Sunday, May 24, 2009

Storming the Heavens

The fall of the (Western) Roman Empire is one of those endlessly debated and rediscovered historical topics. Our knowledge is sufficiently sketchy that people can, and have, read into the gaps whatever explanations of the fall that they find congenial.

I have become particularly interested for two reasons. First, I have to teach it. One version of our Weapons/Arms & Armour topic begins with the Roman Army versus the barbarians. Second, because, in Europe, the medieval arises from two things—the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire and the replacement of the Western Empire by Germanic kingdoms.

I picked up, while Hylands Bookshop in Flinders Lane (the place for military books in Melbourne), a copy of Antonio Santosuosso’s Storming the Heavens: Soldiers, Emperors and Civilians in the Roman Empire, a wonderful study of the most important institution in the Roman Empire—the Roman Army.

Prof. Santosuosso takes us from the army of the Senatorial Republic, through Marius’s reforms to Caesar’s career and restructuring of the army, Augustus’s further changes and then the steady evolution of the Army until the collapse of the Western Empire in the C5th.
The army built the Roman Empire and it consumed the vast majority of the financial resources of the Roman state. The cost, quality, make-up and relationship of the army to the political structure and wider society is the most important factor in that state and its evolution. Thus Marius’ reforms in broadening its recruitment (to the poor and even non-citizens) and increasing the professionalisation made the Army more effective as an imperial Army but also fatally undermined Senatorial authority (by greatly weakening the Army's links to the Roman social hierarchy). Caesar both made the army his tool for political supremacy while purging it of the more deleterious effects of the civil war struggles. Augustus made it both an instrument of Imperial dominance within the state while enabling it to remain a high quality professional army for the next two centuries.

Just as the Republican Army after Marius became less connected to the Roman social hierarchy and, until Caesar, more an army of pillagers than protectors, so the Imperial Army after Septimius Severus became less connected to the Roman population (particularly of the central provinces) as more and more barbarians were recruited. The Army was also greatly expanded in number, while declining in quality. Its costs went up, its benefits went down while the Roman economy and population (particularly in the West) appears to have been in slow decline.

Prof. Santosuosso is excellent at explaining the reasons why Roman power reached the territorial limits it did, particularly in the West (the book, alas, gives only cursory treatment to the interaction with Sassanid Persia). I liked the way he treats the various personalities as people-with-characters while explaining well the constraints and opportunities they were dealing with. His treatment of the lead up to the battle of Adrianople is particularly informative, as he does not hesitate to point out that Valens made a series of poor decisions. He alludes to something I have come to believe was an increasingly important factor—that Rome’s German opponents were getting economically stronger and organisationally more sophisticated. Another way the balance of advantage was shifting against the Empire. He sees the Army as an institution which has to be paid, organised, supplied, recruited for. Thus he points out that the Adrianople disaster can hardly have helped recruitment. His description of the official attitude of Rome at the height of its power is one strikingly like that of the Middle Kingdom.

Prof. Santosuosso explains the survival of the Eastern Empire compared to the collapse of the Western as basically being because the Eastern Empire had more resources and was less territorially vulnerable yet its Emperors failed (except briefly in the middle of the C5th when it was all a bit late) to assist the Western Empire: a very plausible view also taken by other recent scholars.

Storming the Heavens is a highly readable, informative and enlightening book.

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