Did the Roman Principate during the 2nd century field the best army in the world?

Mar 2018
896
UK
In the end, though, all the countless pages of speculation about why the border collapsed, paticularly in the west, amount to one simple fact: the empire grew old. Adapt though it might, its mechanisms for dealing with with change gradually became set and atrophied, its military 'immune system' needed more and more help from outside, and finally - faced with new generations of vigorous neighbours, who had borrowed from the empire what they needed to give their political system and their cultures strength and coherence - it died of old age.
The Empire Stops Here (Philipp Parker)
While I agree with the rest of your post entirely, this quote really irks me. It's nothing but a crude metaphor masquerading as wisdom. People grow old, and as they do, their bodies function less and less well for a series of biological reasons. Empires are not biological organisms, they have no telomeres that get shorter as their constituent parts (people in analogy to cells) reproduce. You can't state that the Roman empire fell because it was old unless you explain why being old makes it weaker. Waving your hand and pretending to be poetic by saying "well, people get weaker as they get old, so this is also true for empires" is not only BS, but demonstrably false.

People, in the absence of strong external factors tend to have similar lifetimes, about 75 +/- 10 years. Empires however sometimes survive for millennia, and sometimes less than a decade, and sometimes in between. Those are not freak cases, there simply is great variety in how long states last far, without any kind of statistical "peak" in the same way people do. That should make it evidently clear that there is no sense in which an aging empire necessarily becomes weaker.
 
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Oct 2018
1,870
Sydney
That's quite funny really. Rome based it's independence on military revolt from their kings, became a dominant power through military victory, for a short period a conquest state, and as Cicero reminds us, senior Romans loved nothing more than statues of them in military guise. The word Imperator, from which we derive the modern word Emperor. was originally an honour bestowed on victorious generals. The Roman elite needed military experience for credibility in their political careers. And we haven't reached the Principate yet.

If anything, Rome was beginning to shy away from overt militarism in later centuries. You do see blips on the graph mind you, as military minded Caesars brought their motives to bear on society, but the public had begun showing signs of reluctance back in Augustus' day (the cutting of thumbs to avoid service). This would only get worse, with settlements bribing recruiters to go away, and for that matter, recruiters who contracted lower cost mercenaries and keeping the enlistment fee profit. The issue of reluctance was addressed by various Caesars. Constantine ordered that men without thumbs should serve in a civic capacity if they cannot wield a sword. Valentinian wanted them burned alive as conscientious objectors, and Theodosius had them recruited anyway as two without thumbs are as good as one fully fingered.
Reluctance to serve, imperialism and the militarization of politics (what I mean by the militarization of power) are three different things. Imperialism was of course governed by militarized politics, but less imperial conquests does not inherently equal a less militarized government (see below). And certainly military legitimacy and the legions had long been important parts of internal politics, but the late third third century saw this aspect of the Roman Empire reach new levels, thus why I specifically said 'increased militarization of power'. This is a well-attested third-century phenomenon. We can see it in a) the dramatically increased number of military-supported usurpations, b) the increased power and status of career soldiers in relation to other members of society, c) the increased dominance of the emperorship by said career soldiers, d) the increased pressure on emperors to personally command the army, e) the increasingly dominant presence of military themes on coins, f) the increased importance of military assemblies for the legitimation of power, g) pay rises for the soldiery, and no doubt other factors that I don't remember for the moment. I can recommend scholarship. Some particularly good works are Hebblewhite 2017, The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235-395, Hedlund 2008, “… Achieved Nothing Worthy of Memory”. Coinage and Authority in the Roman Empire c. AD 260-295, Manders 2012, Coining Images of Power: Patterns in the Representation of Roman Emperors on Imperial Coinage, A.D. 193-284, and Mennen 2011, Power and Status in the Roman Empire, AD 193-284. The late third century is the age that has been referred to as the age of soldier-emperors, warrior-emperors, and similar. But by the beginning of the fifth century these dynamics had changed.
 
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Feb 2011
1,143
Scotland
While I agree with the rest of your post entirely, this quote really irks me. It's nothing but a crude metaphor masquerading as wisdom. People grow old, and as they do, their bodies function less and less well for a series of biological reasons. Empires are not biological organisms, they have no telomeres that get shorter as their constituent parts (people in analogy to cells) reproduce. You can't state that the Roman empire fell because it was old unless you explain why being old makes it weaker. Waving your hand and pretending to be poetic by saying "well, people get weaker as they get old, so this is also true for empires" is not only BS, but demonstrably false.

People, in the absence of strong external factors tend to have similar lifetimes, about 75 +/- 10 years. Empires however sometimes survive for millennia, and sometimes less than a decade, and sometimes in between. Those are not freak cases, there simply is great variety in how long states last far, without any kind of statistical "peak" in the same way people do. That should make it evidently clear that there is no sense in which an aging empire necessarily becomes weaker.
Good point - Empires (or any other human polity) are not biological organisms per se, though they are composed of such. To attempt to say an empire gets old, is either being purely philosophical (time brings an end to all things) or it is falling into the error that the old 'racial senescence' theory for dinosaurs fell into- ie, species/genus/groups age like an individual, a concept long shown to be incorrect.

I prefer to see polities treated as subject to something analogous to evolutionary forces. A polity isn't biological in itself, but the biological units acting in a group within it are subject to changes in their environment. They attempt to adapt to their environments and natural selection applies. Civilisations don't decay, they change as they adapt to different influences and circumstances. Sometimes this helps to ensure survival for longer. Sometimes, something in the environment changes unexpectedly, maybe drastically- perhaps an unexpected invasion by nomads, a natural disaster, climatic change- and those recent adaptations that seemed so successful turn out to be but a ticket to extinction.
 

caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,331
While I agree with the rest of your post entirely, this quote really irks me. It's nothing but a crude metaphor masquerading as wisdom. People grow old, and as they do, their bodies function less and less well for a series of biological reasons. Empires are not biological organisms, they have no telomeres that get shorter as their constituent parts (people in analogy to cells) reproduce. You can't state that the Roman empire fell because it was old unless you explain why being old makes it weaker. Waving your hand and pretending to be poetic by saying "well, people get weaker as they get old, so this is also true for empires" is not only BS, but demonstrably false.
What are you? A single discrete biological entity? Most humans would say so because we have enough self awareness to see ourselves that way courtesy of evolution. However, there are other ways of perceiving the human existence. Your body is composed not of a single biological function, but a co-operation of many specialised single cells and internal bacteria (and if you think we don't need them, I once had to take anti-biotics that did my friendly bacteria no good whatsoever, resulting in some very unpleasant issues trying to eat food).

The cooperation of human beings in organised societies is a parallel to this, an extension of single human entities into a biological mass that functions as we understand it as a nation state. If you observe, socieities can be seen to be born, mature, and age. This is basic sociology and nothing new, either from myself or Philipp Parker, as the concept is really an extension of Darwinism. Regrettably the concept has also been used as an excuse for supremacist thinking in that certain leaders of nation states regarded themselves as leaders of dominant states that deserved survival and a place at the top of the geo-political food chain. Luckily these states tend to find out that other nation states don't like being threatened - and so warfare isn't always simply one side against another - it has become a basis for social behaviour between nation states on a global scale.

But you're welcome to your opinions anyhow :D
 
Mar 2018
896
UK
What are you? A single discrete biological entity? Most humans would say so because we have enough self awareness to see ourselves that way courtesy of evolution. However, there are other ways of perceiving the human existence. Your body is composed not of a single biological function, but a co-operation of many specialised single cells and internal bacteria (and if you think we don't need them, I once had to take anti-biotics that did my friendly bacteria no good whatsoever, resulting in some very unpleasant issues trying to eat food).

The cooperation of human beings in organised societies is a parallel to this, an extension of single human entities into a biological mass that functions as we understand it as a nation state. If you observe, socieities can be seen to be born, mature, and age. This is basic sociology and nothing new, either from myself or Philipp Parker, as the concept is really an extension of Darwinism. Regrettably the concept has also been used as an excuse for supremacist thinking in that certain leaders of nation states regarded themselves as leaders of dominant states that deserved survival and a place at the top of the geo-political food chain. Luckily these states tend to find out that other nation states don't like being threatened - and so warfare isn't always simply one side against another - it has become a basis for social behaviour between nation states on a global scale.

But you're welcome to your opinions anyhow :D
Emphasis mine. Thank you for the biology lesson of the first paragraph, but I believe everyone old enough to use this website already knew that. Most of the second paragraph is about social Darwinism. Darwinism has absolutely nothing to do with getting older. I agree that empires compete against each other and so do humans, but that has nothing to do in any imaginable way, shape or form with the original point you made of "empires get weaker as they get older". That leaves as the only part of your post where you "rebute" the quoted one to be the sentence I bolded. Only that isn't a rebuttal, it's simply a restatement of what you've said before without any attempt at supporting it.

I can tell the age of a person by looking at them for a split second because there are clearly characteristics of people that change with age. Pray, tell me, what are the characteristics of a young vs an old empire? Humans have a life expectancy of 75 years, and the majority die within ten years either side of that. Pray, tell me, what is the life expectancy of an empire and how large is the standard deviation of it? Literally the only way that empires and humans are structurally the same is that they exist and are made of constituent parts. Well, so what? That applies to everything else in the universe too. The Mona Lisa exists and has many different pigments to it, should I start describing it like a person or an empire? I could even do the same with an abstract concept like Mathematics. That has been around for millennia and made up of lots of different theorems, does that mean that Maths behaves like a person and is now older, less agile and less creative than when it was younger? (Hint: no).

If an analogy applies to everything, it is not a meaningful analogy. For a statement to be meaningful it has to carry some information, for something to carry information, it has to have the ontological capacity to be wrong. An analogy which is so vague as never technically be wrong isn't saying anything at all, it's a mere truism. I find little in the previous post that doesn't fall into this category.

To pre-empt the inevitable ranting reply from caldrail: If your reply doesn't include the answers to the questions I wrote here, I won't bother reading it and you might as well not bother writing it.
 
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Feb 2011
1,143
Scotland
"If you observe, socieities can be seen to be born, mature, and age. This is basic sociology and nothing new, "

I've not studied sociology, but I cannot see this is the case nor can I see how it could be. Of course societies change with time, but that is not the same as aging. A human society is composed of humans naturally, but as a co-operation of individuals in which individuals age and die but are constantly replaced, it transcends individuals and is an abstract notion. To suggest it is born, ages and dies is an anthropomorphism. An ants' nest or termite mound is a social aggregation of co-operating individuals, but it could persist indefinitely, until environmental changes of some type preclude survival. It doesn't age, doesn't mature and doesn't die; individuals do.

A species or race or society cannot age genetically (unlike individuals) ; the DNA of all individuals in all species dates back -eventually - with vast quantities of mutations - to the original DNA.

Insofar as individuals compete for resources, societies might act analogously, also competing for scarce resources. However, Natural Selection cannot operate in the same manner - survival of the fittest in Darwin's theory is accomplished by way of random genetic mutation or recombination. That cannot apply to a society; in fact human society is different in that not only is it conscious of its environment but it can apply intelligence to adapt; so that a society gives an impression of adapting and evolving, but the mechanism to accomplish this is entirely different to Darwinism.

What is a society? We are thinking Empires here- specifically the Roman Empire - but in fact any group of individuals might co-operate as a society. A Limited company or corporation is a society. A company doesn't age, though its rules might be changed by its members to adapt to changed circumstances.
But even if we look at a larger human society- it isn't, generally, born as such. An invader might appear- for instance the Romans in Gaul - but after the initial conquest, the individuals making up the previous society were absorbed into the invader's society. It wasn't born. Very rarely would the entire population of one society be annihilated and replaced by another. Then- mature? How? Things might change with time, with changes to the environment, but this isn't something genetically programmed. The response doesn't necessarily represent some form of reduction in efficiency or breaking down. it's just an adaptation. Nor does a society die; it hasn't that biological aspect. Of course the members can be individually killed, but the society as a whole could just change its politics or membership.
 
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caldrail

Ad Honorem
Feb 2012
5,331
Inevitable rant? I'll take that as a compliment. Better than an inevitable complaint about imevitable criticism, eh? :D
 
Sep 2015
410
The Eastern Hinterlands
Was the Roman Army from Trajan to Septimus Severus that best army in the world, qualitatively speaking?
I'd consider the Roman army of the 2nd Punic War the peak of Latin arms. It was when the armed forces were at their most disciplined and patriotic. The fact they were able to withstand and defeat Hannibal's onslaught made it their finest hour. The cracks were beginning to show by Caesar's time and it was only Caesar's genius and personality that kept them reined in. It was a gradual deterioration after that.