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H - 83 : How Rome run the Empire

Updated: May 6

Palmyra's Great Colonade and the Greek Theatre luckily survived ISIS hidious attack who blew up the Temple of Baal and the Temple of Bel in August 2015

For years I wanted to write about the ingenious way Rome governed its Empire. But it took me a while to read the plethora of related research papers. I came across the issue 40 years ago when I saw a map where the Rome's border under Augustus was at the Elbe River - not the Rhine. Interestingly, the Teutoburg Forest where German tribes annihilated 3 Legions, is located between Elbe and Rhein. How could an enemy operate unopposed so deep inside Roman territory? The question baffled me.

The Battle of the Teutoburger Forsest took place in 9 AD in today's Nordrhein Westfalia deep inside the Roman Empire

The answer is simple. The Romans legionnaires believed they were on their home turf when in fact they were not. The Provincia Germania was not as pacified as Augustus and his generals believed. The 3 legions (20'000 soldiers) did not expect battle. They marched in standard marching formation. Stretched out in a single column for miles, they were picked off by the “barbarian” Germans one by one. The German knew exactly which path the Romans would take and had laid a trap. Their leader Arminius was familiar with Roman military tactics. In fact he had lived most of his teenage life in Rome. Rome’s border was fluid. More fluid than borders today. Large swaths of Imperial territory were actually run by client kings. Occasionally they switched sides – as the German tribes did.

Rome under Augustus - the Pink coloured Parts are Allied ("socii") or Client King States

When preparing this summer’s sailing from Cyprus to Bodrum I stumbled on this Roman style governance again. In the eastern Mediterranean, Rome’s expansion happened almost by accident. When it began, Rome focused on the war with Carthage. Controlling Magna Graecia (southern Italy) and securing its grain supply were Rome’s key priorities. Parallel to the Punic Wars in the west, two successor states of Alexander the Great battled for supremacy in the east. The war between Seleucids and the Ptolemean went on for 250 years. In the resulting chaos, a few towns and kingdoms looked to Rome for protection and became “socii” or allies – a status invented on the Italian peninsula a century earlier. 100 years later, it was granted to friendly or defeated tribes in Germania.

The Eastern Mediterranean during the 2nd Punic War with Carthage (218 0 201 BC)

The Roman Senate and later the Roman Emperor were thrifty people. They looked for cost-efficient solutions. Never shy of lining their own pockets, they kept the Roman Empire on a tight fiscal leash. Rather than occupying conquered territory and govern directly, Rome appointed client kings. They were free to run their kingdoms as they saw fit - provided they paid annual tribute, ceded land for Roman veterans, agreed not to attack other socii and supplied military manpower when asked. Conquered territory was slowly integrated into Roman culture. The Roman approach was troubled though. Client kings were unpopular with their people. Rebellions were frequent. There were not many contenders for the job. Not surprisingly, many client kings bestowed their kingdoms in their last will to Rome. The Empire got the problem back.

Locations where Roman Coin Stacks were found - they indicate the Economic Reach of the Roman Empire - far beyond its formal borders

It may sound surprising to us today but the Roman Empire did not have hard borders. Its core provinces were buffered by these client kingdoms and shielded in addition by spheres of milirary and economic influence. Roman coins can be found far beyond the border of the Empire. The Empire’s purchasing power and hunger for exotic products was immense. A tribe or a king would think twice before waging war with Rome. You do not attack your best customer. Only when they had nothing to sell or when harvests failed catastrophically or when the climate changed permanently would they take up arms.

The 28 Legions were kept inside the formal Borders of the Roman Empire

Mauretania in North Africa’s Atlas mountains, Thracia west of Constantinople, the Bosporian Kingdom on the Sea of Azov, Lycia in Anatolia where we sail this summer, Armenia, Judea, Nabatea, Palmyrene and Cappadocia in the Middle East were the most prominent client states. Their military forces were not strong enough to challenge Rome but able to police their state, contain low level incursions and maintaining peace, meaning Roman dominance. For bigger tasks like large-scale invasions, Rome would send the legions.

Formal (NATO) and informal Western Defense Alliance during the Cold War

In a way, the Roman System was similar to today’s security arrangements which the United States built in 1948 to contain the Soviet Union. NATO countries have their own forces but are (with the exception of France) integrated into the US command structure. Countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have their bilateral defense treaties with the US albeit without integrated military structure. Still others like Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE depend on US military aid and allow the US to maintain bases. With the exception of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the US did not put boots on the ground. Of course, the US does not ratify the appointment of client kings. Most of its alliance partners are strong democracies. But the US is definitely the senior partner who pulls the strings.

Septimus Odaenathus, Roman Citizen and King of Kings in Palmyra around 260 AD

This summer during week two we sail along the Lycian coast, a Roman socii from 168 BC to 43 AD when it became a province under Emperor Claudius. Since we can’t follow the coast of the Levant due to the war between Israel and Hezbollah, we won’t see the remains of another client state, the Palmyrene Kingdom. Established in the first century BC it went rogue under Septimus Odaenathus, a Roman citizen and Palmyrene noble man.

Shamur I capturing Emperor Valerian in Edessa in 260 AD

Palmyra became dominant and independent in 260 AD when Roman Emperor Valerian was captured by Persians in the battle of Edessa. He died in captivity. The power vacuum he left was quickly filled by Odaenathus who made himself independent and fought both Rome and Persia on his own terms. He was assassinated in 267. Rome re-asserted its authority again and ruled directly for anther 400 years until the Arabs invaded.

The Palmyrene Kingdom around 260 AD

Towards the 4th century AD, they were few client kingdoms left. Rome – or Constantinople – were now in charge of everything. This stretched the Empire’s resources to the tilt. There was never enough money to cover all the cost. The silver coins were debased. By 400 AD there was no silver in any coin left. The Empire was stretched beyond its financial capacity – its western part simply dissolved into nothing. It was imperial over-stretch and inflation which killed the Empire in the West.

By the Time of Constantine the Great (272 - 337 AD), only Armenia and the Bosporian Kingdom were left as Client States


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