.
So the argument, and stop me if you've heard this one, is that the existence of the Empire that drew on British resources was in itself sufficient condition of undermining social hierarchy in Roman Britain. The crisis, although a long time building, has two causes. First, there is the inability of the Roman mints to defend the silver standard in the West. (Which presumably reflects the lower standard of living there? Maybe?)
The alternative, of course, would be a made-in-Britain coinage policy. One that would, presumably, pay for raw silver with high-quality silver coins. This policy, if I'm not mistaken, would draw silver to Britain, and out of the Empire. No wonder, then, that Diocletian acted to bring it to an end.
Second, there is the crisis in Iraq. The recurrent expeditions to the east undertaken during the civil wars at the fall of the Tetrarchy and during the wars of Constantine's sons would have drawn bullion out of the West, presumably in large part as "barbarous" jewelry worn by cavalry auxiliaries. However, it would have recirculated back to the west with discharged veterans. Julian's decision to take a western army to Iraq and, more importantly, lose it, clears the drains through which the West's remaining bullion can flow eastward. The Empire in the west, having lasted three centuries, will collapse fully before another fifty years are out.
This is the context of the "ethnogenesis" understanding of the end of the Empire and the rise of the barbarian kingdoms, and, before it, the oldest idea of the barbarian conquest and feudalisation. The late-Roman armies in the west are militarily indispensable in the East, but are also non-monetarised because there is no money to be had to mobilise them. Taxation, and paid armies, are (partly) replaced by feudal armies, and the very root of "feudal" in the idea of the "Emperor's federates" shows why the armies had to embrace barbarian identity precisely to preserve the Latin Empire.
What we're still not understanding is the total collapse in England. This is not caused by the retreat of the Empire. On the contrary, city life, never mind social hierarchy, is perfectly capable of surviving the retreat of empire, as it did in Morocco. It strikes me as much more plausible that what happened in England was a complete retreat into illegibility of the kind documented in remotest Zomia, as people abandon the language, religion and names with which an intolerable social control is imposed. Indeed, the fact that such a thing did eventually happen in the Maghreb, and in the Middle East, and, perhaps, in Spain in Italy, each at its own time, suggests that we're looking at a social mechanic, and that the barbarian/Islamic invasions are best contributory, at worst scapegoats.
Since most of us are not primitive romanticists like Scott, we might well ask why people were willing to retreat from Roman social order into the unlikely-to-be-much-more-humane world of emergent feudalism. The answer would seem to be that the reality of an utter, complete, unremediated monetary collapse was even worse.
And this concludes today's adventure in "historians finding dubious parallels to current events in ancient history."
*This is to speak in general and to go with the pirates theme. If you're going to make it to please me personally, I'll take Grace Park kthnxbai.
**"[S]imple farmers sought military garb; the plowman imitated the infantryman, the shepherd the cavalryman, the rustic harvester of his own crops the barbarian enemy" says the 286 Panegyric of Maximian. That's what we have, and now you can make your own theory! Just to help out, here's Google's top search item for "Bagaudae Bakhtin." This one looks smart instead of crazy.