Friday, May 11, 2012

The Seeds of the Fall Of The Roman Empire Were Sewn In The Nascent Stages Of The Imperial System

         The Roman Empire was the greatest hegemonic power in Europe for about 700 years. The Roman Empire was greater than any of its European rivals in terms of population, military strength, wealth, technological development, and economy, yet in 476 AD the Western Roman Empire fell. The fall of the half of the Empire that had the city that started it all has been a subject of historiographical discussion for years. I do not want to argue what I view is the fundamental reason or theme why the empire fell, but rather discuss about three events that occurred in the early life of the empire that reflected the weaknesses in the imperial system that made a fall possible.

The first event that showed the weaknesses of the imperial system was the Battle of The Teutoburg Forest. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest was devastating for the Roman Empire in ways that may not have been immediately apparent. The Roman Republic’s Empire, and later Roman Imperial Empire, were driven by the idea of Imperium Sine Fine, or an empire without limits. There was a burning drive in the hearts of all Romans with ambitious aspirations to push the physical boundaries of the Roman Empire. Rome’s history began with conflict, and conflict continued to be at the core of Rome’s existence. Thus success in battle  proved to be the greatest source of legitimacy, and advancer of political ambitions.

War made Rome strong. Plunder taken from external threats meant more money in the Roman coffers. Success led to further success as plunder could be used to finance more powerful armies. Before the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, a battle occurred that made the later defeat in the Teutoburg Forest all the more devastating.

Crassus, who many  believe was the wealthiest Roman ever, lived in a time that immediately preceded that formation of the imperial system. He lived in time where some of the most powerful figures in Rome’s history had been advancing the gradual push from a Republic to a dictatorship/imperial system. Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Pompey Magnus were heads of the Roman Triumvirate, a system that essentially divided the power of the Republic among the three men. All three were competing with each other to become the sole ruler of Rome. Julius Caesar had proven his worth by conquering Gaul, Pompey had a long and distinguished military career, and Crassus was known for his immense wealth and suppression of a slave revolt. Crassus wanted a great military victory that would enable him to surpass rivals Pompey and Caesar. Crassus decided to campaign against Rome’s most powerful enemy in the east, the Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire covered an expanse that included much of the Middle East. Crassus suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Parthian forces and proved the difficulty of achieving Rome’s dreams of conquering the Middle East.

The Middle East proving to be too difficult an area to conquer, Rome turned northward to the land of Germania. Julius Caesar made the first incursions into Germania as part of his Gallic conquests. Romans knew little about the land but had encountered and thoroughly defeated peoples from Germania in the Cimbrian Wars. The lack of knowledge made Romans susceptible when fighting on the Germans home territory. Rome had been successfully campaigning deep into Germania until the disaster at the Teutoburg Forest. During the battle three entire legions were destroyed. The shame was such that the numbers of the three legions destroyed were never assigned again to any future legions. The disaster led to Augustus’s decision that the border of the empire should end with the Rhine River. This set the precedent for future emperors. Never was Germania seriously considered as a land that should or could be completely conquered by Rome. Instead, it became a land whose people were to be managed by Rome through trade and diplomacy.

The end of Roman expansion had a two dire consequences for the long term sustainability of the empire. First, the Roman Empire had relied on plunder from conquered lands to drive its economy. Conquering lands like Greece and Egypt made Rome very rich because looting the resources they provided to the empire proved to be extremely lucrative. Thus when conquest stopped, Roman economic expansion slowed and eventually stopped. The failure to grow the economy opened the door to destabilization on both the frontier and within the empire. Rome managed the barbarians sitting outside the empire in a variety of ways. It often paid off barbarian tribes to not attack, it paid rivals tribes to war with each other to blunt their capacity to war with Rome, and recruited mercenaries from barbarian lands. When Rome could not grow its economy due to the end of expanding the empire, the government needed to squeeze more resources out of its citizens rather than  from subjugating peoples from outside the empire. As a result of lavish imperial spending and several civil wars, the economy shrunk overtime. Rome had less and less money to pay off the barbarian peoples just outside the empire. With payments drying up, the barbarians turned to raiding Roman territory to recoup the lost income. This had an adverse cyclical affect where Rome could not pay its barbarian adversaries due to economic and political weakness, barbarians would raid to their recoup losses, Rome would have to deal with the threat, commit resources to the frontier rather than stabilizing the center, eventually have to pay off the barbarians in some kind of settlement, and finance this by levying crushing taxes on the citizens of Rome thereby contracting the economy even further.

The second reason setting a limit to Roman conquests doomed the empire in the long run was that political advancement was intertwined with military success. Once expansion came to a halt, military greatness could no longer be achieved through conquering new lands, but rather by defeating political opponents within the empire. The reward of defeating political opponents in armed conflict civil wars proved to be very lucrative for commanders. Thus civil wars eventually became commonplace. Civil wars are often the most destructive wars for the state because all military and economic losses are internal.

This last point, that Civil Wars were unendingly corrosive, feeds into the second event that doomed the fate of the Empire in the long run. Historians divide the Roman emperors into different dynastic eras. The first dynastic era was the Julio-Claudian dynasty. This dynasty began with Augustus and ended four emperors later with Nero. Emperors from the Julio-Claudian line drew legitimacy from their familial relationship with the greatest of Roman heroes, Julius Caesar. Once Nero died, the Julio-Claudian dynasty had no other heirs who could ascend to the throne. A power vacuum formed. For the first time since the beginning of the Principate, the Roman Imperial system, there was no clear heir to the throne. A civil war broke out among the most ambitious generals of the empire. Prior to this point civil wars were uncommon. The last civil war had occurred nearly 100 years prior. Although the period leading up to the fall of the Roman Republic featured a few prominent civil wars, the wars of Sulla and Marius, and the wars of the two triumvirates, the majority of the roughly 750 years of Roman existence lacked civil conflict. Since no clear delineation of succession had ever been formalized in the imperial system, once the last Julio-Claudian died, the only real solution for selecting a new emperor was through civil war. Four generals heading legions that were stationed in different regions of the empire vied for power. Three different generals rose to the imperial throne, yet each general viewed themselves as legitimate and the others as illegitimate rulers of Rome. Ultimately the strongest won out. Eventually a general heading the eastern legions, Vespasian, came out victorious.

This civil war so disastrous because it set a corrosive precedent for selecting new emperors whenever a clear successor was left indeterminate or whenever a seated emperor was considered illegitimate. In both nadirs of imperial power, the Crisis of the Third Century, and the long collapse of the 5th Century, Civil wars ran rampant. Usurpers sprung up constantly resulting in near constant civil wars when the Romans should have been focusing on rebuilding their society or defending their frontiers from barbarian invasions. Barbarians at these points did not all of a sudden become immensely powerful enough to conquer the empire. Instead they took advantage of the empire when it was at its weakest. Since Rome had defeated all of its most serious enemies except for the Sassanid Empire in the East, Rome was only weakest after civil wars.

Barbarians did not have designs on conquering the empire as a whole, rather they sought prized Roman lands to settle in. Barbarians knew the Roman society to be superior to their own in many ways and hoped Rome would cede them land and officially recognize their peoples. Eventually the empire broke up not because of any one great invasion but because at moments of weakness, Rome had to cede away chunks of territory that were never permanently re-conquered and eventually were completely lost. The Western Roman Empire grew so weak, it essentially ceded away its entire empire.

The third event that doomed the Roman Empire was the assassination of Caligula. Caligula was a cruel, despotic emperor. His rule was so poisonous that the Praetorian Guards, the personal army of the emperor whose sole purpose was to unequivocally protect the emperor, decided they needed to kill Caligula for the greater good of the state, but also themselves. The thought of killing either of  the two previous emperors  Augustus and Tiberius was outside the realm of consideration for the Praetorian. Although Augustus was loved, Tiberius was widely hated by many, yet the Praetorian never killed him. Caligula took the excesses of imperial power and evil to new levels imbuing many with a burning desire to murder the emperor. The reason this murder is so important to the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire is that the murder of Caligula set the precedent that emperors  could be overthrown, even ones who were viewed as legitimate at the time of the ascendance to the position.

Once one legitimate emperor could be killed, any emperor could be killed. Usurpers were thus enabled to become a common occurrence because the Emperor’s position was neither supreme nor guaranteed. In fact any emperors position could be untenable. The constant threat of being murdered or usurped was a Sword of Damocles that hung over the head of every emperor after Caligula. Thus weakness shown by an emperor anywhere could be instant cause for removal. Therefore the importance immediate suppression of usurpers, which led to many civil wars, was paramount. Often times emperors waited on defeating advancing barbarians in favor of suppressing a usurper.

Emperors needed to be strong and enrich those who protected them. Septimius Severus’s last words to his children were “be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all the rest.” The attitude of enriching the those who protected the emperor above all else created inefficiencies in the Roman economy and political dynamic. Rather than seeking to enrich the people, emperors sought to enrich those who could protect their authority. One resolution to this situation enacted by Diocletian in the late 3rd century was to push the emperor outside the realm of accessibility by withdrawing from everyday dealings to create a sense of godlike remoteness. By the time of Diocletian imperial affairs were dealt with by members of an extensive bureaucracy rather than the emperor directly. For strong emperors like Diocletian the adverse affects of such an arrangement were mitigated.

Unfortunately the remoteness of emperors only grew over time. By the time of the 5th century, the emperors were so far removed from society as a whole that they became reduced to figureheads. The real people who held power was the magistri militum (plural of magister militum), or the head general of all Roman forces. The problem fostered dependency by the emperors who needed the support of the magistri militum to protect their lives. As a result, emperors lost the power to hold sway over these generals. Often times the magistri militum were of some form of Germanic descent and their interests were not always completely in line with those of empire as a whole. Germans were able to rise to the rank of Magister Militum because the Roman military increasingly leaned on German mercenaries to supply their forces. Thus their leaders were often the best candidates for military promotions. The lack of pure Roman descent made the magistri militum position untenable as well. In the case of the Magister militum Stilicho his failure to annihilate the Visigoths was attributed to his supposed pro-Germanic sympathies stemming from his Vandal ancestry. Although evidence pointed to the contrary, the perception led to prominent Romans calling for his execution. In situations like these, magistri militum may not see combating invading barbarians as the main threat to their power but rather combating dissenting Senators or generals. Furthermore, no strong emperors to took the reigns and turn the tide against the barbarians or the increasing powers of the magistri militum. In addition the magistri militum could not exert absolute power in the way an emperor could and were thus restrained even in their best efforts to curb the tide of barbarian invasions.

The three events of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the civil wars after the death of Nero, and the murder of Caligula all represent facets of why the Western Roman Empire eventually fell. For all of its greatness, Roman hegemony eroded as a result of these three events. Thus it is important to note that the end of empire can be sewn before it even reaches its peak.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Could The Mongols Have Conquered Europe?

The Mongolian army was a juggernaut, Nations as far as China to the heart of the Russian steppes crumbled under the Mongolian war machine. Not even the great empires of the Middle East could stop Mongolian might. In spite of the diversity of forces Mongols armies faced, numbers, wealth, and distance could not slow the Mongolian hordes to a halt.

Mongolian success was built on mobility, communications, and adaptation. Horses were the core of the Mongolian war machine. Horses were revered in the Mongol warrior culture. Tracing back to their nomadic roots, horses were the only thing Mongolians could depend on for survival. Whether it was enabling them to hunt, pursue an enemy, flee from a battlefield, or move on to greener pastures, Mongol soldiers were one with their horses. Mongols armies did not have the fastest or strongest horses. Mongol horses allowed their riders to travel the farthest distances the fastest over extended periods of time. As a result their military structure was horse-centric. An Horse-centric military enabled the Mongolians to travel faster with greater flexibility than their enemies.

Practicality rather than formalities guided the Mongol war machine. Unlike in Europe where retreat was seen as a sign of weakness, the Mongolians used false retreats, or feints, to their utmost advantage. Such false retreats were could be performed because of the speed of lightly armored Mongol cavalrymen. The Mongols understood the advantages their horses provided them. The Europeans failed to understand the burdens of their heavy armor. Another disadvantage for Europeans was that their ideologies about war played into the hands of the Mongols. For centuries, victory in a European battle meant engaging your opponent until they retreated and culminating the victory by mowing down fleeing enemies.

The Mongols intentionally engaged in skirmishing with Europe’s slow, lumbering forces. After brief fighting the Mongol commander would call for a retreat, and the Europeans would give chase. The lightly armored Mongol horses could outrun the heavy European cavalry that was pursuing them. The trap would been set. Mongolians fled to stretch the European forces thinly, severing the cavalry from the infantry. The cavalry would be ambushed by forces lying in wait while the Mongols who had been fleeing turned around to cut down the overwhelmed European cavalry. After destroying the cavalry, the trailing infantry became isolated. The infantry would succumb to a rain of arrows and cavalry charges.

The forces Hungary, Poland, and Russian principalities were no match for the professional Mongol armies. Many soldiers in European armies were men-at-arms, ready to fight when called on. Unlike the Mongols who had been on campaign for years, Eastern European soldiers were not as experienced in warfare. The training of the Mongols instilled a discipline that enabled them to execute their commanders’ orders with optimal efficiency. Thus difficult maneuvers such as feigning retreat and ambushing could be confidently ordered by Mongol field commanders. Unprofessional European troops were often less reliable. As a result the Mongols tried to make the battle fields chaotic with such complex maneuvers as filling the sky with a volley of arrows, in such rapid succession that European accounts of the battles often reported significantly more Mongol troops in battle than were actually present.

At the time of the Mongol invasion, Europe was weak. Hungary, Poland, and Russia had not established themselves as great powers in the early 1200’s. Abutting these lesser powers was the Holy Roman Empire. It was one of the largest European land empires, dominating most of Central Europe. The Holy Roman Empire at the time of the Mongol invasion was engulfed in feud that plagued many European monarchs dating back the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The power struggle centered around who held authority over Christendom, the secular kings, or the leader of the Church, the Pope. The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s resulting war with the Pope drained the resources and vigor of Central Europe’s greatest power.

A weak Holy Roman Empire meant a weak Europe. The Holy Roman Empire was supposed to be the backstop for the Eastern European kingdoms and principalities who became the victims of the Mongol invasion. Hungary and Poland both petitioned the Holy Roman Empire for support against the Mongols. Such appeals were denied. The dominant ferocity of the Mongol hordes sent shockwaves throughout Europe. If the Eastern European kingdoms fell, the weakened Holy Roman Empire could fall, and France would be next in line for a Mongolian invasion. France had legitimate concerns about fighting the Mongolians. Along with Polish and Hungarian forces, a small French Templar contingent, one of Europe’s stronger units, had gotten slaughtered in a battle against the Mongolians.

To many European nations, no kingdom or principality seemed out of reach for the Mongolians. The Mongolians coordinated a campaign that could fight on multiple fronts in Poland and Hungary while simultaneously, venturing as far as the Dalmatian Coast. Such grand and complex operations could be effectively conducted since the Mongol courier system was an unmatched means of transporting pertinent information. Light, fast horses, and posts all over Mongol held land made the courier system so effective. With such superior coordination and communication, the Mongols proved they could thrust deep into Europe. A mere sixty miles separated the Mongols from Venice.

Shortly after the Mongols penetrated deep into Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe, the unconquered forces had to turn around. The lead of the Mongols, Ogedei Khan died. Mongol tradition stipulated that all the great Mongol chieftains must be present for the election of the new khan. Thus the generals in charge of the European campaign, Subutai, Batu, Mangku, and Kuyuk had to return to Mongolia for the election. Europe was saved, but not by any great military feat, but by a political procedure. After the next Khan was elected, the Mongolians, enriched from their Russian and European campaigns settled down in what is currently Russia, content with their success.

Could the Mongolians have conquered Europe? If so, to what extent would have a successful conquest meant? Would a successful conquest meant going all the way to the Mediterranean or Atlantic Ocean? Or to closer frontiers such as the Danube or the Rhine?

There are many factors they need to be assessed in determining how effective could a Mongol conquest be. First the Mongols must be assessed on how successful they were fighting European armies. The two major battles involving Mongol armies versus combined European forces, Mohi, and Leignitz, were decisive victories for the Mongol hordes. Tactically and strategically the European armies could not match the speed, flexibility, and coordination of Mongol forces.

Conquering and pacifying great kingdoms became standard procedure for the Mongols. On their way to Europe, the Mongols had conquered the great empires of Kwarizam, the Kievian Rus, and the strong barbarian tribes of the Cumans and Pechenegs. This was all done while campaigning against the great power of the Far East, China’s Song Dynasty. All along the way the Mongols incorporated the many Turkic peoples who lay between Mongolia and Europe, into their military.

The Mongols were able to pacify the peoples of their conquered lands through first fear, and then acceptance. When Mongols laid siege to a city, a skill learned from combating the Song Dynasty, devastation ensued. Mongols understood if they could raze a city and its population to the ground so completely, other cities would surrender without a fight. Mastery of siege warfare made the cities of Europe vulnerable to Mongolian armies. One Europe’s defensive strengths, densely packed cities, became one of its liabilities.

Central Europe’s terrain may have been what saved the Europe from complete conquest. One reason the Mongolians’ had such a massive empire was because they terrain they conquered was conducive to Mongolian horse-centric warfare. Much of the Mongol dominions were part of the Central Asian steppes. The steppes are flat grasslands that allow for optimal mobility and enough grassland for horses to feed on. Central Europe is more rugged than the steppes. Rugged terrain, rolling hills, rivers, dense forests and the Alps all limit the mobility and resources for horses. Horse-centric Barbarian tribes dating back to the fall of the Western Roman Empire such as the Huns struggled when crossing through present day Germany because of the rugged conditions and poor conditions for grazing. Much like the Mongolians they dominated the Russian steppes but became slowed in the heart of Central Europe.

Mongolians could have mitigated some of the problems fighting in Central Europe by establishing vassal states or alliances with principalities in the region. Mongol conquests brought a large portion of the silk road under Mongolian control. Venice, an emerging maritime power, depended heavily on the Silk Road’s commerce. Venice, dependant on the Mongolians for commerce, may have entered into an alliance or become a vassal state of the Mongolians. Had such an alliance happened the Mongolians would have had access to the Adriatic and a base of support in the heart of Central Europe. In addition the wealth and prominence of Venice could have added strength and legitimacy to Mongol conquests. It cannot be assumed Venice would have accepted Mongolian terms, but reasons abound as to why they may have wanted to enter into an alliance.

The Mongolian armies were tactically better than European armies. European armies had two fundamental flaws that left them particularly vulnerable to the Mongolian armies. One flaw was the lack of professional armies in weaker European states. Men at arms were ready to fight at a moments notice, but this does not mean they were prepared to fight. Poor training led to poor cohesion on the battlefields. Undisciplined men at arms were hard to control on the battlefields. This resulted in European commanders not having the ability to effectively counter the precisely executed tactics of the Mongols. The second flaw pertained to wealthier European armies. European armies of the Middle Ages preferred heavily armored forces to light forces. In uniform linear battles this had its advantages. Against the speed of Mongol attacks and retreats, European armies lacked the fluidity to effectively respond. Mongol tactics were about hitting and running, creating gaps in enemy lines by drawing out the enemy, and crushing exposed weak points with overwhelming force. Light Mongol cavalry could execute and adjust to such complex maneuvers whereas heavily armored European armies could not.

The Mongol army was far superior to anything Europe fielded at that time. Furthermore Europe was incredibly fragmented in the 13th Century, leading to an inability to direct an effective coordinated attack against the Mongolians. Mongol armies were more professional, flexible, and tactically and strategically superior to their European counterparts. Europe had the numbers to defend itself, but it lacked the coordination and the will to put aside their differences to stop the onslaught. Although some nations did band together, as in the case of Hungary and Poland, the powerhouses of Europe, such as France and the Holy Roman Empire, did not throw their lot behind the lesser powers who were succumbing to the Mongols. European armies proved again and again the Mongolian army was far too fast and well trained to be conquered on the battlefield.

Conquering Europe presented many obstacles to the Mongolians. Europe was the farthest extent of western Mongolian conquests. Although Mongols were resourceful in re-supplying themselves in conquered lands, Central Europe presented many problems. The land was not conducive for a horse centric army. Unlike the steppes of Russia, good grazing land was sparse. This explains why after the Mongols returned for electing a new Khan post-Ogedei, the Mongols pulled back from conquered Eastern European lands and remained largely in Russia. Another obstacle would have been European resistance. Europe was significantly more densely populated than the Russian steppe which meant sieges would have been required more frequently. Sieges are long and arduous. Although Mongolians could conduct effective sieges it eventually would have been a drain on their resources. Sieges could also slow the pace of the fast moving Mongolian hordes to a stand still, thus eliminating their greatest tactical advantage.

Mongolians could have conquered Europe but on a limited basis. Mongolians in an open battle could have defeated any European power it came up against. On the other hand, the rigors of campaigning in Europe would have been too hard on the overextended Mongols. The only way Europe could have been effectively conquered by the Mongols would have been by establishing alliances or vassal states with other European nations. The Mongolians could not have conquered Europe alone. Establishing alliances or vassal states would have relieved pressure from the constantly campaigning Mongol army. I think that had Ogedei’s death not ended their campaign significant chunks of Germany, Austria, and Croatia, and Italy could have come under Mongol control. It is hard envisioning the Mongols making it all the way to the Atlantic because the terrain and armies of France and the Holy Roman Empire would have slowed down the fast paced Mongol hordes to the point where further conquests may not have been worth the cost. The question to be asked is how much conquest would have satiated the Mongols? The Mongols seems to have been content with the wealth Russian and Eastern European conquests brought them. In the wake of Ogedei’s death the Mongols pulled back, saving Europe’s armies from an enemy it could not match.