Thursday, 25 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: semper fideles or republican guard

Just as they say, Rome was not built in a day, neither was its downfall something sudden and decisive: a long, steady decline that lasted centuries characterised the collapse of the Western Empire after a turbulent succession of emperors. No single factor precipitated this erosion become avalanche, though there were certainly pivotal moments, but before indulging, to the point of obsessing over the next episode’s surprises, the History of Rome series from Mike Duncan, I had not considered military-coup as a cause.

It is not that the brilliant arc of story, with over a hundred installments, was in defense of some thesis to lay blame on the Roman soldier—quite otherwise though there is a coherent element of foreshadowing, through the lens of retrospection and to a degree allegory, but I suppose I believed that Rome imploded under the weight of bad leadership, religious uprisings, popular revolts, invasion or by some sort of divine disfavour, and had not considered that first surfeiting and then placating greed was among the chief the constituents. The turmoil began to well with the political and practical disdain that Domitian held for senatorial authority—rather, protocol already at this point, replaced and redoubled by the fawning and appeasement of the military—a calculus that all this emperor’s, no matter how long or short their tenure, successors would follow. First, the elite Prætorian Guard, the body-guards of the imperial family, sort of like the US secret-service, realised that they could demand a high price for their loyalty and protection, which rapidly spread to the ordinary ranks of Legionnaires, both on the frontiers and closer to home. There are several instances of regicide by the Prætorians, whose membership and influence grew after overturning the safeguards that were instituted by Tiberius, realising the potential dangers of maintaining a standing-army in times of peace and involved regular rotation in place of duty that separated the troops in order to deter the fomenting of separate allegiances. The first shoe fell during what is known infamously as the Year of the Three Emperors—to be bested later—not for poor governance but by the army openly prostituting its fidelity: in the end, the Guard auctioned off imperator to the highest bidder (Didius Julianus, who reigned for all of nine weeks) who could pay them the largest donative, a pledge of personal wealth that was not always delivered, in exchange for their support. During this time, the relevance of the Senate occasionally returned with some measure of deference but the army remained the object of pandering, with their wages being increased exponentially, and there was no abating this expectation once precedence had been established. Of course, this custom put the economy in quite a pinch—especially with a paucity of new conquests and plunder. Seeking a solution, after citizens of the city of Rome were subject to taxation after centuries of being exempt and relying on outside revenue, Emperor Caracalla decided to naturalise every person (though not the female- or the slave-types) of the provinces, in order to increase tax-revenue. The tax-man was also deployed in full force—supplementing the personal collection that the emperors undertook with purging potential subversives and confiscating their estates so as to pay for this support-bubble. Once coveted by all, Roman citizenship was looking more and more like a liability. Caracalla was an absolutely horrid person and leader but did not live long enough to place him within the pantheon of truly vile emperors.
Caracalla took his legacy in another direction by commissioning monumental baths to be built to the south of Rome, luxurious even by spa-crazed Roman estimations, which stand as one the eternal city’s last great construction projects, as later emperors even abandoned Rome for Naples and Milan as unsullied capitals before ultimately transporting it eastward. What do you think? It isn’t as if the politicians and polity at the time caught wind of these events and right away recognised social upheaval beyond. There are contemporary analogues, of course, but do you think the that the Romans were aware of poisoning their own wells or understood the consequences of the way their Empire was defended?