Friday


Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836

A couple of days ago in The Byzantine Superweapon, and again yesterday in Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization, I discussed some of the forces that led to the technological stagnation of classical antiquity, which ensured that there would be no industrial revolution in the classical world. Western civilization had to pass through the painful contraction of political and economic collapse in Western Europe, and lose much of what it had struggled so hard to build, before it could get to the point at which the conditions were right (and ripe) for industrialization.

Now, the way that I have worded the above paragraph suggests a kind of historical inevitability, and this is philosophically objectionable. If one is going to make a claim of historical inevitability, one has an intellectual obligation to state this claim, and to defend it. However, I am not making such a claim, although my position could be interpreted as a weak form of historical inevitability.

What do I mean by “weak historical inevitability”? A strong formulation of historical inevitability would simply be a statement of determinism. A weak formulation of historical inevitably need make no metaphysical claims about determinism, but does acknowledge that, given the kind of civilization that characterized classical antiquity — settled, slave-holding, agrarianism — it would have been virtually impossible, or in any event extremely unlikely for technological innovation to escalate to the point of an industrial revolution. Before industrialization could occur, certain social changes must occur. But the “must” in the last sentence is not the “must” of necessity or determinism, but only a weaker “must” of the preponderance of the evidence. Call this a scientific must if you must, because it shares in the inductivism and revisability of all scientific thought.

In the same spirit of a scientific perspective on history, imbued with an empirical and inductive approach (rather than an a priori and deductive approach, in which “had to” and “must” carry connotations of metaphysical determinism, as in Marxism), there is another factor in the stalling and stagnation of ancient Western civilization that bears examination, and this relates to the geophysical structure of the Roman Empire, which represented classical antiquity at its greatest reach and its most robust iteration.

Of course, the study of the geography of political structures is the meat and potatoes of geopolitics, and I have written a good deal on geopolitics and geostrategy. But even though geopolitics represents a “big picture” and “long term” view on political structures, in the field of geophysics geopolitics is the shortest of short term perspectives. Those who take the longer view of human history and civilization in the context of geography — Jared Diamond is probably the most famous contemporary example of this — are frequently charged with “geographical determinism,” and while in some instances this may be true, but, as I noted above, we can adopt a weak sense of geographical inevitably and avoid all metaphysical determinism.

The geographical unity of the Roman Empire was primarily a function of the Mediterranean Sea, which was ringed by ports that connected the cities of the empire with water-borne commerce — at that time in history, the only form of commerce that could move mass quantities of goods. Maps of the Roman Empire show it surrounding the Mediterranean. After the collapse of Roman power in the West, Western civilization moved inland and approximated pure agriculturalism until expanding again across the North Atlantic and new and larger geographical unity based on water-borne commerce.

During its medieval phase, and carried over into continental politics during the modern period, Western civilization gave rise to no durable empire on the scale of the Roman Empire. The European peninsula is too geographically divided by rivers and mountain ranges to posses the kind of geographical unity the Roman Empire had in virtue of the Mediterranean. George Friedman and Strategic Forecasting often argues in this vein, and in this I think he is right. Friedman has also pointed out that, geopolitically, China is an island. Separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountain ranges, and the ocean, the traditional unity of Chinese civilization derives from this insular geography. The only people who penetrated the fastness of China were the Mongols; the Chinese themselves did not engage in successful power projection, but spent most of the history warring with each other to determine who would rule the geographical unity of China.

The same geographical divisions of Europe that led to a plethora of petty kingdoms, states, statelets, principalities, and city-states led to ideological, political, economic, and even aesthetic diversity by way of the cultural equivalent of allopatric speciation. In other words, civilization speciated rapidly on the European peninsula. Political and ideological diversity meant a history of continuous conflict, which was at times was ruinous, but at other times had the remarkable quality of competitive government, so that a variety of diverse candidates for political leadership contested with each other to demonstrate (usually militarily) who could provide the best rule. The brilliance of the Italian renaissance is sometimes credited — rightly, in my view — to the competition among principalities on the Italian peninsula.

The Roman Empire, possessing the geographical unity of the Mediterranean — similar in a certain sense to the insularity of Chinese civilization and its series of empires — did not benefit from competitive government. It became, in contrast, a political monoculture that iterated itself around the Mediterranean basin and penetrated as far inland was travel by road was practicable. Instead of competition, the Roman Empire bestowed peace — the Pax Romana.

In this context, the Pax Romana could be understood as a cause, if not the cause, of the decline of classical antiquity, for without the continual pressure of war there was no need reason to systematically harness science, technology, and engineering to practical ends, and these pursuits remained an elite preoccupation of a handful of privileged and relatively isolated individuals.

By contrast, the continual (internal) warfare of medieval Europe eventually gave birth to the scientific revolution even before the industrial revolution made the application of science to technology systematic.

Universal empire — as in Rome or China — leaves peoples with a choice between civilization and barbarism, whereas competing political entities offer peoples a choice between different representatives of a particular tradition of civilization.

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Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Desolation, 1836

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Thursday


The city plan of Timgad clearly shows the rationality of Roman town planning. The organic medieval cities that were eventually to house the successor populations of the former territories of the Roman Empire represent a very different approach to urbanism.

In Yesterday’s Why did Roman cities fail?, among several other assertions, I made the following claim:

“The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.”

I have no doubt that the dissolution of the Roman Empire will be discussed as long as human civilization endures, and because the discussion unquestionably endures in our own time, there is a lively debate over almost every aspect of Roman power and its eventual dissolution. It is a question that is endlessly fascinating, and that is one reason that I find myself returning to it.

An aerial photography of Timgad clearly showing the town plan as the most striking feature that remains of the city.

Moreover, a focus on cities in the ancient world can lend both clarity and focus to the discussion of Roman failure in the west, given the canonical status of city-states in classical antiquity. And it would add further clarity and focus to continue this concentration on urbanism into the medieval period in order to compare the ancient urban experience with the medieval urban experience. As I will sketch briefly below, there were some abandoned medieval cities, but most medieval cities of western Europe continued to grow and develop and were eventually transformed by this development rather than being abandoned.

View of Timgad with arch, colonnade, and theater clearly visible.

The decline of Roman cities was at the same time the rise of manorial estates, and with this transition from the city of the countryside, the socio-economic system of the city slowly gave way to the socio-economic system of the manorial estate. If we had good statistics from this period, we could identify the particular year in which the changing Roman Empire (or its former dominions) shifted from being primarily urban to being primarily rural, as today we can identify the particular year that humanity became a primarily urban species, such the more people live in urban areas than live in rural areas.

Henri Pirenne (23 December 1862 – 25 October 1935) formulated the eponymously known Pirenne Thesis.

Many distinct but interrelated process contributed to the failure of Roman cities and their institutions, which might also be called (if one would like to take a different perspective on the same historical events) the rise of the manorial system, which was already well underway (though not fully consolidated) in the later Roman Empire. With the diminution of Mediterranean trade, fewer and fewer grain ships came from Egypt to feed the urban masses; the country estates of the Roman aristocrats were forced to become productive farms in order to replace the other lost sources of food; the urban masses began to abandon the city for the sources of food in the countryside; small holders had to attach themselves to larger aristocratic households; and all the while the culture of the aristocrats and the former urban masses were becoming progressively more Christian, with genuine expressions of popular piety that broke the connections to traditional Roman festivals, which were often civic and urban events. When these several processes achieved near totality, the feudal system was complete, but it was already implicit in the socio-economic developments of the late Roman Empire.

Pirenne’s formulation of the Pirenne Thesis grew out of his analysis of medieval cities.

In yesterday’s discussion of Roman cities I didn’t make any attempt even to review the theories of Roman collapse. There are many such theories, most famously Gibbon’s contention that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire represented, “the triumph of barbarism and religion” — presumably a triumph over civilization and secularism — and the Pirenne Thesis, according to which it was the rise of Islam that signaled the end of classical antiquity. Recent thought focuses much more on the continuities than the discontinuities between the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and I alluded to this yesterday when I quoted Gordon Childe’s account, which was an early example of emphasizing historical continuity.

Coulanges studied the ancient city prior to the model of iterated Roman civilization that transformed the Hellenistic cities of the ancient Mediterranean.

The Pirenne Thesis is particularly interesting in the present context, because Pirenne’s thesis, despite making the rise of Islam central to the ultimate collapse of Roman power, emerged from Pirenne’s study of medieval cities. I remarked yesterday that it would be interesting to take up the failure of Roman cities from the perspective of Fustel de Coulanges’ famous book The Ancient City. Such a project would consider Roman cities in their formative stage. If the inquiry were extended to include Pirenne’s Medieval Cities, we could close the parentheses on Roman cities, as it were, by also considering the medieval urbanism that was the successor institution to Roman urbanism.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, 18 March 1830 – 12 September 1889

The expansion of medieval cities recounted by Pirenne, and of medieval civilization generally, which certainly as much as ancient civilization exemplified what Gordon Childe called…

“…the result of the superficial expansion of civilization and the suspension of attritional warfare…” (What Happened in History, p. 281)

…experienced a crisis nearly equal to the failure of the Western Roman Empire with the Black Death. By the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Black Death struck Western Europe, medieval civilization had been steadily expanding for several centuries — economically, demographically, socially, politically, intellectually — and it was devastated by a crisis unlike any other in Western history. Medieval civilization survived (unlike Roman civilization, which did not survive its catastrophe), but it was diminished and altered.

Gordon Childe gained renown as a prehistorian, but in his later work his scope expanded to include the ancient world up to its dissolution.

Medieval civilization was quite literally diminished, since the Black Death resulted in a dramatic contraction of the population of Europe, which led in turn to a contraction of the farming that was the basis of the medieval European economy, and this in turn meant that many medieval villages were abandoned. Some survive today as place names with no remaining structures, while others disappeared without a trace.

V.(ere) Gordon Childe, 14 April 1892 – 19 October 1957

The expansion of medieval villages, and the organic nature — both in terms of structure and material — of medieval urbanism meant that most medieval villages founded during the period or Europe’s medieval expansion consisted of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub structures, which when abandoned during the Black Death were rapidly re-absorbed into the damp, rain-soaked landscape of Western Europe. The Robust towns built of durable stone were among those that survived. Even if abandoned, squatters could return to inhabit the most permanent dwellings, which I expect happened with some frequency in the aftermath of the plague.

Regardless of the relative merits of continuity theories and discontinuity theories of the transition from antiquity to medievalism, one point that can be made more clearly than debating the decline and fall (or, if you like, transformation) of an entire civilization, is this: Roman urbanism failed. Even if we maintain that Roman civilization continued on in altered forms, Roman cities failed.

The tradition of Roman town planning was lost; the new cities that eventually emerged after the abandonment of so many Roman cities emerged centered on a monastery or a cathedral. As I have observed on several occasions, these medieval cities were organic in composition and conception. The medieval successor institution to Roman urbanism simply happened; it was not designed and it was not planned. New social and political institutions meant that the cities functioned differently from Roman cities. The way of life of Roman cities was lost and it was not recovered. There were no more great public baths, or sacred prostitution at ancient temples, or syncretistic religious pluralism. For all the analogies between Roman cities and medieval cities, the central institutions of public life were distinct.

Thus whatever we may say of Roman civilization, Roman urbanism failed, and the urbanism that replaced it when medieval Europe returned to the building of cities (after a period of several centuries in Western Europe that saw almost no urban construction at all) was an urbanism based on different principles and different institutions. (Again, as Gordon Childe put it, “…old Mediterranean towns were replaced by new cathedral cities.” What Happened in History, p. 291) This fact alone makes the study of the failure of Roman cities singularly interesting. However, I must also point out the Roman urbanism only “failed” after having endured for more than a millennium, which means that Roman urbanism was also one of the most successful institutions in human history.

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Wednesday


Jerash in modern Jordan

Throughout Europe, North Africa, and West Asia you will find the ruins of ancient Roman cities. These abandoned ruins haunt the Western historical imagination, and not only the modern imagination. The Middle Ages were possibly even more haunted by the vanished Roman Empire than are we. There is a remarkable early poem in Anglo-Saxon — one of the earliest of all surviving poems in Anglo-Saxon — that communicates the sense of loss and mystery that abandoned Roman structures had for the peoples of the Middle Ages, who imagined them as the work of giants. Here are the first few lines of The Ruin (in a modern English rendering):

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire remains still one of the central points of reference in Western historiography. Italian historian Aldo Schiavone called it, “…the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilization.” (The End of the Past, p. 2) The ruined cities that dot the landscape of the Old World offer mute testimony to this catastrophe. (On a personal note, here I am, a Westerner on the far western edge of the New World, where no ancient cities dot the landscape, and there is scarcely a day that passes that I don’t think of the Romans and their accomplishments.)

Aphrodisias in modern Turkey

We cannot make a clear and unambiguous distinction between Roman cities and Roman civilization when we ask why Roman cities failed. It has been said that Mediterranean civilization is essentially urban, centered in its cities, so that the failure of Roman cities was the failure of Roman civilization, and vice versa. We could even take a term from economics to express this, and say that the fall of the Roman Empire in the west involved the co-movement of failure across Rome’s western cities.

Heliopolis, or Baalbek, in modern Lebanon.

When I previously wrote about Failed Cities I realized later that I had failed to make any basic distinctions between classes of failure suffered by cities. Some instances that I cited couldn’t even be called “failure” in the strict since, as these cities were destroyed by natural disasters (here I am thinking of San Juan Parangaricutiro in Mexico, which was covered by lava and volcanic ash, but any city destroyed by a natural disaster and not subsequently rebuilt and repopulated would serve equally well as an example, such as Pompeii). Even among destroyed cities we ought to distinguish between those destroyed by natural disasters, those destroyed purposefully in war, and those destroyed by their inhabitants. Once these distinctions are made, it can be observed that there will be no clear and unambiguous distinction between some cases of failure sensu stricto and some cases of the destruction of a city by its own inhabitants.

Leptis Magna in modern Libya

This last observation, which may seem a bit overly-subtle (and, believe me, I could go into in a much greater detail if I cared to do so), is germane to the present concern of why Roman cities failed. If Roman civilization may be identified with the network of Roman cities, then the failure of Roman civilization in the West may be identified with the systemic failure of Roman cities. Since a natural disaster may destroy a few cities but it not likely to cause the failure of many diverse cities over a wide geographical range of distribution (unless that natural disaster is global climate change), the across-the-board failure of Roman cities would not seem to be due to natural disaster. Similarly, cities destroyed in war tend to be localized to the theater of war, and this leaves definite signs that archaeologists can uncover. Similarly, again, cities intentionally destroyed by their own inhabitants is a measure of considerable desperation and is not likely to have occurred on a large scale, and it would moreover leave traces for archaeologists. This leaves us with the failure of Roman cities ambiguously related to the unintentional self-destruction of cities by their own inhabitants.

Volubilis in modern Morocco

In the most famous case of a Roman city — the city of Rome itself, the Eternal City — its fall was as slow and as gradual as its rise. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rome didn’t fall in a day. And the “failure” of Rome was not complete, although at its nadir Rome had gone from being a cosmopolitan city of more than a million souls, and the largest megalopolis if the ancient world (possibly the only megalopolis of classical antiquity) to being a city of fewer than 50,000, stripped of its population, its power, its wealth, its public art, and its central place on the world stage. Domestic animals grazed in the Forum Romanum as the great temples and public structures were looted as quarries for stone to build ramshackle huts nestled in among the interstices of the ruins.

Rome itself, the Eternal City.

It was in the Eternal City itself that Gibbon was inspired to write his justly famous account of the fall of the Roman Empire, as he recounted in a beautiful passage from his Autobiography:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire…”

Gibbon’s literary ambition grew as he worked, and he eventually would write the entire history of the fall of the Roman Empire, not excepting the history of Byzantium until that Second Rome had fallen to the Grand Turk in AD 1453. There have been others who have taken a more tightly circumscribed focus in recounting the fall of Rome itself, the city, but it would be another project again to retain Gibbon’s original concrete and particular interest in writing the fall of Rome, and iterating this to all the Roman cities, recounting their joint and cumulative decline.

Perge in modern Turkey

For Rome, the Eternal City itself, was not the first or the only Roman city to have animals grazing in the marketplace where once the business of an empire was transacted. Here, from Dio Chrysostom, is an account of haw far and how quickly some cities had already declined in classical times:

“ ‘At the present moment even the land just outside the city gates is quite wild and terribly unattractive, as though it were in the depths of a wilderness and not in the suburbs of a city, while most the land inside the walls is sown or grazed. It is therefore surprising that orators trump up charges against the industrious people of Caphereus in the remote parts of Euboea, and yet hold that the men farming the gymnasium and grazing cattle in the market-place are doing nothing out of the way. You can doubtless see for yourselves that they have made your gymnasium into a ploughed field, so that the Heracles and numerous other statues are hidden by the corn, some those of heroes and other those of gods. You see too, day after day, the sheep belonging to this orator invade the market-place at dawn and graze about the council chamber and the executive buildings. Therefore when strangers first come to our city, they either laugh at it or pity it.’”

Dio Chrysostom, this is taken from a long passage which Dio quotes in the Seventh, or Eoboean, Discourse, 38-39, pp. 307-309 in the Loeb volume. The Original is in Greek.

Many cities, Rome and Caphereus among them, experienced depopulation, declining industry, declining trade, failing infrastructure, failing institutions, and the whole panoply of problems that simultaneously exacerbate each other when systematic failure compounds local failures in a vicious circle.

Timgad in modern Algeria.

But it was not always thus. The Hellenistic period was a time of bustling, wealthy cities surrounding the Mediterranean, and it was this network of cities (connected by a transportation network) that made the civilization of this period vital. Townspeople took pride in the status and beauty of their cities, their local gods and festivals, and the famous men who hailed from them. Here is a description of ancient Taras, modern Taranto, from Strabo’s Geography:

“…at the city there is a very large and beautiful harbor, which is enclosed by a large bridge and is one hundred stadia in circumference. In that part of the harbor which lies towards the innermost recess, the harbor, with the outer sea, forms an isthmus, and therefore the city is situated on a peninsula; and since the neck of land is low-lying, the ships are easily hauled overland from either side. The ground of the city, too, is low-lying, but still it is slightly elevated where the acropolis is. The old wall has a large circuit, but at the present time the greater part of the city — the part that is near the isthmus — has been forsaken, but the part that is near the mouth of the harbor, where the acropolis is, still endures and makes up a city of noteworthy size. And it has a very beautiful gymnasium, and also a spacious market-place, in which is situated the bronze colossus of Zeus, the largest in the world except the one that belongs to the Rhodians. Between the marketplace and the mouth of the harbor is the acropolis, which has but few remnants of the dedicated objects that in early times adorned it, for most of them were either destroyed by the Carthaginians when they took the city or carried off as booty by the Romans when they took the place by storm. Among this booty is the Heracles in the Capitol, a colossal bronze statue, the work of Lysippus, dedicated by Maximus Fabius, who captured the city.”

The booty that Strabo mentions was a symbol of civic status, and it true that when Rome or any other empire conquered a famous city they often took the most famous monuments and moved them to their capital. While this transfer of status represented a form of honoring tradition, this already points to a fundamental problem in the ancient political system, in which the strong did as they pleased and the weak suffered what they must — the famous formulation of Athenian hubris in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The renowned prehistorian Gordon Childe painted a compelling picture of the prosperity and comfortable circumstances of ancient cities in his What Happened in History:

“For all Roman cities, like the Hellenistic poleis, enjoyed the amenities of a public water supply, now often laid on to every block, handsome public buildings, baths, theatres, colonnades, market halls, and assembly places adorned with statues and fountains. The private dwellings were tasteful and commodious. In a provincial watering place like Pompeii with at most 30,000 inhabitants archaeologists have uncovered street upon street of mansions with mosaic pavements, frescoed walls, colonnaded courts, glazed windows, running water, bathrooms, and latrines.”

And to account for this relative wealth:

“Trade circulated freely throughout the Empire. The cities were united by a network of superb roads. Harbours were everywhere improved or constructed, and the seaways were now free from pirates.”

This is a picture that rivals our best cities today. I encourage the reader to read the entire last chapter of Childe’s book (i.e., What Happened in History, the last chapter of which is, “The Decline and Fall of the Ancient World”), as Childe gives in a few pages a summary of his own views on the collapse of Western civilization, as seen from the perspective of a non-dogmatic Marxism. Childe emphasizes the continuity of arts, industry, and institutions, and says that, “Progress is real if discontinuous.”

Dougga in modern Tunisia

To speak in terms of historical “discontinuity” is a polite way to speak of failure followed by subsequent recovery, and if the recovery surpasses the former peak of civilization, then we have “progress.” But the ruined cities that still stand vacant today never recovered. Civilization continued elsewhere in other modes, but it abandoned the dead cities that had once been prosperous and comfortable. And the wealth was not incidental. The failed cities of Roman Hellenism that surround the Mediterranean basin are only there because they were first built and grew and thrived, only later to fail systematically and catastrophically. The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.

The Porta Nigra (Black Gate) of Trier in modern Germany

In Complex Systems and Complex Failure I wrote the following:

“Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system. This is easy to see intuitively since a catastrophic cascading failure in a complex system must penetrate through all levels of the system and encompass both core and periphery.”

This is what happened in the Roman world. Each city is a complex system, and the network of cities that constituted the Roman Empire was an even more complex system. Moreover, each city is a micro-center of civilization, with its hinterlands as its periphery; and the clusters of cities tightly connected by roads and shipping networks were in turn larger centers of civilization, with the outlying networks of further cities as their periphery.

Emerita Augusta in modern Spain.

There is a systematic way to discuss these complexities, and that is in terms of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, though here, in the present context, I will not ascend to metaphysical concerns, leaving the idea of the ancient city aside for the time being. Simply employing the bio-ecological levels of Bronfenbrenner without further extension, we can see that the city is a meso-system, or, rather, that the city is at the center of a meso-system which also includes a peripheral region. A network of cities constitutes an exo-system, with further meso-systems at its periphery.

Conimbriga in modern Portugal

These bio-ecological and bio-social systems collapse in reverse order as they emerged and grew. As the growth of complexity is attended by expansion, differentiation, and dynamic equilibrium, their collapse involved contraction, homogenization, and disequilibrium. Now, exactly what accounts for the ability of a complex social whole to achieve both internal differentiation and equilibrium is a problem that is widely recognized, but also unsolved. One would easily suppose that greater differentiation (as in craft specialization, division of labor, and social stratification) would lead to disequilibrium, but in a healthy and growing ecological system the opposite is the case. The healthiest ecosystems embody biodiversity, as the healthiest societies embody social diversity. Somehow it works, but no one quite knows now it works. But the very fact that it is not fully understand how complex and internally differentiated systems maintain an equilibrium is as much as to admit that the equilibrium is a balance, and a balance can be thrown out of balance and into disequilibrium.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The impressive world of the Hellenistic cities of Rome’s Mediterranean empire somehow passed beyond the point of balance and into disequilibrium. The apparent stability of the Roman world began to change, and it did not change for the better. The center could not hold. Things fell apart. Perhaps the interconnected ancient cities were drawn into a vicious spiral of a failure cycle. When I discussed The Failure Cycle recently I identified criminal exaptation of institutional weaknesses as a crucial part of this cycle. However, in the failure of the Roman cities, criminal exaptation does not seem to have played a major role. Perhaps I could re-formulate the failure cycle in order to account for the circumstances of Roman urbanism. when I wrote The Failure Cycle I was thinking of contemporary nation-states and their institutions, but I realize now that there is a fundamentally different relationship between center and periphery in the case of ancient cities and contemporary nation-states. In classical antiquity, failing institutions were exploited by elements in the external periphery rather than by elements internal to the center; and whereas the contemporary failed state may receive assistance from the external periphery, the ancient city was helped, if it was helped at all, by its internal core. Thus, when the core failed, there was nothing else upon which the ancient city could fall back.

Thus I previously laid out the failure cycle as follows:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

Whereas the institutional failure of classical antiquity looks more like this:

1. A city with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by external elements (e.g., barbarians), exacerbating city failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that traditional powers intervene, seeking to restore rule and order from the center.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a city with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

In either case, the iterated failure cycle can become a vicious spiral that grows beyond the ability of traditional guardians of traditional order to contain.

This way of looking at the problem suggests that the interconnected nation-states of today (which interconnection is often referred to as “globalization”) are analogous to the interconnected cities of classical antiquity. And given that the Roman world of classical antiquity grew out of the earlier world of city-states, with the expanded possibilities of today, the nation-state stands in a relation to other nation-states today that the city-state stood in relation to other city-states in classical antiquity.

Fustel de Coulanges, in his classic study The Ancient City, argued that the expansion of Rome destroyed the municipal institutions of the city-state, and replaced it universally with something Roman that was not the city-state as it was known in earlier antiquity. This would be an interesting thread to pursue in analogy to the present day, and as an extension of the thoughts above, but this inquiry will need to wait for another day.

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Friday


Recently I listened through Classical Mythology: The Romans, 14 lectures by Professor Peter Meineck. Professor Meineck made an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me previously in comparing Odysseus to Aeneas. These two are, respectively, the hero of the ancient Greek “national” epic, The Odyssey, and the hero of the ancient Roman “national” epic, The Aeneid.

The Romans, like most peoples up until the modern period, sought truth, authenticity, and authority at its source, in the distant past. It was enough for a tale to be reputed to be ancient for it have a certain presumptive value. Thus the Romans looked back to the Homeric poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, as the proper measures of what a “national” epic should be (before the emergence of nationality per se). The Romans didn’t merely take on the setting and the story of the Trojan War, which was the setting of the Iliad and the Odyssey, they literally inserted themselves into it. The figure of Aeneas was extracted from The Iliad and pressed into the service as the founding father of Rome and the Roman people. Thus not only were the Greeks ultimately Trojans, but the Romans were ultimately Trojans also — in other words, an heroic people.

But the heroism of Romans was rather different from the heroism of the Greeks. Odysseus spent ten years trying to get home to Penelope, surviving many a remarkable adventure, but always focused on getting home. That is to say, Odysseus wanted to get back to the place where he started. Without the goal of home, the Odyssey loses its purpose. Aeneas, the Roman hero, on the other hand, has not set out to find his home but to make a home. His goal is not to return to the life he left, but to establish a new life and a new people. Aeneas was a man with a mission. In other words, Aeneas had a manifest destiny; Odysseus did not.

This is, of course, not the only different between Odysseus and Aeneas. Odysseus is a “man of many turns” — he takes pride in subterfuge, stratagem, indirection, and evasion. Aeneas, in contrast, even before he has established a bourg of his own has all those bourgeois values that a solid, stolid people like the Romans wold have wanted in their founding father. These are indeed two very different men.

While Odysseus was sidetracked for seven years by Calypso, and although he admitted that Calypso was more beautiful than Penelope (the former was a Goddess, after all, or at least a nymph), he ultimately left Calypso and the possibility of immortality with her in order to get back to home and to Penelope. Aeneas, too, had a notable dalliance on his journey, with Dido, Queen of Carthage. Aeneas jilted Dido when reminded of his mission to found Rome, and Dido offed herself (being thrown over for a city that doesn’t even exist yet must be tough). Dido’s being jilted by Aeneas provides the backstory to the Punic Wars, making the love affair more than tragic. In contrast, there was no Hannibal from the island of Ogygia to take revenge for Odysseus leaving Calypso.

Since the end of the Cold War it has become a commonplace to make comparisons between the Roman Empire and contemporary America. Even before the end of the Cold War one would hear references to Pax Americana, and recent US wars (and US-sponsored wars) have been relentlessly criticized as imperial. Certainly both Rome in classical antiquity and America in modern industrialized civilization represent the dominant powers in the Western world, and as such they are rightly examined for parallels.

There is, it must be said, some justification for this parallelism. The US is a political experiment that draws equally from the two greatest exemplars of political power in the ancient world: Athenian democracy and Roman republicanism. One tends to think more about the democratic heritage, but the Roman republican heritage is no less significant. The Federalist Papers were signed “Publius” and not “Demosthenes.” More than a parallelism between Rome and America, there is also an element of descent with modification.

The manifest destiny of Rome and America, however, I do not credit to descent with modification, but to parallelism and affinity of temperament. The Romans created a polyglot empire of many peoples, and eventually made Roman citizenship open to anyone who would exert themselves for Rome. America, more or less, made herself open to the peoples of the world, and assimilated diverse cultures and ethnicities no less relentlessly than Rome. (Yes, of course, there are important exceptions to both of these examples.)

How do you give shape and structure to a society of diverse peoples of diverse backgrounds and diverse beliefs? You do so by giving them a mythology based on the future, and not on the past. Most peoples the world over have taken their identity from their past, from their roots, from the origins, and I have remarked above that, like all peoples of antiquity, the Romans too sought authenticity at the source. But they also had Aeneas and his manifest destiny: that is to say, manifest destiny displaced into the past.

America, too, once had its manifest destiny in the past, and looked upon its Pilgrim fathers and its founding fathers and men who left the Old World for the Promise of the New World, much as Aeneas left Troy, that great ancient city, to found Rome, that great city of destiny. Aeneas, fatefully, founded the Eternal City.

What can possibly come after or beyond the Eternal City? The Future City. The land of the future. The people of the future. The nation that would project itself into the future. The nation possessed of manifest destiny.

With the emergence of the idea of manifest destiny, American authenticity was transformed from the past into the future, and thereby separating itself from most nations and most peoples in history. Identification with the future, with possibility, with potential, is a rare thing in human history, and it accounts, at least in part, for American exceptionalism.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Idea of Empire

28 December 2009

Monday


To speak of empire today, or to describe anything as “imperial”, is to employ a turn of phrase that is highly tendentious and politically charged. In other words, the term has come to have a primarily emotive meaning. This is as much as to say that the idea of “empire” has become useless for anything except slander, and this is an unfortunate turn of events because the idea of empire has played a significant role in the history of Western civilization.

Western Roman Empire

I have just finished listening to The Decline and Fall of Rome, fourteen lectures by Professor Thomas Madden from the Modern Scholars series, and obviously indebted to Gibbon’s famous treatment of the theme. Madden focuses on the Western portion of the Roman Empire, so he only mentions the Byzantine continuation of the Roman Empire in passing. This allows Madden to concentrate to canonical historical issues of the decline and fall of Roman power in the West. I really enjoyed this historical review.

Augustus, the man who, more than any other, created the Roman Empire, but retained the fig leaf of Republican institutions.

The Roman Empire began in fiction and ended in fiction. By this I mean that when the Roman Republic effectively ended and Octavian became the first Augustus, he made this possible in part by pretending to maintain the forms of the Republic while replacing it with the actuality of imperial power concentrated in the hands of one man. For several generations this ruse was perpetuated, with Roman emperors allowing the Roman Senate to confer upon them an office that had no legal status within the law of the Roman Republic. Ultimately, the role of the emperor was codified into law (the emperor was officially above the law, by the way), and when the Roman Empire ended in the West the opposite fiction came into play. German kings of invading tribes called themselves Roman emperors. Indeed, Charlemagne had himself crowned Roman emperor, and throughout the Middle Ages there where Holy Roman Emperors (indeed, there were Holy Roman Emperors through the early modern period). It is ironic that medieval kings sought the status of Roman Emperor as an indicator of their legitimacy, since, as we have seen, the office of emperor originated outside the law.

Charlemagne was crowned Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800.

A week ago in Ideas Again I made a distinction between embodied ideas and abstract ideas. I could go on to make a further distinction between embodied universal ideas and embodied particular ideas. The idea of empire is a universal idea that has been embodied by many different political entities; the idea of the Roman Empire is an embodied particular idea that has only the Roman Empire as its embodiment, and this particular idea — the idea of the Roman Empire — has been so powerful in Western history that it has played an intellectual role out of proportion to any other conception of Empire. The Roman Empire for Western thought exemplifies empire itself. Medieval kings sought legitimacy by calling themselves Roman; they did not simply declare empire for empire’s sake, but appealed to the tradition of the Roman Empire in particular as a continuing influence in their world. In this sense, in the sense of continuing influence over our history, we are all of us Romans and all of us imperialists if only because our minds have been constituted in part by a long-defunct empire.

Hegel used to talk about something he called a “concrete universal.” I was never able to make sense of Hegel on this score, but now, in retrospect, it occurs to me that one way to explain Hegel’s concrete universal would be to characterize it as what I have called an embodied particular idea. Sometimes, in roundabout way such as this, by my own reasoning I come to a plausible interpretation of a concept that previously had escaped me.

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For more on the idea of empire see The Imperial Idea, its Imperfect Execution, and its Eventual Undoing.

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