Rome and Roads from the West

Episode 17: Rome and Roads from the West

Foundations of Eastern Civilization

Dr Craig Benjamin (2013)

Film Review

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.

***See The Parthian Empire: Rome’s Greatest Rival

Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5808608/5808642

The Parthian Empire: Rome’s Greatest Rival

Parthian Empire, Han dynasty ...

Episode 5 The Parthians

Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)

Dr Kenneth Harl

Film Review

This lecture concerns the Parthians (Iranian-speaking offshoot of the Scythians*, Sacae (Iranian speakers from the northern steppes) and Kushans (Tocharian* speakers). All three groups began migrating into the western and central steppes after 300 BC owing to pressure the Shiongnu*** were experiencing from the Han dynasty.

The Parthian Empire, extending from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan, ruled the heartland of the former Persian empire from 247-129 BC. Most of their territory consisted of former Persian kingdoms the Parthians wrested from successors of Alexander the Great. This included the former Greek colony of Bactrim, which controlled all the important caravan cities on the trade route (via the Tarim Basin) to China.

Fighting (and winning) their battles as mounted archers, the Parthians eventually took control of Mesopotamia and Babylon. Running their empire via a sophisticated democracy, they issued a large number of silver coins, at a time China was still using copper and bronze coinage. Although the Parthians spoke Iranian, the coins are printed in Greek and carry portraits of Parthian kings, Greek goddesses and pre-Zororastrian gods.

In 100 AD, Eurasia heralded four great empires, (from west to east) the Roman, Parthian, Kushan and Han empires. Between 140-130 BC, the Kushan (along with the Sacae and the Tocharians) migrated from the northern steppes to Central Asia and India.

Roman and Parthian armies engaged in periodic skirmishes for control of Mesopotamia with neither side claiming decisive victory. In 53 BC the Roman generals Brutus and Crassus experienced crushing defeat at the hands of the Parthians. This would establish the Euphrates as the Parthian western border. After assuming power, the emperor Augustus (27BC -14 AD) negotiated a settlement allowing the Parthian elite to intermarry with the emperor’s extended family.

By 227 AD, a renewal of Roman attacks had weaken the Parthians sufficiently they were overthrown by Persia (one of their vassal states).


*See How Scythin Nomads Influenced Early Greek and Persian Civilization

**Tocharian is an extinct language spoken by inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, currently part of northern China.

***See How Steppes Nomads Influenced Early Chinese Civilization

Film can be view free with a library card on Kanopy.

https://www.kanopy.com/en/pukeariki/video/5694984/5694996

How Senate Corruption Caused the Demise of the Roman Republic

Hannibal of Carthage: Military Commander and Greatest ...

Hannibal leading his elephants over the Alps during his invasion of Northern Italy

Episode 21: Building the Roman Republic

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

According to Benjamin, the Roman republic was formed when residents of city-state Rome overthrew the last Roman king (535 BC) and created an assembly of nobles (called the senate), which elected two consuls to oversee the government.

In 493 BC, there was another major revolt, in which the plebians¬† (commoners) refused to work or serve in the military. The Senate ended the general strike by allowing the plebs to elect tribunes with the power to veto the consuls’ decisions. However the vast majority of agricultural land continued to be owned by the nobility, who treated the peasants who farmed it as virtual serfs.

From 309 BC, when marauding Gauls sacked the city, Rome became increasingly militarized. During the Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC), Greek colonies in southern Italy hired Pyrrhus, the mercenary king of Epirus, to protect them against Roman aggression. Pyrrhus technically won all the battles he launched against Rome. However his forces were too weakened to defend themselves against further Roman assaults. By 270 BC, Rome had brought all the Greek city-states of southern Italy under Roman control.

The three Punic Wars (264-164 BC), directed against the Phoenicians who controlled Carthage, were the first military engagements involving hundreds of thousands of troops in multiple arenas throughout the Mediterranean. They were also the first wars in history to result in large numbers of civilian deaths.

In 203 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal occupied all of northern Italy for eight months and was preparing to march on when the Roman general Scipio attacked Carthage. In doing so, he forced Hannibal to withdraw from Italy and return to North Africa. As the Romans perfect the capacity to sustain war on multiple fronts, they eventually took control of the former Carthaginian empire, virtually extinguishing Carthaginian culture by 146 BC.

In 197 BC, the Romans attacked Macedonia to punish them for allying with Carthage, and in 146 BC, they put down an uprising in Corinth and annexed the entire Greek peninsula.

In 133 BC, the king of Pergamon (in modern day Turkey), bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. This meant the republic of Rome now had colonies in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Following the conquest of Greece, the Roman elite learned the Greek language and became avid consumers of Greek literature, philosophy and art. Meanwhile the city of Rome underwent a major social crisis as senators gobbled up more and more agricultural land, and troops released from the military returned from war to form an unemployed proletariat.*

Meanwhile extreme corruption prevented the Senate from enacting necessary reforms to prevent the Republic from collapsing. In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus attempted to enact a law to limit the size of senatorial farms, and the senate had him murdered along with 300 of his followers. In 123-122 BC his brother Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune and established the “dole,” a grain subsidy for unemployed Romans. He also tried to establish military colonies for veterans in Europe and Africa. He was also killed,¬† along with 3,000 followers in violent rioting.

In 107 BC, the peoples assembly elected the tough general Gaius Marius as tribune. The latter established the destabilizing precedent of recruiting his own army among peasant followers. The creation by Gaius Marius and Sculla of personal armies to put down an uprising in Asia Minor would lead to Rome’s first civil war.

In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, elected consul in 64 BC, triggered the second civil war by refusing to disband the army he had led in Gaul. This caused his co-consul and most of the senate to flee to Greece.

After the senate appointed Caesar “dictator,” he declared the republic dead and passed laws to reduce debt, establish colonies for returned veterans. He also declared that one third laborers on senators’ estates had to be freemen. These reforms effectively reduced the number of Romans receiving the “dole” from 320,000 to 100,000 (out of a total population of 500,000).

The alleged reason for Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC was to restore “liberty” to Rome. His 18-year-old adopted son Octavian formed an alliance with Marc Antony and the Senate to pursue and kill the assassins. Mark Antony ruled Rome until he fell in love with Cleopatra. This led Octavian to declared war on Egypt and proclaim Antony a traitor.**

Granted the titles Augustus and imperator (emperor) by the senate, Augustus went on to reduce corruption, professionalized the army and establish 40 overseas colonies for veterans.


*From the Latin word “proles” (offspring).

**Both Antony and Cleopatra subsequently committed suicide

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/building-roman-republic