Two Causes which Destroyed Rome – Baron de Montesquieu


Synopsis:

The eighteenth century political philosopher Montesquieu examines the constituent features of Roman culture which contributed to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Montesquieu argues that the increasing territorial, as well as material grandeur of the Roman Republic magnified already existing constitutional schisms, and that the primal bellicosity of the Roman people lingered as a tinderbox for civil strife long after external conflicts had ended.

Excerpts:

“The reason why free states are not so permanent as other forms of government, is, because the misfortunes and successes which happen to them, generally occasion the loss of liberty; whereas the successes and misfortunes of an arbitrary government, contribute equally to the enslaving of the people.

“Authors enlarge very copiously on the divisions which proved the destruction of Rome; but their readers seldom discover those divisions to have been always necessary and inevitable. The grandeur of the republic was the only source of that calamity, and exasperated popular tumults into civil wars. Dissensions were not to be prevented, and those martial spirits, which were so fierce and formidable abroad, could not be habituated to any considerable moderation at home.

“Those who expect in a free state, to see the people undaunted in war and pusillanimous in peace, are certainly desirous of impossibilities; and it may be advanced as a general rule, that whenever a perfect calm is visible, in a state that calls itself a republic, the spirit of liberty no longer subsists.

“It must be acknowledged that the Roman laws were too weak to govern the republic: but experience has proved it to be an invariable fact, that good laws, which raise the reputation and power of a small republic, become incommodious to it, when once its grandeur is established, because it was their natural effect to make a great people, but not to govern them.

“Rome was founded for grandeur, and its laws had an admirable tendency to bestow it; for which reason, in all the variations of her government, whether monarchy, aristocracy, or popular, she constantly engaged in enterprises which required conduct to accomplish them, and always succeeded. The experience of a day did not furnish her with more wisdom than all other nations, but she obtained it by a long succession of events. She sustained a small, a moderate, and an immense fortune with the same superiority, derived true welfare from the whole train of her prosperity, and refined every instance of calamity into beneficial instructions… She lost her liberty, because she completed her work too soon.

*All excerpts have been taken from Considerations on the Causes of the Grandeur and Declension of the Roman Empire, Public Domain.

Military Institutions of the Romans – Vegetius

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Synopsis:

Late antiquity engendered consequential institutional adjustments for Roman arms. The wealth of the state meant that Rome would always attract the best recruits to its standard, but commonly these recruits were foreign mercenaries. Although still effective the army over time became more and more challenging to control because of foreign preeminence.

The Western Roman Empire never solved the problem of the barbarianization of its army, but rather was taken over by it, and collapsed as a state in 476. On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire answered the institutional dilemma of barbarianization first by elevating the hard-bitten Isaurian Romans of Anatolia to supremacy over the formerly favored barbarian mercenaries, and later by establishing the militia thémata system.

The late Roman writer Vegetius sought to unravel the institutional riddle of the late Roman army by advancing the thesis of how the ideal Roman army ought to be organized. His work never reflected the reality of late antiquity, but would become influential in the medieval West.

Excerpts:

“Victory in war does not depend entirely upon numbers or mere courage; only skill and discipline will insure it.

“Recruits in particular should be obliged frequently to carry a weight of not less than sixty pounds (exclusive of their arms), and to march with it in the ranks. This is because on difficult expeditions they often find themselves under the necessity of carrying their provisions as well as their arms.

“The courage of a soldier is heightened by his knowledge of his profession, and he only wants an opportunity to execute what he is convinced he has been perfectly taught. A handful of men, inured to war, proceed to certain victory, while on the contrary numerous armies of raw and undisciplined troops are but multitudes of men dragged to slaughter.

“Troops, defenseless and exposed to all the weapons of the enemy, are more disposed to fly than fight.

“To pretend to enumerate the different nations so formidable of old, all which now are subject to the Romans, would be tedious. But the security established by long peace has altered their dispositions, drawn them off from military to civil pursuits and infused into them a love of idleness and ease. Hence a relaxation of military discipline insensibly ensued, then a neglect of it, and it sunk at last into entire oblivion.

*All excerpts have been taken from Military Institutions of the Romans, Praetorian Press, LLC.

Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist – Peter Crawford

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Synopsis:

Following the passing of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Roman Empire was divided among his sons Constantine, Constantius, and Constans. Ultimately, Constantius would consolidate power under his exclusive authority. However, the religious schisms befalling the empire concerning the true nature of Christ between the Arians, Monophysites, and Catholics manifested a legacy as the anti-Christ for Constantius among the victorious Catholics, because of his alliance with the Arian cause.

In his book, Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist historian Peter Crawford renders the contexture of the schisms of Christianity throughout the era of Constantius II. He also describes the considerable pagan rebellions, the war with the neighboring superpower Persia under Shapur II, as well as the dynastic civil war of Julian the Apostate, and the power politics which sculpted the complexion of the epoch that Constantius ruled over.

Excerpts:

“Not only was Sirmium now an increasingly important military position in the prefecture of Illyricum, the extended presence of emperors had seen the construction of many of the buildings required for an imperial residence: imperial and public palaces, mint, circus, arena, aqueduct, churches and villas. Indeed, so well-polished had Sirmium become that the hard-to-please Ammianus called it ‘a populous and famous metropolis.’

“And it was to prove as the subsequent Battle of Mursa on 28 September 351 was one of the bloodiest battles in Roman history; although even with such a status, information about the battle remains scant. Magnentius is said to have lost two-thirds of his force in this slogging match while the victorious Constantius lost half of his, equating to perhaps more than 50,000 casualties.

“Constantius’ record on the battlefield was almost impeccable. Losing control of his army at Singara is the only real blemish when he led men in person. He defeated armies of Persians, Sarmatians, Quadi, Limigantes, Alamanni and probably other tribes on top of the two large Roman armies of Magnentius; all of this achieved with an army that was in a transitional phase of its development not just from the reforms of Constantine but also the increasing regionalisation sparked by the divisions of the central field army between his sons.

“It was the potential strategic considerations behind the promotion of Sabinianus that represents the least popular aspect of Constantius’ military approach with his lack of offensive strikes and major battles against foreign enemies seen as un-Roman and cowardly. However, it is in this realm of military strategy that Constantius demonstrated a far greater insight into the abilities of the fourth century empire, its army, its officers and its opponents than many of his contemporaries, even if it was to the detriment of his own reputation.

“Throughout his reign, Constantius held a massive Persian army headed by perhaps the greatest Sassanid king at bay at a time of Roman military transition, imperial division, usurpation and barbarian invasion. During the 340s, he had even managed that with just a third of the empire’s resources at his disposal.

*All excerpts have been taken from Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs, and the Antichrist, Pen and Sword.

Reason and the True Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #124, Seneca engages the fountainhead of the ‘true good’ in human action. He concludes that virtue is the cradle of happiness, and the cradle of virtue is reason.

Excerpts:

“And what is this good? I will tell you: It is a free and upstanding mind which subjects other things to itself and itself to nothing.

“We assert that ‘happy’ is what is in accordance with nature, and what is in accordance with nature is directly obvious, just as wholeness is obvious.

“As far as perception of good and evil is concerned both are equally mature; an infant is no more capable of the good than is a tree or some dumb animal. And why is the good not present in tree or dumb animal? Because reason is not.

“Confusion is applicable only where non-confusion can also occur, as anxiety is applicable only where serenity can obtain. No man is vicious unless he is capable of virtue.

“Pronounce yourself happy only when all your satisfactions are begotten of reason, and when, having surveyed what men struggle for, pray for, watch over, you find nothing to desire let alone prefer.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC – John D. Grainger

Synopsis:

In the final book of his three part series charting the rise and decline of the remarkable Seleucid Empire, John D. Grainger hammers out the pressing causes of the dissolution of the once great empire founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Among the many Hellenistic successor states established after the death of Alexander the Great the Seleucid Empire would most closely resemble the Empire of Alexander in geographical magnitude, and would maintain that integrity for most of its history.

Following the death of Antiochus III the empire slowly withered away amid uncontrolled internecine warfare. These wars were brought about by succession disputes that commenced after Antiochus IV usurped the throne. This event set forth a new succession norm – i.e. the only thing necessary to rule was a powerful army to back the claimant. These dynastic civil wars weakened the state enough to allow separatist movements on the edges of the empire to gradually snowball into legitimate states – e.g. Parthia, Bactria, and Armenia. Ultimately, the once great empire would shrink into a regional kingdom mostly encompassing Syria, and would remain this way until its conquest by the Romans.

Excerpts:

“Seleukid disintegration, it must be noted, was unique among the fates of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Only Macedon was broken up, by the Romans in 167, and this was reversed within twenty years, first by the rebellion of the Macedonians and then by Roman annexation of the whole and its conversion into a single Roman province. The Attalid kingdom’s main regions were taken over complete by Rome, with minor regions being awarded to allies, and Egypt fell as a complete unit to Rome in 30 BC.

“Rome, it seems clear, had no part in this disintegration. Occasional Roman visitors arrived for over a century and more, inspected the kingdom, and then went away. Occasional Seleukid claimants or enemies turned up in Rome, were heard, and received no help.

“Partly the disintegration which the Romans found was due to the sheer size of the original kingdom, so that breaking off fragments – Baktria, Parthia, Asia Minor – did not seriously damage the essential heartlands of Syria, Babylonia and Iran. And partly it was due to the inability of the Seleukid kings to maintain control over the more distant parts of a kingdom which was 2,000km long and more, and which could only be crossed at the speed of a marching soldier. Or to put it the other way around: it was due to the ambitions of governors installed by these Seleukid kings, who were able to develop a local interest network which enabled them to strike for independence and make themselves into kings at a time of central government weakness.

“Until 175 the royal succession had been reasonably clear: the king nominated his successor, who was always his eldest surviving son, a practice which, having been followed for a century, might be considered to be a rule. Antiochos IV’s ambition broke that sequence when he murdered his nephew and stepson; it then became clear that the kingship was available to whoever could seize it.

“…the kingdom was doomed from the start. By basing his power on a very narrow population base, Seleukos I had made it certain that the first succession dispute – and there was bound to be one – would begin the process of collapse. And yet unless he had based his power on the Greek and Macedonian settlers he would not have survived and there would have been no kingdom. Without the promise of land and cities to live in, the settlers would not have come; and without the settlers Seleukos and his successors would not have a kingdom to rule. The essential basis in the kingdom, the unifying element, was the king. When disputes about the occupation of the throne arose, disintegration happened. The kings made the kingdom, held it, and let it fall. In its origins was the kingdom’s ending.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Fall of the Seleukid Empire 187-75 BC, Pen and Sword.

Crowds – Seneca

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Synopsis:

In letter #7, Seneca grapples with the nature of crowds. He catechizes the influence crowds have on the human soul, and traces the remedies for its negative effects.

Excerpts:

“Contact with the crowd is deleterious; inevitably vice will be made attractive or imprinted on us or smeared upon us without our being aware of it. In every case, the larger the crowd with which we mingle the greater the danger.

“A single example of luxury or avarice works great mischief. A comrade who is squeamish gradually enervates us and makes us soft; a neighbor who is rich pricks up our covetousness; a companion who is malicious rubs some of his rust off upon us, however frank and ingenuous we may be.

“Retire into yourself, so far as you can. Associate with people who may improve you, admit people whom you can improve. The process is mutual; men learn as they teach.

“There is no reason why ambition to advertise your talents should lure you to the public platform to give popular readings or discourses. I should agree to your doing so if your wares suited such customers, but none of them can understand you. A solitary individual or two may come your way, but even him you will have to educate and train to understand you. ‘Then why did I learn all this?’ Never fear that you have wasted your effort; you learned for yourself.

“When asked the object of applying himself so assiduously to an art which would reach so very few people, he said: ‘For me a few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.

The Sole Good – Seneca

Synopsis:

In letter #76, Seneca underscores the element of reason in human existence. He also surveys the subjects of wisdom, virtue, bravery, and what ingredients aggregate into the human soul.

Excerpts:

“Wisdom is never a windfall. Money may come unsought, office may be bestowed, influence and prestige may be thrust upon you, but virtue is not an accident.

“What is best in man? Reason, which puts him ahead of the animals and next to the gods. Perfect reason is, then, his peculiar good; his other qualities are common to animals and vegetables.

“The sole good in man, therefore, is what is solely man’s, for our question does not concern the good but the good of man. If nothing but reason is peculiarly man’s, then reason is his sole good and balances all the rest.

“Folly may creep toward wisdom, but wisdom does not backslide to folly.

“…men bear with fortitude, when they have grown accustomed to them, things they had thought very difficult.

*All excerpts have been taken from The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters, W.W. Norton.