The History of the Roman Empire
I recently watched a video series from The Teaching Company
titled The World of Byzantum
that was quite good, with a few relatively minor quibbles. It gave me quite a different perspective.
- I had always thought that when Rome fell in 476 CE, the Roman Empire fell - with the exception perhaps of some dinky little backwater provinces. In reality, it was the reverse: in 476 CE, some dinky little backwaters fell but the main Roman Empire kept chugging along just fine, thank you very much. Oh sure, it was an ego blow to lose the Western part of the Empire, but nothing that really devastated the Empire. The bulk of the population and wealth came from Egypt and the Levant. (It would sort of be like if the US lost Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Montana.)
- I knew that Turks considered themselves European, which I always thought was a little odd. They are a long way from Europe and don't even speak an Indo-European language! Um... well... Finnish, Estonian, and Basque aren't exactly Latin, either, yet somehow we cope with calling their speakers European. Furthermore, there is a lot of Turkey that is on the European side of the Bosphorous, and the Ottomans Empire used to extend much farther into Europe. Furthermore, one measure of a country's "Europeanness" is how strong of a connection they have to the great civilizations of Greece and Rome. By that measure, the Turks are more European than the French! The Roman Empire lasted 1000 years longer in Constantinople than in Paris.
- The course showed a very grand sweep of history, with this war and that war and this emperor succeeding that emperor... And as we kept getting story after story, it became clear to me that the personal charcteristics of a ruler mattered far less than what else was going on in the world. For example, if the Persians were busy fighting the Sogdians, then the Roman Empire didn't have to worry about the Eastern front. If, however, the Persians were invading on the East and Swedish barbarians on the West, it didn't really matter who was in charge, the Roman Empire was in trouble.
- I hadn't really realized how cosmopolitan the Roman Empire was or how much people moved around. It seemed common for someone the lecturer mentioned to have e.g. grown up in present day Switzerland, serve in the Army in northern Africa, then rise to a high position in Constantinople.
The most interesting lecture was on Justinian. He was determined to get back various pieces of the Western Roman Empire that had fallen. He figured he could because
- his predecessor had left him a big surplus
- deposed exiles from North Africa told him that the populace really liked the Roman Empire, that there were only a few malcontents who could be quicky dispatched; that the Romans would be hailed as liberators
- he figured that he could take over North Africa pretty quickly and turn it into a profit center pretty quickly, and use those profits to finance the next war.
Reality was very different. Justinian did take Carthage very quickly, but the populace was not in fact all that happy to see the Roman army. There was enormous resistance that was very expensive to contain. Because of damage to the infrastructure and institutions, production and hence tax revenues were well below what was expected.
I really wish George W. Bush had paid attention in history class.