‘What Ifs’ Fall of the Roman Empire I

Earlier ‘What Ifs’: the crises that led to the creation of the ‘Later Empire’

In a similar manner to the disaster at Adrianople, a victory against the Goths in their earlier incursion of 251 – when Emperor Decius was killed and the Balkans opened to ravaging – would have avoided sparking off a round of ‘copy-cat’ invasions by emboldened Germans. An experienced commander who his troops had hailed as Emperor after he defeated earlier attacks and forced him to turn on his master Emperor Philip (or so he claimed), Decius had had problems in bringing the Goths to battle in Thrace in 250–1. Logically the invaders had spread out over too wide an area to be confronted quickly in one grouping and had to be confined in a manageable area. This was an inevitable result of the time lag between them crossing the Danube and the Emperor arriving from Italy. There had been trouble on the Danube from the Carpi through the 240s, so a major attack was not that surprising, but placing a local commander in the area with a large enough army was politically dangerous, as he might use his troops against Decius as Decius had done to Philip. The delay in tackling the Goths probably owed much to Decius’ caution after recent revolts. A stable and unchallenged ruler could have risked having a senior commander or more troops in the region or both. This is with the caveat that manpower was available and had not been diverted to face Persia, we simply do not know. In any case, both Decius and his elder son were killed in battle. A bout of internal Roman revolts followed Decius’ death, with his surviving son Hostilianus, young and inexperienced, being superseded by one general after another.

The wave of German attacks, at sea across the Black Sea as well as on land, was followed by another invasion by the opportunistic Sassanids and the diversion of Emperor Valerian and many of his troops to the East to fight them in 260. The Emperor’s disastrous military failure there and capture at a parley by Great King Shapur’s troops broke the Empire up into chaos and opened many more provinces to ravaging. The humiliation was played up by Shapur, whose ambitions seem to have been to restore the ancient Achaemenid Empire of Darius and Xerxes that had reached to the Aegean. Reviving the ancient tradition of rock-cut glorification of the Persian Great King for all to see on the main road from Iraq up onto the Iranian plateau, he created a carving of Valerian kneeling before him as a suppliant, and was rumoured to have stuffed his body as a trophy when he died. In practical terms, the Persian invasion of Syria had to be driven back by Odenathus, the Roman client-ruler of Palmyra, as the shattered Roman army in the East retreated into Asia Minor and became split up in claims of Imperial power by its commanders. A wave of rebellions left Valerian’s son Gallienus with control of the central Roman lands but the West (Gaul, Spain, Britain, the Rhine) lost to a breakaway regime under Postumus and the Levant controlled by the autonomous city-state of Palmyra under Odenathus and later his widow Zenobia. Both states were reconquered by Aurelian after 270, but the multiple crises led to the emergence of a much more centralised, bureaucratic, and tax-heavy Roman state.

Would this form of state have ever emerged had the Empire not faced disaster in the 250s? Or was the loss of Roman manpower in the plague of the 250s sufficient to embolden attackers and fatally weaken the Roman army anyway? Indeed, it can be argued that the nature of copycat revolts, one successful rebel general’s example encouraging another to challenge him later, means that the chronic and disastrous instability of the mid-third century Empire owed a lot to recent political failure. The Empire had been invaded by large-scale German tribal forces at a time of plague in the 160s, but Marcus Aurelius had fought them off and the Empire did not collapse. Was this because the Empire of the 160s did not have to cope with the Sassanid state too, or was it due to mid-second century Roman political stability? It is noticeable that the Emperors whose death and capture sparked disaster in 251 and 260 (Decius and Valerian) were both usurpers, not secure long-term rulers from an established dynasty.

Would the Empire have fared better had it had a stable line of unchallenged rulers after the extinction of the Severan dynasty in 235?

There were no long-lived rulers or secure successions from this event until the creation of Diocletian’s new system of government after 284. It is possible that the loss of both Emperor Septimius Severus’ adult sons in 211–17 (Geta murdered by his brother Caracalla, the latter a tyrant murdered by his most senior commander) was what ushered in this dangerous instability, given the inadequacies of their distant cousins and successors Elagabalus and Alexander Severus. The tyrannical Caracalla was murdered for self-preservation by his competent Praetorian Praefect Macrinus in 217, but the latter was seen as dynastically illegitimate by his mutinous troops; some of the latter duly acclaimed Caracalla’s cousin (and reputed son) Elagabalus, the teenage High Priest of the Syrian sun-god at Emesa. Macrinus was defeated in battle and killed, and the victor and his entourage moved to Rome, taking the sacred stone (was this a meteorite?) of the god with them. A transvestite bisexual exhibitionist, Elagabalus was murdered in 222; Alexander, his cousin and successor, was seen as dominated by his mother and was murdered too on a Rhine campaign (235). A round of coups commenced, with the troops’ capable but lowborn choice of sovereign, the Thracian ex-ranker Maximin, facing revolt in Rome and Africa.

After 235 no Emperor could secure stability, even the militarily competent Maximin and Philip the Arab. Arguably, the fault for all this lay with Septimius Severus for not killing his violent, and fratricidal elder son Caracalla, who had possibly already plotted his murder, and ensuring that the less dangerous Geta succeeded him; the latter and his capable adviser Papinian could have secured stability for a vital period of the early-mid third century. Severus’ stated plea to his sons on his deathbed to live at peace with each other, keep the troops happy, and not bother about anyone else was wishful thinking. If he did not want to kill his son he could have despatched him to a remote island, as Augustus did with his allegedly violent and politically dangerous grandson Agrippa Postumus.

The Empire’s problems in the third and fourth centuries. How might they have been reduced by earlier military successes?

In the longer term, it is also arguable that the nature of the Germanthreatened Empire’s outer defences in the later fourth century, easily crossable rivers, the Rhine and Danube, weakened its defences. In the first decade of the millennium Augustus’ generals had attempted to annex the lands between Rhine and Elbe, bringing many of the local tribes into the Empire, only to meet with disaster in the Teutoberg Forest in AD9. The conquest of lower Germany had then been abandoned. Even if it had succeeded, a combination of Roman parsimony about garrisons and the ever-likely civil wars could easily have occasioned a successful revolt before the fourth century. In the 100s Trajan had responded to repeated Dacian attacks on the middle Danube by advancing his frontier to the eastern Carpathians, and in the 170s Marcus Aurelius had temporarily overrun the Czech lands.

Maintenance of all three occupations would have brought many of the tribes who threatened the Empire under its rule, with their warriors serving in the Roman army, like the previously hostile Gauls from the 50s BC, instead of raiding Roman lands. The remaining Germanic territory South of the Carpathians, that of the Iazyges between middle Danube and Theiss, could have been occupied or left as an allied kingdom under pro-Roman chieftains. The military occupation of a slice of territory was in any event less important than its neutralisation as a threat. Rome had long operated through a cheap system of allied kingdoms that did not entail direct rule, as with the Germanic tribal realm of Maroboduus on the Danube and the multiplicity of Levantine Greco-Aramaic states. Provided that a territory was not immanently hostile to the Empire, occupation usually occurred when a Roman ruler needed to prove his military credentials by an impressive conquest, as with rising politician Caesar in Gaul in 58BC and ageing new Emperor Claudius in AD43. Indeed, it is worth remarking that despite the disastrous defeat of a large Roman army in the German forests East of the Rhine by Arminius in AD9 the situation had been partly rectified by Tiberius’ nephew Germanicus before he died in 19. The latter was ambitious and arrogant, and made much of his physical resemblance to Alexander the Great.

Had Germanicus succeeded Tiberius as planned, could he have decided to add to his reputation by invading and annexing territory beyond the Rhine or Danube? Doing this would have entailed either moving part of the garrison of Lower Germany (four legions on the Rhine) into the area, risking revolt to their rear, or raising more legions. Augustus had had trouble in finding new troops after losing three legions in the German disaster of AD9, having to arm slaves, so would it have been difficult to create even two new legions to help hold down the lands to the Elbe? There was a political advantage in creating this new force for a new province (Transrhenus?), as it would serve as a check on the ambitions of the military commanders in Lower Germany. In AD69 their commander Vitellius rose in revolt against new Emperor Galba and fought his way to Rome; could he have done so had he faced a local rival who was still loyal?

The precedent of Roman occupation of a similar agriculturally based tribal society in Gaul shows that local rebellion was still a problem (occasionally) in Tiberius’ time, seventy years after Caesar’s conquest, and there was to be a major eruption under Julius Civilis in northeastern Gaul once Rome fell into civil war. The latter revolt in 69 was aided from beyond the Roman frontier on the Rhine, and had the Empire advanced to the Elbe some time after AD9 or had Varus defeated Arminius then and saved three legions for use in an occupation, revolt was still probable later. Crucially, the Empire kept existing tribal units as administrative sub-provinces in Britain and Gaul, and would probably have done the same in Germany. This aided a sense of identity among the locals, as shown in the tribal-based nature of revolt in Gaul in the early 20s and 69. Breaking up the existing tribal landowners’ landed power-base by atomising the social structure would have been more effective in preventing revolt, which would have entailed massdeportations as in Dacia under Trajan after 100. Was this the successful policy that the Romans adopted in keeping the Iceni quiet after Boudicca’s revolt in 60–1? The name of the Iceni never re-emerged in the fifth century, unlike other British tribal kingdoms. And could a similar break-up of Germanic tribal polities between Rhine and Danube in the first century AD have produced an invaluable long-term German boost to the Roman army that aided it in its third and fourth century wars?

Such territory may not have been fully occupied as a province (like Germany west of the Rhine and the Gallic Belgica) but just dominated by legionary outposts, leaving open the chance of revolt at times of weakness, as with the Batavian region of the Rhine-mouth in AD69–70. The rule of this region had been left to its own local chieftains, provided that they supplied troops to the Empire; the same strategy was followed for allied British kingdoms beyond the frontier in the 40s and 50s, e.g. Cartimandua’s Brigantes and Prasutagas’ Iceni. The main aim of the Antonine occupation of Bohemia in the 170s seems to have been to prevent more invasions of Italy, and this aim may have been achieved without creation of a formal province. In the event Marcus’ death in 180 and Commodus’ withdrawal meant that Marcus’ war-aims of around 177 are unclear.

The effect of military domination and partial occupation would still have been the same: to prevent the emergence of the new super-tribes, the coalitions of disparate German peoples under single dynamic leaders which invaded the Empire in the mid-third century. The use of new names to identify them in place of the terminology of the first century AD suggests new tribal groupings emerging, probably under active warlords who forged coalitions. The regular recruitment of their menfolk to the Roman army would have kept the latter as allies to, not preying on, the Empire. The Germans would have been sent to serve well away from their home territory to minimise the chances of revolt, as with the Empire’s Sarmatian nomad allies from the lower Danube.

Holding down such an extended dominion would have had its problems, not least revolt. Romanization of tribal peoples was a slow process and some of the Gauls revolted in the early 20s AD , followed by the major Rhine revolt of Civilis in 69–70. But a mountain frontier eastwards from the Elbe Gap near Leipzig to the Iron Gates on the lower Danube, broken only by a few passes and occasional low-lying regions like the Ostrava Gap/Beskids, would have been easier to defend from penetration than the river frontier, and would certainly have required no more troops. The main danger would have been of a still-restless tribal population hankering after its freedom and ready to revolt at times of crisis with help from beyond the frontier, as with parts of northeast Gaul as late as AD69, over a century after Caesar’s conquest. That problem, however, had not been insurmountable once Rome regained its military cohesion and Vespasian could send troops to suppress the Gallic revolt under Civilis; using the same argument, the Danube- Carpathian lands were no less controllable for the period after 180. There would however have been longer distances involved, hampering quick reaction. Also, the poorer soil of the north German plains and the forests would not provide useful produce for the Roman economy; costs would have been high.

The numbers of invasions that the Empire faced from the 170s onwards would thus have been reduced, though attacks from Wallachia across the lower Danube (e.g. the Gothic invasion of 251 and Gothic refugee-movement of 376) would have been unaffected. The Persian threat from the 230s would have been equally serious, though the disaster of 260 (when Emperor Valerian was captured and the East dissolved into chaos) owed much to the distractions of the Rhine and Danube invasions that resulted in an under-manned Eastern army. The third century Empire would still have been subject to major losses from the plague of 252, though not necessarily as many civil wars given the absence of certain domestic crises such as Commodus’ reign, the civil war of 193–7, and the successive coups and revolts from 235 to 260. Internal stability would have decreased the distractions of civil war, which aided the invaders, enabling an unchallenged Emperor to meet the main attacks head-on with his army as Marcus Aurelius did after 169.

State structures and the succession: from ‘First Citizen’ to hereditary autocrat

It can be argued that each successful coup or revolt from 192 had a cumulative effect on the Empire’s stability, and thus on its long-term chances of survival. No arrangement for the political succession is of course infallible, though a rigorous selection process or a definitive genetic right of heirship can present distinct advantages. The most stable political systems have relied on a collective leadership rather than one individual, as with the oligarchy of medieval Venice with its figurehead Doge, but this was unrealistic for an age of monarchy and military leadership, particularly in the Greek-Middle Eastern areas of the Empire.

The whole tradition of government in Rome had evolved from the concentration of political and military power in two annually appointed senior magistrates, with a temporary dictatorship for emergencies but a taboo on any notion of kingship; it was Augustus’ genius to introduce a hidden monarchy while avoiding the open single rule which Caesar had not troubled to disguise. The vital role of military power in a far-flung state needing large armies that the government had to control to avoid the turbulence of the late Republic made one man’s ascendancy inevitable. There was a need for a visible individual as the centre of control (and of cultic worship), as Caesar, Antony, and Augustus duly recognised. The last attempt to re-create a stable collective aristocratic leadership, by Sulla in 82–80BC, had foundered on patrician feuds and powerful provincial army commanders. The same would have been likely to happen had Pompey and the Senate defeated Caesar in 48BC or Brutus and Cassius defeated the Caesareans in 42BC.

There was not yet the necessary structure of government, or acceptability for it, to create a rigid, top-down bureaucracy in the early Empire. In this case a cabal of ministers heading permanent departments would rule the state and the Emperor be its nominal frontman, whose personal failings and possible removal did not affect the viability of the state. This sort of regime emerged in centralised dynastic China from the middle Han period, under a succession of weak Emperors. Ultimately, in China this did not prevent failure of leadership; inter-ministerial feuds erupted, civil war and revolt followed, and repeated break-ups into rival provincial polities followed that. But China had by then evolved a tradition of centralised bureaucracy, as created in the state structure of the kingdom of Jin in the ‘Era of Warring States’ and imposed on the entire country by the unifying ‘First Emperor’ Jin Shih Huangdi. The nearest bureaucratic equivalent in the Mediterranean world was the complex governmental structure of Ptolemaic Egypt, which carried on functioning irrespective of the incompetent sovereigns and bloody feuds within the ruling dynasty. In traditionalist Rome, government had been a simpler and more ad hoc affair with the small number of senior officials assisted by their private households and their groups of personal ‘amici’.

It had only slowly adapted to the massive political and economic demands of empire in the last two centuries BC, with its resistance to change aiding the political chaos of the Late Republic. Even with power and Mediterranean-wide official business concentrated on the Emperor, Augustus and his successors governed through the traditional means of a senior magistrate’s personal household. There was contemporary criticism of the emergence of low-class freedmen household officials wielding immense power under the later Julio-Claudians. There was always something ad hoc about the early Empire’s Imperial government, as analysed by Fergus Millar, and much was left to local self-rule by governors and city councils who sought Imperial advice and instructions when necessary, as shown by the famous correspondence between Trajan and Pliny the Younger.

The creation of a large-scale and intrusive bureaucracy had to wait until the later third and early fourth centuries, and is plausibly ascribed to a specific political strategy formulated by the administratively minded Diocletian. This bore some resemblance to the hierarchic governmental systems of Sassanid Persia and China, and notably had a Persian-style formal court based at a ‘Sacred Palace’ instead of the more democratic courts of most early Emperors. The Emperor was cut off from direct contact with his subjects, surrounded by a hierarchy of court officials and Persian-style eunuchs, and in an increasingly religious age an effort was made to have the court reflect the order and ceremonial of Heaven (firstly in its Olympian guise, but soon in a Christian context).

It may be significant that Diocletian, unlike his militarily successful predecessors Claudius II, Aurelian, Probus, and Carus was a civilian (Greek) bureaucrat not a general. He may have decided to trust in a foolproof state system, not personal charisma as the Illyrian soldier-emperors from 268 to 284 had done. The system of a godlike Emperor isolated at court, which he created, was then kept on by the next long-ruling Emperor, Constantine, who could have reverted to a less formal mode of ruling. It is not sufficient to claim that a huge court was the inevitable accompaniment of autocracy, as the Illyrian Emperors, and even Septimius Severus much earlier, had ruled by naked force rather than in tune with early Empire deference to the Senate.