With lots of air conditioned time on his hands this hatefully hot summer, the Colonel has reinvigorated his heretofore moribund professional reading program. This post recaps his impressions from his latest grey-matter wrinkle-forming endeavor -- Adrian Goldsworthy's "PAX ROMANA."
The founding of Rome is shrouded in myth. So, too, is the conduct of Roman expansion and imperialism.
What we "modern" humans believe about Rome -- republic and empire, expansion and fall -- often borders on the inane; consisting of oversimplified classifications based on little more than a comic book depth of study. Goldsworthy attempts the impossible -- explanation of the myriad political, economic, cultural, and military aspects of the Roman system and civilization that evolved over nearly a millennium, from a hilltop settlement on Italy's Tiber River to an Empire that stretched from Britain to Arabia, from the Caucuses to the Atlas Mountains and held sway over upwards of 70 million people (nearly a fifth of the population of the entire globe) at its zenith, in an easily read single book. The author does this with a segmented examination of each of these factors and sub-factors, replete with well-documented deep dives into specific examples to illustrate his points. While not an exhaustive look at the Roman Empire, Goldsworthy provides a foundational view of the era known as the "Roman Peace;" a good starting place for any serious study of the Roman Republic and Empire.
Peace, like "love," is an abstract and oversimplified term. Pax Romana was not particularly peaceful in its application, the definition of peace depending on at which end of the pilum and gladius one found oneself. At the height of its power, Rome maintained a leveling presence across a score of annexed provinces formerly beset by such a high level of internecine warfare that advances in "civilization" were all but impossible. Prior to Rome, incessant warring tribalism prevailed. Under Roman rule, tribalism still existed, but its violence was suborned and tamped by fear of Roman application of much greater, more organized, and often indiscriminate, force. Age-old inter-tribal grievances and hatreds still simmered, and occasionally boiled over, but the inevitable application of Roman power kept major warfare under enough control that energy normally devoted to fighting with neighbors was channeled into commerce, city-building, and scientific progress.
Goldsworthy attempts, with noteworthy results, to reconcile the disparate views of historians and commentators on the reasons for Roman expansionism and, later in the life of the Empire, reluctance to continue to expand.
Ultimately, Roman expansionism can be traced back to the evolution of early Roman governance. Early in the Sixth Century B.C., as Rome transitioned from monarchy to republic, the rich ruling class formed the governing body for which Rome is famous -- the Senate. Machinations for power and influence in Rome centered on the Senate. The Senate ran Rome, and its provinces as it grew, through political appointment. The currying of favor with the members of the Senate (from within and without) for political appointment became the fuel that fired the Senate. Serving in the Senate, and one of the executive offices appointed by the Senate, was a path to social and financial aggrandizement.
At the pinnacle of appointed power in the Republic was the office of consul, two of which were appointed each year and alternated as the principle consul each month. At the conclusion of their year in office (which could not be held again for ten years) consuls were assigned duties as the Senate's representatives outside of Rome. Those duties included defense of Rome's frontiers at the head of one or more legions (apportioned by the Senate). Victory in battle was richly rewarded and great social status was garnered thereby. This incentivized aggressive military adventurism as successive generations of consuls sought greater glory than the previous. Defensive military operations to maintain limited borders and protect inter-city trade routes gave way to offensive operations to conquer territory that was exploited for the benefit and enrichment of the citizens of Rome.
Goldsworthy's conclusion, then, is that expansion was a logical extension of the political system and its underlying social drivers, family honor chief among them. And, as the borders of Rome expanded, the included territory subdued and eventually annexed as a province (with the attendant all-important Roman citizenship that brought with it), the requirement for defense of expanded borders (as well as maintenance of provincial "peace" and order) spurred growth of the army. A large army made more expansion possible.
But, a large army, at the head of a portion of which a power hungry politician might challenge the constitutional order, ultimately resulted in the transition from a Senate-controlled Republic to an imperial order at the head of which one man reigned supreme.
By the Second Century, A.D., Roman emperors began to employ an expansion-limiting calculus. One part of the equation was fear of an internal challenge to one man's imperial power. Another part of the equation was the economy of legionary occupation -- some conquered territories, while expansive, produced far less wealth than was required to maintain legions in the territory. Goldsworthy notes the occupation of Britain as an example of this deficit cost of empire.
In "Pax Romana" Goldsworthy spends considerable time examining the relationship between Roman central government and the provincial governments and local governments of "occupied" territories, and makes a great case that Roman genius for infrastructure was matched by genius for governance. In particular, there was little Roman attempt to govern and administer at the local level of occupied territories beyond adjudication of major disputes deemed a challenge to peace and order. Indeed, the view of heavy-handed Roman rule backed by the overwhelming might of ever-present Roman legions is largely myth. Even at its largest, the army of Rome (both legions and provincial auxiliaries) was nowhere near large enough to provide constant presence throughout the empire, and was instead positioned primarily along the frontiers. The vast bulk of the legions, by the Second Century A.D., were garrisoned along the Limes Germanicus (German frontier), leaving many provinces completely without the presence of a legion. However, the belief (based on experience) among local leaders in the provinces and occupied territories was that misbehavior (open rebellion, or even unrest threatening Roman interests) could be met, eventually, by deployed force sufficient to regain control. Thus, the threat of force, and not its actual application on a regular basis, was the backbone of the Pax Romana.
The military might and global political dominance of the United States, particularly since the middle of the 20th Century, has drawn comparisons with Pax Romana, many going so far as to call the period Pax Americana. As with any comparisons between different historical eras, generalities often cloud the discussion and prevent examination of details most pertinent to lessons-learned. Arguably, the United States has maintained an empire of sorts since 1945. The United States' navy has ensured freedom of navigation necessary for the vast majority of world commerce upon which American society has thrived and grown rich. Treaty allies around the globe have enjoyed peace and prosperity guaranteed by the deterrence of the United States' overwhelming multi-dimensional military superiority. American borders and territories have remained inviolable for almost three quarters of a century, for much the same reason.
The last territories occupied by the United States to be admitted into the union as states (analog to Roman provinces) were Hawaii and Alaska at the beginning of Pax Americana. Indeed, Pax Americana has been marked by a lull in American territorial expansion that saw the size of the American empire double every 50 years from 1783 to 1945. What accounts for this? Arguably a similar calculus to that made by Roman emperors in the later half of the Roman Empire's run -- the feared deficit cost of expanding and maintaining an empire, and the feared dilution of personal political clout -- slowed and then halted American expansion.
Arguing against expansion on the basis of short-term cost is the tactic of the politically small-minded and strategically short-sighted.
The Colonel has long held the rock solid belief in his doubt-free military mind that when Rome ceased its expansion -- particularly its Second Century A.D. failure to devote the energy and resources to the conquest of the lands and peoples beyond the Limes Germanicus -- and settled into a strategic defensive posture behind fortified borders, the inevitable loss of strategic initiative to the enemy began. Not only does occupying strategic defensive positions and adopting a strategic defensive posture surrender the strategic initiative to the enemy, but it is destructive to the strategic morale and strategic physical fitness of the nation. Once the initiative is lost, responding to threats becomes an exercise in withdrawal and accommodation, the end result of which is national irrelevancy.
This is not to say that "pauses" in strategic expansion, in order to consolidate gains, assimilate populations, and recapitalize the sources of strategic strength (economic infrastructure, political policy, and military forces), are not in order at carefully considered inflection points. But, strategic pause must always have the chief aim to prepare for resumption of the strategic offensive.
The causes of the Roman Empire's fall have employed more academicians and sold more books than nearly any other question in the history of man. There is no one single factor that explains the collapse of the greatest empire in history, although many have advanced their own anti-expansion agendas by positing that imperial overreach was responsible. While the administration and defense (internally, as well as externally) of Rome's empire certainly strained the limits of the transportation and communication technology of the time, Rome's genius for infrastructure (cities, roads, aqueducts, etc...) made administration of a far-flung empire possible.
"Strategic overreach" is a concept adopted by the intellectually lazy and morally weak, to explain political failure to consolidate gains, and, more importantly, political failure to capitalize on the initiative of the strategic offense. In the case of the United States, strategic expansion of the Republic has always been opposed by local, tactical, political machinations. Politicians fear dilution of their power and oppose any redrawing of the map that will, in their view, change the balance of power or diminish their influence. The question of annexation and eventual admission of territory into the Republic as states has always been argued along political lines. Few have been the statesmen who have looked beyond the pettiness of personal political gain or loss and focused on the benefits of expansion under our Constitution for both current citizens and those who will become citizens.
Pax Romana raised the overall standard of living and lowered the threat of violence and war for a quarter of the world's population. Rome's collapse (precipitated in great part by its defensive response to external threats) plunged that portion of humanity into such a terrible time that we now refer to the "middle ages" (the era between Pax Romana and the Renaissance) as the dark ages. The American republic's collapse would arguably plunge a far greater proportion of the globe into another dark age. Pax Americana will last only so long as our Republic's leadership suborns petty personal political position to the expansion of American greatness.
It ain't looking so good at the moment...