Thursday, April 25, 2013
Constitutio Antoninana Redux
I have an old post about an edict by Emperor Caracalla that had immense ramifications for the western world of antiquity. It may very well have been the most important and unfortunate law passed post the fall of the Republic. Erudite Knight had a good observation that “during a collapse, wouldn't the imperial legions look more attractive?” My answer is that it depends on the kind of collapse. As I have outlined in my posts about the death of the Roman Republic, Roman society underwent a collapse starting with the tribuneships of the Gracchi brothers and ending with the dictatorship of Sulla. While most historical texts mark the end of the Republic around 32 to 30 BC, it had really ceased to exist as an effective functioning entity after Sulla. The turbulent decades between the death of Sulla and the rise of Octavius were the chaotic interregnum before the order of the principate would emerge. Numerous wars, 12 if we count the Social War as the first civil war, were fought during this chaotic period.
When Augustus became the first sitting emperor after defeating Mark Antony in 30 B.C, it ushered in a new era of peace that would last 98 years. There were still wars that were fought but they were wars of conquest fought in the far off frontier, and for the first time in nearly a century Roman legions did not face one other on the battlefield. For the average subject of the empire, it was a time of great peace. There would be civil wars during the early to middle imperial periods, but they usually coincided with the end of a dynasty and were rather infrequent. As time went on, however, the wars would not only be fought more often but, coupled with the economic malaise due to the ever growing bureaucracy, would be more damaging as well.
After the end of the Julio-Claudian line in 68 AD, there was a year of infighting between emperors, would-be emperors and usurpers. It was a time of instability, but fortunately for the Romans, it was a very short period and the next 124 years would not see any major fratricidal bloodshed. This would all change after the death of Commodus, famously and somewhat erroneously portrayed in the movie Gladiator. The next four years saw numerous battles as five emperors claimed and subsequently lost the throne. The rise of Severus, the fifth claimnent, would begin the Severan Dynasty and while it marked a 41 year period of peace, it also was the beginning of major decline. The 1st century AD had been a minor renaissance for Roman society due to the skill and foresight of their first emperor, however, it had also sown the seeds of eventual collapse. The 2nd century the fall out from the destruction of the republican system but Rome benefitted from a period of rule by a series of very competent and skilled emperors. By the 3rd century AD the empire's luck had run out. It was during the Severan Dynasty that saw the beginnings of the crisis that would plague the 3rd century, nearly bringing down the empire and sowed the seeds for the fuedal society that would eventually emerge.
It was during this relatively peaceful but economically and socially stagnant period that Caracalla crafted his short sighted law in order to increase the flow of silver to his coffers. The ramifications for such a law were not initially felt, after all the empire was at peace with itself, but the growing barbarian threat and increasingly poor economic situation of the empire were taking a toll. In 235 AD, with the collapse of the Severan Dynasty, the empire entered a period of crisis that would not abate until the ascension of Diocletian in 285 AD.
The crisis of the third century was the greatest challenge Rome had faced since the collapse of the Republic over 200 years ago. The series of crisis that would assault the empire were heralded with the civil war that I would call the Year of the Six Emperors in 238 AD. This was most disturbing as it was an indication that civil wars would become more frequent. While a man could go his entire life without experiencing a single civil war, the 3rd century marked the beginning of a period of extreme bloodshed. No fewer than 22 emperors were crowned, deposed, assassinated, killed in battle or died from plague during this period. The average reign was only two years and a few months; this was during a period when strong leadership was desperately needed.
The civil wars between the potential men of the purple were bad enough for the empire, but for most Roman subjects it was hardly a major concern. They were the matters of generals and as long as the imperial order didn't appear threatened it was largely beyond the care of the common man. These later civil wars were a different matter entirely. In 260 AD, two large swaths of the empire seceded and formed their own seperate empires, the Gallic and Palmyrne empires, and it would take 14 years of bloody civil war until they were finally brought back into the Roman fold. Less than 12 years later the Britanians would attempt and later succeed in 296 AD of establishing their own Brittanic Empire. Diocletian would manage to quell the upstarts and unite the empire under a new system of governance known as the Tetrarchy, but the empire fell back into civil war after his death.
In the early 4th century, there was a series of civil wars from 306 AD to 324 AD and only 26 years of peace until another civil war in 350 AD in addition to another civil war nine years later. There were two more civil wars towards the end of the 4th century, one in 387 and one in 394. The empire post-260 AD was very turbulent, rocked by civil war after civil war, and I haven't touched upon the numerous foreign and barbarians wars that were also fought concurrently.
The prospect in fighting in the many civil wars, which often had higher fatality rates than fights against the barbarians, would be enough to disincentives serving in the legion much less the auxiliary. Without the added incentive of citizenship, why would a non-Roman choose to serve in the auxiliaries, who weren't as well trained or paid, when he could serve in the legion? Moreover why would anyone want to serve in the auxiliary and face the prospect of fighting a Roman legion or be left alone on the frontier to face the barbarians unsupported during a period of civil war? Lastly, the waning years of the empire saw epidemic after epidemic and the military legions were often prime festering grounds for the plague. The prospect of swearing loyalty and service to one of the local wealthy aristocrats, the proto-barons of the feudal ages, would certainly look a lot more enticing than slogging around a collapsing empire facing foreign barbarians, fellow legionaries and disease in the name of far-off emperor you never saw.
The outlook for serving in the military during the fall of the Republic was very different for a Roman than a citizen of the empire a couple of hundred years later. During the collapse of the Republic, even with the risk of dying in a civil war, the standard of living for soldiers was much higher than the common Roman. When you also factor in the chance for wealth, riches and the ever enticing grant of land, and after Claudius, citizenship at the end of a term of service it isn't hard to see the allure. Contrast that with the soldier of the 3rd and 4th century with the civil wars without end, constant barbarian attacks, the plagues and being paid in a rapidly depreciating currency. Why would anyone, save the most desperate or blood thirsty, wish to serve in the legions must less the auxiliary?
This helps to address why, for those of us who think America is in decline, that military enrollment is up while in the late Imperial period it saw a decline. Despite the historical struggle the military has had with meeting recruitment quotas this has all changed. Some of it has to do with lowering the quota goals for the military, but as some recruiters have noted the declining economic situation coupled with the benefits for those who serve have kept the recruitment pool at higher levels than anticipated and there are now waiting lists. It isn't hard to see why since the risks of conventional combat with another nation are low. Even in the insurgencies that we have fought this past decade the likelihood of a soldier being killed is low. There isn't a challenger who wants to fight the United States on the open battlefield.
Whether the United States is more comparable to late Republican Rome or late Imperial Rome is a matter of personal opinion that is made based on the available historical data. I have made my opinion clear, that we are more like the late Republic, which is why we have not seen a major decrease in military enrollment that was seen in the late Imperial period.