Friday, May 4, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, VI: Clean Up and Julian the Apostate and the End of Hegemony?

So I try to be a good historian, the kind that's not always bringing forth Object Lessons to All Modernity. 

I'm not trying too hard with this post. In my defence, though, there's a lot to make me really, really angry these past few days. First, there's Edward Conard

One more time: in 1856 this guy patented the fucking tipi. I know that stealing from Indians is a thing, even if it's hard to make fun of it when you're busy being holier-than-thou.

This isn't that thing. This is the thing about finding the absolutely most fucking blatant way of monetising connections. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley's Wikipedia biography tastefully avoids mentioning anything so gauche as money, but the paternal uncle who raised him endowed a college in his adoptive hometown, so draw your own conclusions. The future general served on the Texas frontier after the Mexican-American War, where he had the inspiration to do an "engineering drawing" of a tipi, write "but make it out of canvas instead of hide or whatever" in the margin. On the strength of that, he got US Patent 14,740. Big deal, to be sure. There have been dumber patents. So it's perhaps more important that the War Department agreed that it would pay him a $5 royalty for every Sibley tent it bought. That's the American War Department. The one with some glancing familiarity with the concept of the lodge tent, I'm thinking. 

But there's a happy ending, right? Henry Sibley fought for the Confederacy. At the end of the war, the Sibley family took the War Department to court for payment of their $5x44,000 and lost. Sanity won out. Right? Wrong. Sibley assigned a half interest to another officer, who did not defect. This officer collected his $2.50/tent through December 1861, when an officer in the Quartermaster's Department brought the arrangement to the attention of the Secretary of War. Amazingly enough, he got rich, too. Here's his (former) private island. Here's what Google Search turns up when I enter the name of his probable grandson, L. B. Magruder, at this point coming round to at least the fourth, if not fifth generation, from the guy who befriended the guy who patented the fucking tipi.

Wealth-creating risk takers my ass.

That there's just one thing that bugged me on the Interwebs this week, though. Paul Krugman got into a fight with Doctor Ron Paul on the subject of Diocletian this week. Because if you're a crank on economics, why not be a crank on ancient history while you're at it? You'd never guess, but Ron Paul thinks that Diocletian debased the Roman coinage, causing inflation, which he tried to stop with wage and price controls, which led to Teh Fall of the Roman Empire (only a century later).

To say that that's a stupid and old version of the story is a bit of an understatement. Slate found a better version; but it has to be said that we simply don't know enough about the nature of Diocletian (and Aurelian)'s monetary reforms to be sure of what exactly happened. There is, in fact, good reason to suspect deflation, not inflation. See Bruce Hitchner, here (283).

"The Roman Empire was a hard currency economy in which the supply of money varied, and was not linked in any way to positive population and economic growth. It is likely therefore to have suffered inflation from time mo time, but also perhaps no less often deflation, i.e. a decrease in the general price level over a period of time. Deflation will have meant a decline in the available amount of hard currency per person, in effect making money scarcer, with a consequent increase in the purchasing power of each unit of currency. Debasement of the coinage would therefore be an effective tool in spreading a given amount of specie around and spreading the costs to everyone. . . . 

 Ladies and gentlemen, the case for "debasement."

Hitchner continues, describing the Rome of Aurelian, Diocletian, and Constantine:

Conversely, returns to higher silver or old contents could be seen as efforts to make money demand stay equal to money supply, and to ensure that the state benefited from seignorage. Productive efficiency driven by profit motives could have promoted deflation int he empire by lowering the overall price of goods and increasing purchasing power in the first and second centuries. Such increases in purchasing power might have stimulated difficulties in Roman society as many people's net worth was held in illiquid assets such as homes, land, and other forms of private property. It could also have enhanced overall debt as the payments made in servicing debts would have represented a larger amount of purchasing power than they did when the debt was first incurred.

And the case for Dr. Ron Paul's paradise on Earth. 

 Let's be clear here, not from reform in isolation, but from larger trends, Late Antiquity moved to a gold standard in the east, and demonetarisation in the West, until the "barbarian successor states" restored a silver coinage in the Eighth Century. The purchasing value of gold in Late Antiquity was about twice what it was at the end of the Third Century Crisis, and remained at that level in spite of an influx of new (trans-Saharan?) gold after 340AD, something made possible in part by the driving of the token coinage out of the economy. After three centuries of issuing "debased" coins that were actually pegged to Roman taxation, which made the monetarisation of the Western economy possible in the first place, the Roman Mint did not abandon token and silver coinage. It was driven from the market by the fact that elites were unwilling to accept it as payment for what they had that the state needed --military supplies and conscripts, mainly. 

What happened? Well, start with Potter's explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, which is "loss of hegemony." The first criteria for a hegemonic power, Potter contends, is security of frontiers. Once the state loses that security, it can no longer maintain hegemony. Anything can happen. In Potter's version, the great mistake is Julian's Persian campaign. Julian was appointed Caesar in the West by his cousin, Constantius II in 355. Constantius was clearly worried about the move, and he's not gotten a good rap in history, but he was the last of four sons of Constantine the Great. All three of his brothers and half-brothers had been killed in political coups or purges, often by close relatives, and that a good measure of those coups, uprisings, and purges had begun with the absence of the emperor from the region where the unrest took shape. He could leave Gaul without a Caesar, and see an usurper rise there who wasn't a relative, or give it Julian, and perhaps face Julian's usurpation. Not much of a choice.

Thanks to Ammianus Marcellinus' account, we know what happened next: Julian proved himself the most bestest general ever, was accidentally proclaimed Augustus, which resulted in Constantius totally throwing a spaz and deciding to off him, which led Julian to strike first. Because the gods loved Julian, Constantius died before Julian could have him whisked away into a comfortable retirement at Capri, surrounded by books and fuzzy kittens. At this point, Julian launched an invasion of "Persia," involving a massive two-pronged military effort with Fourth Infantry Division  twenty thousand men under his cousin, Procopius, advancing into Armenia, while he took 40,000 men down the Euphrates to take Ctesiphon before the Sassanids could put its defences into order. The nasty old Sassanids opened the canals to flood the country and managed to fortify Ctesiphon in time, at which point Julian had no choice but to retreat north up the Tigris looking for enough forage to keep his horses alive. At this point, he made his onliest mistake ever, burning his boats. (He read too much Homer, you see.) But he would have totally pulled it off if he weren't killed in action by some traitor or whatnot in a skirmish on the march north. 

You might take it as strongly implied that Ammianus was rather partial to Julian. On the other hand, I'm only faithfully reproducing Potter's argument in Interweb talk. 

So, anyway, the General Staff got together, selected Jovian to be the new emperor, with the agenda of surrendering the army the heck out of its predicament, which he did, giving up all of the provinces that Septimius Severus had won in his grand offensive of 197, including the heavily fortified cities that had been the lynchpin of Roman defence in the theatre. While this is code, as even Potter admits, for "bridgeheads from which to attack the Persians every time the Emperor was in the east and needed to win a triumph," the fact remained that the Persians had the same needs, and therefore attacked them every time they thought they had an advantage. In the future, they would be attacking towards Antioch, instead. The Roman army was not going to be able to stop them.

In Potter's version, the new Roman Emperors, (or perhaps the distaff  side of the Constantinian lineage, who were really in charge, as much as anyone was, behind the scenes) had little choice but to enter a new relationship with the barbarians. While Valentinian fought the Alamanni and Franks in the west, Valens sought to bring a massive immigration of Goths into the Empire, to settle them on empty lands and make them responsible for a massive military draft, which would relieve the pressure on Balkan landowners to provide conscripts on their own account. This led to the Battle of Adrianople and the establishment of a Gothic state-within-a-state, and this, in turn, to the collapse of the Empire in the west.

So it was all Julian's fault.

But back up here for a moment. Potter also argues, on the strength of the latest work on the Roman military, that the strategic crisis of the Roman army actually goes back all the say to the Severans. The Roman Army as it existed in 197, Potter robustly argues, really looked like the Roman army of the Principate. While the auxiliary cohorts gave it various tactical assets, the core was heavily-armoured infantry primarily armed with short swords.

In short, Potter is doubling down on the idea that the legions of 197 had continued with the Civil War-era renunciation of the spear, the ubiquitous hunting/fighting weapon of Antiquity. In combat with heavily armoured infantry (or urban mobs), this isn't actually a bad idea. Spears become a great deal less effective when the amount of the enemy you can attack with them is reduced to the face, and they're pretty much useless in a riot-control scenario. The Romans did have their heavy throwing javelins, which they could use as makeshift spears or in lieu of locust sticks, and that was good enough. 

Unless they were fighting cavalry. Are we serious about this? I guess that we are. The implication is that the legions were two centuries out of practice of serious fighting with well-armed enemies, which is no credit to the Parthian state, and certainly a comment on the quality of the "barbarian" opposition. On the other hand, we shouldn't be too quick to assume that the legions were actually good at what they did. Remember, they were mostly an implement for distributing patronage. Dominic Rathbone, looking at purchasing power of the average soldier for Wilson's Quantifying the Roman Economy project, concludes that the only way that the average legionary could have gotten as rich as they did is if they spent most of their time working on their own businesses, anyway. The auxiliaries did the work, the legions got the (invisible) benefits.

Not that, as an employee of a company that offers its clerks considerable time off in lieu of pay, I'd know anything about that, he thought to himself as he blogged away.

That brings us back to the Severans and the preliminaries of the Crisis --but also to the decisive tip towards the Romans in the north of Iraq. Moving forward from Severus, we see that the Third Century can as easily be described as a period of frontier as of core crisis. Military defeats and mutinies in northern Iraq cost the Empire Caracalla, Gordian III and Valerian, and the fact that Palmyra's improvised armies could put the situation back together where the legions failed is a fact in favour of Potter's interpretation.

With Valerian, we get the collapse in the west and the rise of Postumus' Gallic Empire. Supposedly, Postumus declared his separate empire in 260 because he had to defend the western frontier against raging barbarians. The classic case for this existential threat is taken to be the loss of the Agri Decumates in Baden-Wurttemberg the long re-entrant between the Rhine and Danube that stretched Rome's "frontier defences" down the upper Rhine and along the Iller to the Danube. Some time after Valerian is defeated in the east, the raging Allemani break over the defences of the Agri Decumate and roll the Roman Empire back for the first time, anywhere. Unless the whole Varus thing counts, in which case southern Germans are totally just as much Roman-beaters as northern, and so there, you stupid goose-stepping Prussians.

Thanks, Wikipedia!
Except that John Drinkwater points out that we have no archaeological evidence of this whatsoever, but plenty of historic evidence that the divide between Postumus and Gallienus's rumps of the Empire ran between the provinces of Germania and Raetia, and that was strategically uncomfortable as all heck to Postumus, which is probably why he pulled the garrison out and left the hot corner of Germany to a clientish statish-thingy of Allemani barbarians. So, not this, that.

Okay, put this together. Diocletian saved the empire. Was he naive enough to think that he'd brought an end to civil war between claimants? If so, he was wrong, because it was going to happen again and again in the years to follow. Picking out some key episodes, we have Constantine's march into Italy to get rid of Maxentius, his attack into the Balkans against Licinius, Constantine II's failed attempt to march a Roman army through the Balkan domains of his brother Constans, and Julian's attack on Constantius. 

What do they all have in common? Armies raised in Gaul are marched to the head of navigation on the Danube and brought to the Balkan theatre, the place where emperors were made. The Agri Decumates is not just an abstract location in the world. It's the region in which the great dynastic blitzkriegs of the ancient world were raised again and again in the course of the third and fourth centuries. And it is not just civil wars. This is the route through which western armies will need to march if they are to get to the East. 

If it is true that the Romans could only maintain their control of northern Iraq, and thus their hegemonic status, by bringing western armies to bear there, then the ability to base armies in the (former) Agri Decumates, and the stakes are as great as we are told they are, then whatever might be happening in the Agri Decumates is crucial to the story of the fall of the Empire.

So what is happening? Drinkwater is uncompromising. It is simply not the case that Germanic barbarians are pressing the Empire. To the contrary, the Alemanni are virtually formless in their supine inability to resist Rome. Far from being opposed to it, they flock to the frontiers and cozy up to the Empire, while a second band of sites indicates that the populations of "Free Germany" congregated about 100 kilometers from the frontier, which is to say, far enough away that the Romans would have had to build magazines in the "wilderness" to reach them in strength. The Alemanni are convenient victims, valuing their Roman connections so much that they cannot even withdraw out of the range of the most lackadaisical and expedient Roman aggression. Which repeatedly recurred, whenever an emperor needed an easy victory. 

It is not, either, that the Alemanni had massive manpower reserves (much less warlike manpower reserves) to fuel the Roman war effort. Drinkwater believes that he can demonstrate that what they had to give was in proportion to their (small) population reserves; and that the same may be said of the Franks. The human resources upon which the Roman state might call lay within the Empire. While I do not think that Drinkwater sufficiently accounts for horses, I'll leave that be for now. 

So what is happening in the West that matters to the overall strategic situation? Why isn't Postumus's territorial rationalisation reversed when the "Gallic Empire" fell? Because the trouble went on relentlessly. After Postumus fell, there appears to have been a social revolution in France, the rising of the Bagaudae. It was serious enough that Diocletian sent Maximian to suppress them. When he did, the hpirate-hunter-turned-pirate Carausius seized power in Britain, and Diocletian responded by making Constantius Caesar, and taking the next step in expanding his idea of an imperial college --as well as setting up the context for the dynastic civil wars that would continue through Julian. 

What happened? Why was Carausius such a big deal? The answer seems to be that Carausius rejected Aurelian's monetary reforms. And while Carausius was duly dealt with, money stopped circulating in the northwest afterwards. The empire in the west might have lasted another century, but it did so as the home to one usurper after another. Aurelian's monetary reforms are so impossible for the northwest to accept that the alternative is to set one army after another floating down the Danube at Ulm in the Agri Decumates, not to find victory so much as an impossible political accommodation with a regime that could not but "maintain the value of gold and silver."

Dr. Ron Paul, I know your secret. You don't want to save civilisation. The joke is that if you really expect the apocalypse, you stockpile bullets, not gold. You know better. Getting the gold not only brings the state down, it gathers the men with guns around you.

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