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Monday, February 18, 2013

The Roman Empire

I have been writing about history lately, I will get back to stories about sunsets and puppies eventually but for today I wish to write of the fall of the Roman Empire.
Like all barbarians the Romans started as a conquering hoard, and then developed an elective government based on merit. The insight which created a stable Empire was that the conquered people traded freedom for the benefits of an advanced civilization, there were constant civil wars which the Roman senate suppressed by a brutal force of arms. The Romans allowed the conquered provinces to choose their own leadership, substantial upward mobility was supported, any could become Emperor, and riches could be made by any farmer or merchant.
The Empire lasted for a 1,000 years. The first 600 years a story of growth and plenty, the last 400 years a story of terror and decline, the turning point came with Caesar crossing the Rubicon. Julius Caesar was one of the imperium, very roughly translated as the “right to command”. Caesar is one of the great military geniuses of history, a well earned appellation. The Roman practice of the time was that the conquering hero must leave the army north of the river Rubicon and return to Rome defenseless and submit to the will of the Senate. Arriving in Rome with his legion, he found that the Senate had fled in fear, he proclaimed himself Perpetual Dictator of Rome.
This is a highly abbreviated account, Caesar’s action of crossing the Rubicon initiated a 4 year long civil war which Caesar won, and this allowed him to centralize all political and military power in his person. The Roman Republic now existed in name only, until its final collapse Rome remained a military dictatorship.
Caesar was assassinated. All Emperors after Caesar were murdered. Some ruled for days and others for decades but all were replaced by the sword. The legion became the sole power in the empire, the legion choose the Emperor and the legion maintained his power. Many of the wisest Roman leaders worked very hard to not become Emperor since the reward was always a violent death.
The concentration of power in one person, supported by the force of arms, had two results. Poor leadership and a weakening of military combat capabilities, the military could easily kill civilians but increasingly had difficulty with armed barbarians. The poor leadership was not constant, there was the occasional “philosopher King”, but this proved the exception, not the rule.
The Roman Empire coasted for another 400 years due to the enormous superiority of culture, science and wealth, but the end was never in doubt after Caesar. This is apparent in retrospect; however the Romans never figured it out. They blamed moral decay, loss of religious faith, lack of military finances, the influx of aliens or a general cultural rot. Sound familiar?

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