To beat the dragon be the dragon

In The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire Kyle Harper argues that the Plague of Cyprian, between 249 to 262 A.D., served as a massive exogenous shock to the Roman Empire that changed history. Harper observes that the structures of Roman society were reordered in the face of near collapse and exhaustion due to the onslaught of disease. The Plague of Cyprian, at least in Harper’s telling, plays a major role in the rise of Christianity and the fading away of the traditional religion (more through the inability of the old pagan institutions to persist in the face of social instability as opposed to a crisis of faith).

But the change was more than cultural. It is well known that Augustus, the first of what we call Roman Emperors, styled himself Princeps, and maintained the external fiction that he restored the republic. The term Imperator was not applied regularly to Roman Emperors until the reign of Vespasian, in the last quarter of the 1st century A.D., nearly a century after Augustus came to power. But even then the rulers of the Roman world maintained a conceit and fiction that they were scions of the old republican world, the first among the aristocrats. This was certainly true of Marcus Aurelius, who famously styled himself something of a philosopher-king as well.

After the disastrous reign of Marcus Aurelius’ son, Commodus, the dynasty founded by Septimius Severus moved in a more nakedly autocratic direction. Severus notably presented laws to the Senate as expressions of his fiat will. But Severus was from the old aristocracy of Rome. He underwent the cursus honorum under the Antonines.

The true shift came during the late 3rd-century and the rise of the Tetrarchs. These military rulers, who came out of the barracks of the Illyrian legions, ushered in the Dominate. This is the despotic later phase of the Roman Empire and derives from the fact that Diocletian added dominus, lord or master, to one of his titles. Diocletian and his successors did not see the need for the pretense that their world was that of the Republic. It was fundamentally different. They accrued to themselves the powers and styles of despotic eastern rulers.

Why? The shock of the Plague of Cyprian induced instability in the Roman world, which a powerful ruler stabilized. But according to Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire the Romans were reacting to the emergence of the Sassanians, who had reconfigured Persia to be a more formidable rival to Rome.* The irony here is that just the Persians became the great enemy of Rome, the Emperors of Rome began to resemble their eastern rivals in their external form and internal self-identity.

* Adrian Goldsworthy disagrees that Sassanian Persia was so formidable, ascribing the military parity more to Roman decay than the rise of Iran.


8 thoughts on “To beat the dragon be the dragon

  1. razib, lemoine interview yields only his side of the audio. your lengthy interlocutions are entirely absent-silent.

  2. Heard you not on both: media player on laptop, and android player (with dropbox symbol). On android, the accompanying “audio-levels” sawtooth bar chart shows lengthy gaps too, so visual confirmation of omission of your audio.

    Too bad that, contra Lemoine’s case for optimism, looks like TPO may be set to blitheringly throw open the gates to WCS, with whole integers % directly deaded resultant, and concomitant knock-ons–to, oh, care to guess?, say, ~5m to ~20m U.S. deceased?–but hey, who’s testing/counting? Which will kill off Fox’s demographic, plus half the supreme court, but, !tantrum! !tantrum! !hormonal release! bang shoe, bury millions!

    Whilst yup, the properly hazmat-suited Han saunter up and take the currency keys, thank you very much…

  3. The Roman state during the 4th and 5th century just finished that long(late Roman Republic perhaps earlier) process of hellenizing itself. The result was the Byzantine empire or Eastern Roman Empire. But among the abandoned Latin speaking populations, a new state had to be created without Hellenism’s influence. Christianity, initially a Jewish then a Greek religion, had to be latinized in order to be culturally and linguistically acceptable among those populations.

    Honestly I still feel like this process of creating a new Western Roman state has not come to a conclusion. The Germanics should have been completely latinized, this would have avoided the Protestant Reformation and all its theological and ideological derivatives. Still, Roman Catholicism, may not be the theology and religion that the Latin West needs. I’ve been thinking that some sort of Hindu-like theological system will be created or maybe some type of Latin “Tengrism”(except Deus will replace Tengri), perhaps a mixture of both. The Latin West needs a man that is a combination of Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan and something else to purge it of it’s rebellious mercantile classes.

  4. The Roman state during the 4th and 5th century just finished that long(late Roman Republic perhaps earlier) process of hellenizing itself.

    anastasius in 491 was the first culturally greek roman emperor. so you are overemphasizing how early hellenization occurred. justinian the great grew up in the latin-speaking balkan hinterlands, and latin was still a prominent language in constantinople during his time. usually people attribute the total shift to greek as having occurred during the reign of heraclius in the early 7th-century.

    Christianity, initially a Jewish then a Greek religion, had to be latinized in order to be culturally and linguistically acceptable among those populations.

    the population as such as not very relevant. what mattered were the ruling classes and the cities. the greek element in the religion is clear in the details of the theology, which are still basically hellenic in origin. but the latin west didn’t put as much emphasis on theological niceties in any case.

  5. Vis-a-vis the dragon we currently face.

    I’m not an expert on politics or international relations, and I don’t know how this will ultimately play out. What I can offer is a view from the trenches. I’m a 2nd-year IM resident at a community hospital where CoVid is starting to trickle in.

    I have not heard anyone say anything positive about America’s response to the virus. My colleagues are generally annoyed with what they see as America’s sclerotic and indolent response to the virus, evidenced by delayed rollouts of serological testing and lockdowns. And multiple colleagues have complained that they are *strictly rationing* masks for *physicians.*

    I have in contrast heard positive comments about China. People positively cite the hospital built in 10 days (If the Gongchandang is reading this, that was some nifty PR), the rapid rollout of masks and quarantines, and overall how fast they got the epidemic under control.

    I have read people (eg Shadi Hamid in a March 23 Twitter thread) respond to this by making a point of China’s authoritarianism, information suppression, cover-ups, desaparecidos, etc. This is entirely true and entirely irrelevant. China doesn’t promise freedom or honesty or justice. It promised, and delivered, a rapid and competent state response. And thus, people aren’t talking about the stuff that Hamid is talking about.

    America is a country of great wealth and power. But if it punches at the level of a 3rd world country in its response to the epidemic (and it has), then let’s not kid ourselves, China looks a lot better. For many of us, our confidence in this nation has been irrevocably shaken. I for one wouldn’t mind us becoming a little more like China…we certainly have the state capacity and the technocrats to do it if we were inclined.


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