Sharp Blue: Unity, disunity and continuity


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This will be a much more rambling post than is usual. On the Brin List, the conversation has turned to the fundamental nature of ethics, and from there, essentially, to whether “might makes right”, or at least whether ideologies that endure are de facto the most effective and so most moral. During this discussion, one of the more erudite contributors said:

Historically, empires can last a long time. The eastern part of the Roman Empire, which was split by Constantine in the 300s, lasted roughly 1500 years, and was defeated by another empire. IIRC, the Chinese empire lasted about the same length until it was overtook by the Ghengas Kahn…who’s rule ended up merging into that empire.

In reply I wrote quite a long, tangential message on the inaccuracies of these statements, and various other ideas that they brought to mind. I thought that perhaps some of my regular readers might like to read my reply too, even though it’s not especially well structured and doesn’t really present a proper argument. It is, however, the longest thing I’ve written for some months…

To begin with, Constantine reunified rather than splitting the administration of the Roman state. The history of the separation between West and East bears closer examination. Under the Republic, the Romans had a long history of the division of the supreme magistracy, first between two consuls and later into first an ad-hoc and later a formalised “triumvirate”. This tendency briefly re-emerged during the second century with the co-imperium of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Verus, which enabled the presence of emperors at several trouble-spots concurrently.

During the troubled third century this need for divided absolute authority became even more pressing and was formalised by the emperor Diocletian’s institution of the “tetrarchy”, in which there were two senior emperors (“Augusti”) and two junior emperors (“Caesars”). It was Diocletian’s intention that the Augusti should periodically abdicate in favour of their junior colleagues who would in turn appoint two new Caesars from the best men of the state. The succession of the emperors would thus be regularised, putting an end to the cycle of rebellion and civil war that had plagued the empire for fifty years. Unfortunately, it didn’t work like that, as sons of the Augusti who had been passed over in favour of new, unrelated emperors, asserted their supposed hereditary rights, alternative centres of power crystallised and a new phase of civil wars began. The ultimate victor was Constantine, who became sole ruler of the Roman empire in 324.

Before Constantine, there had been many temporary Roman capitals - for many decades the capital had effectively not been Rome but wherever the emperor was. Under the tetrarchy, for example, the capitals of the Augusti had been Nicomedia in Asia Minor, Mediolanum in northern Italy, Sirmium in what’s now Serbia and Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier). One of Constantine’s several innovations was the establishment of a permanent new capital at Constantinople. Rather than this city being the capital of an “Eastern Roman Empire”, it was the capital of the whole empire. Even during periods of division of the imperial authority, the empire itself was seen as a unitary whole and the usual procedure was for edicts to be issued in the name of all the current emperors and to be enforced across the Roman world.

It’s commonly held that the final division of the Roman empire occurred in 395 at the death of Theodosius I, at which Honorius became emperor in the west and Arcadius in the East. From then until the extinction of the western dynasty in 476 there was always an emperor in Constantinople and another usually in Ravenna. However, even as these two centres of power solidified, the Roman world formally remained whole. The two emperors provided each other with military assistance even as late as a major joint naval expedition against the Vandals in 468. Even the man sometimes seen as the last fully legitimate western emperor, Julius Nepos, was appointed by the eastern emperor Leo I. Furthermore, following the overthrow of the last western emperor, Romulus Augustulus, many of the Germanic successor rulers claimed to be ruling not as independent kings but as representatives of the emperor at Constantinople.

As for when the Eastern remnant of the Roman empire fell, I think there were two very clear periods during which large swathes of territory were lost and the character of the empire deeply changed. The first was during the lightning conquests of the Muslim armies in the seventh century, which cut away from the empire the ancient Roman provinces of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and North Africa. Augustus might well have recognised the sixth century empire of Justinian as a successor, however much transformed by the passage of centuries, to his own; but the Byzantine empire of Heraclius and his successors was a different world. The second major collapse occurred with the defeat of Romanus Diogenes by the Seljuk Turkish sultan Alp Arslan at Manzikert in 1071. (The Seljuk sultanate was a successor to the Arab Caliphates that had inflicted the earlier defeats on the Byzantines.)

In any case, much of this is a distraction from the central questions: what endured for those 1500 or more years, and was it totalitarian. In my view the main continuity was that of the administrative bureaucracy created by the Romans, despite the changes at the highest levels of power, the shifts of culture and even the change of religion. During the first few centuries of the Empire, the military and civil leaders were essentially talented amateurs drawn from the senatorial class. A major development during the third century was the replacement of these aristocratic leaders by middle class, professional leaders, first in the military sphere under Gallienus and then in the civil administration under Diocletian and Constantine. Alongside this shift, the administrative bureaucracy expanded dramatically in size as the troubled empire sought to organise its still massive economic resources to meet its ever more desperate military needs. It’s striking that the empire of the second century was run by an imperial staff of a few hundred bureaucrats but more striking that by the fourth century this had increased to tens of thousands.

It was this vast administrative machinery - and the parallel hierarchy of the Christian Church, with which it became increasingly entangled - that endured through so many changes of dynasty, provincial structure, prevailing religious orthodoxy and military organisation. Indeed, it even survived the collapse of Roman political authority in both East and West. The Germanic rulers of post-Roman Europe attempted to preserve the Roman administration and the Roman laws, but both fragmented and decayed during the first few centuries of the German states. Under Islam, however, the bureaucracy flourished, becoming the administration of the Ummayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. The civilisation of classical Islam fused the Arab religion with Roman administration and Persian elite culture.

(I think that this kind of continuity through administrative bureaucracy, or at least continuity of scribal and bureaucratic standards, pratice and culture, is typical of ancient civilisations, whether Roman, Egyptian, Mesopotamian or Chinese.)

As for totalitarianism, I think it’s clear that it’s a product of modern states. Even when the Roman rulers might have aspired to totalitarianism, such as during Diocletian’s attempts to control the economy through edicts, or the exasperated attempts by Christian emperors to impose some kind of religious orthodoxy, the tools to do so - mass media, mass surveillance and so forth - simply were not available. Likewise, republicanism or democracy on scales larger than that of city-states are products of modern times. It’s not clear to me that the endurance or otherwise of pre-modern empires has much to say about the prospects for democracy or dictatorship in the modern world.

I could say as much about China, but I’ll spare you the details. However, it’s incorrect both that Genghis Khan conquered China and that the empire the Mongols conquered had endured for 1500 years. Since the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907, China had been divided into a number of smaller states. During the period from 906 to 960, five dynasties rapidly succeeded one another in the north of China and the south was divided into ten or so small states. China was briefly reunified by the Song dynasty but by 1127 the northern part of the country had fallen under the rule of the non-Chinese Jin and Xia dynasties in the east and west respectively. These two northern dynasties were defeated by Genghis but the conqueror of China proper was his grandson Kublia, founder of the increasingly sinicised Yuan dynasty. The Mongols ruled China for a century until the Yuan were overthrown by the native Chinese Ming dynasty.

As with Rome, China passed through succeeding periods of political unity and disunity. Indeed, the normal state of affairs might have been a division into smaller states ruled by independent dynasties. From the first unification of China by the Qin dynasty in 221BC to the Mongol conquest in AD1271, China was only inarguably a single state from 221BC to AD220 under the Qin and Han, from 581 to 907 under the Sui and Tang and from 960 to 1127 under the Northern Song, or about 60% of that period. It was only during the Yuan, Ming and Qing that the idea of China as a coextensive political and cultural zone achieved an enduring reality. (Which is not to denigrate the earlier achievements of the Chinese. For example, at the time of the Mongol conquest the Song capital, Hangzhou, may have been the most populous, wealthy and sophisticated city in the world.)

I’ll say even less about another civilisation that I know something about - ancient Egypt - but that one also wasn’t a single “Egyptian Empire”. Instead, four periods of unity (the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom and Late Period) were separated by periods of political decentralisation or foreign domination, and I seem to recall counting something like fifteen distinct periods of ancient Egyptian imperialistic expansion. In this case too, the continuities across vast periods of time are not so much political as cultural and administrative.

Just got around to reading your blog-post. You make an interesting point.

I'm reminded of the analogy of the coral reef. An observer of a reef could be forgiven for overlooking the process of calcium carbonate accretion. It is, after all, just a marginal side-effect of a great deal of exciting activity. But in the long run, this process is what defines the reef.

Empires rise and fall. Bureaucracies endure.

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