Sharp Blue: Rome and Assyria: Contrasting Imperialisms


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Over at Gene Expression there’s a discussion about ancient Rome, one aspect of which is a sub-thread on Roman imperialism. Someone towards the beginning of the thread asserted that the Romans dominated the ancient Mediterranean because they eschewed diplomacy or “realism” in favour of brutal military subjugation and extortion of resources. I’d like to take a few moments to try to refute that claim by comparing the imperialistic policies of Rome and the earlier Neo-Assyrian empire (the dominant empire in the Middle East in the first centuries of the first millennium BC and a state which much more closely approximated to the picture of military subjugation and extortion).

The earliest phase of Roman imperialism outside Italy was the gradual conquest of the Mediterranean coastal regions. The Romans, at least until the later phase of the Republic, expanded considerably more slowly than they might have done and generally only annexed territory as provinces when it was necessary to secure Italy itself. Even Italy was, as late as the first century BC, not a Roman province but a network of theoretically independent allies (socii) bound to Rome by treaties. During the last decades of the Republic this changed as military conquest became the main method used by ambitious men of the senatorial class to gain prestige and political power at Rome. This later phase of more aggressive imperialism saw the Romans expand not just into the civilised world of the Near East but also into the less developed territories of what became the Empire’s frontiers along the Rhine and Danube.

On both the eastern and northern borders of the Empire, the Romans used more subtle methods alongside naked force. Beyond the eastern frontiers of the Empire proper extended a range of client states that were neither provinces nor independent states. The situation in the north was similar, with substantial use of subsidies for friendly tribes called foederati (from feodus, “treaty”, hence our “federation”) as well as punitive expeditions against hostile ones. The frontiers were highly permeable to trade too, to the benefit of Romans and non-Romans alike. Until the crises of the third century, the Romans controlled an extremely long frontier with a quite modest number of troops, essentially by ensuring that none of the minor kings in the east or tribal groupings in the north became powerful enough to mount a serious challenge to Roman power.

While all empires ultimately depend on military force, most of the successful ones have a balanced policy reminiscent of that of Rome. The Assyrians, in their later imperialist phase, provide an interesting contrast. The Assyrian Empire was an intensely militarised and more than usually ruthless state, prone to deporting entire populations and ruling largely through terror. The Neo-Assyrian regime was much more willing than the Romans to openly use its military power to subjugate other peoples, and much more dependent on their army as an instrument of internal social control. This militarism was attested not just by historical records from outside the Assyrian Empire but even by the Assyrians themselves. Indeed, it seems to me that the Neo-Assyrian kings were rather proud of how widely they were feared. For several centuries, the Assyrian army was almost always at war, and plunder and tribute poured into the great Assyrian cities of Ashur and Nineveh. Unlike the earlier kings of the Middle Assyrian period, the Neo-Assyrian monarchs channeled the vast majority of their resources through a highly efficient bureaucracy into the service of the military. The Assyrian Empire became the largest and most powerful empire that the Middle East had yet seen.

However, the true strength of the greatest and most enduring empires is never military but the ability to make other peoples (and especially their elites) support the imperial system. The Romans were masters of this strategy. Indeed, many subject cities were allowed to retain their native political and cultural institutions for the whole period of the Principate, and these institutions became part of the Roman imperial tapestry. It was to almost everyone’s advantage to become Roman. The semi-autonomous local systems only withered after the massive reorganisation and expansion of the bureaucracy (in the service of the equally expanded military) during the early Dominate. In this period the Empire was faced such serious threats that it became necessary to channel talented people directly into the imperial service rather than into more local career paths. By then, however, the distinction between Romans and their subject populations had been almost entirely erased, which was not something that ever happened in Assyria.

I think that it was this alignment of the interests of the conquered people with the interests of the Roman state that gave the Empire its great resilience and reserves of stength and endurance sufficient to weather the crises of the third and (more or less…) fifth centuries. In contrast, as soon as the Assyrian Empire faced a serious crisis its economic and military reserves were rapidly depleted and the whole awesome edifice rapidly crumbled: in 627BC Assyria was a mighty power feared through the Near East but by 612BC it had been entirely swept away by the Babylonians and Medes. Ultimately, military force alone - no matter how awesomely powerful and seemingly dominant - is not enough to sustain an empire.

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