Wednesday, November 27, 2002

New Rome, Meet the New Visigoths

I’m generally skeptical of grand historical theories, but Brink Lindsey presents a pretty persuasive one here. The basic notion is that through much of history, great civilizations have been threatened by primitive nomadic ones, and they have been vulnerable to the threat precisely because of their virtues: division of labor, use of agriculture, relatively fixed location, etc. Although the advent of guns ushered in a long hiatus in this general pattern (which Lindsey explains with plenty of historical detail), the pattern reemerged with a vengeance on September 11. As he puts it, the barbarians are at the gates once more.

Lindsey is on record as something of a war hawk (check out the archives of his blog if you doubt me), so it would not surprise me if the sequels to this article (two are promised) involve justifications for war. So it’s probably worthwhile to mention the anti-war implications of the historical parallels offered in the present article. The Roman Empire, the greatest civilization of its time, fell in large part because of the depredations of marauders and barbarians. And the barbarians were motivated to attack, in part, because of the things that made Rome great, such as its amazing wealth. But was not imperial overstretch also a large part of the problem? The Roman army was constantly on the march, conquering new territories and enforcing its rules on foreign cultures. Yes, the culture of Roman civilization was arguably superior in many respects to the cultures dominated (I’m not arguing the cultural relativist position here), but that’s not the point. The citizens of Rome were threatened by the Roman government’s willingness to incite the ire and violence of other societies.

I wonder if Rome might have survived longer if instead of sending armies into the barbarian hinterlands, it had instead focused its resources on defending its citizens against the barbarians at the gates.

UPDATE, added 2/12/07: A lot of people are finding this old post because of Glenn Reynolds's link to the one below. I should note that I posted a correction to this post here.


Anonymous said...

As I remember, 95% of the expansion of Rome happened during the Republic. The only territories that I recall being added to the Empire were Britain, Dacia (Romania), and Armenia. (Hadrian did conquer Mesopotamia, but that conquest lapsed soon afterwards.) If Rome was overextended, the overextension is due to territories conquered by the Republic.

Anonymous said...

To follow up on the last comment, Rome was no longer expanding by the time it faced serious threats from Germanic barbarians. It doesn't make much sense to me to suggest that Roman expansion casued this problem by provoking the Germans' ire. Moreover, the Germanic tribes did not invade because they were angry at Rome or Roman policy. In large part they were being driven by the Westward expansion of the Huns. I just don't see the anti-war analogy here. which is presumably that Muslims are only attacking the West because we have provoked them through neo-imperialist expansion.

Anonymous said...

I think a more applicable analogy might be the Christian Crusades. Some people take a gentle religion and decide those who live outside their moral rules should conform or be eliminated. They see us as “heathens” if you will. For a culture who feels women should remain mostly if not entirely covered a society that produces shows like Baywatch and openly discusses sexuality would certainly represent the “Great Satan”. I think the only way to “defend” ourselves would be to become social isolationists and cut off the movement of people. I see no other defense to acts like 9/11. Don’t get me wrong I am not happy about how we are handling this now but I am not ready to give up my freedom of speech (crap like Baywatch), my freedom of religion (becoming Muslim) or my freedom of movement (social isolationism). I think this is going to require us to fight in some manner for our cultural survival.