The Decline and Rise of the Roman Empire

In which I argue that the Decline and Fall of the western Roman Empire was by no means inevitable. [This is the Director’s Cut of a two-part essay titled “Decline and Rise” that originally appeared on in March.]

In the Clash of Eagles trilogy the ancient Roman Empire did not fall on schedule, and in 1218 A.D. a Roman legion crosses the Atlantic to invade the newly-discovered North American continent. There they face a mighty wilderness, confront the Iroquois and Mississippian cultures, and get much more than they bargained for.

Now and then I encounter polite incredulity at the notion that the western Roman Empire could survive until the thirteenth century with recognizable classical legions, their soldiers armed with the familiar gladius, pugio, pilum and all the rest. Some people assume that, since the Roman Empire declined and fell in our universe, it had to fall. That the Imperium’s collapse was almost preordained, a consequence of marauding tribes from without and moral decay and degenerate leadership from within.

I think this greatly overstates the case.

First, let’s look at what really happened. Then I’ll offer up a straightforward way in which it might have turned out very differently.

In the third century A.D., everything went to hell for Rome. It’s known as the Crisis of the Third Century, and for good reason. The Crisis was foreshadowed by the atrocities and persecutions of the Emperor Caracalla (198-217 A.D.) – of whom more later – and the utter bizarreness of his successor, the flamboyant and decadent zealot Elagabalus (218-222). The emperor who followed, Alexander Severus (222-235), tried to bribe the Empire’s enemies to go away rather than facing them in battle, alienating his legions, who eventually assassinated him. Certainly dodgy days for the Roman leadership.

This breakdown of Imperial power was followed by a half century in which 26 men ruled as emperor, many of them army generals claiming the position by force. In the process of almost constant civil wars the frontiers were stripped of troops, allowing a broad range of incursions by foreign “barbarian” tribes plus a resurgence of attacks from the Sassanids to the East. Just to mess with the Empire further, the Plague of Cyprian (probably smallpox) hammered it from 250-270 A.D., further reducing military forces while helping to promote the spread of Christianity.

Although it took until 476 A.D. for the western Roman Empire to completely founder, leaving Constantinople as the power center of a transformed eastern Empire, the rot was clearly irreversible after the Crisis of the Third Century. Organizationally, the most ominous step was the precedent of dividing the Empire into parts. Once division of the Empire became acceptable (during and after Diocletian’s reign, 284-305 A.D.), the demise of Rome was inevitable. No coming back from that.

But was all this predestined? Somehow programmed in? Could the Crisis of the Third Century have been averted?

Yes. Rome had introduced significant constitutional changes before, notably under Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D.). With sufficient will and strong leadership, such things were possible.

So let’s go back to the beginning of the Third Century. Emperor Septimius Severus died in 211 A.D., leaving his empire to be ruled jointly by his sons, Caracalla and Geta. Caracalla was thoroughly unpleasant, and his murders, massacres, and persecutions make him a close runner-up to Caligula for paranoid brutality. Caracalla clearly had no intention of sharing the Empire with a brother he hated, and murdered Geta within the year. Caracalla then strode off as sole ruler into his reign of terror.

By all accounts, Geta was a much calmer, more thoughtful and reasonable man than his brother (although maybe this is a low bar). And perhaps on one critical day in December 211 A.D., Geta could have been just a little luckier, surviving Caracalla’s attempt on his life.

In the world of Clash of Eagles, this is exactly what happens. Geta escapes his grisly fate and flees Rome for Britain, where he is greatly respected by the legions. Factions align. Senators and armies choose sides. The Empire descends into a bloody ten year civil war, and almost collapses in the process. But ultimately, Geta wins.

Geta and the Roman Senate have experienced a cataclysm they never want Rome to experience again. They have looked into the abyss of chaos and societal collapse, and backed away. So when Geta proposes civil reforms to limit his own Imperial power and that of his successors, and plants the seeds for military reform to curtail Roman legions’ bad habit of supporting their own candidates for the throne and acting as kingmakers, the Senate is right behind him. The Severan Dynasty solidifies the Empire. Classical Roman culture perseveres. And there is much rejoicing, Roman-style; feasts and gladiatorial games and such.

Nothing about this scenario is at odds with Roman psychology. From Julius Caesar onward, the Senate would have dearly loved to curb the powers of both their dictators and their generals. Emperors used the power of the legions not only to put themselves into the Imperial purple but also to maintain themselves there… and to win arguments with the Senate.

If legions are not distracted – and often destroyed – by the Imperial struggles all through the third-century Crisis, Rome’s long-term future looks much brighter. A strong army can defend Rome’s borders. Strong emperors can beat back the Parthian resurgence.

What about the “barbarians”, you say? Well, massive migrations of hostile tribes into the Empire had been halted in earlier centuries by the likes of Julius Caesar and Trajan (98-117 A.D.). Similar incursions could have been held at bay again by a succession of determined emperors and competent armies in later centuries. The surge of Goths into the Balkans in 376 A.D. could be terminated and future troubles deterred by ruthless massacres. For examples, see how Rome razed Carthage to end the Third Punic War in 146 B.C., and how Trajan smashed the hell out of Dacia in 101-106 A.D. If the Romans were anything, they were ruthlessly efficient in their slaughter of their enemies. It wouldn’t have been pretty. But it would have been effective.

In my scenario, Emperor Geta quite unknowingly puts in place the safeguards that prevent the Crisis. His successors prove to be equally competent. The Empire continues to be ruled through strong central control. The military stays solid. The Rhine is never crossed by hostile tribes; Rome is never sacked by the Visigoths. The Empire is never split by power-sharing emperors and Byzantium – Constantinople – never rises to become dominant. The western Roman Empire lives on.

I think that does the trick. If you agree, feel free to stop here.

If not, let’s dig deeper into the Official Causes of Rome’s Decline and Fall.

And here we hit an interesting wall, and for me the most telling point: if even professional historians and other well-read experts can’t agree why Rome fell, the conclusion that its fall was inevitable is pretty hard to sustain.

For Edward Gibbon, “the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” Meaning that the Empire was unsound to begin with, due to lack of civic virtue, and its use of non-Roman mercenaries and the advent of Christianity ultimately caused its death knell. Vegetius, too, blamed military decline due to immoderate use of mercenaries. Many have proposed a slow decay of Roman institutions all through the centuries of the Principate.

Prominent economists, however, blame unsound economic policies. Joseph Tainter, an anthropologist, blames social complexity and diminishing returns on investments. Military historian Adrian Goldsworthy points to the weakening effect of endless civil wars and the decline of central authority. Historian William McNeill blames disease, geochemist Jerome Nriagu lead poisoning.

There are, in fact, over 200 different theories for why Rome fell. This preponderance can perhaps be blamed on the lack of strong evidence – the death rates from the Cyprian plague are guesses, for example, and precious few economic documents survive from the Rome of the third to fifth centuries A.D.

But to simplify: a number of these causes look suspiciously like effects – the effects of a weak central authority, combined with an out-of-control military promoting its own favorites for emperor and weakening the borders in the process – and seem avoidable.

In my scenario, the much more moderate Geta has defeated his notoriously brutal brother Caracalla in a sustained civil war at the beginning of the third century A.D. and ushered in an alternate timeline where the Empire is not weakened by almost a century of turmoil. Given the military reforms I’ve postulated, mercenaries are less necessary and can be kept under firmer control, their leaders are less likely to rise up against Rome. The borders stay firm. The so-called “barbarian” tribes are forced back or eradicated.

The economy remains strong, bolstered by plunder. The religion of the Christ-Risen thrives, but church and state remain separated. People still die from plagues and contaminated water, but with strong central authority paying attention and without the general devastation of almost constant civil war, many dire effects can be mitigated. And thus the Roman Empire expands in a series of fits and starts through the rest of Europe, and ultimately into Asia.

But does it live on unchanged? Does Roma still have recognizable legions in the thirteenth century?

Maybe so.

The Romans did adapt when they needed to. They adopted new ideas when they found them. But only if they saw an overwhelmingly good reason to do so.

And if they didn’t, they stayed with the tried-and-true. In fact, the Roman army was extremely conservative. Weapons and tactics remained largely unchanged between the Marian reforms of 107 B.C. and the late third century A.D. The military formations used by Julius Caesar were still commonly used well into the third and even fourth centuries. As it turns out, most Roman military disasters were caused by the army’s strategic and tactical inflexibility.

Beyond the tactics, the rituals of the military triumph remained unchanged throughout Roman history. Contemporary books discussing Roman army marching camps written 300 years apart describe exactly the same layout, and this is backed up by archeological evidence. Often even the individual signa – the symbols of various centuries and legions – persisted for centuries.

Weapons and armor barely changed either. The Roman pilum endured unaltered for 600 years, swords and daggers for almost as long. By the third century A.D. helmets were evolving to provide more protection, based on innovations copied from the barbarians. But it took a long time for these changes to manifest. Back in Urbs Roma, the same. Cowell’s Life in Ancient Rome reports that the main elements in Roman clothing “remained practically unaltered throughout almost the entire thousand years of Rome’s history.” Rome was already well into its decline by the time major sartorial changes kicked in. Housing styles, likewise.

And why? Underlying it all, Roman society was based on a system of patronage, a vertical patron-client relationship that defined Rome from top to bottom and was strongly resistant to change: “the web of interlocking obligations was tightly woven and made change difficult” (Everitt, The Rise of Rome). Keeping their society stable was Job One, and by and large the Romans did an outstanding job for centuries.

Unlike our own society, in ancient Roma change was not a given. It came slowly, and at a cost.

Some of those slow changes are evident in the 33rd Hesperian Legion of Gaius Marcellinus. The legions are certainly recognizable, but by no means identical to their third century counterparts. By 1218 A.D. tribunes have more direct responsibility for specific cohorts than they did in ancient Rome, and auxiliary forces are an integral part of the legion rather than being treated as a separate unit. (Over the long haul, such assimilation would be essential for efficient command and control.) In the Clash of Eagles trilogy soldiers are allowed to marry while in the army, and take furloughs between campaigns. Neither was permissible in ancient Rome, and both improve morale. Most crucially, promotion in the Roman army is now essentially merit-based. While there’s still a tendency for some tribunes to be political appointees, skilled and determined men like Marcellinus and Aelfric can and do work their way up the ladder to prominent leadership positions. The shapes and functions of Roman weapons – gladius, spatha, pilum – have not changed, but in the thirteenth century they are made of steel rather than iron.

And so, in Clash of Eagles, the Empire marches on. And good luck to them, for in the forests, plains and rivers of Nova Hesperia, the legions of Rome will face challenges that not even two millennia of ruthless conquest have prepared them for.

We see the world of Clash of Eagles through the close point of view of Gaius Marcellinus, who doesn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering history. He has other things to worry about. But if these books were set in Europe or Asia rather than North America, a number of other differences in society and technology would be apparent. If I get the opportunity to write further in this universe once the Clash of Eagles trilogy draws to a close, maybe we’ll get to see more of the slow-but-steady changes time has wrought across the Roman world.

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