Saturday, June 20, 2009

Septimius Severus, Progressivism and the Banality of Evil

Going through Rostovtzeff's Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire leads to a question: Is the pattern of the rise and fall of Rome similar to the pattern of events that the United States has been and is experiencing? The answer is complicated but I would argue that on a certain level of abstraction the two are parallel. The similarity is most direct in comparing the sequence of events following Progressivism to the decline of Rome, specifically to Americans' adoption of a rigid state strategy, Progressivism, as opposed to flexibility and decentralization characteristic of states' rights and laissez-faire capitalism. The differences between Rome and the American experience were most pronounced in America's 17th through the 19th centuries. The American model of progress differed sharply from Rome's. But the twentieth century might be called America's Roman age, for America adopted not so much the Roman techniques but the formulaic rigidity that characterized the Roman model, although there was greater emphasis on conquest and imperialism beginning with the Progressive era. As well, Progressivism and the New Deal adopted the Antonine and Severine strategy of playing the proletariat against the capitalist in order to concentrate power at the imperial height, i.e., in Washington cum Rome. America's adoption of the philosophy of Progressivism and the New Deal was the Romanization of the United States.

Rome fell because it was inflexible. All civilizations, like most business firms, are to some degree. It was in the adoption of a rigid formula, Progressivism; reform through experts; centralized control of the money supply hence the economy through the Federal Reserve Bank; a large military; and universities to supply advice and provide the experts, that America parallels Rome. Not in these policies themselves, but in the existence of a pre-determined strategy and the creation of an elite that depends on favors from a centralized source. The similarity is this. All strategies and policies reach breaking points. Civilizations fail when they lack the flexibility to redeploy assets in response to strategic failures. The ability to change and to experiment is more important than a specific strategy. Adoption of high fixed cost, large-scale strategies leads to ridigity and the unwillingness to experiment. The emphasis on economies of scale, which was associated with Progressivism, hearkens back to the Roman model of progress which also depended on large, institutionalized state-backed military-industrial complex.

In comparing any two large groupings of humanity there will be differences and similarities. The key difference between Rome and the US is the American concept of liberty, which differs from the ancient concept and which, in turn, led to the idea of spontaneous progress through private enterprise. Spontaneous order rooted in decentralization and liberty of decentralized units versus the Roman vision of centralized control and duplicative decentralization. The American approach led to technological advance that might have been seen 2,000 years ago if the Greek world had predominated over the Roman instead of the other way around.

The Roman concept of progress was based on conquest, political manipulation (co-opting the upper classes of conquered nations) and exploitation. By our standards the Romans were cruel and destructive. This is not just a moral question. The Roman model of progress, because of its rigidity and its assumption of a fixed pie, placed limitations on the Romans' ability to become wealthy. The rigid commitment to the model of conquest, establish cities, establish a dominant local elite, and exploit the majority as tenant farmers, serfs or slaves, what might be called the Romans' resource-dependent model of expansion (as opposed to the Americans' learning- or technologically based- model) led ultimately to Rome's decline. Sadly, Americans have increasingly adopted the resource-based model at the expense of the learning-based one. Witness the policies surrounding the recent financial and banking failures, which involved subsidies and insistence on control rather than organizational death and renaissance.

However, the Roman model was robust and the ascendancy of Rome lasted seven centuries. Time is not a perfect indicator because the pace of travel and communication were slower. Also, the Romans created intolerable conditions for many inhabitants of the conquered nations. Although the system was stable it was violent, exploitative and cruel.

The Romans did permit considerable latitude to the private sector, and there was a considerable amount of capitalistic agriculture, shipping and manufacturing. But the role these played was to serve the military-industrial complex. Rome's wealth could only increase through new conquest. They did not imagine that technological advance or business innovation could enhance wealth. The Romans did not envision progress through technology, learning, invention or better products. There was learning and advance in areas like law, engineering and construction and, as well, there were sophisticated farming and shipping enterprises. But these largely relied on technologies that the Greeks, especially the Hellenic cities of Asia Minor, had innovated. Rome invented the military-industrial complex. It existed on a smaller scale in medieval and mercantilist Europe and it also existed in Greece, China and elsewhere. Prior to Progressivism America was isolationist and economic activity entrepreneurial. The centralization of industry opened the door to the argument that Progressive government was needed to protect the poor. This was the argument of Hadrian and Septimius Severus. Few would argue that the Roman Emperors were primarily concerned with the poor. We know, historically, that the lot of European peasants did not improve from the Second to th Fourteenth centuries. Yet, many Americans believe Progressives' claims, the claims of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, that they were for the poor. Yet, real wages started declining less than 30 years after FDR's death, and they have not recovered.

Coordination of the massive land area that it had conquered posed important managerial challenges that Rome had to meet through decentralization. But the decentralization it practiced led to reduction in the value of the conquered provinces. It was an imposed decentralization that inhibited spontaneous development. Rome tended to destroy cultural differences and initiative and to aim to homogenize the elites of each conquered province. The provinces were to be clones of Rome. In turn, their provincial agricultural and economic surplus was Rome's.

As the extent of the empire grew, the cost of expanding further increased and the benefit from expanding further decreased. Part of this was simple mechanics. The Empire's circumference became larger; there were more threats; greater distances to travel. As well, as Rome went further from the Mediterranean the level of civilization was lower and the difficulties in establishing footholds greater.

To enable the conquered colonies to turn into decentralized duplicates or mini-Romes, Rome had to build urban centers in each one. It spent huge amounts of money building urban centers in all of the colonies. The purpose of the urban centers was to create an elite who would dominate the colony on behalf of Rome. It encouraged urbanization to create Romanization of the conquered populations. But in order to Romanize, resources had to be diverted to support the urban centers and subsidize "bourgeois" regional elites.

In effect, Rome was involved in a "pyramid scheme" that lasted seven centuries. In order to become wealthy it needed to conquer new provinces that in turn subsidized the mother-city and Italy. In order to control the provinces it needed to create new urban centers that absorbed much of the wealth of the conquered colonies. To pay for the expansion and allow the new elites in the newly conquered provinces to prosper, additional conquest had to be made. Additional gain could only be achieved by new conquest. Over centuries the pyramid scheme became so unwieldy that it could not be continued. Stresses began to be felt in the time of the Flavian and Antonine emperors.

Moreover, decentralization weakened Rome and Italy because Romans had to settle in the provinces in order to accomplish the goal of replication of Roman society. In other words, the provincial urban centers were a combination of Roman expatriates and elite colonial nationals. The result was a hollowing out of Rome as the best and the brightest settled in Gaul, Spain, Britain, upper and lower Germany, Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and Arabia.

A comparison of Rome and the United States suggests that decentralization needs to be spontaneous to be productive. Without decentralization Rome could not have functioned, but it lost the ultimate value of decentralization. This was inevitable because spontaneous decentralization is inconsistent with conquest.

The ultimate result of the duplicative decentralization policy was that Rome became ruled by non-Romans from the provinces. The reason was that the praetorian guard, the Roman army unit that protected the Emperor and Rome itself, had selected the Emperor. Historically, the scope of the provinces had become too large for a Roman national-dominated army to protect it. Moreover, the Romans did not trust their own proletariat and were reluctant to permit them to dominate the military. The result was a provincially-dominated military whose soldiers were not completely Romanized. The end result was an Emperor who himself was non-Roman. The pattern had begun with Augustus, but reached a head in the second and third century AD reign of Septimius Severus, the first foreign-born emperor and one who perpetuated Marcus Aurelius's institution of a hereditary monarchy.

Rostovtzeff describes the Antonine Emperors, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius, as "enlightened". The Antonine pattern was that the Emperor would adopt the ablest Senator as his son, and power would be passed to the adopted son. Unfortunately for Rome, Marcus Aurelius broke this tradition and appointed his natural born son, Commodus, who was a poor ruler and in some ways paralleled Nero:

"He relied too much on the praetorian guard and the police corps of the capital, and neglected personal relations with the provincial armies...The repeated doles and other favors bestowed on the garrison of the capital...aroused their jealousy...The rumors about his dissipated life, his ignominious behaviour, and his liking for charioteers and gladiators, which were spread by the efforts of the officers, made it possible for the commanders of the most important armies, those of Britain, Pannonia and Syria, to take part in a military pronunciamento."

A senator, Pertinax, served briefly as Emperor, but the praetorians did not like him and murdered him. There was a civil war and for the first time the praetorians had become too weak to decide who the emperor would be. The provincial armies fought it out among themselves, and Septimius Severus, the leader of the Pannonian army in Germany and Illyria (what is now eastern Europe) ultimately prevailed after Didius Julianus bought the office from the praetorian guard and was deposed.

The pattern of economic development that Rome followed was that they conquered a nation. They built an urban center. They encouraged the elite of the nation to become educated in Roman culture and customs. The elite then supported Rome and adopted Roman culture. They permitted free enterprise, but the vast majority of the population was forced to work as tenant farmers. Industry became centralized because the largest markets were for state use: the army and Rome itself. Thus, farming had gone in the time of Augustus from peasant and self-owned to capitalistic farming. Ultimately, the state took control of considerable lands. Wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few who benefited from state contracts and trade. But trade was widespread and private manufacturing existed throughout the provinces, especially Alexandria. Much of the cost of administration was born by wealthy businessmen, in the form of what was called liturgies or duties. Eventually Rome required elite businessmen to collect taxes and perform other services as well.

As a usurper, Septimius Severus depended on the army for support. In response, he introduced military reforms and he dramatically increased the presence of barbarians in the Roman aristocracy and the Senate and made membership in the Roman aristocracy dependent on having a military career. He also increased military pay, exempted veterans from municipal liturgies and recognized marriages by soldiers.

To legitimize himself Septimius calimed to wish to avenge the murder of Pertinax, claimed to be Commodus' brother and forged papers showing that he had been adopted by Marcus Aurelius. Crucially, he adopted a policy of reconciliation with the peasants at the expense of urban centers and the wealthy. Rostovtzeff emphasizes:

"the legislation of the Empire was never more humane than in the age of the Severi. The great jurists of this time, Papinian, Ulpian, and Paulus, were given a free hand to develop their favorite humanitarian ideas of equal law for everybody and of the duty of protecting human life in general and the weak and the poor in particular. On the eve of the great social revolution for which the militarization of the Empire was preparing the way, Roman law displayed for the last time its noblest and most brilliant aspect...It is manifest, however, that the liberal social policy of Septimius was designed first and foremost to consolidate his own power and that of his dynasty. Like Commodus, he determined to base his power on the classes from which his soldiers were drawn: hence his liberal legislation and his measures for the protection of the peasants and the city proletariat against the ruling classes and the imperial administration...Septimius apparently wished to increase the numbers of free landowners on his estates, and he insisted on the strict adherence of the contractors and the procurators to the provisions of his predecessors..."

Like Hadrian and Commodus, Septimius aimed to win over the peasant population in Egypt and Asia Minor (p. 357). Rostovtzeff writes:

"We possess three or four petitions dating from the time of Septimius, all recently found in Lydia. After making complaints to the high officials and suffering disillusionment, the peasants appealed directly to the emperor, using the most devoted and loyal language. In one of the petitions their representative says: 'We beg of you, greatest and most sacred of all emperors, that having regard to your laws and those of your ancestors, and to your peace-making justice to all, and hating those whom you and all your ancestors on the throne have always hated, you will order...

"...Thus the policy of Septimius towards the humble was a policy of protection and concession. Towards the cities his attitude was different...We cannot forget the fate of Lyons in Gaul and of Byzantium. The former never recovered from the ruthless punishment meted out to it. Severe chastisement was also inflicted on Antioch. Scores of cities were obliged to pay enormous contributions because they had been forced to furnish money to ( Septimius's rival) Pescennius Niger. Of the confiscation of the property of of many members of the provincial aristocracy we have already spoken.

"More important than these temporary measures of repression was the general policy of Septimius towards the upper classes of the city population. In speaking of liturgies in the preceding chapter, I laid stress on the fact that Septimius was the first emperor who insisted upon the personal responsibility of the municipal magistrates. He was also the first who, with the help of his jurists, developed the oppressive system of liturgies into a permanent institution legalized, regularized and enforced by the state. The jurists who did most to elaborate the system and theory of munera (duties) were Papinian and Callistratus, the contemporaries of Septimius, and Ulpian, the adviser of Alexander Severus..."

Rostotzveff notes two liturgies, duties or taxes that Septimius reenforced (they had previously existed but he intensified them): decaprotia, or a duty or munera on the top ten citizens of a city; eikosaprotia, or a duty or munera on the top twenty citizens. Rostovtzeff adds:

"It is certain also that more systematic pressure was exercised by Septimius and his successors on the associations and corporations which served the state. The fact that Callistratus, in speaking of the organization of the munera in municipal life, devotes so much attention to the corporations (or trade associations), shows that Septimius, following the lead of his predecessors, particularly Hadrian, M. Aurelius and Commodus, minutely regulated the relations between the corporations and the cities. Specially important were the navicularii (shippers) and the merchants...It is significant of the position of these corporations that Callistratus emphasizes the assistance of the merchants and the service of the shipowners, and that he insists upon the point that both are performing a munus publicum (public duty)."

Thus, as in Progressivism, special interests played a role in the early decline of the Roman Empire. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Septimius saw an important advantage primarily in support for the poor:

"While helping in this way some members of the privileged classes whose service was needed by the state, or rather while endeavoring to ease somewhat the increasing pressure of the burden which lay on their shoulders, Septimius never forgot the interests of the humbler and poorer classes. It is probable that it was he who extended the privilege of exemption from the municipal liturgies to the tenants of the imperial estates. Very likely he was moved to do so by their repeated complaints about the arbitrary way in which, though not resident in the cities, they were forced by the municipal magistrates and the imperial officers to share the municipal burdens. In the petition of Aga Bey in Lydia the peasants lay great stress on this point and threaten the emperor with a mass strike in the form of an anachorasis

The end result was the squeezing of the well to do in favor of the poor and very wealthy:

"Some of the richest men being thus exempt, the owners of land and shops, belonging chiefly to the middle class, remained the sole bearers of liturgies. It was no wonder that they tried by various ingenious devices to escape these burdens, which undermined their economic prosperity."

Septimius engaged heavily in the redistribution of wealth, which in turn led to widespread criminality during his reign:

"Confiscations of landed property en masse convulsed economic life to an extent which must not be underestimated. Private capital and private initiative were thus removed from large and flourishing concerns and replaced by a new system of management, bureaucratic and lifeless in the extreme. Political persecutions on a large scale scared thousands of people, both guilty and innocent, and forced them to flee from their homes . The chief evil, however, was the enormous number of government agents, mostly soldiers performing the duties of policemen--the frumentarii, stationarii and colletiones--who in their pursuit of political criminals penetrated into all the cities and villages and searched private houses, and who were, of course, accessible to bribes...Still more serious were the exactions of these same agents in connexion with the frequent military expeditions of the emperor. In time of civil war no one cared a straw for the people. New recruits were levied in masses and compulsorily; means of transport and men were requisitioned for armies on the march; foodstuffs and war material also had to be supplied by the people; and quarters provided in their homes for soldiers and officers. The inscriptions mention many prominent men who were in charge of the war chest, that is to say, whose function it was to levy money contributions and war supplies from cities and individuals. These men naturally could not perform their duties without the aid of a mass of minor officials and soldiers, who swooped down like a swarm of locusts on the cities and villages, devouring their substance and scaring and exasperating all class of the population."

Naturally, American society has not reached such extremes. But as Hannah Arendt noted in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, the modern world is characterized by the "banality of evil". Who needs officials to levy taxes and terrorize the population when this can be accomplished effortlessly through the Federal Reserve Bank?

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