July 27, 2015

1. Miscellaneous

A. I discovered a writer named Abraham Verghese. Verghese was raised in Ethiopia by Indian parents. After studying medicine in Ethiopia and India, Verghese worked at hospitals in the U.S., and wrote two books about his experiences. He also studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His third book, Cutting For Stone, is a novel set in Ethiopia and the U.S. All three of Verghese’s books were popular, especially Cutting For Stone. According to my neighbor, “[Verghese] really is exceptional. Cutting for Stone is a gripping book. Everyone who I gave it to or recommended it to couldn’t put it down. An unusual story with an ending you don’t expect.” Verghese is a distinguished doctor as well as an acclaimed writer.

B. Nathaniel Philbrick is a popular American historian; he seems to have found a “happy medium” between scholarly and readable. In his youth, Philbrick was a star sailor, and two of his books deal with the age of sail:

  • In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (this book has been made into a movie, which will be released in December)
  • Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
Philbrick lives on Nantucket, and he wrote a history of Nantucket. His most recent book is Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, and his next two books will be about the battles of Saratoga and Yorktown. Philbrick’s father was an English professor, and several of his relatives are authors.

C. I saw the movie Argo (2012), which was popular with the public and acclaimed by critics. It’s about the escape (“exfiltration”) of six American diplomats from Iran around 1980. The diplomats pretended to be a Canadian film crew, working on a film called Argo. It’s a good movie, and teaches one something about history, but it has lots of artificial suspense — every step in the journey is a hair’s-breadth escape.

D. I saw an old movie, an old classic, 12 Angry Men (1957). It’s about a jury, and stars Henry Fonda. I recommend it. It reminded me of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, which was published in 1943, and made into a movie in 1949. Both 12 Angry Men and The Fountainhead feature an architect who dares to stand alone.

E. One of the many negative consequences of the Iraq War is that it has made it easier for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Democrats like Obama, appalled by the waste of blood and treasure in the Iraq War, believe that force can’t be used against Iran, force isn’t an option, and most Americans agree. When force isn’t an option, Iran has more leverage in negotiations. To put it another way, if force isn’t an option, Iran has little incentive to abandon its quest for nuclear weapons.

F. Twenty years ago, critics of Saddam’s regime in Iraq, Assad’s regime in Syria, and Qaddafi’s regime in Libya could only dream that these regimes would be overthrown (or greatly weakened). Who could have imagined that, when these dreams were finally realized, things would get even worse?

2. Spalding Gray

I discovered Spalding Gray, who’s known for his monologues. Gray is a remarkable talent, an original talent, a unique talent. One might describe him as a WASPy Woody Allen. Those of us who live in the Providence area have a special interest in Gray since he’s from this area (he grew up on Rumstick Road, in Barrington, Rhode Island), and often talks about this area.

I saw one of Gray’s best-known works, the movie Swimming To Cambodia; I liked it enough to want to see more of his works. I also liked a documentary about Gray called And Everything is Going Fine. Click here for a 5-minute sample of Gray’s work. Gray was part of The Wooster Group, an experimental-theater group in southern Manhattan. Click here for a zany 1-minute video from The Wooster Group’s website.

Gray died in 2004; apparently he killed himself by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry in January. He had sustained serious injuries in a 2001 car accident, and never completely recovered. One might compare Gray to Hemingway, who also committed suicide after sustaining severe injuries. Before Gray’s accident, he apparently thought about accidents and about suicide; there seems to be some sort of fate involved with his “accident.”

3. Truman

I saw some documentaries from a PBS series called “American Experience: The Presidents.” It’s an excellent series; the documentaries are long but interesting. I’ve seen most of them already, but even on a second viewing, they’re interesting.

The Truman documentary says that Truman, after growing up in Missouri, couldn’t attend college because his father’s investments had failed, and the family was poor. For several years, he worked on his father’s farm, but the farm was unprofitable. In World War I, he gained valuable experience and self-confidence, serving as a captain. He earned the respect of his men by his courage under fire and his leadership ability. When the U.S. entered World War I, Truman was already 33 — older than most of the soldiers — so he naturally assumed a leadership role.

After the war, he opened a clothing store in Kansas City with one of his army friends, but the store went bankrupt in the recession of 1921. Another army friend was the nephew of Democratic party boss Tom Pendergast, and this connection gave Truman his start in politics. As a County Commissioner, Truman was in charge of 700 workers and a large budget. He was torn between his moral sense and the corruption of the Pendergast machine; his inner turmoil resulted in insomnia, headaches, etc. He retreated to a hotel room, and poured out his conflicts on paper.

When he won a Senate seat, Washington insiders dismissed him as “the Senator from Pendergast.” But World War II gave him an opportunity: he chaired a committee on the war effort, visiting factories and military bases, battling waste and corruption, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. He became well-known and respected. In 1944, he was chosen as FDR’s Vice President because he was a good compromise — neither too liberal nor too conservative.

After just 82 days as Vice President, Truman became President, succeeding the deceased FDR. As World War II drew to a close, all Truman’s advisers favored dropping the atom bomb on Japan. Perhaps the U.S. could have avoided dropping the bomb by negotiating an end to the war, instead of demanding unconditional surrender. The Japanese might have been willing to negotiate if the U.S. hadn’t insisted that the emperor be removed. After the war, Eisenhower questioned whether it was necessary to drop the atom bomb (“It wasn’t necessary to hit [the Japanese] with that awful thing”).1A

4. Ancient Rome: Augustus

A. The Danube Region

Discussing foreign affairs, Cary and Scullard say that several factors prompted Augustus to new conquests:

  • the empire’s defenses could be strengthened if its borders could be extended to a natural barrier, such as a river
  • conquest could open up new trade routes, such as a trade route to India or the horn of Africa
  • Roman public opinion sometimes favored a foray into foreign fields, such as Parthia or Britain
  • he wanted to keep his troops occupied, and provide command opportunities to his young relatives, such as his step-sons Tiberius and Drusus

On the other hand, there were also reasons to avoid war:

  • a successful and ambitious commander could turn his forces against the government, as often happened under the Republic
  • there were few juicy opportunities for conquest; the “low-hanging fruit” had already been picked, so the costs of conquest were generally greater than the benefits; “beyond the existing boundaries of the Empire there were hardly any states left with accumulated stocks of gold and silver or wide tracts of good soil to repay the costs of conquest”

Torn by these conflicting considerations, Augustus pursued an “opportunistic” foreign policy. Near the end of his life, however, he decided to stay within current boundaries, and forswear further conquests; he urged his successors to do the same.

For Augustus, the chief theater of conquest was central and eastern Europe, the lands south of the Danube — Austria, Hungary, Serbia, etc. To prevent the natives of these lands from launching raids south into Roman territory, Augustus extended the Roman border north to the Danube. Thus, he pushed Rome’s enemies further from Italy, and he used the Danube as a natural barrier. The newly-conquered lands weren’t as wealthy as Gaul, but they were good for recruiting soldiers.

In making the Roman boundary coterminous with the Danube Augustus made a greater addition to Roman territory than any Roman conqueror before or after him, and he established a new frontier line whose vital importance was abundantly proved in later Roman history.1

The conquest of these lands began in 15 BC, with a combined operation by Tiberius and Drusus. The Raeti, who inhabited the central and eastern Alps, were conquered, and a new province, called Raetia, was created.

Map of Roman provinces, showing Raetia.
In light green are lands conquered between 19 BC and 9 BC.
In pale green are lands such as Pannonia that were conquered a few years later.
In mauve are lands such as Noricum that were turned into client states.
Noricum later became a Roman province.

In 35 BC, the Roman border had reached the Sava River. In 16 BC, “Noricum was easily overrun,” and the border was extended from the Sava to the Danube.

Pannonia was a different matter. Tiberius fought for four years to conquer Pannonia (12 BC to 9 BC), and even after it was conquered, there was a rebellion in 6 AD. The rebellion began with a massacre of Roman civilians in Pannonia. Then a combined Pannonian-Dalmatian force struck at Italy, bringing back memories of the invasion of Italy by Hannibal (around 220 BC), and the invasion of Italy by the Cimbri and Teutones (around 100 BC).

But Tiberius was able to check the invaders, then take the offensive (Tiberius had no help from his brother Drusus, who had died in 9 BC). Both the Pannonians and the Dalmatians surrendered around 9 AD. In this campaign, Drusus’ son Germanicus won his “first laurels.” Germanicus later became very popular and successful, the ideal Roman. Suetonius wrote, “It is the general opinion that Germanicus possessed all the highest qualities of body and mind, to a degree never equalled by anyone.” Tacitus wrote, “If [Germanicus] had become emperor... he would have surpassed Alexander in military success as easily as he did in mercy, moderation, and all the other worthwhile qualities.”

Around 6 AD, Augustus created the province of Moesia, east of Pannonia. The conquest of Moesia had begun in 29 BC, after the Battle of Actium.

Cary and Scullard praise Augustus for “extending the Empire to certain well-considered limits, and no further.”2

One of the biggest Roman camps on the middle Danube was Carnuntum, which is now an extensive archaeological park in eastern Austria. Carnuntum eventually became the capital of Upper Pannonia, and had a population of 50,000. Carnuntum was on a trade route called the Amber Road, which brought amber from the Baltic Sea to Italy. Amber was highly valued in ancient times; Schliemann found Baltic amber at Mycenae, and Baltic amber was also in King Tut’s tomb. Amber is fossilized resin, often washed ashore by winter storms. The German word for amber is Bernstein (burning stone). The Greek word for amber is electrum, and it’s the origin of the word “electricity” (since amber can carry static electricity).

B. Western Europe

Turning to Western Europe, Cary and Scullard say that Augustus’ forces spent seven long years pacifying Spain, where some northern tribes still resisted Roman rule.

In Spain, as elsewhere in Europe, modern cities take their names from Roman settlements; the city of Leon, for example, takes its name from a Roman camp, Castra Legionum, and the city of Saragossa takes its name from CaesarAugusta. The city of Orléans, France, takes its name from Aurelian, Roman emperor around 275 AD; the city of Cologne, Germany, takes its name from the Latin word Colonia; and the city of Aosta, Italy, takes its name from Augusta. Caesarea is an Israeli town with a Roman origin. The word castrum (camp) has found its way into many English place-names, sometimes as “cester” (Worcester, Leicester, etc.), sometimes as “chester” (Winchester, Dorchester, etc.).

Augustus didn’t attempt to conquer Britain, which Caesar had eventually decided to leave alone. Augustus did, however, attempt to conquer Western Germany, and extend Roman control from the Rhine to the Elbe. Beginning in 12 BC, Augustus’ step-son Drusus overran Western Germany, eventually reaching the Elbe. When Drusus died in 9 BC, his older brother Tiberius took command. In 6 AD, Tiberius attempted to conquer the Marcomanni, the last unconquered German tribe on the Roman side of the Elbe; the chief of the Marcomanni was Maroboduus. Tiberius had to abandon the campaign, however, because a revolt in Pannonia demanded his attention.

Then Augustus sent Varus to Germany as governor. Varus angered the natives by his tax policy (among other things), and in 9 AD, there was a revolt. The revolt was led by Arminius, who had learned the art of war while serving in the Roman forces. At the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, Arminius annihilated a Roman force of 20,000. This battle was sometimes called the clades Variana, the Varian disaster. After this disaster, the Romans were content with the Rhine as their border, though they launched raids beyond the Rhine. The raids, led by Tiberius and Germanicus, were so successful that it seems likely the Romans could have gained control of Western Germany, but Augustus didn’t want another clades Variana.

C. Africa and the Near East

The Arabs controlled the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, at the bottom of the Red Sea, and prevented Alexandrian traders from reaching India and the Horn of Africa. In 26 BC, Augustus tried to open these trade routes. He sent an army to invade what is now Yemen, which was inhabited by a people called the Sabaeans. (The Romans called Yemen and Oman “Arabia Felix,” or Happy Arabia, since it was more fertile than “Arabia Deserta.”)

Starting from a Red Sea port, the Roman army marched through the desert toward Yemen for six months, with sickness thinning their ranks. Finally they besieged the city of Mariba, but ran out of water, and had to abandon the siege. Nonetheless, they had frightened the Sabaeans, who agreed to open the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb.

In 26 BC and 20 BC, Augustus received embassies from India, another indication of his desire for trade with India.

In the east, Augustus was faced with the problems of Armenia and Parthia. In 34 BC, Antony had seized Armenia, deposed its king, Artavasdes, and made him a prisoner. In 33 BC, the son of Artavasdes, Artaxes, avenged his father by killing all Romans in Armenia. Augustus didn’t seek revenge, and didn’t launch an invasion; he knew that the eastern campaigns of Crassus and Antony had ended in disaster.

In 20 BC, however, Augustus sent Tiberius with an army to depose Artaxes, and replace him with his brother, Tigranes. Tigranes had lived in Rome, and agreed to rule as a Roman vassal. The appearance of Tiberius and his army was enough to carry the day; Artaxes was assassinated, and Tigranes ascended the Armenian throne. Tiberius was just as successful dealing with Parthia: when he threatened to invade Parthia, the Parthians turned over their Roman prisoners, and their Roman standards.

Augustus issued this coin, showing a kneeling Parthian
returning one of the standards captured from the Romans.
The inscription reads CAESAR AUGUSTUS SIGN RECE
“SIGN RECE” means signis receptis, standards received

Like other Roman rulers, Augustus used coins for propaganda purposes.

D. The Army

A Roman legion had about 5,000 soldiers. At the time of the Battle of Actium (31 BC), there were about 60 legions, or 300,000 troops, and auxiliary troops made the total number of troops much greater than 300,000 (auxiliary troops were often non-citizens, and they often served as light infantry or as cavalry). Our authors say that an army this large was very costly and had a “ruinous” effect, so Augustus reduced the size of the army by about 50% — reduced it to about 30 legions. But since he made the auxiliaries part of the army, Augustus’ army had about 300,000 men, about half of whom were legionaries, and half were auxiliaries. Our authors say that this number was barely enough to defend a border that stretched 4,000 miles, and it wasn’t enough for “major operations” on more than one front at a time. Each legion had a number, a nickname, and a symbol; “like British regiments, they formed their own traditions and developed a strong esprit de corps.”3 They had an “almost religious reverence” for the legion’s standards.

When necessary, the government drafted soldiers by compulsion — citizens into the legions, non-citizens into the auxiliaries. Most of the soldiers, however, were volunteers, perhaps drawn by the promise of food, housing, pay, pension, adventure, glory, etc. Most of the officers had attended the “cadet schools” (collegia iuvenum) that existed in most Italian towns. Augustus continued the republican tradition of choosing high-ranking officers who had been consuls, praetors, etc., though they might lack military experience. Commanders were often from Augustus’ own family (Tiberius, Drusus, etc.).

Legionaries generally served for 20 years, auxiliaries for 25 years. Before Augustus, discharged soldiers were given land, but now they received cash. When a legionary was discharged, he received 13 years pay, or 3,000 denarii; when an auxiliary was discharged, he was often given the Roman franchise, and he may have received cash, too.

The days of big naval battles were over: “Actium was the last naval battle in Roman history.” Nonetheless, Augustus established the first regular Roman navy, in order to prevent piracy, etc.

E. The Provinces

In the time of Augustus, the total population of the Empire was about 80,000,000, of which about three-quarters lived in the provinces. One of the provinces, Judaea, was ruled by Herod, who possessed Augustus’ “entire confidence.” Herod’s loyalty to Rome was total, and he was able to control his subjects, though not earn their good will. When Herod died in 4 BC, Augustus allowed his kingdom to be divided among his three sons. In 6 AD, Augustus deposed one of the sons, Archelaus, at the request of the Jews themselves. Archelaus’ kingdom, Judaea and Samaria, was turned into an imperial province, which was governed by a prefect (later the prefect was called a “procurator”). This prefect resided at Caesarea, which was thought to be less offensive to the Jews than residing at Jerusalem.

Augustus spent many years touring the provinces; our authors speak of “prolonged tours of inspection.”4 He also sent Agrippa on lengthy tours of the eastern provinces. Augustus’ efforts bore fruit: there was an “unmistakable advance in material prosperity” in the provinces. People in the provinces paid two taxes: a poll tax (tributum capitis), and a tax on one’s land (tributum soli).

Throughout the provinces, altars were erected to Roma et Augustus. In each city, a council was created to choose a “high priest of Roma et Augustus,” and to organize a festival in honor of Roma et Augustus. Thus, the power of religion was harnessed to promote loyalty to Rome.

F. The Treasury

Augustus organized Roman finances, so the government wouldn’t depend on foreign conquest or domestic plundering. Unlike Caesar, Augustus had an aptitude for financial matters, for “balancing the books”; Augustus was a product of the bourgeoisie, and he was a natural “bean counter.” His private funds (patrimonium) were separate from the Roman treasury (aerarium). Sometimes he donated money from his patrimonium to the state aerarium; his patrimonium was substantial, and included the accumulated gold and silver of the Ptolemies, which he acquired when he defeated Cleopatra. His patrimonium also included the income from vast estates, which he had acquired by war or inheritance. His patrimonium is sometimes referred to as his fiscus (purse). His balance-sheet was called rationes, his accountant a rationibus.

Augustus wanted soldiers to receive their pensions from the state, rather than from their commander. Previously, soldiers were more loyal to their commander than to the state, and they didn’t hesitate to take up arms against the state. To pay soldier pensions, Augustus created a new fund, aerarium militare, and supplied it from two new taxes: a sales tax of one percent (centesima), and an inheritance tax of five percent (vicesima).

G. The Succession

We noted earlier that Caesar was known for speed of decision and action, which his contemporaries called Caesariana celeritas. Augustus was known for moving slowly, which we might call Augustiana tarditas. He was especially indecisive when it came to choosing a successor. In a system where one person possesses the lion’s share of power, the succession is a question of the utmost importance.

In 23 BC, when Augustus was gravely ill and gave his signet ring to Agrippa, it seemed that Agrippa was Augustus’ choice to be the next emperor. Later the same year, however, Augustus married his daughter Julia to his nephew Marcellus, and it seemed that Marcellus was the heir apparent. Then Marcellus died, and Agrippa was married to Julia. Agrippa was given the hallmarks of imperial power, tribunicia potestas and imperium proconsulare maius, becoming “virtually the co-regent of Augustus.”5 Agrippa’s eldest sons by Julia were adopted by Augustus, becoming Gaius and Lucius Caesar. So it seemed that the succession had been arranged for this generation and the next.

In 12 BC, however, Agrippa died, with Gaius and Lucius still mere boys. Augustus began to favor his step-sons, Tiberius and Drusus, as successors; they had proven to be top-notch generals. In 11 BC, Augustus married Tiberius to Julia, and married Drusus to his sister’s daughter Antonia (Antonia was the daughter of Octavia and Antony). When Drusus died in 9 BC, Tiberius became heir apparent.

Medallion of the emperor Antoninus Pius (the Romans minted medallions as well as coins). The inscription reads ANTONINVSAVGPIVS PPTRPXIXCOSIIII (ANTONINVS AVG[ustus] PIVS P[ater] P[atriae] TR[ibunicia] P[otestas] XIX CO[n]S[ul] IIII). Emperors were routinely described as AVG (Augustus) and PIVS (pious). They were routinely declared Pater Patriae (father of the country). This medallion says that Antoninus had been given tribunicia potestas 19 times (XIX), and had served as consul four times (IIII).

In 6 BC, Tiberius received tribunicia potestas, and it seemed that he had definitely been chosen as the next emperor. Later that year, however, Augustus began paying attention to Gaius and Lucius, his adolescent grandsons. Tiberius apparently felt overshadowed, and retired to Rhodes, remaining there for seven years. Finally Tiberius was invited back to Rome, but barred from politics.

But once again death disrupted Augustus’ plans: Lucius died in 2 AD, Gaius in 4 AD. To add to Augustus’ woes, the two Julias (his daughter and granddaughter), led scandalous lives; Augustus banished them to remote islands, and he also banished his troublesome grandson, Agrippa Postumus. Tiberius, the only candidate still alive, was adopted by Augustus, and his tribunicia potestas was restored. Like the other candidates, Tiberius had received from Augustus a “thorough training in the art of government.” When Augustus died in 14 AD, the transition from Emperor One to Emperor Two went smoothly.

Summing up the career of Augustus, our authors describe him as “an unimpressive person,” with little “personal charm,” and no sense of religious mission. However, he possessed two important qualities:

  1. he never became big-headed, he knew his limitations, “he was content to take one step at a time, and then to pause until he could see his way more clearly”6
  2. “Once he had decided that a given task was in his power, he pursued it with steadfast determination. He refused to be discouraged by his mistakes, but tried one key after another until he had fitted the lock.”

If Caesar transcended the Roman character, Augustus epitomized it, with his pragmatism and persistence. He had no ideology, such as we find in the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. The reign of Augustus is the turning-point of Roman history, the transition from Republic to Empire. Augustus developed the new system, the imperial system, and his work endured for centuries. “No other Roman determined the future course of Roman history to a like degree.”7 The people not only appreciated his work, and liked him, they worshipped him, and after his death, the Senate declared him a god.

© L. James Hammond 2015
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1A. For the argument in favor of dropping the bomb, see Daniel Gelernter’s article in the Weekly Standard. back
1. Ch. 31, #5 back
2. Ch. 31, #5 back
3. Ch. 31, #6 back
4. Ch. 31, #7 back
5. Ch. 31, #9 back
6. Ch. 31, #11 back
7. Ch. 31, #11 back