Monday, September 7, 2009

Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: Chapter 1, "Romans"

Heather starts with the story of a massacre of one and a half second-line Roman legions by the Germanic Eburones in 54 BC. Despite being ambushed in a terrible position by a larger force, the Romans held out all day and fought to the death. This illustration of toughness and prowess, even in defeat, leads into a discussion of the characteristics -- training, cohesion, morale, engineering -- that made the Roman army so formidable. Heather notes that the Romans supplemented military might with prudent diplomacy, and these built and sustained one of the most extensive states in history for half a millennium.

Given the duration of the empire, it is not surprising that Roman society and political institutions changed a great deal. Heather dissents from the scholars who conclude that these changes significantly weakened the empire and led to its fall.

Heather's discussion of the nature of the empire begins with the late imperial rhetorician Symmachus. His relentless networking -- some 900 of his letters survive -- illustrates the workings of an elite Senatorial class. This class was distinguished by a canonical literary education which they believed made them mentally and morally fit to lead -- an outlook which stretched back to the Republican era.

Heather uses the story of Symmachus' embassy to the imperial court in Trier to elucidate some further points. First, as the very existence of such a mission shows, Rome was no longer the political and administrative center of the empire. Military exigency required rule from bases nearer the frontier. (Just one base generally did not suffice because of the length of the frontier, and Heather argues this is the key factor behind the emergence of joint imperial rule.) Nor were Roman senators any longer the pre-eminent political class. This role had been taken over by military commanders and bureaucrats.

Furthermore, Heather uses the city of Trier as an example of the thoroughgoing Romanization of the empire. He points out that the archaeological remains of Trier and other towns of the imperial hinterland show that they had adopted Roman building models and acquired the full panoply of Roman public buildings. Heather argues that this amounts to more than a mere imitation of style; it points, he says, to a wholesale adoption of Roman customs that gave point and purpose to the kinds of private and public buildings they constructed. Heather points to Ausonias, a rhetorician of Gallic birth who rose to the summit of both the scholarly and political world, as an example of the breadth and depth of cultural Romanization.

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