Because the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776, it had a profound impact on the thinking of the Founding Fathers. George Washington paraphrased Gibbon’s insight that “they preserved peace by a constant preparation for war” in his first presidential address to the Congress, and every new generation of Americans seems to find in the Romans both a source of inspiration and a source of concern as they assess how their own country is faring. I mean really — has there ever been a country that spent more time than Americans do worrying about their own decline?
Since we seem to feel an affinity for the Romans, perhaps there is something they can teach us about the preservation of empire. Having bested fascism and communism in latter-day Punic Wars, America now faces the challenge of holding together what it is has assembled in the way of global power and influence. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not unlike wars the Romans fought on their own frontiers, and for literally centuries the Roman legions managed to keep the heart of the empire safe. So how did they manage to do that with barely 400,000 soldiers (counting reserves) in an empire of 45 million — especially given the fact that their technology wasn’t much better than weapons available to the barbarians?
Anthony Blond has some answers in a book he published last year titled The Private Lives of the Roman Emperors. First, the Roman military — which consisted of between 25 and 30 legions (each numbering about 6,000 soldiers) for 300 years — was noted for the rigor of its training and the discipline within its ranks. It wasn’t just that Roman soldiers were willing to sacrifice their lives, but they were smart; Blond says “the army turned the citizen into a volunteer, professional soldier, more literate and numerate than any before or since.” Second, the Roman military culture encouraged initiative, which paradoxically led to mutinies within an otherwise disciplined force when commanders were deemed incompetent. Third, the force was deployed where it was needed, rather than close to Rome: Trajan’s order of battle placed half of the entire army in the Rhineland and Syria, chronic trouble spots, while peaceful areas like Dalmatia (the Balkans) were policed by much smaller contingents.
Fourth, the Romans tolerated diversity in the provinces as long as locals did not challenge their authority. Once areas were conquered, the fairness of Roman law and appeal of Roman culture minimized the need to use force in keeping order (the Judeans being notable exceptions). Finally, Blond says, “when the Roman soldier was not fighting — most of the time — he was building.” The resulting infrastructure of roads, aqueducts and fortifications greatly aided Roman military efforts while benefiting locals. But here is the bad news, which Americans should probably take to heart: “In a sense the Roman army was only defeated by its own success, for the Pax Romana lasted so long and engendered such prosperity that a military career ceased to be attractive, and when the sturdy volunteer infantrymen were replaced by listless conscripts, it was overwhelmed by hordes of barbarian horsemen.”
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