Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, V: So What Are Your Options If You're Not?

When last we left this series, I was playing footsie with the Third Century Crisis. What the heck happened?

Well, first off, Hollywood blames itself.

When last I left this series, I was playing footsie with the Third Century Crisis. What the heck happened? Can we put economics in the drivers' seat, make all the trouble a response to bad times? So it has been argued. People so argue: in a 2009 exchange in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, Walter Scheidel puts the case for a gradual abatement between 0 and 180AD, arguing that we are seeing Malthusian limits to growth. According to this, the Golden Age was in distinct recession by the time that Marcus Aurelius came along, and his problems with the Marcomanni must have been Very Serious Indeed. [1]
Andrew Wilson, in reply, deconstructs the proxies, showing  them to be much weaker than, for example, Ian Morris would suppose. If we have a consistent trend line of economic growth, then the economic crisis preceding the political one is some kind of economic shock. As often, the Antonine Plague is waved at, but, as with other current historians, Wilson is cautious about putting too much weight on plague as an explanatory mechanism.
He then offers a more complicated argument. I) There is evidence for declining bullion production under Commodus, which is best accounted for by labour problems at the mines. II) Severus increases pay to the army massively, perhaps paying for it by reducing civil-sector spending, mainly on buildings. (Cue vicious argument amongst classicists on the adequacy or not of current databases of building dedication inscriptions.)  However, the only way that the Roman budget can pay for the Severan pay increases is through ‘invisible’ economic growth, i.e. factor productivity growth. Wilson asks, rhetorically, as Classicists are wont to do, whether the 1000 water mills attested in the England of the Domesday Book makes the England of 1000AD “more advanced” than the Roman Empire. Of course not, he answers! Therefore, there must have been an invisible spread of water power, or something like that, during the golden age of the Five Good Emperors.[2]
So if the proxies are weak, is there a better story? Wilson notes almost parenthetically, the proxies that he has himself developed suggest a localised and centrifugal growth story. That is, if the Roman Empire was broken up into many ill-coordinated economic regions, and that seems to have been the case, why expect economic trends to be empire-wide? This is dangerously plausible. But hold on for a moment. What is it about Anglo-Saxon England that makes us think that it just can’t be more advanced than ancient Rome –especially once all the available proxies have been weighted to their empirical strength? 

Oh, sure, this

to this

From these guys.
But then I've been arguing that the issue in temperate Europe wasn't agricultural productivity, but storage technology. To live, overall, well, in temperate Europe, it was necessary to live through the late winter/early spring at all. That meant storing food, and good food, for a very long time. The advantage of the climate was that it stayed pretty cold; the disadvantage was that it got pretty wet. So suspended wooden flooring is a huge deal. It's not the world's biggest invention or anything, but the development of a depth of everyday carpentry practice sufficient to make it a normal resort is a huge story. The question is, how did it happen? I was willing to buy the proxy stuff, but now I'm thrown into doubt. I still think we need to look to the Third Century. Now I've got a new guru, who wants to take a political look at the Third Century Crisis. His argument, and what it seems to account for, below the break.

 It's another of those great survey volumes that modern British educational policy has extracted elicited  from leading British academics: David S.Potter’s Roman Empire at Bay: AD-180-395. In spite of being a 2004 imprint, this is a distinctly old-fashioned looking rounded spline-book. The facts and (mostly --I see some positions that I'm elsewhere advised are ill-judged here and there) judicious interpretations are bulging out

For Potter, two centuries of Rome boil down into a blind rush into the future. This is a state that just doesn’t quite get it. It doesn’t have a working civil service or system of local government. The institution that it does depend on for local power, the city-republic, doesn’t even exist in half the Empire, perhaps not coincidentally, Europa settentrionale,* the half where it would “fall.” Perhaps most controversially to a lay, if not professional audience, I can say after my weeks of survey reading, it has an army that doesn’t work very well, a somewhat critical issue when people try to use it.
So Potter starts at the centre, with Commodus’ accession. An eighteen year-old is in charge of the state. As we all know, the accession of a minor, or near-minor, is a perilous moment for the state. That being said, there’s a tendency to blame the minor. I, personally, would rather freeze the camera lens on the moment when a man who was virtually his uncle stepped into his box at the Arena, and paused to gloat before stabbing him to death. Was he smart enough to realise that he would now have to watch all of his friends and former friends be killed before going down himself?

How did it come to this, that struggles within the regency apparatus turned into attacks on the figurehead emperor? From, Potter argues, from deep dysfunction. Senatorial, equestrian, and palace bureaucracies were separate institutions with overlapping powers, and all three were tempted to draw in the Praetorian Guard. The upshot was the usurpation of Septimius Severus, who doubled the army’s pay on his accession. Setting dubious evidence for an Egyptian inflation aside, Potter thinks that this is best explained politically. Severus had no idea how to reconcile the three bureaucracies, so pretty much had to have the army. Going forward, Potter explains the decline in Roman (mostly silver) money over the next century in terms of the financial exigencies imposed by the Severan wage concession, but joins recent authors such as Konraed Verboeven in rejecting the idea that it must have led to inflation. Verboeven notes that the Roman economy did not function at a high enough level above subsistence for there to be inflation. (Just for laughs, check this here inflationmonger's reading comprehension by checking out what Verboeven actually has to say.) Potter observes that the Roman monetary system was effectively a gold standard anyway. Silver coins, however bad their quality, could always be exchanged for gold coins, which maintained their purity, if not their metrology. As Verboeven observes, although god was only about 6% of issue by number of coins, the gold coinage account for about two-thirds of circulating value. Things certainly changed, under Aurelian, but the nature of that change remains to be investigated. (Verboeven thinks that it was a massive revaluation that wiped out fortunes held in silver and bronze while sparing gold holdings. Potter, in one of his perhaps ill-judged conclusions, thinks it incoherent vandalism, although he does not differ on the main result, which is to push the Empire further towards a pure gold currency, perhaps even threatening to demonetarise the everyday economy, at least in the west.)

So the Severan regime is to be recast as one with no solid theory of governance apart from keeping the army happy. Perhaps no wonder, then, that Severus stayed in the Near East so long, provoking a war with Parthia in part to keep him there, and left for Britain fairly soon after he returned to Rome, time out for some a major purge of former supporters aside. Severus’ death inaugurated a 24 year period of basically minor rule, stabilised by the female members of the family, so that the major political episodes should probably be understood as the death of Caracalla’s mother, Julia Domna, in the same Parthian front mutiny that took the Emperor’s life, and that of her niece in the German mutiny that took the life of Alexander Severus. There followed the three year reign of Maximinius, notable not least for an index of further destabilisation: this time it was a popular revolt, barely involving the army, that took down the emperor. The new ruler, again a minor, was, again, killed in an army mutiny, again after a failed campaign, this time against the newly emerged Sassanians. Philip succeeds, then, in short order, Decius, who faces what contemporary sources describe as a “Scythian” eruption on the Danube. This archaising label has been rejected by historians over two centuries, and I find it bracing that Potter readopts it, simply because replacing “Scythian” with “Goth” falsely implies that we have the least idea of what is going on at the frontier in the third century.

That being said, “frontier” is perhaps not all that helpful, given that Decius fights this “barbarian” army in the middle of Bulgaria in the context of the barbarians besieging a strongly held city, an especially noteworthy bit of stray data given that the by now well established inability of the third century Roman army to conduct sieges or build well-sited, defensible fortifications is one of the major indicators of its ineptness. More intriguingly, given the importance of James Scott’s ideas to this series of posts, is the fact that even the Roman sources note that the Scythians are herding “thousands” of Roman subjects towards the Danube when they are intercepted by, and defeat and kill, Decius, who is succeeded by Gallus and then by the industrious-but-militarily-incompetent Valerian, who manages to lead another Roman army into the worst defeat at the Sassanian hands yet. As Potter points out, there is no reason to doubt Ardashir’s boast that he took a praetorian prefect along with Valerian. Which is to say, that Valerian was not the most politically powerful figure taken prisoner that day.

Now, Tabari and Musudi tell a tale far more to the credit of the Emperor Valerian than all his far travels and hard work at keeping the Empire together. It is about the river Karun, which cuts through a deep gorge by the town of Shushtar on the road between Pasargadae and Ctesiphon on the Tigris. Behind Shushtar there is flat, good land, left high and by the river’s plunge into the gorge. We are told, Ardashir brought Valerian to Shushtar, and offered the Emperor and his soldiers their freedom if they would build him a paradise in ten years. And so Valerian and his engineers built a barrage that directed the river into the channel of the Ab-I Gargar, forming the Island of Paradise (MianĂ¢b), still famous for its orchards. At Shushtar, they built the Band-i-Kaisar a dam (technically, weir) with a bridge for a superstructurefor King Ardashir, raising the water level perhaps 3—4 meters to fill the irrigation ditches. There are also water mills. Having finished his great labours in three years or seven, Valerian’s men received their freedom, while the former emperor retired to the groves of paradise, content to  leave his son, Gallienus, untroubled in office.

It's a story, anyway. I repeat it because it scores points for Scott and Wilson.  That is, it puts a human face on Ardashir’s policy of forced emigration from the Roman Empire at this moment of crisis, and because it underlines the fact that “rising factor productivity” is not impossible, even under the dysfunctional political orders of the day. At least in Sassanian Iran. And also because I like to think of old Valerian getting a chance to rest from his labours.

But I sure hope that he had grandchildren we don’t know about. Gallienus succeeded his father in a very truncated form of the Roman Empire. An “Emperor Postumus” emerged to take France, Germany, Britain, Spain, and Austria (Gaul except for Gaul Narbonesis, Hispania, Britain and Raetia) out of the Empire, while King Odenathus of  Palmyra all but did the same in the Middle East. Again we get a strong sense that the Roman army wasn’t working right. While the Sassanians kept defeating Roman armies (including episodes in which no emperors were involved), Odenathus, in command of whatever local forces were available to Palmyra, had no difficulty restoring the situation on the frontier. Meanwhile, Postumus’ secession was triggered when, as we now understand it, an army of Jugunthi descended on Italy in the late winter of 260, taking “thousands” of Italian prisoners. They encountered Gallienus’ army, were defeated, and yet reappear north of the Alps, to be defeated again by a combined force of Romans and “militia.” The booty they carried was seized, and, Potter notes, surely significant here is the observation that the prisoners were freed. (The prisoners weren’t treated as booty at this point. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus tells us about Romans buying Romans from the "Skythian" invaders of Anatolia during the raids of 268--9, giving the impression that it was fairly widespread and highly lascivious. But, then, that's what you expect of a Church Father.) There seems to be some kind of disagreement about this policy, although whether about the booty proper or the treatment of the prisoners, and the upshot was that Postumus ended up overthrowing Gallienus’ regime and establishing his Gallic Empire.

The very interesting point too easily overlooked here is that it implies that an army of, we suppose, German barbarians, are understood to have crossed the Alps in winter. Now, the state of the Alps are going to be very telling of the state of the “Roman” economy in transalpine Europe. I’ve been looking for a good account of this for a while, and while I regard it as a bit thin to be definitive, I’ve found some authors willing to come out and generalise that the Roman alps looked more like the Neolithic Alps than even the Alps as we know them historically. That is, they were cultivated in an “open” system in which foothill communities had access to very large upland areas, allowing them to segregate seasonal exploitation into hunting, pasturage and other uses. As early as the Early Medieval period, a transition began here (and in the Pyrenees) to a “closed” system, in which individual foothill communities have specified and limited upland territorial rights. This was accompanied by largescale forest clearances to create the large Alpine pastures known today, and by specialisation of labour within the foothill communities themselves.[3]

So if less trans-Alpine logistical capacity than existed even shortly after the “fall of Rome,” how are these Germanic barbarians crossing the Alps so easily? I mean, I’ll surely grant that the passes were all perfectly well known, and that even the most difficult routes of the Grisons were in use by small parties and even raiding parties. But armies capable of herding thousands of prisoners? In March? Here I’m seeing a problem, and, if I’m reading Potter right, reason to entertain the same suspicions that he is, that these stories of raiding barbarians might have an alternative interpretation. Somehow, the political breakdown of the Roman state is putting ordinary, everyday Romans to flight. Potter points to evidence that the Severan empire tightened up centralised control and tax collection to an extent. In Scott’s analysis of flight as a mode of resistance, these state exactions would be enough to produce flight into the hills. Gregory Thaumaturgus' letters imply that the barbarian invasions are acting as cover for local actors. 

So putting things together, we have evidence of a multifaceted crisis of the state, one that flows proximately from politics. The political system isn't working, and the army isn't working, and from at least the moment of Septimius Severus's pay increase, this has been pretty much two sides of the same coin. We've seen evidence that this crisis of politics and military institutions is leading to populations moving about. We've seen that the Emperor Aurelian considered a hugely disruptive monetary reform necessary. Assuming that he wasn't a stupid man, we can suspect that there was a real problem, even if his solution was mistaken.

This a way to set the scene specifically in the West. As I've said, the quartering of 90,000 surplus mouths on the population of northwestern Europe has got to have had huge implications on local society, reordering its economic activity. A recent dig report (another result of my recent browsing in the Journal of Roman Archaeology) shows the transformation of two homesteads near the lower Rhine frontier in the central Netherlands. Both farms, located on stream ridges in the flooding low countries, emerged as byrehouses surrounded by a complex of hay/grain storage buildings,** both participated in  a huge increase in animal production as they did their part to meet the garrison's needs for fibre (wool) and horses (perhaps as many as 1000/year) in the first two centuries after the establishment of the Empire; that is, up to the Severan period. (Maaike Groot, Stijn Heeren, Laura I. Kooistra and Wouter K. Vos, “Surplus Production for the Market: The Agrarian Economy in the non-villa Landscapes of Germania InferiorJournal of Roman Archaeology 22 (2009)231—250.)
As this period comes to an end, British Roman archaeologists find a marked decline in the amount of amphorae used to import oil and wine into Britain. This has sometimes been seen as the result of the regionalisation of the army. Local recruits want butter and beer, not oil and wine. My objection, deriving from Linn Foxhall's reinterpretation of olive cultivation in Antiquity and Sara Phang on ideologies of service in the Roman army suggest that consumption of oil was crucial to establishing social status in the Roman Empire. Even if Scottish recruits didn't like eating olive oil, they would not have stopped using it for hygiene and illumination as long as conspicuous consumption of oil was a key marker of social status. Whatever elites tell us about the ordinary Roman soldier, we should not for a second stop thinking of them as social climbers. If the army has stopped delivering adequate quantities of oil (and wine) to them, which it appears to have done, we have a problem. It's fantasy to think that you can persuade your soldiers to stop aspiring to a higher station in life; but you can redirect those aspirations. The amazing thing is that it looks like redirecting their social aspirations worked better than paying them. (To a point.) Well, I guess it's not amazing if you consider that the whole project of the Roman mint post-Aurelian was apparently the self-destruction of the monetary system in the West.

The Empire may  have a century to go to its final unwinding, but it needs a new army, or at least a new social compact with it. This is an observation independent on the army's emergent inability to win battles in Iraq. On the one hand, the army isn't getting what it needs from the Empire. On the other, the Empire isn't getting what it needs from the army. A solution has to solve problems. I'm going to put it forward that the solution, which is no mystery at all (the army went to cavalry), dissolved the Empire, which, again, is hardly a novel claim. What seems bizarre at first glance, though, is the observation that if you want a better army, you can't possibly pay for it. And that not paying for it is an alternative! The question is, what are you paying with, if you don't use money? If the answer is skills and social status (and I think that it must be), then I have to tell a story about money, carpentry, and "rape."   

*I’m going all precious here to suggest a unity between the Po Valley/Venetia and trans-Alpine Europe, instead of the alternate approach of lumping Italy’s wet ditch in with the rest of the peninsula.
**So we need a history of the barn. Michael B. Postan, in defending a Malthusian reading of the history of the medieval English economy, suggested that we might, but Wikipedia isn't cutting it, although there's this.

[1] Walter Scheidel, “Searching for Roman Economic Growth,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 22 (2009): 46—70.
[2] Andrew Wilson, “Indicators for Roman Economic Growth: A Response to Walter Scheidel,” Ibid, 71—82
[3] Maxence Segard, “Pastoralism, Rural Economy and Landscape Evolution in the Western Alps,” Ibid., 171—82.

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