Episode 17: Rome and Roads from the West
Foundations of Eastern Civilization
Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)
I found this lecture valuable due to surprising insights on Roman history I’ve never encountered before.
Benjamin traces the collapse of republican rule in Rome to the economic collapse it experienced following its 16- year battle with the Carthaginian general Hannibal. The Carthaginian general destroyed many farms during his 16-year rampage through the Italian peninsula. To make matters worse, many farmers were recruited as troops and had nowhere to return to following Hannibal’s defeat in 203 BC. Newly unemployed, they flocked to Rome’s tenements while Roman patricians bought up their vacant land. Instead of growing grain to feed Rome’s poor, they employed slaves to grow olive trees for oil and grapes for wine.
Here Benjamin stresses that so-called Roman democracy was actually a senate oligarchy. The rise of various populist reformers, including Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus and Julius Caesar, led to 100 years of civil wars.
Before the senate appointed the latter “Dictator”* for Public Affairs” in 49 BC, 65% of the Roman population was on the dole and dependent on government grain handouts to keep from starving. At the time of his assassination in 44 BC, Caesar had reduced the percentage requiring government assistance to 20% (see How Senate Corruption Caused the Demise of the Roman Republic/
After Caesar’s adopted son Octavian hunted down and killed Caesar’ assassins, he took power in 27 BC and declared himself emperor.** In gratitude for his success in ending the civil war, the Roman senate also gave himself the title “Augustus.”
Building new roads, reducing corruption and establishing an permanent professional standing army to expand the empire, August created a vibrant, growing economy that gave merchants confidence to invest in long distance (ie Silk Road) trade.
The Romans first exposure to silk occurred in 53 BC during the Battle of Carrhae, when their Parthian*** opponents unfurled a massive silk banner, causing Roman troops to flee in terror.
The northern route the Silk Road took from Rome left from their Mediterranean colony Antioch, traversed the Syrian desert to Palmyra, from there crossing the Zagros Mountains to Ctesiphon the capitol of the Parthian Empire. From there it crossed the Ferghanna Valley in Kushan to Mongolia and eventually the Han capitol Changan.
The southern routes either crossed entered the Central Steppes via Bactria or went due south from Yakhan to the Indus Valley.
According to Pliny the Elder, the silk trade cost the Romans roughly $6 million a year in current dollars. Some historians blame the collapse of Rome on the millions of dollars Rome spent on Chinese imports, which included glass, cotton (from India), copper, iron, precious stones and peppers.
During the early Roman empire, maritime trade routes also developed as Roman sailors (departing from Egypt, a Roman colony) began using seasonal winds to sail to Asia. This was a marked departure from past ocean journeys East, which had hugged the coastline and taken much longer. Rome eventually established ports all along the Arabian peninsula and the west coast of India.
*In Roman times, a “dictator” was an official the senate granted temporary power during a public crisis. See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dictator
**The Latin word “imperator” means victorious general.
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