Empire of Plague

On this day, March 20th in 235 AD the Barracks Emperor Maximinus Thrax was acclaimed emperor of Rome by the Praetorian Guard.  His three year reign began in the year of the 6 emperors and is considered to herald in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century”.

Traditionally historians have viewed the crisis as a failure of leadership combined with a degrading of moral fibre as the goodly yeomen farmer soldiers gave way to effete and debauched libertines who would not bare a sword to defend the borders.

This is quasi-religious moralistic pontification as far as I am concerned.  As I sit in lockdown in a self-imposed isolation to limit the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 let me tell you how the Roman Empire declined.

In the years 165 to 180 AD the Antonine plague ravaged the Roman Empire.  Maximinus Thrax was born in the early 170’s right in the period when the plague was raging.  The disease wiped out a third of the population of the empire and in particular devastated the Roman Legions, where it spread first.

Legions needed to recruit warriors from the outside of the borders to make up the numbers.  “Barbarians” were settled on depopulated farms in border regions.  The family of Maximinus Thrax were of Dacian origin, replanted into the Empire.

The senate reacted against the elevation of a soldier who had no family from either the Senatorial or Equestrian classes.  The senate worked actively against Thrax by recognising other candidates.

Ten years after the reign of Thrax the Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire from 249AD to around 262AD.  To have a single plague that kills one third of the population is an event that can destroy a regime, a nation or an empire.  To have two such events within the span of a single lifetime must have been devastating in the extreme.  In this context I don’t find the decline of the Roman Empire surprising, the thing that astounds me is that the Roman Empire survived.

 

A Litany in Time of Plague; by Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, Earth’s bliss;
this world uncertain is;
fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
none from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
gold cannot buy you health;
physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
the plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
which wrinkles will devour;
brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
worms feed on Hector brave;
swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
hath no ears for to hear
what vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
to welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Lawyer, Liar!

Image result for marcus tullius cicero

Crassus was the Millionaire, Pompey Magnus was the Soldier, Caesar was the Politician and it can be said that Cicero in his day was, as an Orator, the equal to those big three.  He was offered a seat at the big table and turned it down.

I grew up in a world that pronounced his name Sissero, but now Kickero is more widely deemed correct.

Born on this day in 106 BC to a family with no prior political standing he was immensely proud of his record of rising up the Greasy Pole of Roman Politics; the cursus honorum, achieving each step “in his year”.  That is to say that he attained each step on the ladder of promotion at the earliest possible juncture.

A self admitted coward he shunned military life.  His fight was in the courtrooms and the senate.  His influence on latin was immense and it was he, not Caesar, who was the model for written and spoken latin.

He was a great lawyer and a great liar.  He maintained that no argument was so weak that oratory could not make it believable.  If he had no argument he attacked the defendant, or he made one up.  “I criticize by creation; not by finding fault”.

His greatest lie was his defence of the Roman Republic.  He sided with the Senate.  He defended the “republican” rights of ordinary Romans while at every step he opposed the reforms proposed by the Caesar camp to provide land and voting rights to the commons.  In public he defended the rights of a class of poor people that in private he despised.  In this he serves as the posterboy for that class of politician who adopts populism to mask an extreme capitalist agenda.  The kind of politician who tries to sell trickle down economics as an excuse to tax the poor and exempt the rich.

Every plutocrat and oligarch should study the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Happy Birthday Julius Caesar

Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC, making him 2118 today.  We know this because of the calendar he gave us.

A populist politician in the mould of the brothers Gracchus and his own Great Uncle Gaius Marius.  Caesar wanted to move power from the Senatorial class and absentee landlords and spread the wealth to the working classes of Rome, the Plebs and the Legionnaires.

In the process he set in motion the events that led to the collapse of the Republic and the creation of an Empire.  Caesar has given a lasting lesson to the democracies and republics of the world.  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Cassius speaks to Brutus

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
“Brutus” and “Caesar”—what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar.”
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When could they say, till now, that talked of Rome,
That her wide walks encompassed but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough
When there is in it but only one man.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
Th’ eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.

Fabian Strategy II

Fabian strategy is named after a dictator of the Roman Republic, Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus.

The Second Punic War occured when Hannibal took an army overland from “New Carthage” in modern Spain, across southern France, over the Alps and into Cisalpine Gaul.  His strategy was to divide Rome from her allies by weakening her in battle.  Once isolated Rome could be defeated.

Initially Hannibal fought the perfect campaign.  He scored resounding victories in the battles of Trebbia and at Lake Trasimene in what many analysts believe to be the greatest ambush in history.

Rome was in panic.  In 221 BC Quintus Fabius Maximus was elected dictator to handle the situation.  The post of dictator, giving sole control to a single individual, was only taken “in extremis” by the Senate.  It was awarded only a handful of times in the history of the Roman Republic.

Fabius recognised that Hannibal needed victories to maintain his impetus.  Keeping an army supplied in a foreign land is not an easy matter.  Many of his troops were mercenaries, who were looking for short campaigns, easy victories and lots of plunder.  The strategy devised by Fabius was to avoid large scale pitched battle.  If Hannibal advanced he withdrew.  If Hannibal moved he followed.  All the time he harassed the Carthaginian foraging parties, scouting expeditions or reconnaissance missions.

He employed a scorched earth policy to deny Hannibal food.  He used asymmetrical battle opportunities to score small victories and deplete the Carthaginian forces.

As time went by the Romans became impatient with this approach.  Used to decisive victories they struggled to understand a general who avoided contact with the enemy.  It smacked of cowardice.  The situation became politically untenable and when his tenure as Dictator expired Fabius was not reinstated.

He was replaced by the consuls Varro and Paullus.  The consuls put together a massive army of 88,000 legionnaires and marched on Hannibal.  Hannibal obliged them by taking control of a supply depot at Cannae, threatening to deprive the Romans of vital supplies.  The legions marched in.  Hannibal fought the greatest battle in history, a double envelopment. He killed approximately 75,000 Roman and Auxiliary troops and sold the remainder into slavery.  The Roman army was obliterated.

The Senate again turned to Fabius who reinstated his previous tactics.  Hannibal was unable to follow his victory at Cannae with an attack on Rome because he lacked the siege equipment to do so.  Fabius was successful in wearing down the Carthaginians until Rome could recover.

Then it was the turn of the young and dynamic Scipio, who took the war to Africa and Spain and defeated the Carthaginians in their own homeland.  As a result Carthage had to call Hannibal home from Italy.  He was defeated in Africa at the Battle of Zana where Scipio earned his nickname “Africanus”.

Now, there is an entire article about Hannibal Barca and I never once mentioned the E word, you know, Grey, Trunk, Tusks, Large Quadruped, useful in battle.

Quintus Fabius Maximus also gave his name to the “Fabian Society” a British Organisation which seeks to better society by the introduction of Socialism through Gradualist and Reformist means.