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The other day I was browsing a back issue of a BBC history magazine when I stumbled upon an article supporting the release of Guy De La Bedoyere's recent book on life in the Roman legions. In it was a statement that the Roman Empire relied almost entirely upon the legions for the assertion of imperial power. Now, as a younger man, I would have accepted that without a hint of doubt - it's a common theme when discussing the Romans, and they said of themselves that they loved the portrayal of military culture rather more than having to endure it.

But was that statement correct? Granted, Guy De La Bedoyere is a successful writer and television expert, but the idea that the empire had only the legions to extend power doesn't work so well if one is critical. Firstly, the legions weren't everywhere. They were stationed in areas requiring a higher security presence. Secondly, despite a reputation for efficiency and effectiveness that would make elite armies envious, the legions were neither. They were corrupt, rarely close to anything like full strength, senior officers politically motivated, and their soldiers relentlessly bolshie. For all their supposed invincibility, they left an impressive list of defeats.

The sources contain many instances of intervention by the legions, sometimes ordered, sometimes just rebellious or motivated troops throwing their weight about. It's that very drama that made the Romans record such anecdotes, and therefore we might well suspect our understanding is being distorted accordingly. Of course the Romans had other means of establishing power, but isn't that entire concept misleading? We're used to the rather more coherent empires of the last 150 years, the colonial powers, the communist bloc, or the fascist supremacists. Little wonder we see parallels with such constructs.

I'll say this up front. The Roman Empire was not a totalitarian state. Nothing like it. In fact, as a political entity it was suprisingly benign, but then Roman culture was based on ideas of free will and self determination. Rome did not as a rule control peoples lives in the manner of more recent empires, and indeed, it would have been extremely difficult for them to have done that. It demanded loyalty and tribute, but free people were free to pursue their lives as they saw fit, with the proviso that if you got dangerous to ordinary peaceful existence, the result would be heavy handed.

Note the rebellion of Spartacus. The first response to his escape to Vesuvius and ensuing banditry was not the military might of Rome, but local people getting their act together and trying to arrest him, albeit unsuccessfully. Note the occupation of Germania during the administration of Quintus Publius Varus, who considered (wrongly as it turned out) that the natives were beginning to see Roman law as superior and accepting Roman oversight as a result. Note the factional nature of Roman society, with chariot racing teams presenting a political influence all of their own. Note the use of commerce to influence regions. Note the existence of the client/patron relationship, the very beating heart of ordinary everyday Roman life. So we can see a large number of means by which the empire manipulated rather than controlled. It ought to be realised also that the empire was not a single unified state under the Caesars as is normally portrayed. It was Rome, a city state, that held influence over provinces of varying status that had local government derived from their native peoples and remodelled to Roman style. 

But of course, as Roman monarchy re-asserted itself after Augustus, so these rulers obtained personal control of provincial areas formerly administered by the Senate. So the situation was a long process of change instead of a stable and conformal ideal. So, the empire didn't need the sort of central control we normally think of nor was that practicable, as indeed the decay of the empire would prove as emperors became dominant lords of all they surveyed. Law, commerce, and the unseen machinations of patricians in their own atriums are not often found in Roman sources as such, being somewhat invisible or dull, thus they didn't write about them. Does that mean these methods of influence didn't exist? I think the Roman Empire needs a different image than the one the Romans bequeathed to us at their own cognizance. 

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I'd agree (fwiw) Its much too simplistic an assertion unless the author means that military power is always the "ultima ratio"  in any conflict.

 

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Interesting point.

Military brutality can only maintain an extensive and diverse empire so long. It was the enculturation and assimilation by the “conquered” non-Romans and the adaption of outside “foreign” ideas by these “ruling” Romans that proved to be the cement that held the empire together.

I don’t like venturing into modern politics, but the contrast of the USSR and the British Empire might be appropriate here. One empire frayed apart despite modern methods of surveillance and repression after less than a century. Another empire has persisted (albeit in a diminished role) after four centuries.

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I can't imagine any modern civilized state having 3 or 5 consecutive presidents all murdered in one year, but Romans seemingly were accustomed to that game of power accession, in which their military took the major part. That's why the whole European world still learns at school about "the year of the 4 emperors" - 69 AD, "the year of the 5 emperors" - 193 and even "the year of the 6 emperors" - 238, which signals a little crazy level of violence.

I mean, Russia is also a very brutal state with extremely wild history. Out of 24 Russian rulers, starting from Peter the Great and ending by Michael Gorbachev, 42% were overthrown, and half of overthrown actually were murdered. Military did play an important role in that sometimes, especially over the course of 18th century. Nonetheless, in terms of violence and brutality Russia is still out of comparison with Roman world. If I remember correctly, Rodney Stark shared some estimates, according to which only 25% of Roman emperors died by their own death, 75% actually died violently. In the Byzantine empire I think it was a little more mild in terms of numbers, out of 109 Byzantine emperors only  34 died by their own death while occupying the thrones. But such numbers may give wrong impression, especially when one recalls such excesses as when emperor Michael V ordered the castration of  all male relatives in his line of succession.   

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It is fundamental to the Roman Empire that the use of the word 'monarchy' should be understood. We're not talking about a medieval succession system (and that got brutal sometimes) but in the case of the Romans, a system where it became possible to assume an overriding assemblage of power - with the proviso it wasn't yours by right, but by support. This was why the canny Augustus reformed the Roman government as he did. By holding onto at least 50% of power, he avoided accusations of tyranny but retained enough support to deter anyone from challenging his grip on power. 

A long time ago I was asked whether an emperor could be removed from power peaceably. The answer (which I found difficult at the time) is yes - just very unlikely. It meant  refusing to confirm the various powers at the renewal dates, which normally wasn't a problem, since most politicians saw that supporting the guy in charge was safer. Therefore if you want a change of ruler, you either challenge directly with military rebellion (and this did happen quite often albeit not always successfully) or you conspire, either assassinating him or arranging for some terrible and swift demise. Such conspiracies were rarely serious but rarely able to remain undetected.

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2 hours ago, caldrail said:

A long time ago I was asked whether an emperor could be removed from power peaceably. The answer (which I found difficult at the time) is yes

Are there any examples of such "peaceful" removal in the whole Roman history (without murdering the removed emperor, which is supposedly meant by word "peaceful")? 🙂 

I mean, we may certainly indulge in our imagination for as much as we want, get delusional about what the Roman world was like, but viewing the Roman political system as benign seems a little exaggeration. The very idea of "opposition clubs", even the very idea of independent business corporations were almost hostile to the Roman mentality. There is one Roman religious opposition club, of which we've kept some memories, and that one would have its gatherings in catacombs.  

Thanks to Rome, we've learnt of such things as "'barrack emperors" and how to counter-balance the powers of legions.  Perhaps army is still viewed as the most powerful military club in any modern country, but there is also  independent internal police with headcount often exceeding the army's.  Even military warehouses are commonly guarded not by the army itself, but by the internal police, at least as far as we consider modern civilized states.

 

 

Edited by Novosedoff

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On 7/22/2021 at 4:25 AM, Novosedoff said:

I can't imagine any modern civilized state having 3 or 5 consecutive presidents all murdered in one year, but Romans seemingly were accustomed to that game of power accession, in which their military took the major part. That's why the whole European world still learns at school about "the year of the 4 emperors" - 69 AD, "the year of the 5 emperors" - 193 and even "the year of the 6 emperors" - 238, which signals a little crazy level of violence.

Despite the frequent turnover and turmoil in leadership, the Empire did survive.

I think this relative stability can attributed to Intact institutions (extended family, a patronage system, religious organizations, etc) and a well-entrenched bureaucracy.

In Italy there have been 36 (and counting) Prime Ministers since 1946. Despite these frequent changes of government, daily Italian life is barely affected  by these transitions. Similar to Ancient Rome, people merely meet the challenges of life, supported by their local family, relationships, religious affiliations, etc.

This might explain why distant communities would continue living a Roman lifestyle long after the Empire and the city of Rome “fell.”

Edited by guy
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Are there any examples of such "peaceful" removal in the whole Roman history (without murdering the removed emperor, which is supposedly meant by word "peaceful")?

I nearly said no. But I can think of one. Romulus Augustulus, who was told to go, and clearly Odoacer wasn't expecting him to complain too loudly.

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Right, the story of the short reign of that 16-years old emperor Romulus and his executed father Orestes kinda reminds me a typical cynical Russian joke. A heavily drinking man got sacked from his job, his son asks him:

- Are you gonna drink less now, dad?

- No, you'll be eating less, son

☺️

 

PS. I did say nothing about the influence of the Roman institutions on the daily life, which was tremendous beyond any doubt. Although I ain't sure how applicable they were as far as assertion of power is concerned.

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The Roman 'institutions' as you class them begin to atrophy toward more localised forms of society in the last hundred years or so of the western empire. Partly due to the corrupt and inefficient nature of increasing bureaucracy I might add.

The point I tried to make originally was that asserting power wasn't always necessary for the Romans. Their culture was not set up for heavy handed top level directives anyway (since the empire was governed via provinces in the Republic and Principate despite increasing oversight and direct interference by the imperial household) so if you care to notice, the sources discuss mostly how the Emperors affected the immediate Roman world around them with the exception of the legions, which they were usually made commanders of (since we get the word 'emperor' from 'Imperator'/ 'Victorious General'). Occaisionally a situation develops and the emperor intervenes, as he has made himself entitled to do via his imperium / 'right to command', or perhaps the emperor needs a military victory to justify his title, so we get episodes like Claudius in Britannia or Antoninus Pius building a new wall in Caledonia.

Since overt power carries inherent risks in the Roman world, such as going too far, making a pigs ear of it, or simply failing to impress anyone, Romans typically prefer to influence. This is one reason why emperors, even the most inept and ridiculous of them, quickly develop supporting factions beyond those that helped them to power, because it's much much safer to make initiatives if it's the emperor that orders them rather than you, since if it all goes wrong you can either blame him or some unfortunate minion in the command chain.

The base form of influence is the client/patron relationship. Sure, I'll pay for your daughters wedding, so long as you keep me informed about what Gaius Felix is up to. Or yes, I'll take care of those pesky bandits, because you supply me with decent grapes. And so on. Again, this is very much a localised form of influence.

Edited by caldrail

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