Thoughts on Historical Causality, “Inevitability,” and the Origins of the Peloponnesian War

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Part I: The Dangers of Questions Dealing With Historical Causality and Inevitability

The question of when the Second Peloponnesian War became inevitable, like the related question of who or what was directly responsible for its outbreak, is a dangerously broad query. It seems to demand a specific answer, yet one can imagine multiple beautifully argued, well supported theses all standing like ducks in a row in stark contradiction to each other, with no systematic way for a reader to evaluate the relative truth of any of the claims. One could plausibly argue, for example, that Spartan fear of Athens made the conflict inevitable the moment the Persian War ended in 479 BC; or that Pericles’ commitment to imperialism in the Aegean was to blame for the struggle, symbolized by the movement of the treasury of the Delian League to Athens in 454 BC; or even that commercial rivalry between Corinth and Athens guaranteed a pan-Hellenic war in the late 430s. All of these theses and countless others like them can be supported to some degree or another by evidence from the surviving ancient sources. Because we cannot go back in time and “rerun” history from a plurality of starting points to see how different hypothetical timelines would have played out, no single explanation about causality and inevitability can be definitively challenged.

In trying to evaluate the truth of these sorts of theses, an historian is left with a battery of lame tropes, particularly reasoning by false analogy. For example, one might claim that the intensity of commercial rivalry with Corinth is an inadequate yardstick for deciding when war became inevitable because at previous points on the timeline, it did not lead to war; for example, Sparta did not immediately attack Athens when the conflict over Corcyra erupted, and at an even earlier point in history, Corinth supported Athens during its suppression of the Samian revolt (Thuc. 1.40). This sort of reasoning, however, is specious, comparable to saying “the question of when World War Two became inevitable does not center on the Nazi-Soviet relationship because at an earlier point in history, the nations were in treaty with each other.” The fact remains that commercial conflicts with Corinth were indeed a major factor when the Peloponnesian War finally did break out, whatever the situation was in the past. It is either the case that the question of inevitability intrinsically has an infinity of potentially correct answers that cannot be meaningfully evaluated against each other, or that the Second Peloponnesian War became inevitable once it was declared and the fighting had begun.

Of course, this seems like a singularly unsatisfactory answer akin to rhetorical sleight of hand. Our intuitions tell us that causality is usually more complex than literally proximate causes like the declaration of the war itself. Yet long term causes like “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta” (Thuc. 1.23) only seem meaningful given the benefit of historical hindsight. For example, it is easy for us now, knowing that the Peloponnesian War took place, to claim that in the extreme long term, as Thucydides said, Spartan fear and Athenian imperial progress were to blame for the conflict. Yet during the fifty year interval separating the Persian War from the Peloponnesian War, we neither find Athens aggressively pursuing an explicitly imperial policy at all times, nor Sparta equally willing to go to war at all times; indeed, even when Athens eventually allied with Corcyra, it was explicitly a defensive compact, and the assembly at which the Spartans at last voted to go to war was too close to call by acclamation (Thuc. 1.87). If World War 3 had broken out between the USSR and the USA in 1962, one might have said that the differences between the capitalist and communist worlds made the war inevitable. Yet war did not break out between the USSR and USA, and the battery of attractive-sounding arguments suggesting it was inevitable would be demonstrably false. This is also the case with Thucydides’ famous claim.

This question of historical inevitability can drive one up a wall; proximate causes are inadequate in themselves (“the war became inevitable when Athens and Sparta declared war”), and long term causes only seem decisively fateful with the benefit of hindsight. For this reason, theses about when war became inevitable often say more about the tastes of the author making the claim than the meaningful answer to the question at hand. How, then, is one to approach such a challenge beyond pointing out its puzzling subtext?

Part II: Patterns of Behavior and Ideological Conflict Make Wars Increasingly Likely But Never Inevitable Until They Are Declared: The Peloponnesian War as a Case Study

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If a man decides on January 1st to eat only the gristle of bacon for the rest of his life and has a heart attack after breakfast on June 1st, one would probably not blame the final breakfast for his demise, or say that the heart attack was inevitably going to take place on June 1st. The best that one could say is this: given the establishment of a repeated pattern of dangerous behavior, a disastrous result became increasingly likely as the timeline progressed after January 1st. Although World War 3 did not break out in 1962, such a conflict was probably far more likely at that moment than, say, during the years of the Clinton Presidency. This analogy enriches the possibilities for answering the question “when did the Peloponnesian War become inevitable?” We know that it was only inevitable once it was declared; however, we can also say that after certain points on the timeline, patterns of behavior were established that were sufficient to lethally drive up the likelihood of a conflict between Athens and Sparta.

The remainder of this paper seeks to present two points. First, potentially lethal patterns of behavior were well established before the conflict of 431 BC, making war very likely by that point. Second, ideological conflict between Athens and Corinth on the difference between a subject, an ally, and a colony effectively exacerbated tensions in 431 BC to provide a pretext for the war. The fact remains, however, that it might have been avoided at any time just as the hypothetical World War 3 was avoided, or at least delayed. A diet of gristle does not guarantee a heart attack; it only makes it very likely.

In the same way, we can say that the Peloponnesian War was caused by dangerous patterns of behavior established over time that made disaster more and more probabilistic at every moment (though, emphatically, never inevitable). Oligarchic, conservative, land-locked Sparta was deathly terrified of democratic, innovative, maritime Athens’ growth yet continued to have confidence in the superiority of her land forces. Indeed, confidence in the age-old superiority of hoplite warfare to all other forms of military organization was an inextricable aspect of the Spartan mindset, and the Athenian defeat at Tanagra in 457 and the Egyptian disaster later that decade likely lived on in the collective consciousness of the Greek world for a long time afterward. Thus, Athens simultaneously seemed infuriating and vulnerable to many conservative Spartans. (In On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Kagan writes that “the Athenians simply did not have enough manpower to create an offensive threat.”) At the same time, Periclean Athens was confident in her Long Walls and the power of her navy and simultaneously committed to an imperialistic policy in the Aegean upsetting the power of Sparta’s allies. Considering the fifty year interval separating the Persian from the Peloponnesian War as a whole, Thucydides was certainly correct when he wrote: “that the whole period…with some peaceful intervals, was spent by each power in war, either with its rival, or with its own revolted allies, and consequently afforded them constant practice in military matters, and that experience which is learnt in the school of danger” (Thu, 1.18). It takes no Thucydides to realize that this was a potential recipe for disaster, with warfare between Athenian and Spartan interests the rule rather than the exception throughout the period. In fact, even before the Battle of Sybota, the Siege of Potidaea, and the ultimatum over the Megarian decree, the people of Corcyra could meaningfully warn the Athenians that war was “all but upon (them)” (Thuc. 1.36).

In such a climate, the Peloponnesian War might have broken out at many points in history. After decades of hostility and memories of many unavenged loved ones dead on the battlefield, war probably seemed very likely indeed by the time of the crisis over Epidamnus in the late 430s. Was there perhaps a point along the timeline in which the probability for long-term peace was at its maximum, or at least significantly greater than by the time of Sybota? My intuition is that the Spartan rebuffing of Athenian aid at Mt. Ithome in 462 BC significantly worsened the climate—perhaps beforehand the conciliatory policies of a man like Cimon might have found some workable middle ground with the Spartan oligarchy. The outbreak of the First Peloponnesian War soon afterward in 460 BC is surely no coincidence, and this too poisoned the waters—once war was declared once, it was significantly more likely that it could happen again in the realm of everyone’s imaginations. Indeed, Athens and Sparta were by some standards still in a theoretical state of war even after the conflict nominally ended: after all, the struggle was concluded by a supposed 30 Years Peace, which is really a euphemism for a ceasefire, not an eternal truce. It was within this volatile atmosphere that two conflicting ideologies concerning the very nature of spheres of influence would prove sufficient to spark a second explosion.

The First Peloponnesian War was an indecisive affair, and Corinthian interests and commercial rivalry with Athens continued to cause great travail. The Peloponnesian League was a loose defensive network led by a hegemon; the Delian League was a network of subjugated states. Corinth, a member of the Peloponnesian League armed with an ancient name and great pretensions, was neither a real hegemon nor the leader of an empire. Desirous of sway in her own right, she seems to have perceived her colonies as more than simply sister cities sharing quaint historical and religious associations, which was otherwise the rule for Greek colonial relations. Athens saw Corcyra as a neutral state free to make its own choices; Corinth did not concur.

Corinth’s grounds for her high expectations for her colonies were, however, shaky—the best the Corinthian representatives at Athens could say about defiant Corcyra was that proper respect was not paid to the metropolis at games and sacred assemblies, which seems less than compelling as grounds for war (Thuc. 1.25). However, the claim that Corinth’s other colonies acquiesced more readily to her will (Thuc. 1.38) and the assertion that Epidamnus theoretically belongs to the Corinthian sphere of influence because she is the daughter of a daughter city (Thuc. 1.25) prove that there existed a unique Corinthian conception of what it meant to be a metropolis. At 1.40, the Corinthians explain that their city supported Athens’ suppression of the Samian revolt because “every power has a right to punish its own allies.” The implication is that Athens should leave well enough alone and let Corinth do what it pleases to Corcyra—however, the secondary implication is that in Corinthian eyes, “ally,” “subject,” and “colony” are interchangeable terms. Of course, one could claim that Corinth was simply grasping at straws because she feared what would happen if Corcyra’s navy joined the Athenian fleet. However, the trouble over Potidaea, an Athenian ally but also a Corinthian colony, suggests that fundamentally, the Corinthians were sincere in their belief that colonial ties implied the existence of sacred spheres of influence, and that defending these rights was worth dying for.

Kagan’s suggestion that “had it not been for Corinth the Spartans would have taken no action whatever” (307) is in harmony with the claim of Elizabeth Meyer that the conservative Spartan state as a rule did not intervene in Athenian affairs, even when Athens established military garrisons (Meyer, 40). Corinth’s power at League meetings was likely very great indeed if the story is true that she once deterred Sparta from supporting Samos and now forced the city’s hand by shaming its leaders as unhelpful and indecisive at the council to decide for war. However, one should not underestimate an independent Spartan willingness to fight. According to some sources, Sparta first considered going to war when Dorcis was rebuffed; it demanded that Athens neglect its walls during Themistocles’ heyday; at 1.101, Thucydides suggests that it nearly went to war with Athens over the issue of rebellious Thasos, and the same situation certainly took place during the Samian revolt; Cimon and his party were rebuffed at Mt. Ithome; the First Peloponnesian War was fought!

Ultimately, Kagan is likely correct when he says that the Corinthians “accepted the division of the Greek world into two parts as a lasting and workable arrangement” (Kagan, 175). However, a fundamental disagreement over just where the borders of those “two parts” were located made conflict with Athens a continuous reality and war with Sparta a very likely attendant outcome. The indecisive conclusion of the First Peloponnesian War sowed dangerous seeds, just as the First World War would in many meaningful ways pave the way for the Second in the 20th century.

Had the cities of Carthage and Alexandria ultimately fought a “Punic War” in an alternate universe, one could write endlessly of its inevitability: conflicts between Greek and Punic culture, access to the lucrative grain markets of North Africa, and even geographical location could be used to justify such a theoretical conflict. The fact that such factors were not sufficient to even cause diplomatic ripples in our universe proves that history works probabilistically but not fatefully. I maintain that the Peloponnesian War never became inevitable until it was declared. However, repeated conflict over the nature of allies, colonies, and subjects made violent solutions extremely probabilistic, particularly after the outbreak of outright hostilities for the first time in 460 BC. But the ultimate choice for the war—and ultimate blame for it—lies in the hands of the individual statesmen who failed to come up with a more imaginative solution to the problems at hand.

 

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Roman Decadence and Complex Systems Theory: Toward a New Teleology of Historical Progress, Collapse, Modernity, and Futurism

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Post-Post-Modernism

Discourse on the link between the erosion of traditional moral values and political collapse during the era of the Roman Republic and Julio-Claudian dynasty nurtured the ideology that just as “capitalism” is often conceptualized as a ubiquitous bogeyman in the eyes of some contemporary critical theorists, in antiquity, “free love” was a similarly corrosive force beguiling individuals into losing a sense of allegiance to the state as they succumbed to their petty perversions.[1] This vision of the ancient world, perhaps best epitomized in the moralizing histories of Sallust and Tacitus, haunted the Western imagination forever afterward, with “perversion” thematically bound to the idea of social collapse. This final chapter stands as a rejoinder to such notions, defending the practitioners of vilified forms of sexual expression from the ridiculous allegation that they provoked the fall of Rome or will cause modern culture to descend into anarchy, instead proposing a very different model of historical change in the ancient world.

The idea of Roman history as the cautionary tale of a society where sexual transgression sparked the conflagration of civilization at large has found various forms of expression over time, alarmingly often in modern political contexts. In May 1971, for example, President Nixon complained that All in the Family was promoting homosexuality and declared:

You ever see what happened to the Greeks? Homosexuality destroyed them. Aristotle was homo, we all know that. So was Socrates. The last six Roman emperors were fags. Neither in a public way. You know what happened to the popes? They were layin’ the nuns; that’s been goin’ on for years, centuries. But the Catholic Church went to hell three or four centuries ago. It was homosexual, and it had to be cleaned out. That’s what’s happened to Britain. It happened earlier to France. Let’s look at the strong societies. The Russians. Goddamn, they root ’em out. They don’t let ’em around at all. I don’t know what they do with them. Look at this country. You think the Russians allow dope? Homosexuality, dope, (and) immorality are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing it. They’re trying to destroy us![2]

Nixon’s bizarre understanding of history is grounded in terror at the idea of society slackening as its individual members kowtow to their personal inclinations rather than the cisgendered heteronormative patriarchal rules of the game. Depressingly, the idea of Rome falling in the wake of the normalization of homosexuality has remained something of a trope in conservative circles. According to his 2012 book America the Beautiful, future Presidential candidate Ben Carson wrote that “as a Bible-believing Christian, you might imagine that I would not be a proponent of gay marriage… I believe God loves homosexuals as much as he loves everyone, but if we can redefine marriage as between two men or two women or any other way based on social pressures as opposed to between a man and a woman, we will continue to redefine it in any way that we wish, which is a slippery slope with a disastrous ending, as witnessed in the dramatic fall of the Roman Empire.”[3]

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These kinds of cockamamie theories have often been promulgated by “scholars” too. For example, Roberto De Mattei, the deputy head of Italy’s National Research Council and a “prominent…historian” claimed as recently as 2011 that the “contagion of homosexuality and effeminacy” destroyed Rome after it subdued Carthage, which was apparently “a paradise for homosexuals.”[4] Other scholarly metanarratives about ancient history, love, and historical collapse have proved to be equally dark and outlandish. Perhaps no schema linking political disintegration and sex seems to be so misguided in retrospect as the work of Joseph Vogt, whose “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) popularized the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome, with the originally “Aryan” conquerors increasingly diluted by inferior Semitic and African genetic influences.

In the wake of these kinds of revolting models, no wonder reputable historians have increasingly turned away from the construction of grand schemas and have instead accentuated the nuance and complexity of micro-systems, overseeing increasingly specialized and compartmentalized studies of the past (and writing for increasingly small audiences). In 1979, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge challenged the underlying validity of sweeping explanatory schemas fumbling to account for complex phenomena like the onset of political disintegration. He characterized the postmodern condition in general as one of skepticism toward metanarratives, rejecting their old-fashioned emphases on “transcendent and universal truth.” According to Lyotard and critical theorists inspired by his legacy, such metanarratives invariably downplay the naturally existing complexity of various systems, and they are often created and nurtured by oppressive power structures begging to be deconstructed. In short, since grand metanarratives tend to ignore the heterogeneity of the human experience, theories of human progress as historical development toward a specific goal are ultimately deemed inadequate by most of my academic peers.

Nevertheless, while I realize that to propose a metanarrative schematizing historical progress in 2017 is to invite a barrage of criticism since the very definition of progress has been destabilized by critical theory, the merits of the theoretical approach outlined in this paper speak for themselves. Its themes stand as a strong retort to millennia of hysterical discourse demonizing non-normative sex as the cause of civilization’s ills. The fact that any given metanarrative can be problematized does not mean that metanarratives in general cannot still be useful as thematic prisms through which to view a complex social process, providing a simplifying yet clarifying lens that can often prove revelatory when it comes to accentuating unexpected dynamics of open-ended questions.[5]

Though this chapter is grounded in original research in complex systems theory, the underlying thesis is not unprecedented. In the eyes of Jose Ortega y Gasset, for example, the modern world was liberated from a tendency toward chaos and collapse due to the inherently progressive nature of technological evolution and its marriage to the scientific method, ensuring an increasingly vibrant standard of living for an increasing number of people over the long run. According to his view, a failure of “technique” [6] rather than non-vanilla sex doomed the Roman Empire. In the language of complexity theory, the system tended toward a state of collapse because the pace of technological and scientific progress was ultimately retarded before it could gain the unstoppable momentum it seemed to attain after the Italian Renaissance. The remainder of this chapter defines these terms, summarizes the themes of complex systems theory, and applies this lens to the subject of “historical progress” in the ancient world. I conclude by proposing falsifiable hypotheses that could test this framework, providing evidence against the idea that either sex or Christianity was at the root of Rome’s collapse.

Defining Terms: Progress and Modernity

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Once writing was invented and the memories of past thinkers could be stored and readily accessed, a long conversation was initiated between generations of brilliant individuals who, in long discussion and debate with each other’s ghosts, were ultimately able to further and further clarify humanity’s collective understanding of the empirical characteristics of reality, to say nothing of how its constituent elements could be carved up, recombined, and harnessed to serve utile human ends. Tragically, throughout many periods of history, voices were deliberately excluded from this evolving dialogue and even denied basic education, which consequently resulted in a lower quality of debate, less discourse, and slower advancement in the arts and sciences in general.[7]

Be this at it may, once history began (that is, once representational symbolic records came about), a long conversation between ingenious contributors was initiated which led to what I want to call “progress.” The invention of writing enabled a conversation to take place that could be sustained across multiple generations about questions to which there seemed to be no obvious answers, but to which meaningful contributions could nonetheless be made that served a useful, clarifying role. Is there a God? How is motion possible? Why does it rain? What is art? How can I maximize the yield of my crops? Different people have different perspectives on these kinds of open-ended questions and diverse ways of schematizing the problems and solutions. Once their perspectives are added to the evolving discourse, these people’s contributions can never be erased. If what they articulated was meaningful and clarifying, it will inspire new, micro-discourses in turn. Over the course of time, thousands of meaningful contributions lead inevitably to what I want to define as progress—an increasingly lucid understanding of the nature of reality and how to harness its constituent elements toward (hopefully) good ends such as the alleviation of physical torment. Across the millennia, if enough people are welcomed into the conversation of great minds, there will be millions of meaningful contributions which can never be erased, and this will inevitably lead to advancement over time as battles will rage in the marketplace of ideas and only the best ideas (those most bound to meaningful contributions from the perspective of the most people) will survive.

What do I mean by modernity? In this chapter, I mean a condition in which political institutions valuing both autonomy and stability, economic institutions catering to the distribution of “money,” and academic institutions governing scientific research create synergistic platforms where discursive progress can take place. Foucault, of course, reminds us that the influence of institutions on discourse can be oppressive, but in fairness, the great institutions of civilization can also provide stages upon which meaningful contributors can interact with one another and usher in an increasingly accelerated and exponentially growing rate of progress.

According to the teleology of modernity as imagined in this paper, and contrary to the idea that most premodern Iron Age civilizations were fundamentally similar in nature, I will argue that a formative moment for the West took place in the polytheistic, “democratic” civilizations of Greece and Italy and Asia Minor and not in the monotheistic or monarchic contexts of other civilizations. I will also suggest that the medieval contribution to modernity is in some ways being overstated in contemporary scholarship, though the preservation of ancient knowledge and the creation of the university-system would of course contribute immeasurably to the synergy between academic, political, and economic institutions which this paper associates with modernism.

Complex Systems Theory and Historical Change

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 According to complex systems theory, certain events such as rises and declines in the number of living species unfold according to a process of punctuated equilibrium, with spurts of sudden advancement or collapse associated with changes in the organisms’ relationships to their environment. The rule of the day is long intermediate periods of stable predictability interrupted by sudden catastrophic plunges, then a series of unpredictable oscillations before a new homeostatic balance is reached. I want to suggest that a similar lens can be applied to thinking about the process of historical change in the form of political collapse (the elimination of old institutions and the leadership roles associated with them) and reconsolidation (the creation of new institutions and the subsequent rise of novel opportunities for political dominance by new factions of people.) The system can be conceptualized as a zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of individual “players” scrambling to attain limited institutional positions; over time, individuals maneuver and form alliances to gain such positions, and preexisting hierarchies can be upset by changing environmental conditions.

Complex systems theory is an emergent area of scientific investigation. While chaos theory, a subset of the general field of complexity, has been enriched with quantitative theorems since the emergence of sophisticated computer technology in the 1970s, the study of complexity as a broad principle in itself is, as of yet, largely limited to qualitative descriptions of the dynamics of non-linear systems marked by sensitive dependence on initial conditions. In my opinion, these qualitative descriptions, while frustrating to mathematicians seeking specific formulae to describe the evolution of complex systems, are in fact an ideal prism through which to view the periodic transformations of civilization without reducing the infinite nuances of the phenomena involved to anything analogous to a neat set of simple rules. Fundamentally, in order to comprehend the behavior of a non-linear system, one must in principle examine the system as a whole and not merely investigate its parts in isolation. For this reason, a description of change over time in a civilization demands a somewhat sweeping chronological approach, whatever the detractors of metanarratives in history might say. Antiquity uniquely provides us with several useful examples of cultural evolution over whole millennia.

The essential idea of complex systems theory is that the interactions of individual parts within a whole can result in so-called self-organizing criticality. This is to say that the changing relationships between diverse constituent elements of a complex system can spontaneously result in great changes in the whole, potentially characterized by radically distinct emergent properties. The complex whole exists in a fragile state of equilibrium in a “critical state” on the “edge of chaos.” Changing environmental factors can tip aspects of the complex system into chaos itself through “cascading events,” resulting in the sudden onset of turbulence, tumult, and disorder. Eventually, according to chaos theory, the complex system should settle into new points of equilibrium rather than simply collapsing altogether—chaos is turbulent and unpredictable, but it is not synonymous with a complete and total breakdown of order. The new equilibrium, however, similarly exists at a critical point on the “edge of chaos” until new environmental forces again tip it toward chaos and the eventual emergence of a new state of homeostasis similarly radically divergent from the preceding initial conditions. The entire process is one of punctuated equilibrium-by way of analogy, imagine a graph that shows exponential growth, a period of stagnation, and then either a period of collapse or a resumption of growth; the horizontal axis would be time and the vertical axis would be some measure of the level of progress (which I suggest can be measured in such potential ways as surviving written records per year, patents produced per year, deaths by disease each year, institutional roles available per year, etc.)

According to information systems theory, the emergence of chaos can result from exceedingly slight shifts in environmental forces, minutiae like the emperor Claudius’ choice of a successor, or unpredictable migrations of whole barbarian tribes. Such forces precipitate the rapid emergence of unpredictable, fast-changing sets of information that have the capacity to overwhelm traditional governmental structures and contribute ever more to a slide toward a chaotic breakdown. Nevertheless, according to chaos theory, this breakdown should not be complete, but rather characterized by the emergence of new equilibrium points which are always themselves on the edge of chaos. This process perhaps explains phenomena like the restoration of imperial hegemony in the form of the “Dominate” in the third century AD after a period of civil war, the permanent splitting of the empire into eastern and western regions of governance, and finally, the tripartite division of the Mediterranean region into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence. We can think about the history of the Roman Empire as a narrative of punctuated equilibrium; during eras of “chaos,” individual efforts by the government to restore the old order resulted in diminishing returns, reflective of the theories of Joseph Tainter, but clarifying when they actually come into play.[8]

In my opinion, the question of why certain eras are characterized by such diminishing returns has everything to do with the emergence of chaotic patterns complicating previous states of equilibrium until a new homeostatic balance is eventually reached, potentially far less complex than the initial system. The old ways of carving up and dividing resources are upset by demographic and environmental changes and shifting cultural expectations. During periods of turbulence associated with the onset of chaos, complex systems whose central organizing structures are burdened by an overflow of information tend to disintegrate—whether they were organized as a multiparty system, a monopoly by a single party, or a dual party system, old organizational structures built to accommodate old fashioned flows of predictable information quickly become outmoded. New factions rapidly form. However, as any single faction gains an upper hand, it is in the interest of all smaller factions to join together against it. This leads inevitably to a bipolar tension, with the creation of a two party equilibrium and the ultimate emergence of a single party system or a new multipolar equilibrium themselves susceptible to collapse and always tending toward bipolar cleavages. In this chapter, I will call this the factional nature of political change.

Insights from chaos theory can help to make sense of the largest questions in world history from a fascinating new perspective. Turbulence and transformation are the order of the day rather than decline and fall. The unexpected appearance of chaos belies the linear biases of traditional models of history. Violent fluctuations and oscillations cannot be casually dismissed by mono-causal theories; they are in fact a fundamental aspect of any system at a critical point on the edge of chaos.

As mentioned before, there is currently a decided movement among historians in the direction of micro-history. But there is nevertheless great value in a global approach to world history and the exploration of supposed periods of “decadence.” Broadly speaking, the very nature of causation itself is more complex than contemporary historiographical accounts of things like the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire suggest.

In other words, a core set of beliefs in the field of history about the nature of complexity and causation are ultimately incorrect. Traditionally, it is assumed that simple systems behave in simple ways, and that as long as such systems could be reduced to a few perfectly understood deterministic rules, their long-term behavior should be stable and predictable; it is also asserted that complex behavior implies complex causes, and that a system that is visibly unstable, unpredictable, or out of control must be governed by a multitude of independent components or subject to random external influences. Now, however, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, and astronomers have created a new set of ideas. Simple systems can give rise to complex behavior, and complex systems can give rise to simple behavior. Moreover, contrary to the idea that the stories of the rise and fall of individual civilizations are fundamentally unique, it is now believed that the laws of complexity hold universally, whatever the constituent parts of the system.

Questions about causation need to be approached probabilistically (what forces worked to raise the odds that a specific outcome took place, and to what degree did they raise the likelihood of the outcome?) and inclusively (what diversity of explanations can help to explain an outcome rather than a mono-causal model?). The following three sections illustrate this approach toward describing history.

Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Phoenicia Versus the World of the Poleis

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In the beginning was the Stone Age. It last for an obscene number of millennia. A rock is only so sharp and strong, and during agonizingly long eons, humankind struggled to carve up and recombine the constituent components of nature, powerless to harness them toward useful and progressive ends. But then, civilization began in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China beside great rivers where agricultural surplus could be harnessed by the sundry institutions required to organize labor. The use of bronze was fundamental to this shift because it enabled the creation of objects like axes, ploughs, and swords, tools that could not be chiseled out of rock. Such devices enabled nature to be carved up more efficiently, leading to further surplus and the possibility of the creation of a leisured class devoted to discursive inquiry rather than the brute struggle to survive. Now, progress was born, and “history” proper began with the invention of writing. The pace of technological progress was incredible, particularly in the intercompetitive monarchic city-states of Mesopotamia, where the boat, writing, and the wheel were pioneered. I believe that the decentralization of the region was key to its innovativeness. Whenever one city-state innovated by creating a new invention, other city-states either had to adapt and improve the invention for their own ends or lose their territory and be winnowed out.[9]

Ultimately, however, these early Bronze Age Civilizations did not evolve institutions in which politics, economics, and academics lined up to create modernistic synergy along the same kind of radical lines to be seen in Greece and Italy and Asia Minor. After the great burst of inventiveness around the time that bronze was first forged, there was a sudden stagnation. In other words, a kind of equilibrium was reached after exponential growth (which could be measured according to such factors as numbers of inventions created per century, the number of new cities founded, etc.) The reason why is that the very institutions that created the platforms upon which meaningful contributors acted suddenly became oppressive, forming rigid class structures which excluded voices from discourse and emphasized the creation of rules where the goodies could be monopolized by the elite.[10] Subsequently, authoritarianism, rigid class structures, and oppressively dogmatic religious institutions barred, exploited, and excluded people from contributing to discourse (for example, all non male elites). This inherently retarded progress, since the voices of geniuses went silenced: for example, there were thousands of anonymous women who never got the chance to be Aristotles, though they had the capacity to do so.

Between the age of the pyramids and the birth of Thales of Miletus there extended a tragic 2000 years—approximately the length of time separating us from Cleopatra. But then, iron came, and a new age dawned, with a sudden rise in progress. When we mastered iron, we literally forged a new future for ourselves—stronger tools which were more productive, resulting in more utility (stronger armies, more crops yielded per acre, etc). This rise in productivity allowed the goodies to be spread to more people than traditional elites, and suddenly, new classes began to arise. These new classes for the first time could contribute to the development of political, economic, and academic institutions, leading to more progress. This promise would prove to be most fully actualized in the Greco-Roman-Semitic world.[11]

The cultures of the poleis of Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor did not have religious institutions strong enough to sanction or to ban provocative debate about the nature of reality. At the same time, in that society, inherent values of the government were grounded in the celebration of debate, equality, and the inherent importance of every man’s contribution. The city states were fiercely agonistic, yet their people spoke dialects of the same language, so everyone could simultaneously compete with each other and imitate each other’s innovations. Finally, the society was composed of disparate, far-flung colonies that were inherently at competition with the societies around them and forced to govern themselves without the help of age-old institutions. One man in this society declared that everything was made of water. Another man questioned the hypothesis of Thales. This led to a debate which progressed toward proto-scientific notions. The origins of “modernity” were not bound to be found in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, but rather probabilistically likely to be brought into being there thanks to institutional features of those territories, to say nothing of their geographically central location on the easily accessible Mediterranean Sea. Enriched by iron tools and metal coins, utile goods could be distributed to more people than ever before, and more and more brilliant positive contributors could make a difference to their communities.

Greece and Italy are in a culturally diverse spot in the Mediterranean Sea near the spot where one group developed the alphabet (the Phoenicians), another group pioneered centralized bureaucratic organization (Egypt), another group developed coined money (the Lydians), and still another group refined ideas about monotheism (the Jews), making the area a diverse hodge-podge including the voices of many different people with many different perspectives. Ultimately, the institutions of the Greco-Roman world created a unique situation where political, economic, and academic institutions could welcome a greater plurality of voices with a greater variety of ideas than in other contemporary states. Compare the situation to that in other ancient cultures:

The Egyptians: They essentially invented the idea of the centralized monarchic state and refined techniques of massive stone architecture in concert with the Mesopotamians. But their 3000 year old civilization was one of the least progressive in the history of the planet despite the enormous productivity of the land of Egypt itself. This is because political, economic, and academic institutions all aligned to impoverish the vast majority of the country and retain the goodies for a small minority who monopolized all education (it took years to learn hieroglyphs—difficult to do that if you’re a peasant). It boggles the mind to think of all the women, non-elites, and foreigners deliberately excluded from discourse—and many of them extraordinary thinkers! One of the sole examples of real political innovation took place under an elite despot (Akhenaten), and his legacy of “novelty” in questioning whether there were one god or many was vilified forever afterward in Egyptian lore. Tellingly, however, when Greco-Roman civilization came to Egypt and Alexandria was established as a polis, it became the greatest center of science in the ancient world because it welcomed a cosmopolitan congregation of voices debating the nature of reality in a way that was never possible before, and all in the presence of the bounty of the Nile River, which could feed enough people to provide a great deal of leisure time. Even women were sometimes allowed to participate in this academic discourse.

The Jews: Arguably, as a whole, Jews have made the most meaningful contributions to human progress from the perspective of individual ingenious contributions to life on this planet. But I think that ideas about religion and politics in ancient Judaea made it probabilistically much less likely that a “scientific revolution” would take place there rather than in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor (the world of the poleis). This is because more people and more ideas were inherently excluded from discourse in the Jewish culture due to ideas about politics and religion, leading to less internal progress. In Jewish culture, there was no place for discourse questioning whether certain elements of the Law could be broken (though debates about the meaning of the law could, and did, take place, admittedly showing that what superficially seems dogmatic can often run much deeper.) A rigid priestly caste monopolized power and education, meaning that many voices which might have been brilliant went uneducated while a small group of individuals monopolized the learning for themselves. Much scientific progress was bound to discourse on the Law and its meaning, with a neglect of areas of study about the atomic nature of reality. After all, the Bible inherently answered certain kinds of questions (“God made it that way.”) The Jewish idea that God chose them, loved them, and had a special covenant with them sowed the seeds that would one day grow into the concept that there is fundamental goodness in the world and all people are inherently worthy of redemption and made in God’s image. Yet science and philosophy as we now know them began as a branch of Hellenic paganism and not monotheistic Judaism.

The Phoenicians: The Phoenicians are the most similar to the Greeks of any other Mediterranean civilization. They lived in mercantile-oriented small city-states; there was no single governing monarch; the people were seafaring and polytheistic; and they established colonies in the Western Mediterranean. They were also an inventive culture, pioneering glass, dye-making, and most importantly of all, the alphabet, which not only hastened economic transactions, but also made education more readily available to more people than ever before, and hence led to great material progress. There were even institutions resembling the ecclesia or comitia of the Greco-Roman world.

Yet while the Phoenicians were great explorers and agronomists, there seems to have been absolutely no tradition of philosophical discourse and debate in their society. Why? One of the reasons is that the Romans annihilated Carthage and its books, but we have to look deeper than this—there were no famous Phoenician philosophers (though Zeno of Citium might have been of remote Phoenician ancestry.) We must look to religion, economics, and politics, I think, to say nothing of social attitudes toward abstract philosophizing versus practical knowledge. The Canaanite form of polytheism was one of the world’s most brutal, at some times in history evidently mandating child sacrifice even among elites during times of hardship—this more than anything shows a brutal commitment to religious principle at the expense of reason, for all of the institution’s social-leveling power. The Phoenicians formed a narrow mercantile ruling oligarchy over polyglot city-states where the bulk of the non-Punic population was denied political rights. In the Phoenician homeland where there was the most scope for “equality,” overmighty empires like the Persians and Assyrians conquered the cities and set up restrictions to ensure that society was oriented toward the production of ships and money, not knowledge. Culturally practical knowledge was valued much more than silly, impractical “abstraction,” which was conceptualized as something fundamentally Greek.

Because we cannot rerun history as a simulation just yet, it is impossible for us to test hypotheses about what might have happened in other times and places and in other contexts. But the fact remains that in the history of our world, the Greece-Italy-Asia Minor axis created a certain synergy associated with democracy, empiricism, and coined money that proved hugely historically influential. Political, economic, and academic institutions were inherently more inclusive of more voices and ideas than in the case of their Mediterranean counterparts, and this made more scientific progress more likely. The fruits of that progress constitute the core of Classics.

From the Grandeur That Was Rome to the Squalor of the Dark Ages

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Between Thales of Miletus and the period of the height of activity in the Library of Alexandria under the early Roman emperors there existed a period of approximately 800 years. Toward the end of the period in Alexandria, Aristarchus was the first to propose heliocentrism and Hero invented the steam engine; early “computers” like the Antikythera Mechanism boasted the sophistication of eighteenth century Swiss clocks.

Aristotle’s work had long set the stage for empiricism and the development of the scientific method. “Modernity” seemed to be on the cusp of something great. Then, the unexpected took place. Among a perfect storm of other forces, the repercussions of a single man’s unjust crucifixion would reverberate through the centuries—history’s greatest example of the Butterfly Effect in action.

Earlier in this dissertation, I have addressed the topic of decadence from the perspective of the common but outmoded belief that sexual perversion was the destabilizing influence in Roman history around the time of Christ. Contrary to the opinions of scholars like Blanshard, I have argued that behavior which might be considered licentious did in fact exist in the Late Republic as a response to changing political and economic conditions in which the sexual availability of slaves and prostitutes coupled with the rise of totalitarianism by divine right upset traditional patterns of morality. However, I have also shown that the idea of sexual license itself as a chaotic influence on Roman history is a case of mistaking causation and correlation. Free love did not vitiate the Roman Empire. The inadequacy of its cultural hierarchies in the face of the turbulence of history did.

While the study of antiquity is inherently interesting for its own sake, it is perhaps particularly valuable because it represents a long stretch of time in which myriad historical changes took place, with the entire history of the system existing in a kind of metaphorical laboratory. The height of the Roman Empire and its subsequent decline are particularly fascinating because the sophistication of the Mediterranean world ultimately faltered, and the Roman Empire and the barbarian cultures surrounding it finally blended together into a single, largely similar culture. Why did the sophistication of the ancient world lapse so horrifically, and why was the recovery rate following this collapse so slow? The theory of complex systems provides the answer: the “parochial” elements of the ancient economy described by historians like Moses Finley ultimately hindered the development of historical momentum toward industrialization until the entire system collapsed over the edge of chaos into increasingly less complex states of equilibrium. Society was transformed from the single-party domination of the Principate to the multiparty chaos of the Dominate; then, society re-stabilized as the two-party Eastern and Western Roman Empires before the Western portion distintegrated and the Mediterranean was divided into the multiparty three civilizations of Islam, Western Europe, and Byzantium. The periods between the eras of stable hierarchies (the second century and the fifth century and the seventh century) are the ones associated with the onset of chaos; the conclusion of this chapter provides a means of testing the thesis.

Mono-causal explanations for Roman decadence such as “perversion” are ultimately fruitless. In fact, the era of the greatest sexual license in Roman history is ultimately the one of its greatest economic and territorial expansion. Instead, complexity theory provides a very different answer to the question of why the Republic fell and the Principate replaced it: a plethora of forces existed that pushed the old multipolar equilibrium represented by the checks and balances of the earlier Republic and its feuding dynasts over the so-called “edge of chaos” into a simpler new “homeostatic state” marked by the monopolar despotism of a single family, very much like those of their Hellenistic neighbors (and hence less complex than a unique Roman political system artificially distinct from the institutions of the civilizations around it).[12] The history of the transitions along the way are classic lessons in the factional dynamics of the organization of power, shifting between single-party and multi-party modes of organization with a marked tendency toward dualism: hence we see patrician versus plebeian, optimates versus populares, cives versus socii, Marians versus Sullans, the dictatorship of Sulla, the First Triumvirate, Caesarians versus Pompeiians, the dictatorship of Caesar, the Third Triumvirate, Octavian versus Cleopatra, and the ultimate rise of the dictatorship of the Julio-Claudians, the union of the two most influential families of the late Republic.

We have seen that throughout history, changing relationships between humans and the metals with which they forged their tools contributed to chaotic transitions and the emergence of new forms of social organization accommodating increasing numbers of people in dominant roles. In the late Roman Republic, however, as the Republic ripened (or rotted, depending on one’s perspective) into the Principate, it was not a change in humans’ relationship to metals but rather an information-overflow associated with the repercussions of Roman imperialism that destabilized the national government to the point of Civil War; the autocratic monopolar system which followed was both simpler (less complex) than the earlier multipolar system which preceded it and also far more similar to the surrounding civilizations (organized under monarchic rule by divine right), as if by a process of osmosis which diluted the institutions of the Republic. By the same token, when the Western Empire collapsed, the cultures on either side of the Rhine and Danube became fundamentally more similar: Christian, de-urbanized, and dominated politically by German tribes. The tortured intricacies of the late Dominate collapsed into simpler states more similar than dissimilar to the civilizations surrounding them.

Of course, the Middle Ages was not a single Dark Age, but we have to admit that the level of progress was retarded for some time. It seems to me that the period as a whole in the West can best be defined as an age of stagnation and decline at the end of the Iron Age that eventually settled into an equilibrium and then began to hit upon an upward trend again after the crisis of the Black Death created another pivot point on the edge of chaos at the end of the period. According to my formula, fewer voices must have resulted in less discourse for some time, and less discourse must have resulted in less progress in the form of meaningful contributions to questions about the nature of reality. Institutions must have become less welcoming of difference and more oppressive and oriented toward self-preservation rather than the creation of meaningful platforms for debate. At the same time, there must have been no new significant advancements in metallurgy to radically improve the potential for creating new sources of utility to fuel the development of new social classes. I understand that medievalists regret that classicists historically derided their era’s contributions and are right to emphasize that the era they love was a dynamic one in some ways, but it’s important to understand that the period between the fall of Rome and 1000 AD really was a Dark Age despite some cultural continuity. It serves as a sobering lesson for all ages—the momentum of material and technical progress can never be taken for granted.

According to complex systems theory, there existed at least a small probability that the Roman Empire might have industrialized at their pivot point c. 180 AD. Why did they fail to do so? Was it due to their penchant for licentious sex? How can historians even begin to go about answering these kinds of counter-factual questions in the first place?

Rather than branding ancient cities fundamentally primitive or modern in nature in the tradition of Max Weber, I want to examine the various forces working for and against the increasing specialization and application of productive technologies in the Roman Empire. My conclusion is that while aspects of the ancient Roman economy were in fact quite “modernizing” and might have led to a technological revolution under different circumstances, there existed sufficient forces in society hindering the momentum of material progress and rendering an industrial revolution in antiquity far less likely than one in late eighteenth century Britain.

Of all eras of world history, the period of the Roman Empire boasted many of the prerequisites for a commercial and industrial revolution. The Roman world contained some sixty to one hundred million inhabitants living in largely peaceful conditions. A single currency was employed throughout the Mediterranean, disseminated by bankers and professional financiers. The very existence of the Mediterranean as a great central lake facilitated trade and communication, as did the existence of a fine road system overseen by the policing power of the Roman army. Sprawling urban centers like Rome and Alexandria boasted populations in the hundreds of thousands, their populations demanding a steady stream of material products in order to sustain themselves. Great opportunities existed to serve increasingly globalized markets. At the same time, individual merchants enjoyed a set of circumstances marked by relatively free trade, and the capacity to make massive amounts of money by participating in the commercial life of the Empire. In places like Alexandria, intellectual elites cooperated to pioneer potentially world-changing technologies like Hero’s rudimentary steam engine. From the perspective of complex systems theory, all of these forces might have tipped the Roman Empire into a state of industrialization, and the “proto-modernity” of several aspects of the ancient world cannot be denied. As I suggested earlier, the world of the poleis is where institutional “modernity” was born and then refined and extended to the West by the Romans.

Nevertheless, several factors existed rendering an industrial revolution unlikely—the high Roman Empire was an era of equilibrium and eventually stagnation in world affairs. All of the following elements, from the perspective of a computer simulation, would lower the probability of progress and raise the probability of stagnation.

The language required to describe and conceptualize economic growth was relatively rudimentary. The cumbersome system of Roman numerals rendered mathematical calculations arduous and difficult, hindering the development of practices like double-entry bookkeeping, which is virtually unattested in antiquity. At the same time, ancient manuals on the field of “economics” usually emphasized the importance of maintaining the self-sufficiency of plantations, with expenditures kept lower than income. This stands in stark contrast to the later emphases of early modern economic theorists, who advocated catering to the rules of supply and demand to maximize fiscal profits. Ancient economic theorists downplayed the desirability of investment in trade, which was seen as inherently riskier than pooling resources in real estate.

There existed fundamental bias among the most politically powerful classes toward manual labor, commercial investment, and applied technology. Finley exhaustively categorizes these trends in his famous books on the ancient economy. While modern critics are correct to point out that these conservative biases were not necessarily universally felt in Roman society, their existence among the classes of society with the greatest ability to invest in new material resources surely acted at least in part against the chances for industrialization. In antiquity, slaves, freedmen, and non-citizens were responsible for most economic activity. The political powerlessness of these groups is remarkably conspicuous, particularly when their situation is compared to that of their counterparts in the Middle Ages; in medieval Florence, for example, membership in a trade guild was a prerequisite for political participation in the state.

In the late Republic, free enterprise and what Weber called “merchant capitalism” were at their height. Limited liability joint stock companies even existed in the form of conglomerates of entrepreneurs who pooled resources to win the rights to tax farm various provinces. In the early Roman Empire, however, there existed an increasing preference for the use of appointed officials for such activities, and the legal underpinnings of corporate cooperation failed to further develop. Thus, there existed no overlap between the era of the greatest commercial sophistication and freedom (the late Republic) and the era of greatest economic expansion and opportunity (the early Empire).

There existed several bars to the application of new technologies. While current archeological work admittedly points to the widespread implementation of certain technologies (windmills, etc.), there existed no patent law in Roman antiquity to spur on technological innovation. In fact, narratives exist of Roman emperors actively discouraging technological progress for fear that mechanization would result in unemployment, and hence social instability. For all of its revolutionary potential, Hero’s steam engine was viewed more as a toy than an implement of social change. Techniques of metallurgy stagnated in an era of universal peace, as did the need to create new weaponry for the sake of a competitive edge over enemies. At the same time, the omnipresence of slavery similarly served to deter investment in new machinery, since investments in slaves and real-estate promised the safest returns.

The very unity of the Mediterranean world stifled innovation. Consider the example of Roman Lusitania. Merchants in that province had access to the entirety of the Mediterranean basin to sell their wares. In the Middle Ages, however, geographical fragmentation denied the state of “Portugal” a Mediterranean coast. Thus, merchants were forced to turn to the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding new products and markets, spurring the development of radically new shipping technologies. No such incentives existed in the unified, relatively non-competitive world of Roman antiquity.

The existence of amphitheaters drained economic resources, particularly in the West (which, interestingly, had far more amphitheaters than the Roman East, which was traditionally more economically vigorous than the West and survived much longer). Rather than investing in economically beneficial infrastructure, local elites poured money into the celebration of gladiatorial games, importing professional fighters and exotic beasts to satiate the interests of the populace. However, all of these resources were ultimately wasted despite spurring limited economic activity. In the same way, the existence of grain doles similarly retarded economic growth, as major metropolitan centers invested most of their resources on defense and feeding the unproductive urban populace, who remained in a permanent state of economic non-productivity. In my opinion, these historical forces provide some validity to Weber’s insistence on the “parasitic” character of ancient cities, which generally consumed resources from the countryside rather than producing materials to be redistributed to suburban markets (though exceptions admittedly existed to this rule.) At the same time, though, the Romans’ emphasis on the importance of the distribution of the bounty of the government back to the people and the emperor’s promotion of fun on public holidays were, in my view, admirable features of their culture, if only the spectacles didn’t cause so much pain and heartbreak to their victims.

There existed virtually no notion of “historical progress” in the Roman Empire. Although many at least sensed that the order of the Roman world was preferable to barbarism, major historians advocated cyclical views of history, or the notion that the true “Golden Age” was in the distant past, before urbanization and the use of tools corrupted humankind’s primordial naïveté. With the civilization at large devoid of the sense that the world could actively be improved over time through the evolution and application of radical new technologies, the momentum of increasing material progress was actively retarded.

According to my model of the Roman Empire as a complex system existing on the edge of chaos, ancient civilization was able to survive for a remarkably long period of time at a “critical point” of great material prosperity so long as the army remained loyal to the emperor and the citizens of the realm agreed to pay the taxes required to support its infrastructure. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, it was an era of equilibrium after one of growth. Broadly speaking, the Empire can be compared to a snowball that could maintain its structural consistency so long as it continued to roll, but begins to melt when its journey down the hill comes to an end. In the same way, so long as the Roman army was able to incorporate new territory into the Empire and redistribute booty in the form of slaves, booty, and various forms of material resources, the civilization was able to subsist at the edge of chaos despite its lack of internal momentum toward industrialization. However, once the civilization’s territorial growth came to an end, the costs of maintaining the defenses of the sprawling realm proved to be immense, and the system became remarkably unstable. As instability led to the emergence of chaos, efforts by the emperors to preserve the structure of their civilization resulted (as Tainter suggests) in diminishing returns on investments in social complexity. Why is this the case? In the long term, chaos theory suggests that the system was bound to collapse into new states of less sophisticated equilibria unless the momentum of scientific and technological progress overtook the abiding forces of stagnation and “decadence” mentioned throughout the dissertation. The story of the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire” is actually a tale of turbulent dynamics upsetting the ancient society and resulting in a new homeostasis similar to the old order in some ways, yet fundamentally distinct in others.

According to world systems theory, the fall of the Roman Empire cannot be understood as an isolated phenomenon. The third to seventh centuries AD were in fact marked by cascading patterns of turbulence throughout all of Eurasia unleashed by the outbreak of plague, environmental degradation, and aggressive migratory patterns by individuals formerly content (or compelled) to exist on the fringes of civilization. After the period of the Antonine Plague, emperors became increasingly reliant on marginalized ethnic groups and finally barbarian hordes to man the Roman army. This resulted in a massive influx of foreigners into the empire with only marginal allegiances to the state, ever ready to resort to violence for the sake of promoting the interests of a local warlord. At the same time, as uncivilized tribes across Eurasia spilled into each other’s territory, barbarian groups saw their ancestral lands taken from them and were compelled to venture into new countries. The prosperous civilized territories surrounding the Mediterranean seemed increasingly attractive to such immigrants. Migrations were associated with the sacking of major urban centers, terrorizing the local populace into retreating into the countryside and destroying the traditional bases of Roman tax collection.

Chaos theory suggests that the onset of chaos produces more information than a stable state of equilibrium; for example, each new number in the numerical pattern 121212121… represents less new information than each new number in the chaotic, seemingly random series 173749724… As the Roman Empire slipped over the edge of chaos, the central government began to be flooded with information concerning the destruction of cities, the emergence of rebel groups, military disasters, the migratory patterns of barbarians, and the outbreak of diseases. Even as it was burdened by this information overload, it began to lose internal consistency as civil war swept through the empire and loyalty to the central government became increasingly divided. Unlike the situation in the Han civilization, Roman dynasties were usually helmed by individual emperors with a great deal of personal power as opposed to the largely ceremonial kings of China, ruled by a narrow oligarchy of Confucian bureaucrats. As the empire slid into civil war, the individual charisma of the Roman emperors was increasingly undermined, and the relatively feeble bureaucratic institutions of the central government proved incapable of juggling the dilemmas at hand. To make matters worse, as increasing numbers of would-be emperors attempted to finance their campaigns and new sources of precious metals dried up, massive inflation began to undermine the economy, and several areas of the empire reverted to bartering and trade-in-kind. While traditional historians often point to individual elements of this chaotic breakdown as an explanatory cause for the transformation of Roman society, chaos theory instead suggests that they are all fundamentally interconnected symptoms of a movement over the edge of chaos after a long homeostatic/stable period of self-organized criticality.

The leaders of the Roman Empire were confronted by major problems, and they were in no position to stem the tide of chaos despite their best efforts to do so. Just as chaos theory predicts, however, the system did not collapse entirely overnight, but began to re-solidify at new points of equilibrium according to the creation of new party-systems tending toward bipolar duality. Thus, the dictatorial Roman Dominate replaced the relatively gentle rule of the Principate, as military figures attempted to cement the structure of the collapsing society by imposing mandatory liturgies on local aristocracies who had once given freely in a process of euergetism, requiring children to follow their fathers’ professions, and mandating religious uniformity throughout the empire. This new state of homeostasis, imposed by brute force and driven by an increasingly de-urbanized economy, proved far more precarious than the old order, and unsurprisingly, the system again slid into chaos as the barbarous nations on the fringes of the Roman world created entirely new kingdoms within its borders. A division between East and West after a brief division in four would prove to be abiding.

In 1776, Edward Gibbon famously pioneered the view that Christianity was ultimately a symptom of decadence, and one of the principle causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire. He reasoned that its emphasis on peacefulness and passivity vitiated the ancient martial spirit of the Romans, and that its insistence on non-material causation served to hinder the development of the ancient scientific method. Thus, in the tumultuous third, fourth, and fifth centuries AD, thinkers increasingly turned to un-judicable philosophical debates about the nature of divinity rather than taking steps toward the refinement of the scientific method. Eventually, thought was “canonized” by the government, and discourse shut down altogether, relegated to the realm of “commentary” and “copying.”

There is some truth to this narrative. Yet ultimately, I believe that complex systems theory problematizes these claims, to say nothing of the fact that most of the warlike barbarian hordes who overran the provinces of the Roman West were themselves Christian, rendering the idea that the religion necessarily resulted in a state of martial enervation somewhat non-compelling.

First, I plan to explore the historical forces that gave shape to Christianity in the first place from the perspective of complex systems theory. The “Butterfly Effect” is a fundamental principle of chaos, which stresses the interdependence of the constituent parts of a complex whole, sensitivity to initial conditions, and the potential for cascading effects. On the most basic level, the life and death of Christ, an anonymous carpenter in a backwater of the Roman Empire, had the potential to revolutionize the entire Roman world due to its nature as a complex system sensitive to the Butterfly Effect. At the same time, the emergence of the idea that humans were naturally sinful served to incentivize parents to baptize their children, since the prospect of sprinkling water over an infant represented a low cost when it came to forestalling the possibility of eternal torture in hell. Moreover, in a world marked by widespread poverty, a philosophical system stressing God’s love of the poor was surely an attractive alternative to the official state religion, which accentuated the worship of brute power. As the structures of Roman government fell into increasing disequilibrium following the Antonine Plague of the late second century, the apocalyptic message of Christianity perhaps seemed increasingly instructive, as well as its emphasis on the promise of a better world in the hereafter. Roman culture’s traditional emphasis on exemplarity also likely facilitated the rise of Christianity, as martyrs met their deaths heroically in the face of persecution by the state, ultimately forming a new canon of exemplary figures replacing traditional Roman personae such as Lucretia and Cincinnatus. And the Christians were on to something in their aversion to the ubiquitous violent sexual exploitation permeating ancient society—unfortunately, this intolerance extended toward all elements of human sexuality, throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

In the short term, Gibbon was surely correct that the rise of Christianity led to a loss of momentum in the development of the ancient scientific method due to its emphases on supernatural causation and obedience to the Bible as the literal, unquestionable word of God. However, in the long term, I believe that Christianity in fact represented a major source of power for the West, embodying one of the reasons that the equilibrium of the Middle Ages ultimately metamorphosed into a new and more vigorous state of homeostasis in the Renaissance following a period of chaos in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, ripe for a new era of development in the unfolding of the punctuated equilibrium of discursive progress.

Unlike the situation in the Roman Empire, there existed opportunities for common men and women to become priests and nuns during the Middle Ages, greatly broadening the net when it came to the number of individuals contributing to intellectual discourse. It must be remembered that the possession of great intelligence and even genius is randomly distributed. Consequently, given the nature of ancient demographics, it stands to reason that most great minds were either enslaved or members of severely disadvantaged classes with little access to education. The rise of Christianity began to mitigate this problem, adding more knowledgeable voices to scientific discourse.

During the height of the Roman Empire, the greatest intellectual achievements associated with scientific development were associated with the Library of Alexandria. Why was this the case? Uniquely, it provided a centralized infrastructure through which scholars could share ideas, research the best writings of the past, and find rewards for new theories. Unfortunately, such centers were few and far between in the Roman world. However, the rise of medieval universities as schools for studying the Bible enabled numerous such centers to come into being in the long run, greatly facilitating the growth of the scientific method. Unlike in the pagan Roman Empire, there existed major incentives to provide access to such centers of learning, as knowledge of the precise Word of God was a prerequisite to enter heaven. At the same time, these centers often specialized in the copying of ancient texts, broadening their dissemination.

The system of Roman education was largely geared toward an education in rhetoric and debate, emphasizing relativity and a lack of absolute truth. At the same time, during the height of the Roman Empire, it was difficult to enjoy a career devoted to the pursuit of science and literature for its own sake unless you came from an especially affluent social background. The growth of Christian centers of learning altered this state of affairs, providing the possibility of education to more members of society (and hence more geniuses) than ever before. The Church’s emphasis on the possibility of the existence of Truth with a capital T coupled with the concomitant study of ancient literature emphasizing the rudiments of the scientific method eventually created a unique synergy paving the way for the achievements of figures such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes.

It seems clear to me that the emergence of Christianity can be explained by complex systems theory as a variation of the unpredictable Butterfly Effect, with the cascading repercussions of Christ’s life and teachings increasingly prevalent throughout all levels of Roman society. As the late Roman Empire succumbed to chaos, the religion’s teachings appeared increasingly attractive to an ever-expanding core conservative group, who proved unwilling to compromise their major beliefs even in the face of widespread persecution. While Gibbon is perhaps correct that in the short term the rise of the religion led to a retardation of the development of the scientific method, in the long term, the presence of the Church in Europe served as a major stimulus toward scientific growth, to say nothing of representing a major step forward when it came to social attitudes toward coming to the aid of the poor and helpless.

Historical periodization is, admittedly, a somewhat arbitrary science—thus, for example, some have even hazarded to suggest that the Classical world ended with the fall of Athens at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War. In my eyes, however, there is great validity to Henri Pirenne’s thesis that the true end of the ancient world took place after the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, which halted the expansion of Muslim armies into Europe. Modern historians have questioned this thesis, suggesting, for example, that it conceptualizes the Islamic World as an Other. However, from the perspective of complex systems theory, 732 AD represents a significant date marked by the creation of a radically new equilibrium in which the Mediterranean was divided into Western European, Byzantine, and Muslim spheres of influence, and the unified system of currency came to an end; fundamentally speaking, the date marks the final and permanent fragmentation of formerly unified economic zones. Formerly, the most stable points of equilibrium involved either the political unity of the entire Mediterranean basin (the Principate and the Dominate) or a division between the Latin speaking West and the Greek speaking East (the Late Roman Empire). Now, for the first time, the economies of Western Europe would be left to develop on their own in a crucible of geographical fragmentation and intense internal competition. A new equilibrium had come about. The new civilization would ultimately give rise to a dynamic culture which, when pushed out of equilibrium over the edge of chaos by the Black Plague and Great Schism, arrived at a new homeostatic state enriched by the discoveries of the Renaissance and the resources of the Americas, empowering it to set forth and conquer the world.

Modernity and Futurism

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 By the end of the Middle Ages, urbanization had sprung up again and an inter-fragmented collection of nation-states loosely created by the tribes who inhabited the fallen Roman Empire were all competing to make meaningful contributions to ensure cultural survival; many meaningful contributions also came from the Muslim and Chinese worlds as well, who were no less involved in the struggle to survive, understand, and harness and recombine the world’s elements toward utile ends. Yet unlike the unified Chinese empire or the great Muslim monarchies, after the fall of Rome, the West was blessed with an inter-competitive edge much like that of ancient Mesopotamia, when a city-state had to innovate or be annihilated. After the Black Plague, there were so few people left alive in society and institutions had become so inherently weakened that the stage was set for an era of true rebirth. All the ingredients were there for renewed progress: competition, a demand for new elites and experts, the necessity of welcoming of new voices to the table, and higher wages for the living. Now, progress began to quicken, and the development of steel weaponry and maritime navigation made possible the discovery and exploitation of the New World. Descartes improved upon Aristotle, and the experimental method was eventually articulated and led to the possibility of Newton finally answering Parmenides’ questions about how limits and infinity should be conceptualized.

On a macro scale, the economic history of the West is until the nineteenth century largely the story of a loss of precious metals to the East in return for luxury items, a trend first undermined by the discovery of the New World, and then finally put to rest in the nineteenth century Opium Wars. The eventual emergence of full fledged European capitalism proved particularly productive to the development of new technologies. In the midst of intense competition, there existed major incentives to produce wares quickly, differentiate them, and deliver them to market more rapidly than competitors, all of which would be facilitated by more efficient productive technologies. In the Roman Empire, despite the intensity of urbanization, categorical bars existed to the development of such technologies. Max Weber’s model of “merchant capitalism” is particularly revealing, because it suggests that commercial agents had incentives to ensure that local production remained rudimentary so that there would continue to exist increasing demand for foreign products unable to be manufactured closer to home; this state of affairs was undermined in the capitalist age, when the political fragmentation of Europe rendered the geographical scope of merchants’ activities much smaller. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, England had twice as many people as Rome, huge international markets, knowledge of advanced science, and a particularly conducive environment to the exchange of free capital. Thus, the probability of an Industrial Revolution was much greater than in Roman antiquity. The forces working against Roman industrialization would ultimately render the “critical point” of its equilibrium on the edge of chaos increasingly precarious. In a sense, then, economic stagnation represents the heart of Roman decadence.

We are now in the midst of an era of great scientific development. In terms of the punctuated equilibrium of progress, we have all of the ingredients suggesting that we are neither in decline nor at an equilibrium, but in the midst of a rise—an era like the golden age of Athens, or Augustan Rome, or the Renaissance.

  1. We are transitioning into a new age of metal—the Silicon Age. The ability to process information and enhance the human body with computers will increase the potential for more and more people in society to enjoy sources of utility. This will inherently lead to more and more voices joining discourse, and more meaningful contributions over time.
  2. For the first time in history, women and non-elite males are being welcomed by academic, political, and economic institutions. This will inherently lead to better discourse and more progress over time for all of the reasons brought up throughout this paper: more geniuses will now contribute.
  3. There exist many new inventions every year, which is indicative of a high degree of technical innovation and experimentation.
  4. Wars are not being fought between dying superpowers. The era from the Boxer Rebellion to the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of crisis in which nuclear weapons might have annihilated material progress and shown its dark side, temporarily halting progress (but perhaps, like the Black Death, enabling the creation of progress in the future as the survivors experimented with new technologies to live on in the wreckage of the earth.) At the moment, the probability of major metropolises being destroyed by nuclear weapons is much lower than it was at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I define Futurism as the belief that close alignment should be forged between political, economic, and academic institutions to harness the most progress possible in as short a time as possible to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, particularly in the form of advancements in medicine and the development of cyborg technology, cloning, and genetic engineering. In the face of the threat of the “singularity” and a destabilization of the superpowers imperiling the world through nuclear war, Futurism is the only hope for harnessing the exponential power of progress for good rather than toward self-destruction in the form of the retardation of progress.

Concluding Thoughts: Simulations and Falsifiable Hypotheses About Ambiguous Questions of Causation

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 A major advantage of the theoretical model proposed in this paper is that it lends itself to the creation of “simulations” to explore open-ended hypotheses about causation, which is always a matter of a storm of different probabilistic influences, some more direct and major than others (in other words, certain forces raise the probability that an event will take place more directly than others). Assume that the unfolding of Roman political history from the Principate to the barbarian successor states represents the evolution of a complex system sensitive to initial conditions and the Butterfly Effect; it was one in which individuals engaged in a long term zero-sum game for power expressed in the form of a limited number of political and cultural offices and institutions, with conflicts represented by battles such as those mentioned in the (imperfect) historical record.

We will consider two hypotheses. The first is whether gay sex caused the Roman Empire to fall; the second is whether Christianity was the culprit. First we must consider how to model the questions at hand by constructing crude and imperfect simulations of history drawn from quantitative data when possible; next we need to justify what empirical results (what relationship between quantifiable variables) we would expect when examining the outcome of the simulation if a given hypothesis were true; then to say what we would expect if it were false; next what we ourselves hypothesize; and finally, how quantitative data drawn from the relationship between variables in the simulation sheds light on our assumptions, or defies them.

In the case of the first hypothesis, compose a list of years, listing battles per year. Also, search a database of literature (including legal literature) for mentions of gay sex. If it were probabilistically true that homosexuality largely precipitated the fall of Rome, the least I would expect is that the decades which saw the most battles would be associated with the most surviving mentions of individuals described as engaging in gay sex, and also the most surviving laws permitting institutions like, for example, gay marriage, relative to times of internal stability (measured by a lower frequency of battles per year). Yet if it were probabilistically unlikely that non-normative expressions of sexuality played a decisive role in corrosive social change, I would expect little alignment or even reverse alignment—individuals described in the historical record as having gay sex would be distributed evenly across the years, or their numbers might even decline as the empire entered into its most violent phases.

Of course, neither correlation necessarily guarantees causation—for example, perhaps as the empire declined, more religious hysteria arose leading more people to be falsely accused and demonized for homosexuality, generating an artificial rise in the historical record of how many times it is mentioned in surviving literature but saying nothing about its actual social prevalence or why society was collapsing. However, the specific information that the number of mentions of homosexual behavior declined in the final period of the greatest violence would be very problematic for the first hypothesis, because it would suggest not only that most instances of homosexual behavior come statistically from the late Republic and early Empire when there were the fewest battles and the civilization was strongest, but that the era of the final collapse was actually one of cultural repression toward gay sex, since one would expect that with all else being equal, the number of mentions should be equally distributed across the centuries, with highs and lows in the historical record reflecting various degrees of either cultural permissiveness or paranoia. (I actually hypothesize that the highest number of mentions of gay sex would come from the High Roman Empire, when the civilization was flourishing. Then, after an artificial rise associated with the rise of the hegemony of Christianity and discourse hysterically demonizing gay sex, laws banning it would lower the numbers in the final centuries of the Western Roman Empire, thus vitiating evidence for the first hypothesis.)

The second hypothesis made famous by Gibbon is even more challenging to model. Like the first simulation, we might compose a list of years, examine the number of battles mentioned as occuring per decade, and see if the most mentions of Christianity correlate with the years containing the highest numbers of battles. However, just as last time, there would be little revelatory information even if the number of battles correlated strongly with the most mentions of Christianity—after all, perhaps the civilization became Christian coincidentally while it was collapsing or as a response to the horror of the collapse, and this led to a rise in the number of mentions, saying nothing in either case about causation. However, just as with the first hypothesis, the specific information that mentions of Christianity declined during the time of the most intense violence might prove problematic for the theory, though it could also be a function of other forces as well, like so many people perishing, there was little literature produced during the final death throes of the culture. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would speciously vindicate Gibbon, with the most mentions of Christianity found during times of the most violence at the end of the Western Empire.)

In order to model the question more closely, we would need recourse to a wider comparison. Even if Christianity, which was unique to the Roman Empire and its environs, caused Rome to fall, we would expect it to have no effect on the history of another similar directly contemporary Iron Age empire such as, for example, Han China. Hence, if the hypothesis were true that it was Christianity that had the largest probabilistic influence on the collapse of Roman civilization of all other possible factors, we would expect it to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles and their locations than, for example, Pan-Eurasian forces that might have affected both empires, such as the onset of plague or the migration of barbarian tribes or the widespread adoption of a new technology. If the hypothesis were false and Christianity’s rise had less to do with the fall of Rome than Pan-Eurasian factors, we would expect those forces to have more of an effect on the outbreak of battles. But how can all of this be modeled?

Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire and Han China, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) The locations of recorded battles (these move about, and are thus dynamic)

3) The location of metropolises, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontiers; major Christian centers, etc.)

4) The borders of the empire

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier and the walled frontiers of China would be more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships would suggest watershed moments in Roman history. (Imagine, for example, if after a certain date battles suddenly never take place within a 50 mile radius of an area that once suffered from yearly violence.) The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been primarily responsible for violence at different points in time.

Consider the question of Christianity’s influence on the fall of Rome. If it were true that Christianity was a major formative factor, we might expect major Christian centers to attract battles—this might be, for example, the result of sectarian violence between rival heresies, or barbarians sacking passive religious populations. We might hypothesize that the number of battles within a 50 kilometer radius of major Christian centers would rise over time as the empire collapsed, and we might even expect such centers to attract more battles relative to pagan cities untouched by Christianity or the fifty mile radius along the Rhine and Danube frontiers. By contrast, if it were not the case that Christianity were a major factor, we might see no such increase over time as we studied the decade by decade data. We might guess that the number of battles named in the historical record would remain highest within a 50 mile radius of the length of the Rhine and Danube, since the primary focus was on keeping out barbarians. (I actually hypothesize that the data this time round would again champion Gibbon, with the most battles found around cities, which were—albeit coincidentally—also Christian centers, since it was primarily an urban phenomenon.)

In order to disprove Gibbon, we might propose a new question—whether Christian centers or, for example, mineral deposits were greater probabilistic attractors of violence. If the urge to control mines was the primary determiner of where conflicts arose, we would expect the number of battles in the vicinity of mines (within a fifty kilometer radius) to rise during decades of turbulence, and we would expect the battles around Christian sites to either decline in number or show no statistically significant rise or fall at all. (In this case, I actually hypothesize that there would be no relationship between the locations of mines and battles at all; the number of battles in such locations would not rise over time relative to other indicators like whether an event is within 50 kilometers of a Christian center or 50 kilometers along the Rhine and Danube, since the late Roman emperors resorted to adulterating their coinage and hiring mercenaries.)

Our last resort might be to add Han China into the mix so that we could begin to see the limits of Gibbon’s view by considering Christianity’s impact versus that of pan-Eurasian forces, like the outbreak of plague, the spread of new technologies, and the migration of barbarian tribes. Comparing the two empires decade by decade, I would measure the number of battles per decade and whether they were within 50 kilometers of the borders of each empire (in the case of Rome, the Rhine-Danube frontier.) During times of internal instability, metropolitan centers and mineral deposits might be expected to attract battles more than the old frontiers, which are disintegrating (presumably because armed groups want access to the goods in the cities and countryside.) If Pan Eurasian forces were the largest probabilistic influence on the fall of Rome, I would expect the empires to both show an increase in the number of battles outside of the 50 mile radius along the frontier zones during the same period—the shape of the graphs (with more internal battles rather than frontier battles over time) would be expected to have the same shape over almost the same time frame. If a cultural force unique to Rome such as Christianity caused the fall, by contrast, I would expect no such relationship to exist between the datasets of the two empires, separated by thousands of kilometers.

Of course, any similarity or difference might be purely coincidental. Nevertheless, finding that both Rome and China were undergoing turbulence at the same time (measured by the number of battles in internal regions rising, to say nothing of the number of battles rising in general) would provide strong evidence for the view that Pan-Eurasian forces had a major formative effect, which itself undercuts the idea that the rise of Christianity was the vitiating factor. (This time, I expect that Gibbon’s argument would be undermined—turbulence in both Rome and China was probably caused at least in part by the same migratory phenomena affecting all Eurasia; in the language of this chapter, it was sparked by the complexity of an artificial border with a high degree of organization on one side and a low degree on the other collapsing into a less chaotic state of stable, simpler homeostasis with cultural similarity and less political sophistication on each side of the barrier. A heap of stones, however aesthetic, is no long-term solution to socio-economic and cultural division between neighbors in any time or place.)

 

[1] In the eyes of biographers like Plutarch, Mark Antony’s decision to divorce his Roman wife in favor of taking up with his Egyptian mistress and then dividing up Roman territories to their illegitimate children together might stand as the epitome of such forces in action. (Of course, from his perspective, he was only restoring traditional Ptolemaic territories to their rightful owners and leaving the Senate to govern Rome rather than imposing his will as a dictator upon it.)

[2] Quoted by James Warren, “All the Philosopher King’s Men,” Harper’s MagazineFeb, 2000. Accessed at http://harpers.org/archive/2000/02/all-the-philosopher-kings-men/

[3] See https://www.buzzfeed.com/andrewkaczynski/not-exactly-edward-gibbon?utm_term=.hhZqb9xD5#.xd8nKZpE5

[4] See www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/8438210/Fall-of-Roman-Empire-caused-by-contagion-of-homosexuality.html

[5] E.g., while one might not be a Marxist, applying a Marxist lens to questions about social change can help to illuminate specific dynamics associated with, for instance, class struggle. This is why so much of the work of people like Freud remains interesting and relevant despite the fact that few psychiatrists today subscribe strictly to his specific model of the human spirit; applying his model, however bizarre it sometimes appears, can help to emphasize and clarify the role of forces like family interaction in early childhood and repressed memories in shaping character. Ideally, scholars should use a variety of thematic lenses to examine a subject from different vantage points; many, however, stick strictly to their favorite set of glasses, stubbornly ignoring the microscopes and binoculars of the world and complaining that such apparatuses blur vision because they cannot learn to refocus their vision. The lens of complexity theory accentuates the role of the unexpected, the contingent, and the probabilistic on history.

[6] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses : Authorised Translation from the Spanish (New York: W. W. Norton & co., 1932).

[7] Discourse becomes impoverished in the absence of diversity for two reasons—first, geniuses who were born anything but elite males are doomed to a life where they cannot actualize their potential; second, the greater the diversity of voices and lived experiences at the table, the greater and more powerful the synergy can be created as unique perspectives are applied to age-old problems.

[8] In the language of this paper, during periods of “turbulence,” a situation envisioned by Tainter can readily arise in which individual efforts by the government to micro-manage a devolving state of affairs in the face of rapidly changing environmental conditions and information-overload can simply provoke more devolution.

[9] Shades of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.

[10] This is where Foucault’s greatness as a historian is most apparent, because he understood this phenomenon intuitively.

[11] Interestingly, after the Bronze Age stagnation, there was a temporary dip into chaos and misery at the onset of the Iron Age when barbarous tribes armed with iron ransacked civilization. Eventually, however, a long and productive equilibrium was eventually reached.

[12]

The Meaning of Roman History to Britain, Italy, and Germany on the Eve of the Second World War

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Yesterday, on June fourth, 1944, Rome fell to American and Allied troops. The first of the Axis capitals is now in our hands. One up and two to go! It is perhaps significant that the first of these capitals to fall should have the longest history of all of them. The story of Rome goes back to the time of the foundations of our civilization. We can still see there monuments of the time when Rome and the Romans controlled the whole of the then known world. That, too, is significant, for the United Nations are determined that in the future no one city and no one race will be able to control the whole of the world… But Rome is of course more than a military objective. Ever since before the days of the Caesars, Rome has stood as a symbol of authority. Rome was the Republic. Rome was the Empire. Rome was and is in a sense the Catholic Church, and Rome was the capital of a United Italy. Later, unfortunately, a quarter of a century ago, Rome became the seat of Fascism — one of the three capitals of the Axis… Italy cannot grow in stature by seeking to build up a great militaristic empire. Italians have been overcrowded within their own territories, but they do not need to try to conquer the lands of other peoples in order to find the breath of life. Other peoples may not want to be conquered.[1](Franklin Delano Roosevelt)

The thematic content of this radio address by President Roosevelt speaks to the remarkable breadth and occasional notoriety of the legacy of the ancient Romans among their heirs, students and emulators. Over the course of Rome’s long history, the city experienced so many diverse phases of development that cognizance of contemporary parallels to at least segments of its story served to enrich the Western imagination ever since the twilight of antiquity in the fifth century AD. As Roosevelt explained, “Rome” in fact epitomized many paradigms at once. It was, in turn, a monarchy overthrown by Senators demanding the right to self-determination; a Republic corrupted by civil war; a universal Empire unconquerable in battle; a perverse culture that oversaw the enslavement of millions of people and the exhibition of lurid spectacles that disgrace its legacy to this day; a magnificent civilization that tottered and fell; the spiritual mother of Byzantine Orthodoxy and Latin Catholicism; an insistent reverie in the minds of would be Caesars from Charlemagne to Mussolini; and a living nightmare in the hearts of their victims.

We shall see that for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman history was endlessly adapted and reinterpreted through the prism of contemporary political beliefs about race, empire, and military might. For the British, the civilization’s rise often inspired a sense of pride in the value of struggling against all odds to maintain a polyglot global empire, and Rome’s fate served as a reminder that Civilization succumb to barbarism in the absence of proper vigilance. For the Italians, the nationalist unity of Augustan Italy (27 BC-14 AD) and the glory of the period’s art, poetry, and political precedents served as vital thematic inspirations for the development of Fascist doctrine as we know it (the name “Fascism” itself was of course a reference to the bundles of rods and axes grasped by Roman lictors, symbolic of the authority of magistrates to inflict absolute punishment in the name of the law.) Finally, at the hands of German propagandists, the fall of Rome was portrayed not as the result of barbarian invasions from Teutonic lands, but rather the inevitable consequence of infiltration by Jews and other provincial peoples flooding the supposedly Aryan hinterland of the civilization and weakening its very genetic fabric.

Considering the uses and abuses of Roman imagery in the first half of the twentieth century, it seems remarkable that references to the ancient civilization continued to enrich the propaganda of Axis and Allied combatants alike. Although Britain was once conquered by the Romans and Italy was its mortal enemy in the Second World War, references to the valor of ancient Roman culture were continually spoken with pride by the leaders of a civilization that found itself at the heart of an empire even larger than that of the Caesars. Though Rome ultimately faltered militarily and was conquered by Gothic hordes, Mussolini and his cadre aggressively insisted that the new Italian Empire was the very embodiment of the ideals of Augustan Rome, Vergil’s predictions of eternal glory overshadowing the unsavory reality that the civilization ultimately collapsed upon itself. And despite the fact that Germany was never a lasting province of the Roman Empire and that Northern European warriors were in fact the very men who sacked the metropolises of the Empire and propelled Europe into the Dark Ages, even Hitler and his entourage could not resist grandiloquent comparisons between their Reich and the Latin Empire. The twin facts that Roman history is so diverse and that the study of its language and culture served as the foundation for classical educations throughout virtually every nation in Europe likely resulted in the abiding popularity of references to the ancient culture even among enemy nations whose people had historically served as Rome’s victims and destroyers.

The Importance of Roman Imagery to Victorian and Early Twentieth Century Britain

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For nearly three hundred years Britain, reconciled to the Roman system, enjoyed in many respects the happiest, most comfortable, and most enlightened times its inhabitants have had…In this period, almost equal to that which separates us from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, well-to-do persons in Britain lived better than they ever did until late Victorian times… there was law; there was order; there was peace; there was warmth; there was food, and a long-established custom of life…To be a citizen of Rome was to be a citizen of the world, raised upon a pedestal of unquestioned superiority above barbarians or slaves.[2] (Winston Churchill)

The preceding Churchillian encomium portrays Britannia under the sway of the Pax Romana as a sort of progressive wonderland. The statesman explicitly calls the era “most enlightened” and suggests that, for the wealthy at least, the vita bona was unparalleled until the late nineteenth century. Churchill does not consider evidence that even the Georgian era was likely far more prosperous than antiquity, with luxuries made more widely available and basic goods cheaper than ever before in the thematic shadow of a sophisticated capitalistic structure, to say nothing of the benefits of improved medicine for rich and poor alike.[3] But the memory of Rome had always been associated with dazzling cultural heights, and the art of showering hyperbolic praise on the civilization boasted a lively tradition in English letters stretching to Gibbon and beyond. By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the glorification of ancient Roman imperialism as a noble, civilizing force coupled with an appreciation for the discipline required to maintain the scattered Empire were deeply engrained mainstays in the English educational system. Celebrated Britons lionized the ancient Romans and proudly compared their multi-racial, multi-national empire with its two thousand year old counterpart. Only after the First World War did a sense of ambivalence regarding the violence of Roman imperialism begin to come, subtly, into play in certain intellectual circles.

Writing of the pervasive influence of Roman classics on British education, Churchill declared that “not without pride” would the Romans discover that knowledge of Latin was necessary if one wished to enter the “famous universities.”[4] Influential educational theorists of the nineteenth century such as Thomas Arnold emphasized the importance of inculcating students with a love of ancient writers, also accentuating thoroughgoing training in the nuances of Classical philology; the discipline and confidence required to navigate the complex twists and turns of Latin syntax was said to be character forming. Criticism of the virtual deification of Classics at the expense of pragmatic sciences was voiced since the 1860s, but until the aftermath of the Second World War (and perhaps even beyond it, to the 1960s), it was widely believed by individuals perhaps self-consciously justifying their own youthful scholarly efforts that knowledge of Greco-Roman culture would uniquely “open the door to the study of literature and art and all politics, and are the foundation of the humanities; which, finally, are full of high types and examples of great deeds done and noble words said, peculiarly capable of impressing the mind in the impressionable years which mark the transition to adulthood.”[5] Until after the First World War, knowledge of Greek and Latin was required for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, to say nothing of its being essential to the acquisition of academic scholarships. In recognition of this reality, so-called public schools often focused their curriculums on Greco-Roman antiquity, and drilling in Latin formed an abiding if often monotonous tradition at leading institutions at Winchester, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, and Westminster.[6] Knowledge of Latin and years’ worth of drilling in classical authors who sang the praises of Roman imperialism were also necessary for success in the Home Civil Service and Royal Military Academy. In this thematic context, the reverence paid to Rome by myriad British thinkers comes as no surprise.

Although many have written at length on the important of classical Greece to late Victorian British identity, even the arch-Hellenist Frank Turner admits that for long periods of history, Rome somehow clung more insistently to the imagination: “Roman law and literature…dominated Europe’s cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the continent…Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.”[7] Though eighteenth century German polymaths such as Winckelmann and Goethe had pioneered renewed enthusiasm for Athenian culture, Rome remained entrenched in the hearts of the British people who, like their ancient colonizers, found themselves a small nation at the center of a multinational, global empire. The notion of the Pax Britannica as a force for good on the world stage was closely modeled on the notion of the Pax Romana as a virtuous predecessor.

 

While eighteenth century French and American authors discovered archetypes worth emulating in the foundational legends of the Roman Republic as they struggled to win popular sovereignty, late nineteenth and early twentieth century British writers found sources of inspiration in the achievements of the autocratic Roman emperors. Writing on “The Imperial Ideal,” Sir John R. Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, declared in 1883 that “there are many other good things in politics besides liberty,” and that the Romans in particular introduced “the modern brotherhood or loose federation of civilized nations”.[8] Echoing a generation of thinkers who praised their nation’s expansion into tropical climes as an example of the progress of modernism over barbarism, historians such as W. F. Monypenny described Roman expansion as “conquest that ultimately justified itself as a furtherance to civilization.”[9] The Earl of Cromer’s praise in 1910 for the Romans’ talent at integrating foreigners into their empire is also typical of a fawning mindset: “No modern Imperialist nation has… shown powers of assimilation at all comparable to those displayed by the Romans.”[10] Sir Charles Lucas lauded Rome’s racial harmony in particular, theorizing that a homogenous equality existed among all free men of the empire regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. Since slaves and freemen alike were of various colors, slavery itself was said to have contributed to a process of homogenization, drawing people of all ethnicities toward the imperial core, where they would eventually win their freedom and take their place as citizens. These emphases on class, color, and immigration were distinctly Victorian topoi.[11]

In contrast to German scholars who spoke of racial disharmony as the harbinger of Rome’s fall, there thus existed in Britain influential schools of thought that claimed quite the opposite—the strength of the Empire was its multi-national cohesion. Nevertheless, while progressive thinkers might have lauded the Romans for their color blindness, others found in antiquity a model validating the oppression of “barbarian” peoples. The notorious Cecil Rhodes enjoyed repeating the maxim of Marcus Aurelius: “Remember always that you are a Roman.” In fact, when ordering portrait busts of himself, he is said to have waxed lyrically upon similarities between his likeness and certain statues of Roman emperors.[12] For better or worse, Rome provided a model of despotic rule seemingly justified by the necessity of civilizing “barbarian” peoples, including, ironically, the ancestors of the British themselves. Nevertheless, a willingness to blindly emulate the methods of the Roman should not be overstated. In reference to Britain’s relationship with the English-speaking people of the dominions, historian Raymond Betts suggested that the Roman Empire was not worthy of comparison, since it was something “tyrannical and exploitive;” countries like Canada and Australia were predominantly inhabited by individuals of European stock, and there existed a sense that their people would not endure tyranny for long.[13] C. P. Lucas’s Greater Rome and Greater Britain (1912) is also typical of this trend when he writes at length about the difference between the administration of English-speaking dominions and tropical colonies—a constitutional framework is appropriate for the former, and paternalism for the latter.

Unfortunately, in the racially charged context of European men ruling over indigenous societies, some scholars were proud to look to Roman forbearers to justify their political control of other races. In 1883, the lecturer John Robert Seeley proclaimed that although Britain won its empire informally, there suddenly existed a moral duty to rule and civilize India, cautioning his audience to emulate the ancient Romans in their discipline but to resist their cardinal failure of developing tyranny at home as a response to expansion abroad.[14] The bureaucratic administration of India was in the hands of individuals steeped in myths of noble Romans civilizing barbarian hordes. So called “all-rounders” educated in the Classics, such as the Viceroy Lord Curzon, wrote of “the living influence of the empire of Rome” on the Indian subcontinent.[15] Sir James Stephen spoke boastfully at Eaton of the Indian empire being even “more populous, more amazing, and more beneficent” than that of Rome.[16] Indian Civil Service candidates in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be tested in a manner “not less severe than those examinations by which the highest classical distinctions are awarded at Oxford and Cambridge.”[17] For this reason, a grounding in the study of classical antiquity was held in common by most administrators. Proficiency in English language and literature was worth 1500 marks, Math 1000 marks, and Greek and Latin 750 marks each; Sanskirt and Arabic, though utile languages in India, were only worth 375 marks each, later raised to 500. The Royal Titles Act of 1876 established Victoria as “Regina et Imperatrix” over India, cementing the strange bond between the titles of ancient Roman despotism and those of British power over the Subcontinent.[18] For all of the crassly propagandistic abuses of Roman history at the hands of her Fascist enemies, Britain too thus had many sons and daughters who were willing to avoid the psychic repercussions of their aggressive imperial actions against other nations by imagining themselves clad in togas.

 

On the eve of the sobering horrors of the First World War and directly following that struggle, British scholars began to examine Roman history in an increasingly cynical and wry manner. Artists like Rudyard Kipling, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves began to challenge the supposedly glorious images of Roman legions triumphing over savages, age-old motifs immortalized in the poetry of Horace, Martial, and other ancient masters. For example, Kipling’s poem “A Pict Song” begins:

“Rome never looks where she treads, always her heavy hooves fall on our stomachs, our hearts, or our heads; and Rome never heeds when we bawl. Her sentries pass on—that is all, and we gather behind them in hordes, and plot to reconquer the Wall, with only our tongues for our swords.”[19]

Now, for the first time, the authorial voice identifies himself with the victims of imperialism rather than its agents. By the same token, Wilfred Owen famously challenged Horace’s claim that it was dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, calling it “the old lie” in a poem written between 1917 and 1918. By the time that Graves published I, Claudius in 1934, romantic images of the imperial household were completely set aside, and the rulers of Rome were portrayed as prototypes of the corrupt, fascist leaders of the era before World War Two. In The Roman Revolution, the great classicist Ronald Syme wrote: “When a party has triumphed in violence and seized control of the State, it would be plain folly to regard the new government as a collection of amiable and virtuous characters. Revolution demands and produces sterner characters.”[20]

Nevertheless, for all this increasing awareness of the imperfection of ancient Roman government, the civilization somehow retained its attractive luster for decades following the Second World War. In the words of Churchill, a Roman “would have the same sense (as an Englishman) of belonging to a society which was threatened, and to an imperial rule which had passed its prime. He would have the same gathering fears of some sudden onslaught by barbarian forces…”[21] In victory or defeat, Roman precedents provided poignant counterpoints to the English experience.

Augustan Rome and the Origins of Italian Fascism

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Rome is our point of departure and our point of reference: it is our symbol, or if you will, our myth.”[22] (Benito Mussolini)

In 1932, an American professor of Classics by the name of Kenneth Scott wrote rather effusively in the “Journal of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South” comparing Mussolini to Augustus:

“It is an interesting coincidence that Italy’s premier is a journalist, a master of language, in speech or written word, a dramatist, a man who in spite of manifold duties can find time to write an autobiography and memoirs of his experiences in the World War. He is carrying on a tradition not only of Augustus, but of such emperors with literary talent as Claudius, Nero, Hadrian, or Marcus Aurelius and Julian.”[23] Mussolini also said: ‘Italy has had enough of liberty for a while. What it needs now is law. The people want peace, work, bread, roads, and water.’”[24]

Before the catastrophes of the Second World War forever disgraced the memory of the Fascist movement, an understanding of the phenomenon as a classicizing manifestation of hyper-nationalism seemed to many observers a viable, even vibrant alternative to the threat of popular communist revolution. In his creation of an ultra-patriotic state fuelled by propaganda, Benito Mussolini and his crew mined Roman history for all it was worth to associate the glory of their regime with the triumphs of their nation’s ancient culture. Symbols of Roman authority abounded in the nascent movement: the ceremonial rods and axes called fasces which gave the movement its name, the stiff-armed Roman salute, colorful imperial standards, and eagles with outstretched wings. Appeals to Romanitas, the “quality of being like a Roman,” were key to the nationalist agenda, the necessity of providing “peace, work, bread, roads, and water” calling to mind the achievements of the ancient Caesars.[25] The potential allure of liberalism and Marxism were dramatically overpowered by the state’s ability to command the people’s fanatical loyalties. Fascism was designed to bring about a permanent change in the European imagination, ascribing value to individual life only insofar as it was committed to service and obedience to the state. Tellingly, the fact that ancient Rome ultimately eviscerated itself with civil wars and over-expansion had no place in Mussolini’s appeals to the past.

The so-called First Party Congress held in Rome in 1921 helped to cement the popularity of Fascism as a movement calling for efficiency and militarism as an antidote to the creeping contagion of Bolshevism.[26] By 1922, Il Duce already had enough support among the hoi polloi to march upon Rome, self-consciously following in the footsteps of demagogues such as Sulla and Caesar before him. In the wake of the increasing spread of Fascist doctrine, the abstraction characteristic of Italian futurism in the arts was largely set aside for a return to classicizing motifs. Between 1922 and 1943, the fasces began to be imprinted on posters, bass reliefs, and military paraphernalia, symbolic of collective force; at the same time, statues of eagles, Roman-style military parades, and legionary insignia and standards were all resurrected to cement the power of the nascent state in the hearts of the Italian people, who were longing for greatness again. The spiritual renovation of the state was thus physically expressed through seemingly endless repetition of core motifs; indeed, some have suggested that Roman imagery was aggressively recycled in order to create a sort of brand or logo for the state, inspired by techniques of early twentieth century advertising.[27] It is important to remember that the early movement was not grounded in anti-Semitism; Margherita Sarfatti, an early influence on Fascism, was in fact of Jewish descent, though by 1938, anti-Jewish feeling had begun to taint the ideology. Before this, however, Italian Fascism seemed to many like a process of aestheticizing politics, slapping a classicizing Roman varnish on hyper-patriotism and fanatical commitment to a dictatorial figure.

Comparisons between Mussolini and Augustus were especially prominent. Both men had come to power after a period of civil disorder, and both stood at the center of a revolutionary autocracy built on the embers of what had once been a Republic.[28] Panegyrics by Giuseppe Bottai (the Governor of Rome from 1935-1937) and numerous works by E Balbo repeatedly emphasized similarities between Mussolini and Augustus, even drawing parallels between the first Roman emperor’s Iberian campaigns and the Duce’s support of Franco.[29] Mussolini himself hosted a major exhibition called the Mostra Augustea della Romanita on the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birthday, with Giulio Quirino Giglioli appointed to serve as the general director the exhibition.[30] Opened in 1938, an indoor fairground highlighted the historical developments that look place in Augustus’ lifetime, with a second and third series of antechambers devoted to the topics of “architecture and engineering” and “religion and society,” respectively. Meant as a sort of interactive museum, the halls of the exhibition highlighted models, maps, and artifacts charting the growth of the Roman Empire, but tellingly contained virtually nothing extolling the achievements of Senatorial rule or Republican virtue—some particular facets of Roman history were now politically incorrect. In the central room of the exhibit, eerily anticipating Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe in later history, sixteen portraits of Augustus were displayed in repetitive rows, with posters of the monuments of his age set alongside more recent constructions sponsored by Mussolini himself. The exhibition was meant to serve as a great rhetorical exercise in hyperbole, explicitly uniting Fascism and Roman Imperialism as a single, glorious tradition. Hitler enjoyed the exhibition so thoroughly when he came to visit Rome in May of 1938 that he even arranged for a return visit to study the displays in greater detail before the end of his trip.[31]

Until the eighteenth century, readers who were only familiar with Rome through their knowledge of the Classics often found that the city of their imaginations looked very different from the heaps of toppled columns that they actually found there.[32] Spending millions of modern dollars, Mussolini set out to revive the glory of the city’s ruins, often setting up enormous maps beside the renovations portraying the High Roman Empire on one side and the modern Italian Empire on the other. In the classicizing Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, Mussolini delivered a telling speech on the occasion of the appointment of Filippo Cremonesi as governor of the city in 1925. He said:

“My ideas are clear, my orders are exact, and certain to become concrete reality. Within five years Rome must strike all the nations of the world as a source of wonder: huge, well organized, powerful, as it was at the time of the Augustan Empire. You will continue to free the trunk of the great oak from everything that still clutters it. You will create spaces around the Theater of Marcellus, the Capitol, the Pantheon…Within five years the mass of the Pantheon must be visible from the Piazza Colonna through a large space…The milleniary monuments of our history must loom larger in requisite isolation.”[33]

Within less than a decade, this vision of resurrecting the Augustan metropolis indeed became concrete reality. Begun in 1931, the Via dell’ Impero, now the Via dei Fori Imperiali, became the artery connecting the Piazza Venezia (site of Mussoloni’s office, the Sala del Mappamondo and the very hub of Fascist Italy) with the ruins of the imperial forums of ancient Rome.[34] The Ara Pacis, an Augustan altar dedicated to the peace brought about by the stability of his regime, was reassembled in 1938 and inaugurated on the 23rd of September, Augustus’ birthday. Finally, an entire suburb dubbed L’Esposizione Universale di Roma (EUR) was constructed in 1937, its architecture Fascist and bombastic to the core, including a giant rhombus dubbed “The Square Coliseum” and a museum of Roman civilization in the city-center famous to this day.

Ultimately, this glorification of Augustan Rome was also manipulated to validate Mussolini’s programs of imperial aggression just as it had been harnessed to justify the loss of civil and political liberties in the name of peace and order. Speaking of the Italian Empire, Mussolini once ominously averred: “We can give value to two regions (Tripoli and the Cirenaica) which once were owned by Rome and which must grow to the greatness of their past.” Aggressive moves in the Aegean and North Africa were described as glorious re-conquests of regions that had once belonged to Rome, with Mussolini delivering them from generations of waste and misrule.[35] In 1937, emblematic of this trend, the film Scipione l’ Africano portrayed the ancient Carthaginian Empire as a corrupt regime ruled by what can only be described as loathsome Semitic stereotypes saved from themselves by Scipio’s victory in the Hannibalic War; it was awarded the so-called Duce Cup at the Venice film festival and declared a masterpiece.[36] Until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, all this posturing was seen as par for the course when it came to the justification of foreign imperialism, and even bears some similarity to the interpretations of Roman history voiced by the classically trained administrators of British India. Indeed, before the mid 1930s, Mussolini and his classically inspired movement seem to have been viewed as something inspirational to the nations that would go on to topple him; Roosevelt was often compared favorably to Mussolini in the implementation of his New Deal, for example.[37] But when on the 9th of May, 1936, a second Roman Empire was proclaimed following the fall of Ethiopia, the stark realities of the fruits of autocracy began to chip away at their attractive, classicizing veneer.[38]

Nazi Racial Ideology and the Rise and Fall of Rome

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“In the historical department the study of ancient history should not be omitted. Roman history, along general lines, is and will remain the best teacher, not only for our own time but also for the future. And the ideal of Hellenic culture should be preserved for us in all its marvelous beauty. The differences between the various peoples should not prevent us from recognizing the community of race which unites them on a higher plane. The conflict of our times is one that is being waged around great objectives. A civilization is fighting for its existence. It is a civilization that is the product of thousands of years of historical development, and the Greek as well as the German forms part of it.”[39](Adolf Hitler)

Just as educated Britons waxed lyrically on the Roman antecedents to their Empire and Italians spoke with pride on the fruits of ancient Italian nationalism, Hitler and other German thinkers like him perceived Romanitas through their own particular political prism, obsessing about the racial continuity between themselves and ancient ancestors who ironically lived in an era before the concept of race had even come into full existence. The fact that the ancient Romans deemed the Germans barbarians was moot—that both civilizations shared a Caucasian identity was deemed more significant. Before the Second World War, the Germans even expressed admiration for the British Empire as a remarkable achievement proving the ingenuity and superiority of the white race over all others. In 1930, Hitler upbraided Otto Strasser for suggesting that the Nazis should provide aid to the burgeoning Indian independence movement, declaring that the Nordic British had a right to rule in the Subcontinent—“The interest of Germany demands cooperation with England since it is a question of establishing a Nordic-Germanic America, over the world.”[40] In the eyes of the crazed German leader, even matters of real politick were paltry concerns beside weightier matters of racial ideology.

Alfred Rosenberg and Hitler shared the belief that the course of ancient history revealed that Greece and Rome were the direct forbearers of contemporary Nordic civilization, with “Nordic” implying a “Caucasian” identity rather than a “Negroid” or “Mongoloid” one. The cultural achievements of antiquity were interpreted as the inevitable fruits of racial superiority unabashedly expressed over barbarian peoples. The story of the rise and fall of Rome was thus manipulated to justify the Fuhrer’s pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Romans were deemed “die Erstgeborenen der arischen Voelker,” a community of Nordic peasant farmers (Bauernstaat) that came to dominate the racially inferior people surrounding them.[41] In his writings, Hitler declared Italy “the original home of the concept of the state” and expressed awe for the rapid rise of Rome, employing ancient imagery such as eagles, fasces, straight-armed salutes, and legionary standards in his propaganda just as his neighbor to the South did.[42] Hitler found a source of inspiration in the order and militarism of ancient Rome, and a model for Berlin as a world capital.[43] In large part, with the exception of his memorable addition of the swastika to the canon of symbols, the imagery of German fascism was in large part deeply grounded in the classicizing tendencies of its Italian counterpart.[44] In his mind’s eye, Hitler seems to have envisioned himself as a sort of latter day Roman emperor, and he hungered to create a capital worthy of his imperial ambitions. Albert Speer recounts that Hitler saw himself above all else as a great artist, plotting to create a giant metropolis called Germania to be visually modeled on ancient Rome.[45] The imaginary city would have boasted a triumphal arch dwarfing Napoleon’s efforts in Paris and a Volkshalle on the model of the Augustan Pantheon that could have housed the entire Vatican within its walls. The structure was planned to be sixteen times the volume of St. Peter’s Basilica.

How was the Nazi government to account for the fall of the Roman Empire, which was of course precipitated by the direct ancestors of the German people? In the words of Mussolini, “thirty centuries of history allow us to look with supreme pity on certain doctrines which are preached beyond the Alps by the descendants of those who were illiterate when Rome had Caesar, Virgil, and Augustus.”[46] In the eyes of Rosenberg, and Hitler like him, the emperor Caracalla’s granting of full citizenship to all the citizens of the Empire muddied the civilization’s racial waters, and ultimately, a Jewish cult conquered the state like a form of ancient Bolshevism before virtuous German tribes to the North re-invigorated Europe with their pure Aryan blood and set the stage for the achievements of modern history; the same echoes of the idea of an Aryan-Roman super-race can be found in the work of Italian Julius Evola, a formative influence on Mussolini. The narrative of the rise and fall of Rome was thus directly perverted to express contemporary Fascist beliefs about race, nationalism, and imperial force. Still, the discontinuity between a vision of an “Aryan Rome” and the reality of warfare between ancient Romans and Germans, to say nothing of the specific association of Romanitas with Mussolini’s Italy, meant that Rome alone would not suffice as a model for ancient valor. At the same time, certain influential historians were less than impressed by the achievements of Roman culture, interpreting it largely as a cautionary example; Oswald Spengler, for example, identified “Caesarism” as a symptom of cultural decline and underrated Roman military achievements after the Second Punic War. Heinrich Himmler, chief and police and minister of the interior, was admittedly more interested in occultism than Classics and attempted to mythologize the ancient, pre-urban German tribes.[47]

Yet as Helmut Berve wrote: “We are not Romans, and the world around us is different from the Mediterranean world. Nevertheless we can learn endless lessons from Roman history.”[48] Hitler was so thoroughly seduced by the idea of Imperial Rome that as late as 1941, he declared to Himmler that “the Roman Empire never had its like. To have succeeded in completely dominating all neighboring peoples! And no empire has spread so uniform a civilization as Rome did.”[49]

The fact that a bizarre racially charged interpretation of Roman history became so prominent in Germany speaks to the tragic rapidity with which Nazi ideology had taken hold of the contemporary imagination. For generations, Germany had been Europe’s leading center of Classical scholarship, producing works of timeless value and priceless insights. This was the country where Theodor Mommsen pioneered the very art of modern historiography as he systematically and objectively explored the intricacies of the Roman past.[50] Barthold Georg Niebuhr too was a trailblazer, one of the first to differentiate between the value of primary and secondary sources in historical research; for years, Leopold Ranke had his bust in his study, and Grote, Toynbee, and Arnold all paid homage to his legacy.[51] Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Karl Bücher’s Die Entstehung der Volkswirtschaft became one of the most important books in the study of economic history thanks to its detailed attention to the nuances of the ancient, medieval, and modern markets; later, Ed Meyer’s critique of his work added a still more nuanced understanding of the sophistication and complexity of ancient civilization. It became clear that inflation, civil war, and barbarian invasions by Germanic tribes caused the fall of Rome. All of this scholarship, however, paled before the racially charged myth of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and a country whose intelligentsia once boasted the most scientific approach to the study of the ancient past completely lost its bearings and succumbed to the allure of fairy tales. Non-German historians such as Numa Fustel de Coulanges attempted to redress the balance, writing the History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France in which he challenged the notion that ancient Germans had introduced political innovations to a “racially stalling” nation.[52] Tragically, however, the works of individuals like Joseph Vogt became much more common. His “Population Decline in the Roman Empire” (1935) and “Race Mixing in the Roman Empire” (1936) repeated the original theory of Arthur de Gobineau that racial mixing was responsible for the decline of Rome as an established fact. Those whose vision of antiquity was grounded in a search for truth rather than political expedience promptly found no place for themselves in the German university system.

Quo Vadis, Romanitas?

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“Yours is the first barbarian army in history to have taken Rome from the South.” (An anonymous Roman, said to the Allied commander in June 1944.)[53]

 

Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Romanitas and the Latin language became cultural touchstones held in common by all educated citizens—in a sense, from Russians calling themselves czars to Victoria being crowned imperatrix, the course of the continent’s history can be described as a long series of interpretations and reinterpretations of the meaning of a classical past held in common by all Europeans. For the French in the late eighteenth century, “Rome” was a byword for Republican freedom; for Italy on the verge of the Second World War, it symbolized devotion to a dictatorial ideal. The breadth and diversity of Roman history armed every historical epoch, whatever its nature, with a rich array of symbols upon which to draw. So long as European education was grounded in the study of the Greek and Roman past, the Greek and Roman past continued to shape the youthful minds of students imagining themselves as ancient heroes. On the eve of World War Two, never did “Rome” become associated with “wickedness,” because all parties in the struggle were imperial, and all identified with the same ancient past.

 

Thus, seldom did the British draw unfavorable comparisons between Roman aggression and the actions of Mussolini; rarely did Italians dwell on reasons for Rome’s decline; never did the Germans accept responsibility as one of the forces that precipitated that collapse. Instead, we have seen that allusions to Roman history were almost universally employed to imbue contemporary beliefs about race, politics, and imperial conquest with an air of authenticity, with each fresh reinterpretation of the past serving to virtually supplant the true facts of the city’s rise and fall in the popular imagination.[54] Ultimately, much the same can be said of the collective European enthrallment with the imagery of Roman history as Frank M. Turner once wrote about the meaning of allusions to ancient Greek culture to the Victorian mind, which transferred a “moral outlook…to the ancient past and then, in accordance with their humanist aims, upheld that past as a source of wisdom for current ethical and cultural conduct.”[55] In this case, however, it must unfortunately be admitted that the aims of many of the men who appealed to the shadow of the Roman past were far from “humanist,” whether in the form of the British attempting to justify their Empire, Italians their hyper-nationalism, or Germans their xenophobia. Greek history once supplied an inexhaustible source of erudite, artistic references; Roman history, by contrast, came to serve as an inexhaustible trove of symbols able to be mass marketed for purposes of propaganda and pseudo-science.

[1] “Address of the President on the Fall of Rome,” June 5, 1944, 8:30 pm, E.W.T. Radio Broadcast, accessed at http://www.mhric.org/fdr/fdr.html.

[2] Winston Churchill, The Birth of Britain, His: A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (London,: Cassell, 1956).

[3] S. J. Bastomsky, “Rich and Poor: The Great Divide in Ancient Rome and Victorian England,” Greece & Rome 37, no. 1 (1990).

[4] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[5] Cyril Norwood and Arthur H. Hope, The Higher Education of Boys in England (London,: J. Murray, 1909). Pp. 343.

[6] Ibid. Pp. 344.

[7] Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Pp. 2.

[8] Raymond F. Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Victorian Studies 15, no. 2 (1971). Pp. 150.

[9] Ibid. Pp. 151

[10] Evelyn Baring Cromer, Ancient and Modern Imperialism (London,: J. Murray, 1910).

[11] Charles Prestwood Lucas, Cambridge University Library., and Adam Matthew Digital (Firm), “Class, Colour and Race.” (Marlborough, England: Adam Matthew Digital, 2007), http://www.empire.amdigital.co.uk/contents/document-detail.aspx?sectionid=654.

[12] Richard Faber, The Vision and the Need: Late Victorian Imperialist Aims (London: Faber, 1966). Pp. 25.

[13] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 154.

[14] John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England : Two Courses of Lectures (London: Macmillan, 1883).

[15] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151-152.

[16] Ibid. Pp. 155.

[17] Catharine Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945 (Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. 93-94.

[18] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 149.

[19] Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Writings in Prose and Verse of Rudyard Kipling (New York Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906.).

[20] See the final chapter of Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939).

[21] Churchill, The Birth of Britain.

[22] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 205

[23] Kenneth Scott, “Mussolini and the Roman Empire,” The Classical Journal 27, no. 9 (1932). Pp. 656.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 189.

[26] Emilio Gentile, The Origins of Fascist Ideology 1918-1925 (New York: Enigma, 2005). Pp. 158-159.

[27] See Steven Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State (London ; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008).

[28] See Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

[29] Alexander Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity, Monographs on the Fine Arts (University Park: Published for College Art Association by the Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). Page 10.

[30] Lewine, Annie Esmé (2008) “Ancient Rome in Modern Italy: Mussolini’s Manipulation of Roman History in the Mostra Augustea della Romanitá,” Studies in Mediterranean Antiquity and Classics: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 5. Available at: http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/classicsjournal/vol2/iss1/5

[31] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 28.

[32] Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century.” Pp. 288.

[33] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 9.

[34] Nelis, Jan, “Constructing Fascist Identity: Benito Mussolini and the Myth of Romanitá,” Classical World 100.4 (2007). Pp. 408.

[35] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 290.

[36] Ibid. Pp. 209

[37] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals : Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939, 1st ed. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006). Pp. 21-22.

[38] Henry Ashby Turner, Reappraisals of Fascism, Modern Scholarship on European History (New York: New Viewpoints, 1975). Pp. 73.

[39] See Adolf Hitler, Alvin Saunders Johnson, and John Chamberlain, Mein Kampf, Complete and Unabridged, Fully Annotated (New York,: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940). Chapter 2, Volume 2.

[40] Milan Hauner, India in Axis Strategy : Germany, Japan and Indian Nationalists in the Second World War, 1. Aufl. ed., Veröffentlichungen Des Deutschen Historischen Instituts London = Publications of the German Historical Institute London (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1981). Pp. 25.

[41] Ibid. Pp. 20-21.

[42] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Pp. 14.

[43] Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity. Page 2.

[44] Heller, Iron Fists : Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State.

[45] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (New York: Macmillan, 1970). See the chapters Our Empire Style and The Globe.

[46] Institute of Jewish Affairs. and Boris Shub, Hitler’s Ten-Year War on the Jews (New York,: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress, World Jewish congress, 1943). Pp. 283.

[47] Christopher Hale, Himmler’s Crusade : The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2003). Pp. 87.

[48] For this quote, see the introduction to Scobie, Hitler’s State Architecture : The Impact of Classical Antiquity.

[49] Edwards, Roman Presences : Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789-1945. Pp. 225.

[50] Betts, “The Allusion to Rome in British Imperialist Thought of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.” Pp. 151.

[51] For a summary of early twentieth century historiography on Roman history, see Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition; Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, A Galaxy Book, (New York,: Oxford University Press, 1957). Pp. 472-479.

[52] See Coulanges Fustel de and Camille Jullian, Histoire Des Institutions Politiques De L’ancienne France, 6 vols. (Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1888).

[53] Wiseman, T. P. (1992) ‘Of grammar and grandeur’, TLS (May 29). Pp. 11- 12.

[54] Kevin Berland, “Review: A City Endlessly Rewritten: Some Versions and Appropriations of Rome in the Long Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 34, no. 2 (2001). Pp. 288.

[55] Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981). Pp. 51.

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World

060930-120153 Model of Constantine's Rome Northwest View of Palatine Hill Area

Reflections On the Populousness of the Roman World 

David Vincent Kimel

I. The History and Significance of the Questions at Hand

Prior to the popularization of the work of T. R. Malthus (1766-1834), it was widely believed among seventeenth and eighteenth century thinkers that a sprawling population was evidence of a prosperous society governed by just institutions. Although he did not agree with this idea in its entirety, David Hume wrote in 1777 that “if every thing (sic) else be equal, it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there are most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be most people.”1 This notion linking a state’s metaphorical and literal vitality inevitably informed early scholarly opinions on the size of the Roman Empire’s population. The period of the Antonine emperors in particular (96 CE-180 CE) was associated by such historians as Edward Gibbon with notions of hyperbolic grander thanks to its supposedly enlightened political leadership. Citing an opinion undoubtedly antithetical to contemporary stirrings in the American colonies, he declared in the third chapter of the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776 that “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”2 With his imagination fired by the holistic grandeur of antiquity, Gibbon wrote in chapter two that the Roman Empire constituted “the most numerous society that has ever been united under the same system of government.” This opinion was echoed with just as little grounds by earlier scholars like Isaak Vossius, who estimated that the city of Rome at its height housed some 14 million people “with an area twenty times greater than that of Paris and London combined.”3 No less an authority than Montesquieu wrote in 1721 that Europe was depopulated compared to the days of the Caesars, with the eighteenth century population likely representing one fiftieth of the ancient total.4

It would be comic understatement to suggest that common assumptions about the size of Rome and its empire have somewhat altered over the past three centuries. In the wake of work such as David Hume’s groundbreaking study on the populousness of antiquity and, most importantly, Julius Beloch’s Die Bevoelkerung der griechisch-roemischen Welt published in 1886, altogether smaller numbers began to be imagined for antiquity, with the entire population of Italy during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE) amounting to perhaps no more than 6 or 7 million people, with three quarters of a million to 1 million people crowded into Rome itself.5 Hume worked with a wide body of knowledge about ancient literary sources, pointing out how the often extravagant totals mentioned by ancient authors were unrealistic and contradictory. For his part, Beloch revolutionized approaches to the issue by turning to quantitative analysis; specifically, he sought to measure changes in the size of the Roman population by studying fluctuations in the size of the city’s public grain doles, proceeding to estimate what percentage of the population those receiving the grain represented. According to modern authorities like Walter Scheidel, Beloch’s conclusion that the Roman Empire at its height contained some 35 to 80 million people definitively set the parameters for all future discussion on the subject.6 While acknowledging the existence of important contributions to the question of Rome’s populousness since 1886, scholars like John C. Caldwell believe that “much of classical demography, originally deduced from literary sources and burial inscriptions, remains essentially unchanged.”7 Whatever the validity of this claim, it is unlikely that mainstream academic opinion will ever favor the assertions of Vossius and Montesquieu again. After all, they appear at odds with well-known trends in comparative demographic history, which, for better or worse, only admit to limited gains in world population until the advent of the industrial era.

Of course, the question of whether the Roman Empire contained 35 or 80 million people seems to leave a great deal of room for meaningful debate. Unfortunately, personal bias often appears to motivate authors toward defending lower or higher estimates. For example, in an attempt to highlight the productivity and populousness of pre-Roman Gaul, C. Jullian averred that before Caesar’s invasion, the population probably stood at some 20 million people, which proceeded to double over the course of the next century thanks to “the long famous fertility of Celtic women.” Likewise, E. Lo Cascio’s rejection of Beloch’s totals and his insistence on a population of 7-14 million for Augustan Italy have been branded patriotic hogwash by the late Keith Hopkins.8 Nationalism certainly becomes a particularly thorny issue when it comes to the scale of the Roman Empire’s population compared to that of Han China. The notion that one empire was significantly more populous than the other invariably reveals bias in favor of the “progressiveness” of Roman or Chinese culture, since evidence to suggest any fundamental differences in size simply does not exist. (Admittedly, recent efforts seem aimed at building bridges and accentuating the similarities between the two imperial systems, though the thematic emphases of this approach might arguably conceal its own kind of bias shaped by the fear of stepping on professional toes.9) At other times, pride in one’s academic discipline, such as Medieval Studies, might tempt some to underrate the Roman period’s supposed luster relative to subsequent history. There is surely something deliberately revisionist in the air when it comes to Angus Maddison’s 2001 attempt to suggest that far from representing a height in Europe’s population, the number of people on the continent might have stayed the same or even slightly increased over the course of the period formally known as the Dark Ages.10 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna wrote disparagingly of the very notion of the “Dark Ages,” claiming that the bleakness of the era was largely a rhetorical trope developed by Christian authors longing for the imperial order of the past.11 However, other “authorities have posited the population of Europe halving during the first six centuries of the modern era,” maintaining that the decline of Roman civilization was indeed accompanied by a fall in population.12

Fundamental questions concerning the quality of life in ancient Rome, the scale of the empire’s economy, and the ways in which urbanization transformed the provinces are all bound to debates over population size; for example, a lower population might reveal an unexpected source of economic strength, with more benefits for everyone to go around and less competition for jobs.13 Unfortunately, in many ways our state of knowledge remains woefully speculative. In the words of Scheidel: “Our ignorance of the size of ancient populations is one of the biggest obstacles to our understanding of Roman history. After generations of prolific scholarship, we still do not know how many people inhabited Roman Italy and the Mediterranean at any given time.”14 Attempts to glean the likely populations of major cities from vague references in ancient literary sources can be compared to similar attempts to understand the scale of Pre-Columbian American society by assembling a constellation of random quotations and trustingly treating them as scientific evidence. In an effort to draw attention to the ludicrousness of such methods, David Henege jokingly attempted to calculate the population of elves and orcs in Middle Earth by analyzing references from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.15

In this study, I present important sources of evidence about the size of Rome’s population over time, discussing various broad indicators of growth and then examining approaches to the question of populousness grounded in a diversity of different sources, from the analysis of bones to studies of comparative DNA profiles. The fact that debate persists to this day with an intensity belying the poverty of the available evidence is telling, though few scholars disagree with the broad parameters established by the work of Beloch with regard to the grain dole and with Harkness (1896) and McDonnel (1913) vis a vis funerary inscriptions.16 Ultimately, I will show that while there exists a general consensus that the Roman world was far removed from modern population dynamics, the methods of evaluating the data are all extremely problematic, and one’s conclusions about the size of the empire’s population often reveals more about the nature of the researcher and his or her academic interests than historical truth.

II. Harnessing Evidence on the Populousness of the Romans

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 CE-117) , the Roman Empire stretched 3000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the banks of the Euphrates and encompassed some 1,750,000 square miles, approximately half the territory of the contemporary United States. Roman civilization facilitated the spread of Hellenistic civilization around the Mediterranean basin and its hinterlands, creating a great cultural melting pot solidified by centuries of general peace.17 Even after a millennium and a half of neglect, the ruins of cities like Leptis Magna and Pompeii are impressive enough to awe millions of tourists a year; the urban landscapes of the empire at its height, before centuries of theft and collapse took their toll, must have been magnificent indeed. Surveying the rural landscape of Turkey and noting the many hulks of abandoned Roman cities, Gibbon took the ruins as evidence of the populousness and vigor of antiquity compared to the state of affairs under the Ottomans:

(The Asian provinces) of the east present the contrast of Roman magnificence with Turkish barbarism. The ruins of antiquity scattered over uncultivated fields, and ascribed, by ignorance, to the power of magic, scarcely afford a shelter to the oppressed peasant or wandering Arab. Under the reign of the Caesars, the proper Asia alone contained five hundred populous cities, enriched with all the gifts of nature, and adorned with all the refinements of art. Eleven cities of Asia had once disputed the honour of dedicating a temple to Tiberius, and their respective merits were examined by the senate. Four of them were immediately rejected as unequal to the burden; and among these was Laodicea, whose splendour is still displayed in its ruins.18

The notion that the Pax Romana was an era of unprecedented prosperity has definite implications with regard to opinions concerning the size of the population that enjoyed its fruits, even if the effects are difficult to quantify. In the second century BC, the archeological record shows great ranches dotting the Italian countryside where once there had been barren fields, suggesting demographic change. These are the so-called latifundia, cash-crop plantations manned by hundreds of thousands of imported slaves.19 The suicides of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE represented the final act in a century of tragedies and brought an end to the Civil Wars. Until the early third century CE, battles were subsequently altogether more infrequent and smaller in scale. Given the destructiveness of warfare in pre-modern societies, the introduction of peace associated with the rise of Rome might conceivably have facilitated a growth in population.20 The idea that the Celts, Berbers, Teutons, and Illyrians who had once inhabited Rome’s provinces lived like noble savages in blissful harmony with nature is flatly contradicted by the fact that 90-95% of all world societies, statistically speaking, were involved in periodic warfare to some extent or another and that violence was part and parcel of everyday life for the people of most pre-modern civilizations. Indeed, the historical record attests to unending combat among indigenous peoples before the Roman occupation.21 At the same time, Roman culture celebrated fertility and encouraged early marriage among women, with the mothers of three children granted special economic privileges by the emperor Augustus.22 According to Frier, surviving Egyptian census data suggested that the vast majority of women married during the Roman period. Specifically speaking, he estimated that some 80% were wedded by the age of 20.23

Added to these trends was the introduction of innovations like “iron tools, iron knives, screw presses, rotary mills, even water mills…silver and bronze coins, money taxes, chattel slavery, writing, schools, written contracts, commercial loans, technical handbooks, large sailing ships, shared risk investment, (and) absentee landlordship,” all speaking to possibilities for enhanced productivity and the accommodation of a large population.24 Grain imports and handouts, bathhouses, aqueducts, gymnasia, sewage systems, written laws, and paved roads facilitating travel and migration might easily be added to the list. Keith Hopkins explained that by raising taxes and spending money on the defense of distant frontiers, the empire facilitated long distance trade and enhanced possibilities for social mobility.25 Authors such as Horace, Martial, Juvenal, and many others all affirmed that these economic opportunities drew significant numbers of migrants into Italy, with the city of Rome ballooning to ever larger heights, a trend confirmed by rising numbers of insula type high-rise apartments discovered in the suburb of Ostia dating to the first two centuries CE.26 In certain parts of the empire, sources of evidence even seem to suggest that Roman rule was associated with long life-spans (and presumably a large population). For example, a graveyard from the North African site of Castellum Celtianum was found to contain 1,258 individuals with an average lifespan of 60.2 years in a time period where the average life expectancy of most world societies was in the high teens or early 20s.27 Although the site is unique, graveyard inscriptions from the salubrious provinces of North Africa in general suggest life expectancies closer to 40 than 20.

While all of this seems compelling enough, how can one go about attempting to actually quantify the Roman population? Comparisons to other historical epochs, informed conjectures, and old-fashioned common sense in the face of extremely limited evidence are the rules of the day. In 2 CE a census in Han China counted 12,233,062 families, which has been used to suggest that some 60 million people lived under imperial rule. An Augustan census of 14 CE included 4,937,000 citizens. This has been interpreted to suggest rough parity with China, for “assuming that full-fledged citizens of Rome constituted less than 10 percent of the empire’s total population at that time, it is (thus) reasonable to conclude that the Roman Empire contained 50 to 60 million people in the early decades of the first century CE.”28 Adding to these numbers were streams of slaves from beyond Rome’s borders, an insidious source of population growth. Sir William Smith’s epic nineteenth century dictionary mentioned that the Roman Empire saw the system of slavery augmented “to a prodigious extent.” Quoting Book VI of Athenaeus, the author reflected upon the idea that “very many Romans possessed 10,000 and 20,000 slaves and even more.”29 Even if this total seems exaggerated, the number of slaves owned by certain aristocratic Romans was likely to be very high indeed. Pliny the Elder recorded in Book XXXIII.10 of his Natural History that 4,116 slaves were left to the heirs of a single Augustan freedman who (paradoxically) had seen his estates greatly diminished during the Civil Wars; Dio Cassius reported in Book V.1.27 of his History that Augustus allowed a man to take 40 slaves or freedmen with him into exile out of sympathy for his impending loneliness. In his paper “Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Eurasia,” Timothy Taylor took the words of Athenaeus at face value when he declared that Scheidel’s estimate of slaves at 10% of the classical population was likely too low; when it came to classical Athens, after all, Athenaeus described a populace of 21,000 citizens, 10,000 resident metics, and 400,000 slaves, implying that 93% of that city’s population was enslaved.30 Even if these numbers are off, they imply a world in which it was possible to imagine sprawling numbers of unfree people toiling alongside a small core “in-group” of citizens, such as was famously the case in fifth century Sparta.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 8.57.49 PM.pngThe Romans themselves took great interest in numbering their subjects for the purposes of taxation and (during the Republic at least) conscription, though most of the information drawn from these censuses and, indeed, how the surveys were even conducted in the first place is tragically lost. Nevertheless, from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, literary sources mention the numbers reached by selected censuses. (Please refer to Table A for a representative sampling.31) Twenty-five different censuses are recorded from the third century BCE to the end of the second century BCE, ranging between some 137,000 to 395,000 people.32 These numbers clearly do not approximate the entire population of the empire; most scholars assume that they represent the number of adult male citizens, though even this is not uncontroversial. Whatever the case, the numbers rise dramatically to 910,000 in 70/69 BCE and a whopping 4,063,000 in 28 BCE when the method of taking the census itself evidently changed. 14 CE saw 4,937,000 people counted. Claudius’ census of 47 CE totaled 5,984,072, further evidence of long-term growth.

But can these numbers be trusted? Basing his work on a seminal 1971 study by P. A. Brunt, P. M. G. Harris insisted that the general trends to which the data spoke made perfect sense in light of Roman history. For example, from 465 BCE to 493 BCE the population of Rome seems to have increased by two-thirds if the census was accurate, a trend associated with an extension of citizenship rights to allied states and an increase in the cultivation of the ager publicus, or land for public use. By contrast, 218 BCE to 203 BCE saw steep losses in the wake of the Second Punic War so grave that the author compared them to demographic trends in Aztec Mexico after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Lex Julia of 90 BCE enfranchised several allied states up to the banks of the Po River, adding nearly a million people to the empire. Finally, by the time of the 47 CE census, Claudius had begun to extend Roman citizenship to the people of southern Gaul, further driving up the numbers.33 Estimates about the size of Rome’s population often toy around with this data, asserting that various census totals represent different hypothetical percentages of the total populace.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 9.00.11 PM.pngThe 1886 work of Beloch on the size of the Roman grain dole served to contextualize these numbers. (Please refer to Table B for data related to the public distribution of goods in Rome.34) In 123 BCE, Gaius Gracchus instituted the practice of doling out grain to the urban masses, and in 58 BCE Cicero’s enemy Publius Clodius Pulcher made the practice permanently free of charge. Beloch put the information that 150,000 to 320,000 men were eligible to receive the various doles to good use by attempting to guess how many dependents (wives, children, slaves, etc.) these men might have had, and how many foreigners likely lived in the city alongside them. He ultimately concluded that 800,000 inhabitants for the city of Rome seemed consistent with the levels of grain imported during the age of Augustus. This number likely increased over time. Dionysius of Halicarnassæus, for example, attested in Book IV.3 that the ancient walls of Rome had nearly the same circumference as those of Athens, but that by his time, Rome’s suburbs were so extensive that it was impossible to tell where the city ended or the countryside started. Also consistent with a narrative of increasing population is Gerda de Kleijn’s work on the water supply of imperial Rome.35 The completion of the Aqua Claudia and the so-called New Anio aqueducts begun by Caligula in 38 CE and completed by Claudius in 52 CE suggest an increasing demand for fresh water, just as Claudius’s construction of a second harbor at Portus to supplement the one at Ostia suggests a growing urban market for grain and other goods. Altogether, the population of the city likely peaked at 1.2 million people, making it the largest urban center in Europe (and according to some sources, the largest in the world) until the early nineteenth century.

When it comes to the first two centuries CE, the archeological record is unanimous throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean that the volume of goods traded dramatically increased, which might be consistent with a rising population prospering during peacetime. Sites like the colony of Cosa grew greatly in size and, like Rome, gradually acquired high-rises and suburbs.36 We know there were 430 so-called urban centers in Italy during the age of Augustus. Using this information, Elio Lo Cascio took issue with Scheidel’s statement that Italy as a whole probably contained 6 million people total (the so-called “low count”). Pointing out that if the estimates were raised for 25 major towns from 15,000 to 20,000 inhabitants and the average of the 405 minor cities from 2000 to 3000, a total of 3 million would be reached, which would mean that half of Italy’s pre-industrial population was urbanized—a number which comparative demography suggests is altogether too high.37 Thus, he estimated that the total population must have been somewhat greater than 6 million if even 35-45% of Italians lived in cities, since ancient agriculture was rudimentary and a great deal of food would have to be produced by many hands to feed the sprawling populace. One is struck by how even a slight shift in assumptions can radically affect an interpretation of the extant archeological evidence. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, a degree of agreement has been reached concerning certain issues in Roman demography. For example, despite statistically outlying sites like Castellum Celtianum, Harkness’ 1896 work with funerary inscriptions suggested a stationary population for the empire with an average life expectancy of 18 years, and McDonnell’s widely cited study in 1913 harnessed a still more extensive corpus of inscriptions to raise life expectancy in Rome “to 22 years for males and 21 for females, in the Iberian Peninsula 39 and 34 years respectively and in Africa (not including Egypt) 48 and 46.”38 In 1966, Keith Hopkins used United Nations model life tables to reach an empire-wide life expectancy of 20-30 years.39

Archeological fieldwork in Egypt has proved to be especially informative thanks to the discovery of papyrological records containing information of interest to demographers. The literary record is unfortunately erratic when it comes to contextualizing this data, which is certainly disheartening considering the centrality of this kind of evidence to conjectured numbers for Roman Italy. For example, Josephus in his Jewish War II.385 suggested that 7.5 million people lived in Egypt outside of Alexandria; Diodorus of Sicily, however, said in his Library of History I.31.6 that the number for the entire country was a paltry 3 million. Roger Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier took Diodorus’ number seriously and used it as the basis for all of their work; however, one is struck by the fact that they might have just as easily based their findings on Josephus’ number.40 The surviving archeological evidence cannot provide definitive answers and is often more tantalizing than edifying. For example, while scattered examples of birth registrations have been discovered in Egypt, they are few in number and the practice in general seems to have been optional. At the same time, we know that local administrators took detailed tax records with a large number surviving in clumps dating to the reign of Claudius (41- 54 CE), but almost all of the archives have been lost.41 Scheidel put the number of Egypt’s people during the Roman period at 4.75 million people, with 35% of the people inhabiting urban areas, though the categories of “urban” and “metropolitan” often bleed into each other.42 Nevertheless, as in his account of the population of Italy, Scheidel’s estimate might have been too low. Joseph Manning, for example, explained that during the Roman period as a whole, growth in population was reflected in gradually increasing agricultural and craft production.43 And according to some ancient sources, the city of Alexandria came to rival that of Rome in size and splendor.

Recent years have seen further refinements in the debate over the size of the Roman population. Comparative genetic analyses of individuals hailing from former imperial provinces represents a particularly exciting, nascent field. Eric Faure in 2008 turned to Roman history to explain the distribution of chemokine receptors related to the CCR5- Delta 32 allele. Homozygosity for the CCR5-Δ32 allele results in resistance to R5- tropic HIV-1. The frequency of this allele is lowest in areas corresponding to the lands of the Roman Empire. 10% of Europeans on average have the gene, but only 4% of Greeks, and almost no one in North Africa. To explain the data, Faure suggested that feline zoonoses might have spread among provincial populations as the Romans brought increasing numbers of cats to new areas with them to serve as pets and to control pests.44 Although he suggested that gene flow between colonizers and the colonized was “low and indirect,” this data suggests that the scale of Roman occupation was extensive enough to leave fundamental and permanent marks on Europe’s genetic landscape.

III. The Limitations of Existing Demographic Models of the Roman Population

Petrus_Roselli._Carte_marine_de_la_mer_Méditerranée_et_de_la_mer_Noire_(15th_century)While, as we have seen, eighteenth century models of the Roman population were informed by the underlying assumption that the empire represented a period of unprecedented prosperity, current estimates of the civilization’s population are caught up in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy that it could only have been a large natural fertility regime with rampant disease similar to other pre-industrial societies. The problem is that this approach, while grounded in reasonable assumptions, denies the possibility that the Roman Empire was somehow uniquely ahead of its time, which was once assumed as a given—after all, Europe did not see such extensive urbanization and such large metropolitan centers until over a millennium and a half later. Tim G. Parkin declares that “no one today would seriously regard as accurate” Pliny’s estimate of 600,0000 total people for Seleucia, but this is an arbitrary assumption grounded in nothing but the belief that the Empire contained few such extensive cities.45 The dismissive tone of the author is particularly telling. After all, had his assumptions about the inherent trustworthiness of Pliny been different, he might have forgiven the author under the grounds that he could have been referring not only to the city of Seleucia itself, but also to its extensive surrounding hinterlands.

Nevertheless, multiple sources of evidence discussed in the previous section of this paper can safely be labeled problematic. For one thing, even if the Roman Empire saw extensive urbanization, large-scale internal migration, and the formation of suburbs, this redistribution of people geographically is not necessarily synonymous with population growth. Moses Finley seems to have been correct in his critique of Keith Hopkin’s model of Roman commerce, declaring that opportunities for exploitation could increase without a corresponding growth in productivity.46 Studies such as those by Barbiera and Dalla- Zuanna attempting to understand population size with reference to burial sites are often hampered by the paucity of the existing sources of evidence; for example, they use eleven cemeteries to represent the entirety of the period between the first century BCE and the fifth century CE, but have ten data points for the sixth to seventh centuries alone. They also systematically ignore the fact that the bulk of the Western Roman population practiced cremation during the first two centuries CE, while early Christians (who practiced burial but lived on the fringes of society and likely did not have the best diets) were probably over-represented.47 Evidence for enhanced nutrition might be grounds for believing that Italy was becoming a more salubrious and populous place. It might alternately, however, be evidence for economic collapse as lands formally devoted to cash crops were turned over to the production of fruits and cereals and formally massive urban populations broke up into smaller groups whose nutrition did not rely on grain doles. There is simply no way to know the truth, though the fact that the paper was written by medievalists rather than classicists perhaps informed the ultimate thesis. Whatever the case, a high population for Rome and its empire might be interpreted as a mixed blessing vis a vis long term growth. At I.12, Herodian described how “because of its very high population, and because it took in immigrants from all over,” mortality was highest in Rome during times of plague. And contrary to the naïve impulse that a large population implies a prosperous nation, Bruce W. Frier aptly explained that with higher population can paradoxically come lower living standards and less opportunity for economic advancement.48 Paradoxically, the lower the population of Roman Italy is estimated to be, the more urbanized and prosperous its people might seem to appear.

It is impossible to know to what degree rising birth rates and immigration were responsible for the dramatically increasing numbers seen in Table A. An increasing percentage of a stable pre-existing population might simply have been granted citizenship over time with no corresponding growth in population size. Even the epigraphic data, deemed over-analyzed by Scheidel, can prove to be deceptive. For example, epigraphic patterns differed depending on location in the empire. Old ages seem to have systematically not been recorded in Noricum, but were a popular typos in Africa.49 The number of surviving grave sites, just as in the case of the number of surviving documents from Egypt, is not enough to make accurate estimates for the state of the empire as a whole. Even the little evidence that survives is in some degree inherently unrepresentative. For example, young males between the ages of ten and fourteen were underrepresented in Egyptian papyri dealing with the census, likely because the census was taken regularly and once it became known that a boy reached the age of fourteen, he became liable for taxation; females were under-registered as a rule.50 It is not even clear what category of people were eligible for being counted in censuses of Roman citizens. Saskia Hin, for example, pointed to the possibility that Augustan counts might have included widows, children and grandchildren liberated from patria potestas, and freed slaves.51 At the same time, while there is some evidence for the growth of the Roman population in urban contexts, there is also evidence for a drop in fertility among certain subsections of the populace. A full three-quarters of the senatorial families of the early Roman Empire disappeared after a single generation. This extraordinary fact has been variously interpreted, but it was likely, at least in part, the result of deliberate birth control, delayed marriage, and even infanticide.52 While Augustus passed laws punishing bachelors and rewarding fertility among Roman wives, two children were exposed in his own family: the child of his granddaughter Julilla, and an infant whom the future emperor Claudius suspected was illegitimate.

Compounding these problems is a lack of sensitivity to just how untrustworthy the numbers mentioned by ancient literary sources can be. As we have seen, scholars such as Bagnall and Frier somberly employed numbers mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily in their estimates of the size of the Egyptian population. However, this ignores the fact that Diodorus has been called one of “the most accomplished liars of antiquity” and was condemned to hell in one of Lucian’s satires for his poor scholarly standards.53 In fact, some have even assumed that Diodorus (or a scribe) simply made a typo and meant to write 7 million rather than 3 million, since he used just that number at an earlier point in his history.54 Ultimately, even the most respected and meticulous authors of antiquity were liable to make mistakes. In Book I.2 of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides mentioned that 200 triremes were dispatched by Athens to Egypt in 460 BCE, which would mean that 40,000 men were sent to the Nile in the midst of the First Peloponnesian War when there were incredible strains on manpower. A Persian source, Ctesias, says that the number was actually 40 triremes, and he may (or may not) have been closer to the mark.55 Duncan-Jones readily accepted Cicero’s assertion that the state income of Ptolemaic Egypt was 300 million sestertii. However, we know that the entire Roman Empire’s annual income ranged between 650 and 900 million sestertii, and the notion that 35-40% came from Egypt alone seems improbable.56 To make matters worse, ancient sources in general cannot be fully trusted when it comes to any number. Scribal errors and the use of letters to represent digits resulted in maddening variations across the manuscript traditions of many ancient authors, which sometimes only survive in their present form from a single copy that may or may not have been accurately transcribed.57

Gibbon’s notion that the Roman Empire represented the most populous state in the history of the planet seems hyperbolic, yet his use of evidence was actually quite reasonable and rather similar to contemporary approaches, albeit informed by different assumptions about the possibilities for the veracity of the source material and the proportion of people who were enslaved and/or otherwise unrepresented in the data set. He wrote, for example:

We are informed that when the emperor Claudius exercised the office of censor, he took an account of six millions nine hundred and forty-five thousand Roman citizens, who, with the proportion of women and children, must have amounted to about twenty millions of souls. The multitude of subjects of an inferior rank was uncertain and fluctuating. But, after weighing with attention every circumstance which could influence the balance, it seems probable that there existed, in the time of Claudius, about twice as many provincials as there were citizens, of either sex, and of every age; and that the slaves were at least equal in number to the free inhabitants of the Roman world. The total amount of this imperfect calculation would rise to about one hundred and twenty millions of persons; a degree of population which possibly exceeds that of modern Europe.58

It is singularly discouraging that Gibbon’s use of the same source material as Walter Scheidel could result in an estimate twice the size of contemporary guesses. Be that as it may, imaginative applications of common sense to ancient data can sometimes generate compelling arguments indeed, shedding light on obscure demographic forces. For example, when considering whether or not the deliberate breeding of slaves raised the population of Roman Italy, Hume ingeniously concluded that the effect was likely minimal:

At the capital, near all great cities, in all populous, rich, industrious provinces, few cattle are bred. Provisions, lodging, attendance, labour are there dear; and men find their account better in buying the cattle, after they come to a certain age,from the remoter and cheaper countries. These are consequently the only breeding countries for cattle; and by a parity of reason, for men too, when the latter are put on the same footing with the former. To rear a child in London, till he could be serviceable, would cost much dearer, than to buy one of the same age from Scotland or Ireland; where he had been bred in a cottage, covered with rags, and fed on oatmeal or potatoes. Those who had slaves, therefore, in all the richer and more populous countries, would discourage the pregnancy of the females, and either prevent or destroy the birth.59

Hume backed up his argument by noting that individuals bred into slavery, so-called vernae, enjoyed special legal rights compared to other kinds of slaves, so there was likely not many of them. (owners preferring to maximize the possibilities for exploitation). Moreover, Cato, Varro, and Columella mention nothing about the profitability and desirability of breeding slaves. Xenophon’s Oeconomicus actually suggests that male and female slaves sleep separately. While it is impossible to tell whether or not Hume was correct about the impact of slave-breeding on the size of the population, the silence of these iconic texts on the issue is difficult to ignore. To Hume, as to most modern authorities on the subject, the eighteenth century image of an empire of 120 million people fuelled by the breeding of massive numbers of slaves seemed somehow intuitively unreasonable.

IV. Final Thoughts: “Losing the Trees for the Forest?”

Rome-Forum-night-italy-1-XLKeith Hopkins warned that economists and demographers exploring the Roman past often make simplifying assumptions in an effort to see where they lead without paying attention to the complexities and ambiguities of the real world situation: “It is as though, in order to guess the weight of an elephant, you first imagine it to be a solid cube.”60 As we have seen, assumptions about the overall size of the Roman Empire have shifted dramatically over time, with the same problematic evidence interpreted through various thematic prisms forged by one’s academic interests and general beliefs about the nature of pre-industrial civilization as a whole. Be that as it may, Beloch’s work in 1886 broke real ground by harnessing reported census returns to make reasonable guesses about the size of the population, and since then, the general parameters of the debate have been set; the Roman Empire likely contained c. 60 million people, with the city of Rome boasting somewhere around a million inhabitants at its height. The size of individual provinces— even the relatively extensively documented Egypt—remains controversial. However, if the Roman Empire was not a natural fertility regime and consistently showed life expectancy above the mid twenties, it would be unique in the history of the pre-industrial world.

There is perhaps an unfortunate tendency in modern scholarship to ignore the possibilities for such uniqueness, or to make generalizing claims about the size of the ancient population without paying attention to the ways in which cultural practices might shape demographic realities. The fundamental problem is that the evidence for institutions such as birth control, infanticide, etc., is limited to passing references in literary sources, complicating the possibilities for evaluating the “modernity” or lack thereof of ancient practices, to say nothing of their demographic effects.

However, in the tradition of Hume, I believe that there still exists the possibility to make use of common sense and a strong imagination to add new information to our knowledge of otherwise extremely inaccessible states of affairs. For example, what is one to make of the ancient Roman saying “sexagenarios de ponte deicere”—“(to) hurl sixty year old men from the bridge”? Modern scholars who treat the subject almost unanimously assume that the phrase refers to a remote period in Roman history when an over-eager youthful populace attempted to monopolize voting rights, casting elderly men off the planks that Roman citizens would cross to reach voting places.61 However, at least one ancient author, Festus, admitted that the saying might have referred to ancient practices of senicide. The answer to the puzzle seems lost to time, but there are some clues to guide us. First, we know that bridges in general were invested with religious significance in early Rome—to this day, the pope, like the Roman emperors before him, is known as the Pontifex Maximus. Moreover, on the 15th of every March, a series of ancient purification ceremonies began whose origins were purportedly obscure; the Vestal Virgins would throw life-size dolls (argei) from the Sublician Bridge into the Tiber. Some have theorized that this was a proxy for former human sacrifices, though as far as I know, few have specifically connected the practice with the ancient saying.62 Human sacrifice in general was banned by Crassus and Lentulus as late as 97 BCE, and Romans in the time of Cicero and Augustus seem to have preferred to ignore the issue. However, I personally suspect that it was no coincidence that Julius Caesar was “sacrificed” on the Ides of March, the very day when the ancient ceremonies associated with senicide and the freedom of an independent youthful electorate took place.63

This is a situation in which an ancient practice which may or may not have existed was likely limited to a small circle of old men in extremely early Roman history. There certainly exists no way to measure its overall demographic effects on the size of the population (which, anyway, might have been negligible to begin with.) However, a sense of imagination with regard to the surviving ancient evidence can highlight unexpected quirks which made the structure of Roman civilization unique rather than a cookie-cutter example of a pre-industrial society. While archeologists pine for new discoveries and many scholars believe that our best hope for new knowledge of Roman demography will derive from this source, an ability to creatively reconstruct past social practices in the tradition of Beloch and Hume perhaps suggests another avenue for hopefulness with regard to our understanding of the structure of ancient society at large.

***

1 See David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/704/137546.

2 Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776). Chapter 3.

3 See the opening essay in Isaac Vossius, Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber (Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685).

4 See the Baron de Montesquieu, The Persian Letters, Letter 112, 1748. Roger B. Oake points out that the 1758 edition of the letters was edited to read a tenth rather than a fiftieth. See also Roger B. Oake “Montesquieu and Hume,” Modern Language Quarterly 2 (March 1941): 25–41.]

5 In 1973, the famous classicist Moses Finley still branded Beloch’s study “The fundamental work on ancient population figures.” See M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures, (Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973). Pp. 182.

6 Walter Scheidel and Sitta von Reden, The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002). Pp. 201.

7 John C. Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?,” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004). Pp. 11.

8 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 182. See E. Lo Cascio, ‘The Size of the Roman Population,’ JRS 82 1994. Pp. 115. See also C. Jullian Histoire de la Gaule, (Paris; 1920) Vol. 5. Pp. 25-28.

9 For a cultural, political, and economic comparison between the two empires in a spirit of building bridges between subfields of history, see Walter Scheidel, Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Donald Kagan criticized the book to me in a conversation for its unwillingness to dwell on the implications of fundamental differences vis a vis conceptions of liberty between the two empires.

10 For the development of this argument, see Angus Maddison and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre., The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies (Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001).

11 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 369.

12 Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp. 2.

13 Quoted in L. de Ligt and Simon Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008). Pp. 17.

14 Ibid.

15 David P. Henige, Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). Pp. 287-280.

16 Caldwell drew my attention to their work. See Harkness, A. G. 1896. Age at marriage and death in the Roman Empire. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 27. Pp. 35-72. See also McDonnell, W. R. 1913. On the Expectation of Life in Ancient Rome, and in the Provinces of Hispania, Lusitania, and Africa. Biometrika 9. Pp. 366-380.

17 M. I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, 2nd ed. (London: Hogarth Press, 1985). Pp. 29-30.
4

18 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

19 M. I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980). Pp. 84.

20 For a description of the destructiveness of periodic old wars and the old order, see Alan Macfarlane, The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian Trap (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).

21 See Lawrence H. Keeley, War before Civilization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). pp. 28.

22 For the most comprehensive contemporary evaluation of the institution of Roman marriage, see Susan Treggiari, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies., “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” (Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.01470.

23 Bruce W. Frier. 2000. “Demography” in A. K. Bowman, P. Garnsey, and D. Rathbone (editors), The High Empire: AD 70-192. Cambridge Ancient History Volume 9. Cambridge University Press.

24 Peter Garnsey, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker, Trade in the Ancient Economy (London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983). Pp. 12.

25 For an analysis of this important element of Hopkins’ contribution, see John R. Love, Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations of Roman Civilization (London ; New York: Routledge, 1991). Pp. 215.

26 Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittag, Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Pp. 127.

27 Tim G. Parkin, Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992). Pp. 8-9.

28 Alfred J. Andrea, James H. Overfield, The Human Record: Sources of Global History: To 1700, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. Pp. 146.

29 See the entry under slavery in William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1870).

30 Timothy Taylor, Believing the Ancients: Quantitative and Qualitative Dimensions of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Later Prehistoric Eurasia, World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Archaeology of Slavery, (Jun., 2001), pp. 27- 43.

31 See Table A taken from Tenney Frank, “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C,” Classical Philology 19, no. 4 (1924).

32 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 19.

33 P. M. G. Harris, The History of Human Populations (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001). Pp. 168- 172.
34 See Table B taken from

34 Gerda de Kleijn, The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology, (Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001).

35 Ibid.

36 Alan K. Bowman and Andrew Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Pp. 142-143.

37 Ibid. Pp. 101.

38 For a summary of findings on inscriptions, see Caldwell, “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?.” Pp 9-10.

39 Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population. Population Studies 20(2). Pp. 245 onward.

40 Roger S. Bagnall et al., “The Demography of Roman Egypt,” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. (Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/heb.02277.

41 See chapter 3 of Walter Scheidel, Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements, (Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001).

42 Walter Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum, (Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001). Pp. 141.

43 Joseph Gilbert Manning, Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

44 See Eric Faure, “Could FIV zoonosis responsible of the breakdown of the pathocenosis which has reduced the European CCR5-Delta32 allele frequencies?” Virol J. 2008; 5: 119. Published online 2008 October 16, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2575341/pdf/1743-422X-5-119.pdf

 

45 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

46 Joseph Gilbert Manning and Ian Morris, The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005). Pp. 212.

47 Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, “Population Dynamics in Italy in the Middle Ages: New Insights from Archeological Findings,” pp. 379.

48 See chapter 4 of Scheidel, Debating Roman Demography.

49 Bowman and Wilson, Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems.

50 Walter Scheidel, Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, (Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996). Pp. 56-57.

51 See Saskia Hin’s essay in Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 187-285.

52 D. S. Potter and D. J. Mattingly, Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, New and expanded ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010). Pp. 100.

53 Lloyd, quoted in Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999). Pp. 135.

54 Parkin, Demography and Roman Society. Pp. 65.

55 Robinson, Eric W., “Thucydidean Sieges, Prosopitis, and the Hellenic Disaster in Egypt,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Apr., 1999), 132-135.

56 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 196.

57 Ligt and Northwood, People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14. Pp. 20.

58 Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 2.

59 David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY XI: OF THE POPULOUSNESS OF ANCIENT NATIONS, accessed at http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/704/137546.

60 Scheidel and Reden, The Ancient Economy. Pp. 193-194.

61 See, for example, Lily Ross Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser (Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966). Pp. 92.

62 For a sampling of contemporary thoughts on the issue, see Tim G. Parkin, Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003). Pp. 265-268.

63 Incidentally, I believe I am the first to make this claim. It at least adds credence to the idea that Caesar might actually have been told to “Beware the Ides of March”—it was no ordinary day.

Works Cited

Bagnall, Roger S., Bruce W. Frier, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “The Demography of Roman Egypt.” In Cambridge studies in population, economy, and society in past time 23. Cambridge England ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Bowman, Alan K., and Andrew Wilson. Quantifying the Roman Economy : Methods and Problems, Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Caldwell, John C. “Fertility Control in the Classical World: Was There an Ancient Fertility Transition?” Journal of Population Research 21, no. 1 (2004): 1-17.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy, Sather Classical Lectures,. Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1973.

Finley, M. I. The Ancient Economy. 2nd ed. London: Hogarth Press, 1985.

Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

Frank, Tenney. “Roman Census Statistics from 225 to 28 B. C.” Classical Philology 19, 4 (1924): 329-41.

Garnsey, Peter, Keith Hopkins, and C. R. Whittaker. Trade in the Ancient Economy. London: Chatto & Windus : Hogarth Press, 1983.

Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols.London: Printed for W. Straham; and T. Cadell, in the Strand, 1776.

Harris, P. M. G. The History of Human Populations. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.

Henige, David P. Numbers from Nowhere : The American Indian Contact Population Debate. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Hopkins, Keith. 1966. On the Probable Age Structure of the Roman Population, Population Studies 20(2).

Jullian, Camille. Histoire De La Gaule. 8 vols. Paris,: Hachette et cie, 1920.

Keeley, Lawrence H. War before Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kleijn, Gerda de. The Water Supply of Ancient Rome : City Area, Water, and Population, Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology,. Amsterdam: Gieben, 2001.

Ligt, L. de, and Simon Northwood. People, Land, and Politics : Demographic Developments and the Transformation of Roman Italy 300 Bc-Ad 14, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2008.

Love, John R. Antiquity and Capitalism : Max Weber and the Sociological Foundations  of Roman Civilization. London ; New York: Routledge, 1991.

Macfarlane, Alan. The Savage Wars of Peace : England, Japan and the Malthusian  Trap. Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Maddison, Angus, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Development Centre. The World Economy : A Millennial Perspective, Development Centre Studies. Paris, France Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,2001.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert. Land and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt : The Structure of Land Tenure. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Manning, Joseph Gilbert, and Ian Morris. The Ancient Economy : Evidence and Models, Social Science History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat. Persian Letters. The 5th ed. London,: M. Cooper, 1755.

Mutschler, Fritz-Heiner, and Achim Mittag. Conceiving the Empire : China and Rome Compared. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Parkin, Tim G. Demography and Roman Society, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Parkin, Tim G. Old Age in the Roman World : A Cultural and Social History, Ancient Society and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Potter, D. S., and D. J. Mattingly. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire. New and expanded ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.

Scheidel, Walter. Death on the Nile : Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, Mnemosyne Supplements,. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Debating Roman Demography, Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava Supplementum,. Leiden Netherlands ; Boston: Brill, 2001.

Scheidel, Walter. Measuring Sex, Age and Death in the Roman Empire : Explorations in Ancient Demography, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series,. Ann Arbor, MI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 1996.

Scheidel, Walter. Rome and China : Comparative Perspectives on Ancient World Empires, Oxford Studies in Early Empires. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Scheidel, Walter, and Sitta von Reden. The Ancient Economy, Edinburgh Readings on the Ancient World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

Smith, William. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1870.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar, Jerome Lectures, 8th Ser. Ann Arbor,: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

Treggiari, Susan, ACLS Humanities E-Book (Organization), and American Council of Learned Societies. “Roman Marriage Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian.” Oxford New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1991.

Vossius, Isaac. Isaaci Vossii Variarum Observationum Liber. Londini: Prostant apud Robertum Scott bibliopolam, 1685.

Using Math to Explore the Fall of the Roman Empire

spqr-map-300-2

I am firmly committed to the idea that there is great value in exploring change over time in Roman history using mathematical models. Since antiquity itself, scholars have debated broad questions concerning the forces responsible for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.  But in the status quo, fundamental elements of the debate seem relegated to the realm of the pseudo-scientific, since it seems impossible to either confirm or deny broad claims such as “barbarian pressure along the frontier was more responsible for the ultimate decline of Roman civilization than the long-term effects of civil war.” In fact, historians making precisely opposite claims can point to compelling data from archaeological and literary records to bolster their hypotheses. Preferring one explanation over another sometimes becomes a matter of personal taste or academic politics rather than an empirical exercise, which is only exacerbated by the fact that so much information from the ancient world itself is lacking. The fact that medievalists and classicists often interpret and answer major questions about antiquity and the early Middle Ages so differently is the clearest indication of this trend. Indeed, in the tradition of certain historians like Irene Barbiera and Gianpiero Dalla-Zuanna, some have even gone so far as to question whether the very disintegration of the Roman Empire should be interpreted as a fundamentally regressive phenomenon at all, with historians of the Early Middle Ages increasingly challenging simplistic models of decline and fall.

How can all of these narratives be reconciled, let alone evaluated against each other in an objective context?

Originally, I hoped to engage in a novel approach to these questions, making use of tools traditionally employed in fields outside of the Classics. Imagine we were looking at a map of the Roman Empire, divided into many quadrants.

These are the elements that would be tracked:

1) the locations of iron deposits and other natural resources that can be pinned down with a fair degree of accuracy, including the locations of major mines (these are, of course, static)

2) the locations of where the Roman emperor was declared, and where he was physically during each month of his reign, which can be tracked with great accuracy over several centuries

3) The locations of recorded battles

4) the locations of the Roman legions themselves; their movement can be crudely mapped out over the course of five centuries

5) the location of the city of Rome itself, major roads, and other geographical features (Mediterranean sea and the Rhine-Danube frontier)

I tentatively hypothesize that times of plague, rebellion, and civil war should show statistically significant changes in the relationships between the static and dynamic data sets as such periods would lend themselves to efforts to seize control of local mineral deposits and resource-distribution-centers.  By contrast, in times of relative internal stability, the Rhine-Danube frontier is more likely to attract dynamic movement in response to external pressure along the borders. Permanent changes in spatial relationships can suggest watershed moments in Roman history.

The upshot of all this is that using the right mathematical tools, the relationship between these variables can be systematically evaluated, and we can investigate what various causal forces (internal or external) seem to have been responsible for violence at different points in time. For example, considering a specific span of time, do major battles and troop movements statistically clump along the Rhine-Danube frontier, or do things like the locations of local resources and the physical location of men proclaimed the Roman emperor play weightier role as a source of attraction? The former would suggest the long term influence of external pressures during this era, and the latter internal dynamics. At the same time, do relationships among major variables change after major events in Roman history such as the advent of the Antonine Plague, the establishment of a new capital, or the rise of Christianity? What is statistically likelier to attract battles at any given point in time—cities, mineral deposits, or geographical features along the border? The answer to this question reveals something fundamental about the texture of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Once all of this work was done for the Roman Empire itself, it would be fascinating to employ similar methods to explore Mediterranean history in the period of the Republic, when I predict that the major causal networks determining troop movements would be quite different, perhaps oriented more around features of the Mediterranean coastline and the locations of major mineral deposits as opposed to the case of the Empire, when unity was achieved and the focus turned to defense rather than offense. If the data were compared to information from Han China, I hypothesize that the “particles” representing armies and battles would move synchronously across the continent at certain times in response to pan-Eurasian forces such as plague, the spread of technologies, and the movement of barbarian tribes. This would provide strong support for the idea of macrohistorical forces at work in determining causal outcomes in history.

Nevertheless, after a great deal of soul searching and wavering, I have decided to focus my dissertation on orgiastic display, violence, and politics. There were several reasons for this.

  1. As I said above, I think that exploring change over time in Roman history using mathematical models would be incredibly interesting. However, because the nature of my work in this field is experimental, I am worried that the success of my dissertation would be largely contingent on whether or not my mathematical hypotheses in fact bore fruit. I can’t guarantee anything of the sort, however, until I actually examine the data. It may be that mineral deposits attract battles, for example, or it may not be. It might be the case that Han and Roman data line up nicely, but again, there is nothing to guarantee this.
  2. Writing the quantitative dissertation might have alienated me in the eyes of others in the field and on the job market. The topic seems iconoclastic, to say the least, and I think that there would exist great skepticism about my new methodology. At first glance, my idea seems simultaneously too traditional and too futuristic. Because it seems to touch upon universalizing schematizations about the nature of historical change and is focused on military history and troop movement, it seems like a throwback; at the same time, because it deals with mathematical regressions and computer modelling, it seems too out there.
  3. I would prefer to leave the option open to me of co-authoring a tight, focused article using quantitative methods with colleagues who are already familiar with the available software so that we could learn and work together on the project; by contrast, I think that the dissertation should necessarily involve strictly independent research. At this point, guaranteeing that I could master the mapping software quickly enough to write a great dissertation seemed too risky a prospect.
  4. The dissertation should be immersed in and enriched by existing discourse on the subject, making a specific informed contribution to an ongoing conversation. However, there is in fact very little existing discourse on the mathematical relationships between the locations of battles, emperors, and geographic features/natural resources and the significance of these changing correlations over time. If I did something like make the dissertation a broader study of “decline and change” in Roman history and relegated the quantitative methods to an appendix, it would be a shame—the quantitative methods require a great deal of work, and probably deserve to shine in their own paper.

Ultimately, staking the entire dissertation on something so novel seemed riskier to me than utilizing my quantitative methods in a separate project.