Ancient History & Civilisation


The question of how much the course of history is dependent on personality and chance has always been a pertinent one. Historians have disagreed to what extent the outcome of events in shaped by broad social and economic developments as opposed to the quirks and decisions of strong individuals, and some have held it fashionable to downplay the effects on the mass of people of political and military struggles among those in authority. Dates and lists of rulers, once the staple of learning history in schools, were replaced in the 1960s and 1970s by studies of the lives of the ordinary people and the social, economic, and cultural factors that shaped their existences rather than the intricate and remote political events in their countries’ capitals. But in recent years there has been a degree of reaction to that, with more recognition that individuals are not always powerless to shape the outcome of major events. One person’s actions can alter the course of history, and a political or military mischance can touch off a catastrophic reaction that has repercussions over centuries. The geo-physical theory that a butterfly beating its wings in one continent can ultimately cause a hurricane in another one can have its counterpart in history. Whatever the importance of broad social or economic trends on the development of society, ultimately the safe existence and prosperity, and in many turbulent periods the lives, of the ordinary citizens depend on the nature and stability of the political structure of their states.

It is political and military leadership that determines the outcome of political struggles and military campaigns which decide whether a state survives and prospers or falls victim to its own feuding or its enemies’ conquest. The nature of personal leadership is as crucial as the social and economic circumstances that give a state its strength or its weakness and enable these people to fulfill or fail in their struggles. This was particularly the case in constantly competing and threatened states, where warfare and conquest were the norm before the rise of a relatively stable international system of determining relations. Again, before the rise of a complex system of bureaucracy much depended on the personal leadership (or not) of the rulers, and one wrong decision on the battlefield or the untimely death of a charismatic leader could plunge a nation or an empire into decades of crisis.

Still important over much of the world today, these factors were particularly apparent in the Ancient World with its constant political flux between a multiplicity of dynastic kingdoms, city-states, and nomadic peoples. Both internal and external factors could easily bring a fragile state to chaos, and undermine the most extensive and politically cohesive one. Despite the powerlessness of any ruler and the limitations of his ambitions in the face of a natural disaster such as drought or an epidemic, a human mistake could be just as catastrophic – particularly in the event of invasion or a potential civil war.

The career of Alexander the Great provides the most notable example of the effect of one personality on the fortunes of peoples from the Balkans to the Punjab. The uncertain outcome of the titanic battles he was engaged in also invites the natural response. What if things had gone another way in one of them and a chance arrow or sword-thrust had cut his career short? It nearly did on two particular occasions, when Cleitus saved him at the battle of the Granicus at the start of his Asian campaigns in 334 BC and when he was shot down in an Indus valley town in 326. The premature death of Alexander at the height of his triumphs has also long begged the question of what would have happened if he had continued his career and not died at 32, with the nature of his future plans from June 323 only known in uncertain detail. This led to the first serious ‘What if ?’ scenario of classical history on the subject of what might have happened if Alexander had lived longer, by Arnold Toynbee, based on a question first posed by Livy. His optimistic scenario had Alexander living to the approximate age of his grandfather Amyntas III and various of his own generals who died in their beds (i.e. dying in 287 at the age of 69) rather than his father Philip, assassinated at 46/7. Alexander would supposedly have gone on to conquer Carthage, India, and China and create a worldwide empire of provinces linked by trading and military co-ordination, ripe for conversion to the new religion of Buddhism in the third century. This is perhaps a little implausible, but the basic point is sound, that a long reign for the creator of a new order could have created a long-standing new empire in the same manner as Cyrus and Darius did in Persia in the sixth century BC.

What is true of Alexander, whose new Greco-Persian realm broke up into competing states led by his generals after the collapse of his posthumous son’s regency, is no less true of Rome. Here the possibilities of alternative scenarios are as endless as for Greece, although the Roman Republican polity started out as a more stable long-term political structure than the divided, faction-ridden Greek states. Indeed, it was designed to minimize the effect of one person’s ambitions on the state, supposedly due to a fear of a return to monarchy. The long-term international results of a few crucial events perhaps starts with the narrow margin by which Rome survived the threat of Hannibal in the 210s BC. What if Hannibal had achieved his aim of breaking up the Roman leadership of the Italian peoples? Seemingly unstoppable after the battle of Cannae, he could have returned Italy to the mass of competing peoples and states of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, restoring local independence to the once-powerful peoples of the South such as the Samnites and Marsi, or even physically have conquered Rome, expelled its people, made its Latin clients independent, and prevented it from restoring its fortunes after the Carthaginians had gone home.

Ironically, the results of the early death of Alexander had their impact on Roman history, as the alleged list of his future plans released by his generals after his death included conquering the Greeks’ Carthaginian enemies. If Alexander had turned his vast armies onto Carthage after consolidating his Eastern conquests, at a date around 320 to 315BC as surmised by Toynbee, the Punic state would probably have fallen and Rome had no rival in the Western Mediterranean in the third century BC. Given Roman leaders’ appetite for intervention in neighbouring states that seemed to pose a threat, as Philip V’s Macedon did to their Adriatic role in the 210s, Rome could thus have intervened in Greek affairs earlier and more strongly.

The permutations of the political conflicts of the declining republic saw a supposedly monolithic balanced constitution, designed to keep a longterm political order stable by preventing one man gaining undue power, collapse into vicious faction and ultimately revolution. The complexities of conquering and administering a spreading dominion around the Mediterranean, and the temptations of the wealth and mass of clients that went with that for the successful generals and politicians (the two were often the same) saw the emergence first of dominant politicians, some leaders of oligarchic factions and others demagogic ‘populares’ exploiting the troubles of the lower classes, and later of generals whose armies were more loyal to them than to the state and could be turned on the latter. In this scenario personal qualities of leadership were crucial and one lucky gamble or minor miscalculation could not only end a career but also affect the future of an empire. The conflicts that consumed and eventually destroyed the Republic in the first century BC may have been a probability, given the weaknesses of the outdated Roman constitution in coping with being a world power. The nature of Roman politico-military leadership and the problems of the social classes in the capital and Italy gave a broad outline of what sort of men would rise to power to exploit the situation, what they would do, and how Rome would alter. But the outcome of the struggles owed most to the individual qualities of the men that fought over and achieved power, both as political leaders and increasingly as generals whose success brought them wealth, popularity, a body of clients, and armies to use against their enemies. The careers of Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Antonius, Cassius, and Octavian/Augustus depended as much on military as political skills, although there could still be political leaders who operated within more traditional civilian parameters while still commanding armies at times (such as Cicero, Cato, or Brutus). Octavian showed that a shrewd Roman leader with political skills could triumph without being a good general, provided that he understood and could play the role of a military commander as well as civilian faction-leader, knew how to manipulate propaganda and win popular acclaim, employed terror and patronage with equal effect on the political class, and had effective subordinates like Agrippa to do the fighting.

The chaos of the last Republican decades argued in favour of the emergence of rule by one man as head of all the potentially disruptive armies and suppresser of political faction. But the form that the new Empire took, as a superficial restoration of the existing republican constitution, but in fact a disguised autocracy, depended on Octavian’s concept of what would secure stability and his own position. The fate of Rome would have been different if Pompey had prevailed against Caesar in 49–8 or the assassins of Caesar had prevailed in the struggles of 44–2 and restored the old constitution with idealistic determination, though an eventual renewal of faction and military challenge was inevitable. Similarly, if Antonius not Octavian had prevailed in 31 it is unlikely that he would have been any better than Caesar at making provision for long-term stability after his death, with or without a partnership with Hellenistic Egypt to rule the Eastern Mediterranean.

Once the Empire was established, the personal fates and politico-military choices of Emperors had substantial results even if the structure of the largely decentralized Empire before the reforms of Diocletian was such that chaos or misrule at the centre had limited effects on the provinces (apart from causing damage by civil war, as in AD69–70). The quirks and psychological instability of Caligula, Nero, or Commodus may have been of little immediate importance outside political circles in Rome, but the personal nature of rule meant that the accumulative effects of prolonged misgovernment, or a frequent change of regime as in the third century AD, could seriously undermine the entire Roman polity. The repeated political crises after 180 and 235 may have developed independently of the rising pressure of external enemies (the Germans and Persia) on the frontiers, but they provided enemies with a chance to attack, limited the effectiveness of the Imperial response, and undermined the Empire’s ability to ride out such challenges.

The system established for a smooth succession by Diocletian, a careful ruler who had created two senior Emperors, one for the East and one for the West, to guard each half of the huge Empire, arranged for pre-selection and training of two heirs, ‘Caesars’, to their seniors, the ‘Augusti’. Galerius succeeded Diocletian in the East, and Constantius succeeded the other ‘Augustus’, Maximian. In the West it was meant to ensure that when the senior rulers died or resigned their successors would be ready to step in, though it is arguable how much it owed to the circumstance that Diocletian had no son, forcing him to improvise for the succession. It was at least partly intended to choose the best man rather than the closest genealogical heir (the normal procedure) to succeed, as it explicitly left out Maximian’s young and inexperienced son Maxentius. Human nature being what it is, the latter then staged a revolt to regain his ‘rightful’ position, as did Constantius’ son Constantine when the latter was denied the right to succeed his father too, and both, significantly, had military support against Diocletian’s choices. The system collapsed within Diocletian’s own lifetime; and Constantine duly reunited the Empire and took the epoch-changing decision to make Christianity the State religion.

Again, after the temporary restoration of stable government under Constantine’s dynasty in 324–61 (interrupted by inter-family conflict and one external coup) the last of the family, Julian, was unexpectedly killed by an arrow while invading Persia in 363. Having endeavoured to reverse Constantine’s imposition of Christianity, his timely death was greeted enthusiastically by the Church, and some said it was no accident. Another round of unexpected transfers of power saw first the accession of the capable general Valentinian I, then his choice of his brother Valens to rule the East against advisers’ warnings to choose someone more experienced. Then came Valentinian’s death on the eve of the East’s greatest invasion by asylumseeking Goths, in flight from the Huns. If the late Emperor had been available in 378, or Valens had waited for troops to arrive from the West to reinforce him, would the Eastern army have been destroyed by the Goths at Adrianople? After that catastrophe the first ‘federate’ Germanic kingdom was set up within Roman territory, an ominous show of Roman weakness for predatory neighbours.

When the new Eastern Emperor Theodosius the Great died aged 47 in January 395, only just having reunited the Empire, the thrones of the East and West were permanently separated. Each was occupied by a young and incapable ruler, and the West’s military regent Stilicho was at odds with the Eastern government. The result saw Alaric the Goth able to revolt and play off each half of the Empire against the other. In due course the West suffered the sack of Rome in 410 (a temporary blow largely due to military paralysis when Stilicho was murdered) and province after province fell away from the control of the government, some to new Germanic kingdoms. A chain effect of disaster set in as each local loss encouraged the Empire’s ambitious challengers to further depredations, while the Empire’s ability to resist them was weakened. Even so, the crucial early deaths of four strong military leaders, Theodosius in 395, Stilicho in 408, Constantius III in 421, and Aetius in 451, greatly accelerated the collapse of the West. This collapse, as will be argued in this study, was far from inevitable.

The dynastic problems of the Julio-Claudian dynasty had military as well as political implications during the first century AD even if they did not produce such immediate major results as the conflict among Caesar’s heirs and opponents. Most notably, chances for renewing the military expansion of the Empire in Germany were missed. Despite the major psychological impact of Varus’ destruction by the Germans in AD9, other such military disasters at the hands of Rome’s neighbours had not halted its expansion. Roman armies had been slaughtered in Gaul with equal psychological effect upon Rome in 106BC, but Caesar still conquered the region. The disaster at Carrhae in 53 did not inhibit Antonius’ or Trajan’s Eastern wars. If the Empire had had ambitious and competent military leadership during the following decades a new attack on Germany was logical. This major source of hostile manpower remained outside Roman control, and ultimately was to turn into an uncontrollable military challenge to a beleaguered, over-taxed, under-manned, politically unstable society. It is too ambitious to conceive of the Empire as having any sort of grand strategy over decades or centuries, despite the thesis for such a policy put forward by Edward Luttwak – Imperial military policy tended to be in reaction to immediate problems. But it is certainly arguable that it was within the bounds of current military strategic possibilities that the Empire could have renewed a major German war at several points, and thus brought about the favourable long-term consequence of the German tribes fighting with, not against, Rome in the third and fourth centuries.

In addition, the advance of the Roman frontier from the less defendable Danube river frontier to the mountain ranges of the Carpathians occurred in Dacia under Trajan, and seems to have been underway in Bohemia to the West in the later 170s. Had the Empire persevered with this policy, which immediately depended on Marcus Aurelius not dying when he did, it would have faced less of a northern military threat in the mid-third century and afterwards when it was weakened by plague, civil war, and the new eastern military challenge from Persia. More easily defensible frontiers and less Germanic enemies would have been a bonus for the weakened Empire, and arguably made the third century crises less catastrophic. It should have placed the Empire in a far better position to meet the challenge of its first serious threat from the steppes, Attila the Hun, in the fifth century even if the endless rounds of internal civil war, dependant on political factors and dynastic bad luck in Rome, had occurred as they did in reality.

From that hypothesis comes the whole question of whether the Empire’s ‘decline and fall’ was inevitable, and to what extent it could have been avoided by a variety of political and military decisions taken centuries earlier. It is of course arguable that the fifth century saw not so much a ‘fall’ from Roman civilization to barbarian Germanic kingdoms as a political and social transformation, and this debate is very much in vogue at present. In addition, the political and socio-economic structures of the Eastern Empire survived intact through these crises and were strong enough to regain much of the West in the sixth century, the crises overwhelming the late antique world in the East not coming until the early seventh century.

But the facts of political turmoil, military defeat, ravaging of peaceful provinces, decline of urban life, collapse of a literate centralized power with a complex bureaucracy and one ruler into a multiplicity of tribally-based kingdoms, and impoverishment of material culture surely argue in favour of a major political as well as social and economic catastrophe for the Western Mediterranean world in the fifth century. Examination of the evidence for the nature of this process suggests that the ongoing crises that overwhelmed the West had a cumulative effect, as one crisis or disaster helped to bring about another. The political, military, and social turmoil of the third century brought about a decline in military and agricultural manpower at a time when the enlarged bureaucratic state and armies of the post-Diocletian Empire were putting new burdens on the citizenry, thus draining away resources from a state which was at war with itself and its neighbours far more in the fourth century than in the second. The loss of manpower and resultant socio-economic and military problems of the third century may have been due to plague, beyond human control, as much as to invasion or civil war. But without the latter the effects would have been less, and the Empire in a stronger position in the fourth century.


Map 1. The Roman Empire and Its Enemies, AD 395. (copyright: Ian Hughes)


Map 2. The Dismembered Empire at the Accession of Justinian, AD 527. (copyright Ian Hughes)

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