Sunday, 15 February 2009

Aspects of Antiquity

"Aspects of Antiquity" by M.I. Finley: A Review
This book contains essays on a variety of aspects of ancient history. With each subject, Dr Finley takes care to describe how the history came to be written, showing what different historians made of the evidence, and explaining why they reached the conclusions that they did.
One of the most interesting essays concerns the fall of Rome. Why did Rome fall, and what caused the mighty Roman Empire to lose its power? The popular view on this has largely been due to Gibbon, and his epic "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". In this, he portrayed the citizens of Rome as "timid and luxurious inhabitants of a declining empire", and placed the blame largely upon the decline in moral standards, and a resultant collapse of the social order. Rome fell. Gibbon tells us, because the Romans had lost all discipline; their minds were "degenerate".
Dr Finley points out the deficiencies of Gibbon's analysis. "Even if one were to accept the characterization," he writes, "it does not explain. One would still have to give reasons why the Romans had become 'timid' and 'degenerate' if that is what they now were. "
If Rome fell, then the first area to scrutinize for weakness should be defence. The army, Dr Finley points out, was only about 300,000 strong from the times of Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. However, despite its small size, it "was sufficient for its purposes; it kept the peace within the empire; it could cope with rebellions, though that might require time; it protected the frontiers; it was even able to make a few further conquests,  including Britain." In a straight fight, the Roman legions usually defeated larger numbers of German warriors, because the Roman army was "better trained, better, better equipped, better led." But, as Dr Finley observes, the trouble was that the army was not at war with "a neighbouring state like themselves, but with migratory tribes." The Roman forces were faced with the problem of continual, scattered attacks, and found themselves spread too thinly over a great frontier "from the mouth of the Rhine to the Black Sea and then on to the borders of the Persian kingdom". The problem was one of manpower.
Dr Finley argues that the agrarian economy of the empire could not provide such manpower. He summaries the Roman economy of this time in a simple model. Most of the population produced just enough to live on, and enough to maintain the "very rich and high-living aristocracy, and the modest army." This was a sort of "social equilibrium" and if any change took place in any of the elements making up the equilibrium, it had to be balanced elsewhere. It was this which resulted in a vicious circle which brought an end to the empire under the threat of the barbarian invasions: "The army could not be enlarged because the land could not stand further depletion of manpower; the situation on the land had deteriorated because taxes were too high; taxes were too high because the military demands were increasing; and for that the German pressures were mainly responsible."
Other subjects in the book include Crete and the Trojan War. The book is informative and at times acutely critical of popular beliefs about ancient history; it is also well argued, and shows with great clarity how the historian pieces together a picture from the fragments of the past.

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