Peak of the Roman Civilization

Theodoric

Ad Honorem
Mar 2012
2,745
#22
View attachment 21422
This graph gives indications of the rise in material output across the meditteranean, which peaked before 100 AD, in the reign of Trajan, then began an inexorable decline until, by 476 AD, output was back to the level of 700 years previously.
Interesting how it appears by the graph data that Trajan kickstarted the decline. So much for the period of “great” Emperors.

I kid. A lot of those issues of “decline” occurred because of how the Romans were unsustainably rising in the first place. This probably began to occur around the timeframe of Marius-Caesar, but possibly as far back as Cato the Elder; don’t take it from me though, others on this forum will have more expertise and can perhaps be more precise.
 
Dec 2011
2,207
#23
Interesting how it appears by the graph data that Trajan kickstarted the decline. So much for the period of “great” Emperors.

I kid. A lot of those issues of “decline” occurred because of how the Romans were unsustainably rising in the first place. This probably began to occur around the timeframe of Marius-Caesar, but possibly as far back as Cato the Elder; don’t take it from me though, others on this forum will have more expertise and can perhaps be more precise.
My view is that it was the unification of the Meditteranean lands (with significant reduction in piracy as a Roman policy), thus facilitating extensive trade, that spurred on the very significant increase in economic output. The seizure, and spending, of the wealth from the conquered territories (eg robbing the treasuries of many temples) also acted to increase growth. Unfortunately, there would not have been very much of an increase in productivity, the vast majority of goods, particularly food, still required hard and time consuming human labour to provide. Also I believe the system of ruling by force, and pitilessly demanding tribute regardless of conditions on the ground, would have acted to reduce incentives. Documents from Egypt, in the early second century, show tenant farmers, overburdened with rents and taxes, disappearing from the land. The "good" emperors, Hadrian and Antoninus, made very large grants to assist by cancelling tax arrears, but that seems to show that the system was under great strain.
 
Likes: Theodoric
#24
The declining number of fresh conquests ought to have decreased the health of the imperial treasury. But on the subject of the height and decline of the Roman Empire, this paper is interesting: Michael McCormick, Ulf Büntgen, Mark A. Cane, Edward R. Cook, Kyle Harper, Peter Huybers, Thomas Litt, Sturt W. Manning, Paul Andrew Mayewski, Alexander F. M. More, Kurt Nicolussi, Willy Tegel: Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xliii:2 (Autumn, 2012), 169–220.

It contains many arguments about climate during the Roman Empire and its possible connection to historical developments, among which, it notes that the period from roughly 100 BC to AD 200 was a time of exceptionally stable climate, and of warm and wet conditions. The flooding of the Nile was also regular. The Antonine Plague of the late second century of course effected the prosperous conditions (a sudden and drastic decline in papyri speaks to the mass death and mass movement of peoples in Egypt, and certain papyri attest to the evacuation of villages). That being said, early third-century papyri from Egypt show that the population loss caused by the plague eventually improved economic conditions for peasants, since labour had become less readily available. Wages increased, and oil, wine, land and rents became cheaper (Scheidel 2017, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, pp. 326-330).

However, returning to climate, the third century AD saw cooling, drying and growing irregularity on the part of the Nile floods. Repeated volcanic events in the late third century that are scientifically evidenced appear to have contributed in large part to the cooling, and there were drought conditions in parts of the empire from the 240s to the 290s. The cooling and drying attested in north-west Europe could help explain the growing barbarian pressure on the Rhine and Danube frontiers, and irregular floods would have effected the provision of food to the soldiers, which could help explain the high frequency of military-supported usurpations during this century. On the second issue, military rebellion, the pressure from external enemies and a growing sense of normalcy on the matter of killing emperors (that is, it came to be felt that there was nothing too unusual about killing an emperor with whom they were discontent) would have also had an effect, and some have plausibly argued that emperors from Severus onwards had spoiled the soldiers too much, contributing to their bad behaviour. Some have also argued that the increased mobility of emperors during the third century (to deal with various foreign and civil enemies) served to enhance soldier expectations, contributing to a sense of entitlement that military units required a present emperor on the regular (thus the frequency with which military units propped up new emperors in the absence of the existing emperor). So the issue is complicated, but climate contributes a new element to understanding the problems during this century.

Climate in Europe and the Middle East became warmer and wetter in the fourth century, and the floods became more regular, which perhaps assisted the return to relative imperial stability under Diocletian, Constantine and their successors. However, the climate did not return to the stability seen between 100 BC to AD 200, and cooling/drying events would happen again during the fifth and sixth centuries (the mid-sixth century again saw repeated volcanism).

Additionally, the migrations of the Huns, the Hepthalites and the Avars have been associated with periods of drought in Central Asia (recorded using tree rings).
 
Likes: Arminius
Dec 2011
2,207
#25
Diocletian, I am sure that changes in the climate might have made things more difficult, but I am of the opinion that a well-functioning state could have adapted to such changes. Note that the period of optimal climate lasted until 200AD, yet the decline already began 100 years earlier, and nothing effective was done to arrest it. I can well imagine that climatic factors induced large scale barbarian movements, but given the empire's resources (it had a population of 50 million+) it ought to have been able to meet the challenge. The historical accounts point to the Antonine plague as pivotal, and, as you say, there is evidence of its effects in Egyptian papyri, but compare that with the Black Death 1000 years later, a massive shock, which induced change, but society adapted to it.

I am inclined to point to the imperial system itself as the most basic factor in the decline. Remember that the whole idea of imperialism is to conquer other peoples and then extract (steal) things from them. The ancient author Orosius said that Egypt paid 20% of its grain harvest as tax, and studies of the papyri, many of which show yields and taxes, indicate it might have been 25%. While such a tax rate might not seem excessive to us, we have to remember that most of the population was living at subsistence level, in fact most people would not have been able to afford to pay ANY tax. The actual effects of such a system would be people abandoning cultivation and moving elsewhere, and, those who stayed would not have enough to eat and many would succumb to disease and death. Thus we see well-established villages abandoned and overwhelmed by sand. Now that's only Egypt, but something of the same pattern can be seen in other areas across the empire, where habitation in the countryside is reduced and the towns become "nucleated" that is they changed from the fairly extensive grid pattern to more closely-built, more easily defended central area, more akin to the small towns of the Medieval period.
 
#26
Diocletian, I am sure that changes in the climate might have made things more difficult, but I am of the opinion that a well-functioning state could have adapted to such changes. Note that the period of optimal climate lasted until 200AD, yet the decline already began 100 years earlier, and nothing effective was done to arrest it. I can well imagine that climatic factors induced large scale barbarian movements, but given the empire's resources (it had a population of 50 million+) it ought to have been able to meet the challenge. The historical accounts point to the Antonine plague as pivotal, and, as you say, there is evidence of its effects in Egyptian papyri, but compare that with the Black Death 1000 years later, a massive shock, which induced change, but society adapted to it.

I am inclined to point to the imperial system itself as the most basic factor in the decline. Remember that the whole idea of imperialism is to conquer other peoples and then extract (steal) things from them. The ancient author Orosius said that Egypt paid 20% of its grain harvest as tax, and studies of the papyri, many of which show yields and taxes, indicate it might have been 25%. While such a tax rate might not seem excessive to us, we have to remember that most of the population was living at subsistence level, in fact most people would not have been able to afford to pay ANY tax. The actual effects of such a system would be people abandoning cultivation and moving elsewhere, and, those who stayed would not have enough to eat and many would succumb to disease and death. Thus we see well-established villages abandoned and overwhelmed by sand. Now that's only Egypt, but something of the same pattern can be seen in other areas across the empire, where habitation in the countryside is reduced and the towns become "nucleated" that is they changed from the fairly extensive grid pattern to more closely-built, more easily defended central area, more akin to the small towns of the Medieval period.
You make many interesting points, and certainly there were problems with taxation under the Romans. Severe taxation could lead to discontent - the massive Libyan revolt against Carthage that followed the end of the First Punic War was motivated by the wartime measure of doubling the tax on Libyan farms from 25 to 50%. In Rome's case, Diocletian's decision to overhaul the tax system in 297 has been plausibly linked with the Egypt-wide revolt led by Domitianus and Achilleus from 297 to 298, the worst Egyptian revolt in Roman history. The fact that, prior to Diocletian, taxation was conducted in a largely ad-hoc manner would not have helped. It meant that people could be targeted for amounts beyond what they were capable of providing. Diocletian's solution was regular indictions and a uniform five-yearly census (in place of the periodic censuses of previous centuries) to determine tax liability based on the quantity and quality of land and a subject's age: a combination of a poll tax and a property tax. The introduction of this system attests to taxation problems, although the above-mentioned revolt of Egypt suggests that initial reactions to the new system were hardly positive. Diocletian's and Galerius' imposition of taxation on Italy and the city of Rome would similarly contribute to the 306 revolt that put Maxentius in power. That being said, the new system appeared to work well enough, at least from the perspective of imperial authorities, to remain standard throughout the fourth century.

The problem of land being deserted would have also been exacerbated by increased warfare. During a time of relative peace, Gordian III was petitioned by the citizens of the village of Skaptopara in Thrace, who were suffering due to the requisitions imposed on them by soldiers traveling trough the town, which happened to be along one of the main roads of communication. They threatened the emperor that they were on the verge of abandoning their village, and would thus cease to be a tax-paying population. If it really was that bad, imagine what it would have been like during, say, the reigns of Gallienus, Aurelian and Probus, when imperial units were moving back-and-forth across the empire on a regular basis to deal with frequent usurpations and foreign incursions. Incursions would have also encouraged the tendency that you mention, beginning (as far as I'm aware) in the late third century, whereby towns became smaller and more fortified, with people abandoning the countryside in favour of these towns. It was the effect of foreign incursions on the countryside which led late Roman emperors to direct prisoners of war to re-cultivate land near the frontiers.

As for the matter of barbarian migration in the third century, certainly there was a population advantage on the side of Rome, but Lukas De Blois (2016, ‘Rome and Persia in the Middle of the Third Century AD (230-266)’ in D. Slootjes & M. Peachin (eds.), Rome and the Worlds beyond its Frontiers, Leiden, 33-44), who blames Rome's third-century troubles on Sassanid Persia, makes the interesting point that the Roman Empire had not suffered from the problem of multiple enemies attacking on multiple fronts in centuries. He argues that Rome's legions had evolved into a static frontier defense that could not easily respond to a threat out of the ordinary, such as the simultaneous attacks of Franks, Alemanni, Goths, Heruli and Persians, as would happen several times with several variations in the middle decades of the third century. The onset of serious defeats in the field, namely those suffered at Misiche, Barbalissos, Edessa, Abrittus and Placentia, plus the sacking of important fortresses and cities like Antioch, Athens, Philippopolis, Ephesus, Nicomedia, Nicaea and Dura Europos, would have also undermined confidence in the emperors leading them, who were above all else expected to be victorious in the field, thus the widespread association of emperors with victory on coins and inscriptions, very popular in imperial coinage and actually the most prevalent theme in local coinage. This would have contributed to the issue of a rebellion-ready military, which I mentioned in my previous post.

Whatever problems arose in the second and third centuries, and I acknowledge that there was economic decline, I think it worth noting that the Roman Empire was sufficiently healthy to press on, and the Byzantine Empire had more than a milennium to go, although certainly the empire was halved in size in the fifth century. Some scholars regard the third-century troubles not as evidence of decline but a testament to the empire's tenacity and adaptability. I can sympathize with this perspective in at least a few respects. For example, Gallienus introduced his cavalry-heavy mobile reserve, which became the precursor to the Tetrarchic/Constantinian approach whereby each major frontier had a field army present (with the associated rise in provincial emperors serving within an imperial college). The creation of more mobile legionary detachments, vexillations, which had begun in the second century, increased during the third century. More and more troops were trained to fight with close-combat spears to better handle the cavalry armies of the Goths and Persians. Valerian, Gallienus and Aurelian increased the number of imperial mints near frontiers, thus enabling the easier payment of soldiers, and Aurelian made numerous improvements to the imperial roads. Provincial fortifications increased under Diocletian, and he introduced his tax, monetary and price reforms (with some reforms admittedly more successful than others). Aurelian and Constantine too reformed the coinage, and Gallienus, Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine all contributed to the trend whereby emperors became increasingly shielded (at least in theory) by the aura of ceremonial and pseudo-divinity. It's also noteworthy that considerable building activity in Africa and eastern Europe suggests that parts of the empire remained fairly prosperous during this time of troubles.

Anyway, sorry for the length. These are just some more of my thoughts on the topic.
 
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stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,178
Las Vegas, NV USA
#27
View attachment 21422
This graph gives indications of the rise in material output across the meditteranean, which peaked before 100 AD, in the reign of Trajan, then began an inexorable decline until, by 476 AD, output was back to the level of 700 years previously.
Just as I always thought. Rome peaked in the year zero. Of course the powers that were ignored zero so we have to choose between 1 BC or 1 AD (or BCE and CE). Personally, we shouldn't have to choose because of the ignorant choices made at the time. :rolleyes:
 
Dec 2011
2,207
#28
Just as I always thought. Rome peaked in the year zero. Of course the powers that were ignored zero so we have to choose between 1 BC or 1 AD (or BCE and CE). Personally, we shouldn't have to choose because of the ignorant choices made at the time. :rolleyes:
The peak was 100AD or just before.

Having a year zero wouldn't really make sense, any more than having a day zero in every month.
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,178
Las Vegas, NV USA
#29
The peak was 100AD or just before.

Having a year zero wouldn't really make sense, any more than having a day zero in every month.
But look at your fascinating chart! Besides there are only 12 months in a year. How many years are there? It only makes sense to use integers to count them, especially when dealing with negative and positive numbers. Also from looking at the chart there is no precise point. When dealing with this approximation, one uses numbers divisible by 10 or in this case 100 with 0 as a dividing point with signed numbers. To my eye 0 is a reasonable approximate maximum. You could say it was sustained until about 100 AD.
 
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