Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The More Things Change

See if any of this sounds familiar:

"The year 49 B.C. saw the world turned upside down. The Roman Republic was facing catastrophe, thanks to a civil war in which one of the protagonists was Gaius' great-uncle.

What were the causes of the crisis? It was partly the product of stubborn political, military, and economic facts, and partly of colorful but obstinate personalities.

It was also the inadvertent outcome of astonishing success. As the patricians and the plebs fought for constitutional mastery, Rome's legions slowly fought their way through Italy in war after war until they controlled the peninsula. After a titanic struggle with Carthage in northern Africa, the Republic emerged as a Mediterranean power by the beginning of the second century B.C.

From then on, Rome increasingly acted as an international 'policeman', sending its legions to right wrongs in foreign countries - especially the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Middle East. Invited to intervene by some Greek cities, it vanquished Macedonia and eventually annexed it as a Roman province. It went on to defeat Antiochus, King of Syria, who unwisely challenged Rome to a fight. In 133 B.C., the king of Pergamum (in today's western Turkey) died, leaving his kingdom to Rome, which renamed it the province of Asia.

The Republic was now the leading power not only in the western Mediterranean but also in the Middle East. It commanded an empire stretching from Spain (which it had inherited from the Carthaginians nearly a century before) to western Turkey. A band of client kingdoms marked the boundary with the Parthian empire (today's Iraq and Iran).

The triumph of Rome has puzzled historians down the centuries. Of the many factors that accounted for the city's emergence on the world stage, the most important was that from their earliest beginnings Romans lived in a permanent state of struggle - with their enemies abroad and with one another at home. Tempered in that fire, they became formidable soldiers as well as learning the political arts of negotiation, compromise, and anger resolution. Flexible and skilled at improvisation, they developed a practical imagination. They usually tried to settle a dispute, if they could, without violence, but when military force became necessary, they applied it with a ruthless vigor.

Three important consequences followed Rome's emergence as a super-power. The first was a huge influx of wealth and slaves. Direct taxation for Roman citizens living in Italy was abolished. The lives of the ruling class became more and more opulent, the frequent festivals and gladiatorial games increasingly elaborate. With the opening up of foreign markets, cheap grain flooded into Italy, driving the native smallholder out of business and replacing him with large livestock ranches often run with slave labor.

The rural unemployed fled to the big city, which became yet bigger. Unfortunately, the job market could not expand to soak up the refugees from the countryside. The authorities began to provide free grain to quiet a febrile and uncontrollable urban population.

Second, to manage such extensive dominions demanded substantial military forces. In the old days, country smallholders were called up to fight short military campaigns as and when necessary. Now standing armies were required, with soldiers serving for long periods. These soldiers depended on their generals to persuade the Senate to allocate farms to them when they retired, either in Italy or further afield. These farms would be their 'pensions'.

Largely as a result of conquest, the state owned a good deal of land. However, rich landowners, among whom were many senators, had quietly appropriated much of it without payment. These noble squatters were, to put it mildly, disinclined to disgorge their ill-gotten gains. So the legionaries depended on their generals to bully, finesse, or persuade the Senate to free up land for their retirement farms. They developed a loyalty to their generals rather than to Rome.

The third consequence of empire was the strain that its administration placed on the ruling class, and indeed on the Republic's constitution. So large was the throughput of elected officials that it is hardly surprising that their caliber was variable. A good number were corrupt and incompetent.

Many Romans believed that their traditional virtues of austere duty and healthy poverty were being eroded, and that this decadence explained the growing violence and selfishness of political life. The picture was not quite so bleak as it was depicted, for some nobiles worked hard to maintain standards. However, others did live in extravagant, irresponsible, and self-indulgent ways, and it was they who set the tone." - p. 16 - 18, The Life of Rome's First Emperor Augustus, Anthony Everitt


  1. Yes, in many aspects, yes! Keep sharing when you are able!

  2. woooow.... yeah def sounds familiar! Thank you for sharing, that's just crazy!d


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