Sunday, March 3, 2013

Old Europe: Always Falling

Nothing is more common than for an archaic state to fail.

The  Golden Gladiator  debuted in the first issue of The Brave and the Bold, back in 1958, when there were lots of kids, and hardly anyone but a few Madison Avenue drop-outs trying to figure out what they might like in the way of funny papers. The result was an anthology book of "pulse-racing" historical stories, that, even in the dime-rack-at-the-drugstore days of the late 50s, tanked. Golden Gladiator, in particular only lasted six issues. Viking Prince at least made it to #28, when the publisher tried this new thing called "the Justice League" and got the multi-billion dollar formula right. Ish. We'll see if the JLA movie makes "Avengers" book before saying for sure.

Anyway, even my nostalgia-fuelled memories of the Golden Gladiator are shaky. I thought he was more in the line of a "Silent Knight| type, fighting ancient Roman evil as masked vigilante by night, gladiator by day.

So it is interesting, to say the least, that the theme is much darker. Like the Christopher Nolan Batman, G.G. is fighting for the city in what might be, and, we know,  will be, its last, desperate days. He's just like noble Aetius, who  has contract language requiring me to notice at this point that he was the "last of the Romans."** And he is more than a match for the Hunnic king. 

Which, actually, you wouldn't say of Aetius, "of known Scythian extaction," says Wikipedia.*** The point is, the empire is going down to barbarism, apparently in this case a distinctly east Asian barbarism, and only a shepherd-boy-turned-galley-slave-turned-gladiator-turned-action-hero can save Rome and Valentinian III. Who is apparently a ginger and can't afford a fitted toga.

It turns out that the reason that I don't remember the Golden Gladiator that way is that this is a mistake. As comics visionary Walter Simonson points out, G. G. meets Cleopatra in another story. Chronology, even the difference of five centuries wasn't important to writing comics back in the 50s. Full stop.

 As a historian, I take a little more from this. If five centuries of Rome blend together in our imagination, perhaps our unexplored prejudices are not the best place to start with our attempt to understand Roman history. Or we'd be asking ourselves why Attila didn't haul some wuxia out of his ass and beat down the big old Westerner. You can't just pastiche your way to a sophisticated explanation of the fall of Rome. 

Which brings me to the question of the day, as posed by one of my nephews, now beavering away at the UBC  Classics Department's much loved "Ancients for Everybody" course. What the Hell happened to the Roman army?

The basic outline of the story is not, I think, controversial. In 235AD, Emperor Severus Alexander was killed in the German camp of a legion that had enjoyed particular patronage from his family. A somewhat mysterious figure known as Maximus Thrax, described sometimes as a barbarian and a  professional soldier, both somewhat implausible anachronisms, became emperor, ruled for three years and was brought down by a senatorial revolt that ended with Gordian III as emperor. Gordian died on the Persian front, newly-established Sassanian monarchy, perhaps in battle, in 241. For a long decade, narrative histories of the Roman Empire are dominated by accounts of Goths and "Scythians" raiding along the Danube and into Anatolia while usurpers betray each other until Valerian emerges as emperor.

Valerian then marched east against the Persians. If any  Roman observer looked at that war with misgivings based on a long record of setbacks against "Persian" armies balancing more successful campaigns, those misgivings were amply confirmed by the epochal capture of the Emperor Valerian. The Sassanians rubbed the Roman nose in it by erecting a monumental frieze of Valerian submitting to Shapur I, ruining a Neo-Elamite frieze to do so.    It got even worse when the local king of Palmyra put the local militias together into an army that soon restored the situation,the second time that this had happened in two decades, and this needs spelling out: this is simply not the way that the relationship between the Roman army and local militias is supposed to work. 

Now drop the curtain, because we need to change the scenery. When it reopens, in, say, 320AD, Constantine is getting ready for another Persian army with a very different army. Overall, it is organised into regionally-based "frontier" garrisons that is ancestral to knightly feudalism and a central mobile force of barbarian horsemen that is ancestral to the Germanic successor kingdoms. It seems to be organised into much smaller administrative units than the old 6000 man legions, and is consequently stationed in smaller fortresses, the small size of which offers an explanation for the otherwise puzzling way in which the Romans suddenly learned to build defensible forts in this period. (It is puzzling because the Romans of the brave days of old were perfect, and yet built bad forts/) The cavalry arm is more numerous, or more prestigious, or more effective, or any two or three of these. The infantry appears to wear less armour, carry spears, and, quite well archaeologically attested, substitutes the long cavalry sword for the old infantry gladius, a short sword about the length of an early modern pikeman's hanger.

What happened? The Eighteenth Century is pretty clear on this: Persian cavalry, recruited from the limitless expanses of inner Eurasia, overwhelmed Roman cavalry, forcing the Romans to embrace the cavalry arm more fully. Two centuries later, Lynn White offered us technological determinism: the invention of stirrups (and horse collar), created modern equestrian civilisation by making horses viable as mounts for a shock arm and as farm animals. One might have wished that Eighteenth Century historiography had paused in its enduring obsessions from belabouring the doubtful point that pastoralism is an evolutionary social stage preceding agriculture to spell out a point that ought to have been passed down to our post-grass age. You can only raise horses where you can raise them, and if you want to do it systematically, in the traditional form of a stud farm, you need to be in a region where there is high quality year-round pasture as breeding mares and foals will have to be confined for considerable lengths of time. In short, if the Roman army wants a cheap and prolific stud within its borders, it is going to have to look to the summer rain-fed pastures of the Atlantic littoral, and the Anatolian highlands, or push deep into Inner Eurasia.

This is why it seems to me that we have an agronomic/economic explanation for the end of the Roman Empire. Armies are raised in the west and marched east. Gold goes east to pay the troops in regions with a de facto gold standard, while silver is shipped west to the families left behind. Eventually, the West is unable to pay taxes: feudalism ensues.

But enough of my wild speculation: what of that of others? The classic account of the military fall of the empire is that the old Romans didn't need cavalry. No good infantry breaks at a cavalry charge, and the Romans had good infantry. It was only when discipline failed that the Romans went to horses. "Internal" causes --social decline-- accounts for military decline. This version serves some needs, but, apart from the "no true Scotchman" argument lurking in the lede, one can see that this argument is shaped by moralising. No wonder Lynn White's offer of technological determinism in its place is so satisfying.

Well, here comes the new synthesis, and I think I can safely call it that now that I know that David Potter (1, 2) is the author of my nephew's textbook. The new-fangled historians are saying that the Roman army was never very good. It's simple: in the old days, the Romans won because Latium was by far the largest fertile downland on the Mediterranean littoral: almost as big as the whole state of Israel, up and down. Just as the ancient Romans thought, it was the limitless human resources of Lazio that won Rome's wars, and not the special excellence of its soldiers.$ 

I've got to cop to a certain degree of relief here. It's always been a strain for me to accept that short sword and javelin were, in fact, the ultimate hand-to-hand combat technology of the pre-gunpowder era, when the entire Early Modern thought that it the perfect army was  two thirds pike and one sixth each shot/crossbows/longbows+long sword.$$ Pas d'argent, pas de Suisse, and the structure of the Roman legion probably speaks more to the Roman state's financial inability to meet the demands of the pike, which in the Italian Wars and probably the struggles of the Diadochi could demand a premium based on drill and physique.

Even the fact that the Roman legions persisted with short swords for centuries after a longsword appeared as a cavalry weapon can be explained. The legions were never really tested in battle, except against each other. As for the famed discipline of the legions, we can, I think admit that the legions were better disciplined than the tribal militias they faced in Europe. That being said, they were also better armed, more numerous, better supplied. Victory is so completely overdetermined that C. R. Whittaker takes it as axiomatic that the Romans were rarely, perhaps never seriously tested in the west.) Against the Persians, however, things get more complicated. Sara Elise Phang deconstructs the idea of discipline in the Roman army and puts it in the context of an ideological discourse. For her, the Roman exemplary traits of liberality, virtu and discipline are in constant dialogue on the parade ground, with discipline representing not military excellence but rather what subordinate owes to dominant. In this sense the idea of discipline was surely not lacking in the various Persian monarchies, and it comes open to debate whether or not the Romans were "more disciplined." (The sense that we implicitly invoke, of a body of soldiers who are well trained in battlefield manoeuvre, is clearly wrong. The legions did no such training, although I guess the field is still open to claim that the cavalry did so.)

But wait! How does this make sense? The answer is to be found in the rise of the Empire. Rome, as we know, balanced Gaul. Barbaric Celts sacked Rome in its earliest days in myth, and in reality the first evidence of centuriation of fields for Roman veterans is found in the "first" Gaul in the Appenines around Senegallia. The Gaul that begins at the Rubicon and ends at the Rhine is as much a part of Rome as the Eternal City itself. But why?

The answer requires us to set aside the basic conceit of ancient Roman foreign policy, of a defensive imperialism. Rather, Roman politicians went to war in the provinces after holding the consulship because they needed the money. Rome did not raise armies for defence. All Roman males were soldiers, and were the state actually in danger, all Roman males would be called upon, and, indeed, would be glad to serve. Rather, Rome allowed post-consular politicians with certain appointments to raise armies because armies suited their dignity. Provinces were places where that kind of dignitary could be, because provinces were fields of action, full of peregrines who could be expropriated and looted.

Of these provinces, in the civil wars of the last century of the republic, Gaul was frequently decisive. Its armies were well situated. So when Augustus returned to Rome after his (or, rather, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa's) last victory of the civil wars, he put an army in Gaul. Not to put it out of the way, but rather the reverse. He expected to need it in his next civil war. That was what you did.

It is a world-historical fact that might have far more to do with Vipsanius than Augustus that there was no further civil war. Instead, when the army demanded its loot, it was flung outwards instead. And the reason that army ended up strung down the Rhine and Danube was not because this was  a frontier (but see below), but that the Rhine provided a means of drawing supplies from wider regions and thus was a good place for winter quarters. (In one account, the Rhone-Moselle-Rhine axis actually carries subsistence rations from the Mediterranean, which I think implausible on its face.) The Rhine-Danube limes did not start out as a frontier, and never became one, a supposition argued in a variety of ways by Whittaker save for perhaps the most telling problem, the disappearance of the supposed frontier under the Franks.

So the legions exist from the first in the context of civil war, real or suspended. The Rhine-Danube axis is a logistic line. The Romans had no clear idea of geography such that they could notice how absurd a province that ran from Rubicon to Rhine actually was. There was no frontier because "empire was without limit in time and space."

But there was a frontier. How do you explain that? The suggestion is that these are natural frontiers. The helter-skelter forward advance of Augustus's legions reached ecological boundaries, the last place where wheat could be brought to the army by requisition, and meat on the hoof by paying people with a low, non-Roman standard of living. (That is, the ecological frontier marks the limits of livestock-intensive agricultural regimes by virtue of the fact that cows, unlike wheat fields, can be moved and hidden from tax gatherers.) In the  northwest, it was that between mast forest and conifer. In the Maghreb, it was where Barbary pine forest gave way to Pre-Sahara. In Pannonia, the land of the Hun, it was the cool continental zone, grassland kept down by the Danube floods and then burned sere by the summer dry. It's here that imperial politics got tangled up with military affairs, because it was here that the business of raising horses crossed ecological zones. Finally, there is the terrain stretching down from the Anatolian plateau to Emesa in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon, the place where Roman and "Asiatic" interacted so long and productively. 

That is, I am reaching, in the end, for the same explanation from a different perspective. The Roman Empire was made by the ecological frontiers that brought its expansion to a halt. The army was the Roman state economy's reason for being; the frontiers where it was stationed were a function of that economy, and those frontiers were exactly the ones that separate good horse-raising country from bad, except in Anatolia and Syria. This is a story about cavalry. And grass. Always grass. 

*Ed Herron and Russ Heath's Golden Gladiator pisses off Attila the Hun, vaults over an entire squadron of Huns escape on horseback. Because, if there's one thing Huns can't do, it would be riding horses. So apparently the strip is set in the fifth century? Original image curated by About_Faces at this livejournal blog. 
**Stupid agents, ruining historiography. Since when did a guy with a bleeding umlaut in his name get to be Roman? Do they put an umlaut in "Aeneas?" No. They don't.
***Where, presumably, somewhere Stephen Harper is described as being of "known Huron extraction." Different centuries, different geography, different people, different names. Whatever. You know what I mean.
$I'm introducing a new footnote series in honour of what Google turned up when I went looking for literature on the late Republic's (alleged) military demographic crisis. Walter Scheidel's summary, of course, but also this: Original research on a blog!
$$See Mallet and Shaw, 179 for  a recent treatment of costs. the Order of Battle citation is misplaced here, but I think 51, and in any case from the Constitution of the Black Band of Guelders. 

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