Saturday, April 12, 2014

On the nastiness of Rome

The reviews of Peter Heather’s book (The Fall of the Roman Empire, a new History of Rome and the Barbarians) that piqued my interest describe him as introducing a “new” idea about the cause of the fall of Rome.  It wasn’t the Christian’s fault (as Gibbon’s argues) or the corruption of its leaders, or over-indulgence.  It was the Barbarians.  They got better at fighting the Romans and since there were so many more of them, Rome could not hold them off indefinitely.  I wonder too whether Rome’s training of so many foreign auxiliaries hastened their demise. 

Here are some examples of Rome’s nastiness:

“After the Third Punic War, which finally humbled the power of Carthage, the Roman Senate decreed that the entire city should be eradicated from the map.  The site was ploughed symbolically with salt to prevent its future occupation.”

“Further east, Rome’s greatest enemy was Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus, king of Pontus, who at one point ruled most of modern Turkey and the northern Black Sea coast.  He was responsible for the atrocity known as the Asian Vespers, when thousands of resident Romans and Italians were killed in the territories under his rule.  It took a while, but three separate campaigns – the Mithradatic Wars – finally, by 63 BC, saw the once proud king reduced to a last redoubt in the Crimea.  There he decided to take his own life: but since years of preventive practice had inured him to poison, he had to ask one of his guardsmen to run him through.”

“Caesar’s approach to the Gallic problem could be equally implacable.  Opposition leaders held responsible for fomenting trouble were flogged to death . . . Whole opposition groups who failed to surrender as the legions approached might be sold into slavery or even, on occasion, simply slaughtered.  In 52 BC, Caesar was held up for a while by a sustained defence of the hill-fort at Avaricum, an action following on from a massacre of Roman traders and their families.  When the defences were finally breached, the legions were set loose to massacre and pillage: reportedly only 800 people survived from a total population of 40,000 men, women and children. . . .”

“Also, they never forgave or forgot.  The same ruthlessness was duly deployed to avenge the deaths of Cotta and his men.  Later spotted leading some siege operations, Indutiomarus of the Treveri was singled out for a cavalry sortie, which cut him down.  As for the Eburones, they were forced to scatter in the face of a sustained assault on their homelands in the next campaigning season.  Rather than wasting the lives of his own troopers in flushing them out of the woods, Caesar magnanimously issued a general invitation to neighbouring tribes to come and join in the pillaging.  All of the villages were burned . . .”

I was tempted to see an implied criticism of Rome, i.e., they were nasty but we moderns are not.  We have better rules of engagement, but Heather intends no such implication, at least not at this point:  “Such stick-and-carrot policy combinations were hardly the work of genius, but they didn’t need to be.  When combined with the legions at this juncture in western Eurasian history, they were a sufficient tool for building an empire.” 

Therefore, it seems to me, Roman soldiers were merely carrying out the instructions of Rome and did not possess any more nastiness than any other soldiers of their age.  They were better trained and had better tactics, but they seem to have been just as ruthless as their less-well-trained enemies.  “Barbarian,” at least back then, didn’t mean “nastier than the civilized Romans.” 

Under Caesar’s orders 39,000 or so were slaughtered at Avaricum with the approval of Rome.    Now think of Think of the furor over Mai Lai where 26 villagers were killed.

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