Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Rivals to Rome

Rivals to Rome: Ineffective?

Some historians today hold that the rivals to the Roman empire were ineffective. To sum up the histories of these other lessor known nations and cultures as ineffective is to greatly denigrate their actual positions in the past. A similar statement would be to say that since the Union won the American Civil War, the Confederates were ineffective, or that since the Allies won the Second World War, the Axis were ineffective. It is true that these powers did lose their wars, but in many ways they were far from being ineffectual. In fact, to dismiss them as ineffective is to diminish the winners as well. These “losers” in many cases had a more glorious history with many great achievements.

A side note is in order here. One measure of the greatness of a nation or civilization as well as of individuals is in their glories. Hollywood has had a penchant for some of these glorious defeats and failures, for instance General Custer and his famous last stand on the Little Bighorn. The un-ending mysteries concerning this battle have resulted in many theories and theorists coming up with all sorts of reasons why Custer and his brave troopers fell, with a great deal of concentration on some failure on his part or his subalterns; this is doing not only Custer and his men dishonor but also to the brave Souix and Cheyenne warriors who fought that day. For the implication is that the only reason these warriors won the day is due to some mistake on the part of Custer or his lieutenants, when in fact they outgeneralled and outfought the cavalry, winning their greatest victory of the Indian wars.

The Greek empire stretched over a vaster area, being about equal in size to the lower 48 states by some estimates, and lasted a considerable time - from Alexander (322 BC) to the first century AD when the last fragment disappeared in western India. During the Roman rise to empire, their conquest of the Greek powers was in at least two cases, very much a near-run thing; in the case of Macedonia, it was the quick thinking and actions of the lower ranking officers who saved the Roman army from being wiped out at Cynoscephalae, against Antiochus in Magnesia, it was the heroic actions of the Roman allied Greeks who saved their arses; in the fighting against the last major Greek independent state (Pontus, with Mithridates in charge) the Romans thought that Hannibal himself had been resurrected and there is evidence they got him assassinated after very mixed results in their wars with him; the Parthians they never did conquer, (in fact the Parthians even captured the Roman emperor and executed him) nor the barbarian Germans and Britons; and then there is Carthage.

True, the Romans did "win" their three wars with their most dangerous rival, but this is really not looking at the whole picture - in the first two wars the end came by negotiated peace, the third was a cold deceitful and murderous act. Carthage gets little mention in some history books, yet they had an empire spanning from Kyrene to Kerne in Africa, all of Spain south of the Ebro river, most of Sicily and all of Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearics, and many other islands. A republic like Rome but with a stronger position for the common people, this state lasted from at least 814 BC (or 878 according to Josephus) to 146 BC, which is a span of 665 years, more than three times as long as the United States has existed. It had a population at least equal to that of the Roman empire and the city itself was the most populous in the world at the time. Her armies reached a number of more than 600,000 at peak strength, (the Romans hit 750,000 at one time) and her navy had over 500 warships at peak. The Romans themselves admitted they learned road-building from the Carthaginians, among other things; though Carthage had no huge palaces like Rome (they had no royalty class) their temples were considered among the most beautiful in the world. We don't know what they looked like because they were destroyed, but for example the temple of Eshmun (the Punic god of healing) held more than 5000 soldiers when the city fell! Her explorers are even admitted by historians to have circumnavigated Africa and sailed to Britain and Ireland, some will admit they even reached America. They had their own markets in India and were traveling to the Spice Islands and Cochin China to obtain spices. After her fall, the "silk road" became so important because there were no other sea navigators capable of maintaining the trade. Her generals were in most cases better than the Roman counterparts, and her troops somewhat better as well - even the History channel admitted this much. The Punic wars were very much a near run thing, it very well could have gone either way and even the Romans admit this themselves. The city had universities and several libraries (those not burned by the Romans were given to the Numidians as war booty, this from the Numidian king Juba!) and whole districts devoted to what amounts to assembly-line production of everything from consumer goods, candies, wine, tools, weapons and armor even ships. Their farming techniques were considered so superior to Roman methods that the Romans ordered the books on agriculture written by Mago to be translated into Latin! They even raised war elephants on special farms. Their horses were especially prized in the ancient world, her cavalrymen famed for riding without even a bridle, guiding their mounts using only leg signals or a tiny wand. They were expanding and colonizing and the wars with Rome were certain to come sooner or later, but they could very well have ended differently. We only have the Roman and Greek versions of that particular history, and both of these cultures were enemies so must be viewed with caution.

Then there are the other rivals to Rome at various points in her history. Early on, the Etruscans were a major threat – with a loose confederation of twelve city states, their greatest weakness was in not being united against the threat from Rome. They allowed Veii to fall, the first Etruscan city state to be conquered by the Romans, and from there it was the domino theory par excellance. The Gauls were a serious threat, but they were only interested in booty when they actually conquered Rome and seized the city, allowing the Romans time to recover before invading which proved a fatal delay. The Samnites were also a serious threat to the Romans; these dought fighters gave Rome very much a see-saw war for years, and were the main antagonists during the Social war which very nearly destroyed the empire before it was ever consolidated. The empire very nearly broke into two during the revolt of Sertorius, again the rather evil work of Romans secretly convincing one of Sertorius’ closest advisors to assassinate him ended that threat. The slave revolts of Spartacus and of Eunus in Sicily also came uncomfortably close to gutting the empire. The civil war between Mark Antony + Cleopatra versus Octavian could well have gone the other way with a probably shift in the way history proceeded too. The Germans eventually became more than a threat and destroyed the empire for that matter. The king of Epirus, Pyrrhus, very nearly put an end to Rome and at one point even negotiated for the surrender of the (then) young state. To the Romans’ credit, they stuck it out and won the war, with the aid of their ally Carthage. The Huns invasion was another very serious threat – if not for the defeat of Attila at Chalons, nothing stood between his hordes of horsemen and Rome, and again the battle could be said to have been won by the Visigoths for the Romans. There is evidence to suggest that Roman treachery finally ended the Hun threat by assassination (his new wife poisoning him) and the brittle Hun empire quickly dissolved.

Then there are the lessor threats – the Jewish revolts are much touted by historians and beloved by Jewish people, and rightly so to some extent, but as difficult as these colonial wars were for Rome, they never seriously threatened the empire much less even extended outside the borders of Judaea. The island state of Rhodes put up a brave resistance, if tiny in aspect, and the Spanish were not easily conquered – the Romans considered the conquest of the Spanish city state of Numantia to be equal in difficulty and importance to the fall of Carthage. Syracuse, once a major power rivalling Athens and Carthage, had grown weak by the time of their war against Rome and despite direct aid from Carthage and the devastating inventions of Archimedes (including the catapult seen on TV) which were so frightening to the Romans they would flee at the mere appearance of some new device above the walls, but fell to treachery when someone allowed the Romans in through a gate. Some states were “willed” to the Roman empire, which otherwise might have proven quite difficult to conquer, including Ephesus, whose library was second in size only to that of Alexandria, or Kyrene in north Africa, which fielded armies of considerable size and skill. Numidia should be ranked among the lessor threats, although they were not easily defeated, they did not campaign outside Africa.

The end of the Roman empire has been attributed to everything imaginable, from overdependence on slaves, untrained armies, lead water pipes, etc etc, but a number of factors appear to have been in play. Many of her most important sea ports for trade, supply and movement of armies became silted up due to “improvements” done in the harbors including Ephesus, Oea, Sabratha, Leptis Major and others, her money had been devalued to the point that the silver content in her silver coins ran to 3%, (the trade with India had drained away vast amounts of good money, which caused the Romans to be forced to decreasing the amount of silver in her coins repeatedly) while inflation was rampant, her armies appeared strong on paper, but corruption among the quartermaster corps resulted in legions and cohorts being vastly understrength (paymasters would fail to report the death or discharge of legionaries, in order to pocket their pay!) taxation grew to the point it became ridiculous (the famous “sky tax” for example, being taxed for the sky over your head, the tax on urinating, etc) and numerous other factors not the least of which being the constant degrading of quality workmanship when unskilled slaves replaced skilled craftsmen. One look at a range of Roman coins shows this only too well – the early coins are nearly as good in artwork and strike as the less perfect Greek examples, the later versions becoming almost cartoon-like with such silly errors as mis-spelling the inscriptions! Then too, the level of literacy, once higher (BC) than we have today, steadily fell right up to the fall of the empire. At first glance this might not appear to have had much effect on the collapse of an empire, but has a direct bearing on communications as well as engineering and even the training of military forces.

The Roman conquest of the Greeks is another strange tale – said by some to be a case of “The Conquerors being led by the Conquered”. If the Greek states had formed a solid political unit, something Philip III achieved but later broken up, there is no chance that Rome could have conquered them. Some of the Greeks allied themselves with Carthage, which if followed by all of the states would have resulted in Roman defeat – but important minor leagues sided with Rome. It was Roman policy to ally with weak states “to protect them from the strong” but in fact and practice, as soon as the strong state was eliminated, the weak state was the next target, as even Polybius learned to his chagrin. It is not coincidence that Rome decided to destroy Corinth and Athens at the very same time as they destroyed Carthage. Corinthian troops, ships and money had long been a powerful influence in Mediterranean wars, and Athens was viewed by most Greeks as the logical leader of the Greeks with her own empire which might have been revived. The Romans seemed to have required a series of three wars to remove the most serious threats; there were three Punic wars, three Macedonian wars, three Mithridatic wars and three Jugurthine wars for example. In the case of Greece, though they did succeed in conquering, Greek learning and culture was much admired in Rome and Greek language was the “lingua franca” of the day; well heeled children were expected to learn Greek. Slowly but surely, the Romans became more and more Greek, and when the empire was finally split into East and West, the East became wholly Greek; all inscriptions and publications were written in Greek, the official language of the empire was Greek, about the only “Roman” evidence was the uniforms, equipment and organization of the armies.

The East Roman empire is known to history as the Byzantine empire, as it was distinctly different being more Greek than Roman and lasting one thousand years. It says something about Roman skill in invention that in all that time, virtually nothing was invented or improved upon! Even the famous Greek Fire and the fire ships which defended Byzantium against the Arabs were Greek inventions. The rivals to Byzantium would take up much more work than this epistle and are not truly “Roman” rivals so we leave the subject here. Were the rivals to Rome ineffective? Historians today credit tremendous achievements to the Romans from concrete (Phoenician invention) to their numeric system (Etruscan invention) and their road system (Punic invention, said to be based in part on the famous Royal Road of the Persian kings) even their famous legions, an organization copied from the Samnites, armed with swords copied from Spanish models (which themselves can be traced to Canaanite daggers of the Bronze age) shields copied from Gauls, helmets from the Etruscans and armor from the Samnites. Roman engineering of water systems was learned from the Etruscans as was their sewage and drainage, flush toilets copied from Cretan models, glass from Syrians (or Syro-phoenicians to be exact) the famous odometers used for Roman roads and even for taxicabs were invented by the Greek Archimedes. The Romans are said to be at least quick to adopt superior technologies, yet they killed Archimedes who was bringing his inventions to the Roman commander at the fall of his city, the steam engine of Heiro was never adopted, their sea navigation never equalled that of the Carthaginians, Greeks or Phoenicians. The Celts of Gaul had invented horse-drawn mechanical mowing machines for harvesting hay and grains, which the Romans failed to copy. Greek water-clocks and computers, thought to be commonly in use in many Greek cities and towns never were adopted by the Romans despite their superior accuracy and reliability. Roman buildings make for impressive ruins, yet many which are today assumed to be “Roman” are not Roman at all – Leptis Major for one example is in truth a Punic city, Athens, Sparta, Persepolis for others, and we can point to Egyptian, Greek and Babylonian ruins equally impressive.

I will credit the Romans as the protectors of civilization during the later part of the empire, especially compared to the freedom-loving but barbaric and uneducated barbarians on their borders. The greatest crime committed by the Romans in my opinion was the burning of the great library in Alexandria; this may or may not have been accidental, but what a loss. If we compare the Roman empire to others contemporary with them, the Parthians had a road system nearly as extensive with even faster communications; the Han empire in China also had a huge road network with a civilization about equal in sophistication; impressive ruins such as the Great Wall also show China to have been capable of great achievements. We should note here that China was in direct contact with the Roman empire during this period and later; we know of it because the Chinese kept better records. China was no rival to Rome because of the vast distance between them, but if they had bordered each other, the outcome of a war between them is very much an open question.

So were the rivals to Rome ineffective? If measured by the things adopted by the Romans, which includes much of the culture attributed to them - then these rivals were more effective culturally than the Romans were. On other grounds the matter is also not simple, we leave this for the reader to decide.


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