Planet Earth

What has Rome to do with Nairobi?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJun 25, 2010 1:00 PM


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There are very few books which would attempt to connect the experiences of the 1st century British who lived through Roman conquest with the French under the Vichy regime in World War II. The The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fall by Timothy Parsons attempts to do just that. As John Emerson observed the subtitle is obnoxious; all states fall, not just empires. But in the author's defense usually they are not the ones who decide upon the title, rather the publishers look for sentences which are catchy and can move some units. A grand explanation of why empires fall may appeal to the average reader. A disparate collection of descriptions of the imperial experience, filtered through a prism strongly shaped by 20th century perceptions and models of colonialism, perhaps not. The latter is what the The Rule of Empires is. The author is a professor of 20th century African social history, and the specter of the European colonialism of the Dark Continent haunts even the chapters on Roman Britain or Umayyad Spain. Though Parsons' sympathy with the subjugated is obvious he restrains himself enough so that tiresome polemic does not interfere excessively with the collation of fact or the attempt to engage in objective analysis. Unfortunately the project of a grand theory of the rise and fall of empires, or more accurately the colonized experience, falls short of its goals. I was totally unpersuaded that the fall of Napoleonic Italy, Roman Britain, or British Kenya, were united in any deep way by inevitable social or institutional forces of history which thread together all empires. Though there are many interesting facts on display, it does seem to me that the author falls into a tendency to transform all imperialists into 20th century British, and all subjects into 20th century Kikuyu. The most recent imperial adventures serve as the models, or the skeleton, around which the grand theory is built, and that only distracts from the specific chapters which are rich with specific detail. Consider the stab at describing and decomposing the British Celtic experience of Roman conquest and colonization. The reality is that we don't know much about this experience, a reality which the author admits. Even the most gripping narrative nugget, the rebellion of Boudica and the Iceni against the depredations of the Romans, is historically fraught. To add firmness to this section Timothy Parsons engages in supposition and extrapolation. Some of it is rather stretched to the extreme. Like most social historians he cautions against back-projecting modern notions of nationhood to antiquity, but he can't help but slipping this framework into his dyads of conqueror and conquered. For narrative purposes setting the Romans against the vague and incomprehensible welter of diffuse Celtic tribes and local affinities would be absolutely unreadable, and analytically intractable. And yet there was no singular British nation which was oppressed by a singular Roman nation. Ancient identity was somewhat different than modern identity. Parsons acknowledges this, and then periodically ignores it nonetheless. More problematically the author makes some elementary errors in classical history which trouble me. He asserts as a theoretical truth that the distinction between conquered and conqueror must be maintained for proper order of empire through the text. One particular passage in the Roman chapter really jumped out at me:

...Caracalla bestowed blanket citizenship on all residents of the empire in A.D. 212. Those who prefer to imagine the Roman Empire as a civilizing force cite this mass enfranchisement as evidence of its benevolence, but it is more likely that Caracalla's concession was a pragmatic acknowledgement that the boundaries of true subjecthood had blurred to the point where the Roman Empire was actually no longer an imperial institution by strict definition. ...the respectable and military classes of the empire had become so romanized that the distinction between citizen and subject no longer mattered at the elite level. This universal enfranchisement must have tempered the extractive power of the state and may have contributed to the financial crisis that best the later Roman Empire.

First, the evidence for the economic state of the later Empire is confused. Some scholars assert that after the 3rd century chaos the 4th century empire was nearly as robust as that of the 1st and 2nd centuries. In other words, there is no consensus that revenue extraction decline monotonically; the chaos of the 3rd century may have been an interregnum. It seems rather bizarre to assume a priori that blurred boundaries necessarily entailed lower taxation rates. In fact one of the rationales given for the ease of Arab conquest of the Byzantine Near East was that the Arabs imposed lower taxes than the Byzantines. Whether this is correct, the rate of taxation is subject to may variables and I am not convinced that the theoretical presupposition which Parsons holds to is strong enough to take it as a given. But the bigger issue is that the description of the consequence of Caracalla's granting of universal citizenship to free men in the Roman Empire totally ignores the conventional starting point: that it was an attempt to increase the Empire's tax base! Or at least that is the reason given by Cassius Dio in his description of the edict. Whether this was correct or not, any discussion of this act's impact on revenue should at least make note of this orthodoxy. I have to wonder then if the author was simply not aware of this basic fact. Obviously to many this discussion may seem a bit pedantic, but The Rule of Empires is a book rich in fact and dense with data, and in many of the other chapters my own base of data was thinner so I would naturally rely on the author. But if such glaring problems of analysis are present in the section on Rome, a period with which I am familiar, I must admit to some caution at accepting the rest of the data at face value. More abstractly it seems that the biggest failure of Timothy Parson's framework is its economic ahistoricism. Prior to the industrial revolution the vast majority of humanity experienced life on the Malthusian margin, and the game of empire was a matter of elites stealing from each other's human cattle. Additionally, if political orders are broken up into smaller units that would introduce multiplicity of function and possibly greater costs to the peasant producer. More plainly Roman conquest may have introduced economies of scale as well as greater peace in the life of the British peasant, who admittedly had little national identity as it was. This is not the story in The Rule of Empires, even though the author admits that there's very little empirically to go on. With a unified theoretical framework from the 2nd to the 20th century one might presume that the Romans as rapacious alien conquerors with little sympathy for British peasants would increase taxation, but the 2nd century was a world where all elites were rapacious and had little sympathy for peasants, and the economic pie was notably stagnant in its extent. In contrast Parsons correctly observes that the the European colonization of Africa was a negative sum affair. In an age of real economic productivity growth and demographic transitions, the gains to colonialism were of symbolism, as well as to a small minority of sub-elites whose primary aim was to exploit the natives for profit. A classic instance of socializing the losses of failed expeditions, and privatizing their gains. The density of the later chapters, and their analytical heft, is a sharp contrast with the often platitudinous regurgitations of secondary literature which seem to dominate the sections on antiquity and the medieval period. Timothy Parsons would have benefited from being less ambitious, and simply admitting that his definition of empire makes no sense before 1800. Nairobi truly does have little to do with Rome.

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