How Did the Romans Do It?

Our Thing likes to compare late-stage America to the collapsing Roman Empire.  It’s all there — the overproduction of decadent, parasitic elites; a huge, costly, but laughably ineffective military; the proliferation of weird cults and suicidal ideologies.  Our Thing also agrees that the old way of doing things has comprehensively failed, and that Western Civ — should we decide to give stuff like “indoor plumbing” and “living past 35” another go somewhere down the line — will need to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Which suggests we should take a look at the early Roman Empire.

Let’s be wildly optimistic and assume we can get through the collapse without widespread ethnic cleansing.  Thanks to a half-century’s frantic effort by Our Betters, the Liberals, no matter how many polities the ex-USA splits into, none of them will be ethnically homogeneous.  Which means that every state will have a significant minority population it will need to manage at worst, integrate at best.

The Romans were in the same boat in the early imperial days.  The Greeks, the socii, even the North Africans were Roman enough not to require much special handling.*  The Gauls, though…

We know the surface-level details.  Proconsuls or client kings, each with a legion or two to play around with, “administered” each region.  But: What, exactly, did they do?  Aside from obvious stuff like “helping out army recruiters” and “protecting tax farmers,” what, other than policing up potential malcontents, occupied their days?  How did they see themselves in the grand scheme of Roman government?  Did they consider themselves part of the grand scheme, and was there a grand scheme in the first place?  What about the local elites that served under them (or, perhaps, controlled them)?  How Roman were they?  How Roman did they want to be?

We’ve actually got a few documents on how it worked that are available to everyone.  Even at this late date, most everyone knows who Pontius Pilate was.  That seems to be close to the worst-case scenario — the best the governor can do is keep a lid on an intractably hostile population.  Leaving teleology aside, it’s hard to see how he could’ve done other than he did, Jesus-wise.  Jesus had broken no Roman law, which were the only laws Pilate could (theoretically) enforce.  So he turned Jesus over to the local religious elite, but — crucially — facilitated their decision.  The Sanhedrin passed the sentence, but local auxiliaries (there were no legions in Judea in Christ’s time) actually did the killing.

How did the best-case scenario work?  Spain, say, was Romanized pretty early — the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) was half-Spanish by blood, but obviously all the way Roman by culture.  How Roman were the Romans in Spain?  Were all of them Roman, or just the elite?  After Caesar’s time, no up-and-comers got posted to Spain — it was fat, but secure, with no plausible threats within 1000 miles.  The perfect lab to perfect “Romanization.”

So how did they do it?  I have no idea.  I’m not a field specialist.  My Latin begins with “Gallia divisa est in partes tres” and ends with “illigitimi non carborundum,” with a brief stopover at the Special Forces motto “de oppresso liber” (“free oppressed books!”).  I doubt the field specialists themselves know too much, as this is one of those “mentalities” issues that all historians hate — “how they thought in the past” is the thing we’d most like to know, and it’s the least accessible.  Maybe the best we can do is to determine when a province became “institutionally” Roman — that is, functioned economically and governmentally the way Italy did.

Perhaps we’ll never know.  But it’s a place to start thinking these issues through.


*Yes, I know, the Social War.  Big picture, people.
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4 thoughts on “How Did the Romans Do It?

  1. Maus

    Part of Roman culture was the ubiquitous diffusion of their techne. Some of the best examples of aqueducts and amphitheaters are found out in the provinces. But they did not diffuse the underlying knowledge; so when the elites were swept away by the barbarian hordes, the techne fell into disrepair and after 476 A.D. the knowledge of how to manage large scale water delivery or make Roman concrete was gradually lost. As you pointed out with Hispania, the provinces were thoroughly Romanized. If they’d had the knowledge they would have had no objections to using it.
    Collapse today is a failure of the will rather than the intellect. We in the province of California choose to fund a high speed train to nowhere instead of repairing our roads because it’s more “green.” And I must seek a booster vaccination for measles fifty years after my initial innoculation because the idiot anti-vaxxers know better than trained medical professionals what is best for children; so a disease that was essentially eradicated in the 20th century threatens to reach epidemic levels. The solution isn’t pretty. Once it has thrown off the reins of sanity, idiocy can only be suppressed by force. This leads inevitably to the purely hypothetical scenario (this cannot be stressed enough) where Our Thing goes to the dark side because, as Mao noted, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

    1. rwc1963

      One thing, the re-emergence of Measles TB, Typhus and Staph is mostly due to the mass migration of illegals into the state from Central America.. CBP is no longer allowed to check them for communicable diseases and quarantine them. It’s very unPC/MC to check these primitives for diseases anymore. As a result they are very much responsible for bringing incurable TB and several jungle disease that have never been seen here until Obama opened the flood gates.

      Also the massive homeless camps in Los Angeles and else where are contributing to MRSA and Typhus outbreaks. Even police who deal with the homeless have been infected with MRSA. Hepatitis is also very common. Don’t get near the homeless if you value your health. The local News media is covering up much of it. It’s that bad.

      Expect it to get much worse as time moves on because the establishment is in full denial mode.

  2. Pickle Rick

    The early Empire Romans governed the provinces the only way you can truly impose obedience. As Tacitus aptly put it in the context of making Britannia Roman-
    “To plunder, to slaughter, to steal, these things they misname empire; and where they make a wilderness, they call it peace.”

    Hispania, Gaul, Britannia, Judea-all of them were completely subjugated with utter ruthlessness and then the Romans, to borrow the idiom of the strategic bombers in subjugating Japan in 1945, made the rubble bounce. The Germans also had a term for it- Stunde Null, “Year Zero”. It’s no coincidence that Germans and Germany are absolutely gelded as a nation and culture. Arminius (Hermann) prevented it in the Teutoberg Forest, but Mustache Guy didn’t.

    In essence, you can build any civilization you want on the bones of the previous one, if you kill enough of the population to make sure it is decisively unwilling to attempt to incur another bloodbath to resurrect it.

  3. Ragnarok

    The romanisation of the provinces was effected in a fairly diverse manner across the late Republic and early empire, depending on local political conditions, levels of cultural development and levels of local resistance to the Roman occupation. It happened at differing paces in each province, some peoples rushing headlong to cultural extinction, others resisting for centuries. The aforementioned Hispanic provinces were certainly the most romanised along with the Gallic provinces, but Hispania was also the most intractable initially. It had relatively sophisticed material culture and reasonably substantial urbanisation, as well as a long interaction with the coastal Greek colonies which for the most part had been there for half a millenium before the Romans set foot on Hispanic soil. The Romans aquired it after the second punic war ended around 200 B.C., yet Julius Ceasar was still campaigning there early in his career and it wasn’t fully pacified until the principate of Augustus.
    Key to the process was the romanisation of native elites , initally through diffusion of material culture followed by the romanisation of the political culture. Native elite offspring were given Roman educations alienating them from their own cultural norms. Status competition channeled through the mechanisim of civic virtue was encouraged as part of the romanisation of the political culture. Hence most Roman style civic buildings in the provinces were erected by local elites in the course of this competition. Most local elites very much wanted to be romanised as it was the pre-eminent power in the med after Carthage lost the second punic war. Witness the modern day californication of global elites as example. Elites are interested in power and prestige. And who better to provide said upcomings? Whomsoever has the most of it at any given time. The Roman governers job included protecting the province militarily, overseeing the local political arrangements, embodying the chief Roman virtues as example to the natives and the usual civilian administrative duties including decisive judical powers.

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