The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Dithering away an empire

I've been reading Bryce-JonesWard-Perkins's Fall of Rome lately. Again, it's on the theme of "Late Antiquity" as a Dark Age, at least in western Europe.

Ward-Perkins argues that the western Empire had been collapsing and its material culture degrading for centuries before 535 CE. That year saw a worldwide civilisation-ending disaster, and Ward-Perkins unlike Heather knew it as such. Ward-Perkins did not use David Keys's Catastrophe, but he did use a 1996 predecessor of it which made similar claims as the disaster affected the Mediterranean. Ward-Perkins agrees that the disaster was real and that it was bad, but claims that much worse happened to Europe in the 14th century without a collapse of civilisation. His emphasis on a fifth-century decline, before the disaster and its sixth-century effects, agrees with what I've seen of the relative strengths of the two sides of Empire through the fifth century CE.

As Spengler's review noted, Ward-Perkins notices that Italy had been falling behind the East and that North Africa had remained static. As of 400 CE Rome clearly lacked the material requirements to safeguard the Mediterranean from northern barbarians.

But I'm thinking now that the Mediterranean could still have been secured - if from Byzantium. The Romans under Constantine I were already reorganising the Empire from there in the fourth century. Perhaps they just needed to go a bit further.

Constantine and his progeny could have ordered by fiat that the Mediterranean provinces were now a "Byzantine Empire" or maybe "Koine Empire", and that its administration should henceforth be conducted in Greek. North Africa then would pay its taxes to Constantinople rather than to Rome. Rome would retain a symbolic presence as a classical Delos or modern Geneva. Spain would be ruled from a Greek-speaking Carthage as a buffer, and the Gallic coast's frontier would be pulled back to the Massif Central. In the meantime, Constantinople would retake / retain Dacia and the Black Sea coast, plus Danube. To paraphrase the unstated justification for NATO: this arrangement would be for keeping the Mediterranean in, the Goths down, and the Huns out.

This was basically Byzantine Emperor Justinian I's programme in the 530s AD, and is I think what Emperor Leo was planning in the late 460s. But those were reactions to demographic and military changes that had been ongoing ever since the third-century arrivals of a serious Germannic threat and of a strong Persia / Iranshahr. The Byzantine shift could have been (and I think actually was) predicted in the fourth century. It is possible that political concerns, such as the nostalgia of Rome, prevented the Romans from acting on it until Alaric's visit in 410 CE.

An excuse for Byzantine action here also existed around then, when the usurper so-called Constantine III took Britain and northern Gaul away from Rome. I'd say in hindsight that Constantine III should have kept his gains, signed a treaty with Honorius and Theodosius II, and "looked to his own defence" against the Germans and Huns. But he was too greedy and died too early in any event. His empire-fragment fell to the Visigoths.

The Theodosian dynasty did act to turn Rome into a puppet "empire" soon after 410 CE, but in a confused fashion which failed to protect Spain and North Africa from the Vandals. Certainly by the 460s the jig was up for Rome, with the Byzantine state aiming at carving out its own provinces from the German conquests. (Here Ward-Perkins joins the others in not understanding what Leo was doing.) But when the Byzantines finally succeeded in reorganising the place, in the 530s, natural disaster came and ruined it all.

If the Byzantine hold on the Mediterranean had been more consistent and long-standing, its prosperity would have lasted longer and it would have been easier held against outsiders.

UPDATE 10/24/2015: "Bryce-Jones"? Really?

posted by Zimri on 16:33 | link | 0 comments

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