Wednesday, February 29, 2012

If Rome Hadn't Fallen by Timothy Venning

Timothy Venning, If Rome Hadn't Fallen: How the Survival of Rome Might Have Changed World History,(Pen and Sword, 2011) 224 pages,
Verdict?: 3/5 Interesting but ultimately unconvincing overall.

My primary school's library carried a British weekly educational magazine called Look and Learn, which had articles on science, history and culture for kids, as well as short fiction and a few weekly cartoon strips.  One of its slightly odder regular offerings was a space opera comic serial called "The Trigan Empire" - a kind of Dan Dare/Flash Gordon space adventure which caught my eye because the main characters, for reasons never explained, all wore Roman-style togas, robes and armour.  I can't say this strange cartoon ever really grabbed me, since beyond the Roman aesthetic it was simply B-grade sci-fi of a slightly quaint variety, but it seems to have made quite an impression on the young Timothy Venning;

Thanks are due to the staff who created the 'Trigan Empire' comic strip for Ranger and subsequently Look and Learn magazine, which first gave me the concept of 'what if' fantasy when I was at primary school in the late 1960s.  This innovative science-fiction series showed what a Roman-type civilization might have looked like if it had survived to the Space Age, particularly due to the artwork of Don Lawrence.  My exploration of the scenarios took off from there.
(Venning, "Acknowledgements", p. xvii)

With all due respect to the artwork of Don Lawrence, I still find myself asking the question I asked aged eight: "If they have space ships and lasers, why do they still fight with swords while wearing Roman helmets?"  That never made much sense to me.  Whether it made more sense to Venning or not is not clear, but it certainly got him thinking about a particular counterfactual historical scenario: what if the Roman Empire had survived?

The Trigan Empire or 'Romans in Space'
The Benefits and Pitfalls of Historical Hypotheticals

Counterfactuals, historical hypotheticals or "what if" scenarios are tricky things to pull off effectively, let alone in a way that sheds some light on history in any useful way.  At their best, the examination of what might have happened can help a historian to look at the evidence for what did happen in new ways, since constructing viable possible alternative paths that events may have taken requires a very careful re-examination of the evidence from different perspectives.  At their worst, they are self-indulgent fantasies where the examiner picks an outcome they find intriguing or appealing (Hitler conquers Britain or the British Government grants home rule to Ireland in 1896) and then works backwards to contrive a way that this outcome was actually highly "likely" if only a few small things had gone differently.  The worse kind of counterfactual depends heavily on a rather simplistic view of history; one where things tend to happen for single or simple reasons and only a little needs to have been different for totally different outcomes to result.

There are some examples of the better kind of counterfactual.  In 1997 Niall Ferguson edited a collection of hypotheticals called Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals, which examined the possible results of a number of scenarios, from Charles I avoiding the English Civil War to JFK living to win a second term of office.  As with all the better types of historical counterfactuals, these served to throw a new light on the events they imagined not happening - Dr Mark Almond's contribution "1989 Without Gorbachev: What if Communism had not collapsed?" certainly made me reassess the (usually still-accepted) American interpretation that the Soviet Union was rotten to its core and outspent and outflanked by brave Ronald Reagan and so would have fallen apart anyway.

Unfortunately, the worse kind of counterfactual - the ones which are little more than self-indulgent fanboy fantasies based on creaking premises - are far more common.  Worst of all are the ones where the fantasy in question is based on wholly erroneous or ideologically biased historical assumptions.  The fantasy of the "hole in science created by Christianity" by an online polemicist called Jim West (and its attendant graph, aka "the Dumbest Thing on the Internet Ever") is a classic case of where ideologically-driven ignorant pseudo historical nonsense will get you if you switch off your brain.

Luckily Venning's grasp of the relevant history is extensive and detailed and so, on the whole, he manages to avoid the self-indulgent fanboy pitfalls.  Or at least he does for most of his intriguing book.

"The Fury of the Goths" - Paul Ivanovitz

The "Furor Teutonicus"

Like the post factum interpretation that the Soviet Union was ready to fall regardless of what Gorbachev did (which does not really explain why its fall was so totally unexpected and remarkable at the time - hindsight is a useful thing) there is a school of thought that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was inevitable.  It is one with a long pedigree - back in 1776 Gibbon asserted:

The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident and removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long.

Several more recent analysts have been inclined, at least partially, to the same conclusion, most notably Adrian Goldworthy in his recent The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower (reviewed below), who sees the roots of the inevitable fall of the west in the chaos of the Third Century, though with seeds that went all the way back to Augustus.  The lack of a regular mechanism for succession was an inherent weakness of the Empire, according to Goldworthy, and this was made worse by the vast and unwieldy size of the Empire and its uneven recovery from the near collapse in the Third Century.  All this left the poorer, weaker western half of the Empire tottering and eventual collapse was pretty much a matter of time.

Venning, on the other hand, seems to think that it was at least possible that the west could have survived.  He acknowledges most of the things Goldsworthy points out, but feels they did not have to be fatal the Western Empire.  If a few things had been different, he argues, the Western Empire could have survived.

Venning does take a broad view of the reasons for the fall of the Western Empire, but it seems on the whole he subscribes to more of a "catastrophist" perspective, similar to that of Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and the Barbarians.  Heather, a leading Germanicist, is very much of the view that the Empire did not die, it was murdered.  And it was the barbarian invasions that were the cause of death. So the first part of Venning's "what if" concentrates on the Germanic barbarians, and explores what he feels may have been the consequences if Tiberius and his successors had annexed all of northern Germania as far east as the Elbe.

His analysis focuses on two elements that he feels could have gone differently - the Teutoburgerwald disaster where Varus' three legions were annihilated by a Cheruscian uprising in 9 AD and Tiberius choosing to "rein in" Germanicus in his 15-16 AD campaign east of the Rhine.

Like many, Venning pins the Varian disaster squarely on Varus himself:

A better general than Varus would not have allowed himself to be led into a German trap far from the Rhine by supposedly loyal German 'scouts' or if he had done so he could have provided more inspiring leadership.
(Venning, p. 5)

People have been scapegoating Varus for what was a highly embarrassing defeat ever since the battle itself, so Venning is hardly alone here.  But the idea that it was all Varus' fault is actually only found in one of the sources: that of Vellius Paterculus.  And Paterculus had a family beef with Varus' family, the Quinctilii, and so we have to tread his blame of Varus with a degree of healthy scepticism.  The other sources paint Varus as a noble and courageous heroic figure and put the defeat primarily down to the cunning and military skill of his very wily and able opponent, the Cheruscian war-leader Arminius.  Venning seems very sure that "a better general" would not have "allowed himself" to be outfoxed by Arminius, but during Germanicus' later campaign his subordinate general Aulus Cæcina did just that.  Cæcina was no amateur, in fact as the commander of the lower Rhine legions and a veteran of forty campaigns, he was about as good a general as the Romans had.  Yet, just like Varus, he was led into a trap by Arminius and was on the verge of having the dubious distinction of being the second Roman general in five year to have three legions wiped out under his command when he was saved more by the ill-discipline of Arminius' warriors than any skill of his.  Like many Romanophiles, Venning seems to under-estimate Arminius' skill as a general, because that was what defeated Varus.

But Venning accepts that even if Varus had not been defeated, this would not have made a substantial difference to the longer-term position of the Romans vis a vis Germania. So he then looks at whether things may have been different if Germanicus had continued his campaigns east of the Rhine frontier and succeeded in taking the frontier up to the Elbe.  He argues that this could not only have provided Rome with a large source of Germanic military manpower but would also have resulted in more defensible frontiers:

Indeed, if the conquest of the Marcomanni in Bohemia by Marcus Aurelius in the late 170s had been followed through ... Rome could have been defending a frontier from the Elbe to the Carpathians rather than from the Rhine to the Danube.
(Venning, p. 7)

He argues that this shorter frontier would also have been far more defensible, since the Carpathian passes are far easier to hold than the long and rather porous frontiers provided by the Danube, since rivers in the ancient world were more conduits than barriers.  This last point is reasonable, but there are several problems with this section of Venning's argument.

To begin with, the whole idea that Germanicus was "reined in" by the jealousy of his wicked uncle Tiberius is a great story, but it is one with only one source: Tactius.  And in Tacitus' neat moral narrative Germanicus is the golden-haired wunderkind and the lost hope for what might have been, while Tiberius is the envious villain.  So while Tacitus paints Germanicus' campaign as a wholesale success with strings of glorious victories cut short by bad old Tiberius, there is evidence even in his account that things were not quite so rosy.  Leaving aside the fact that, as noted above, Cæcina narrowly escaped Varian Disaster Mark II, victories that Tacitus depicts as comprehensive do not seem to have been quite as clear cut as his story makes out.  Germanicus supposedly inflicts a crippling defeat on Arminius in the Battle of Idistoviso, yet only days later Arminius' supposedly comprehensively beaten army fights another battle at the Angrivarian Walls, which even Tacitus has to admit was something of a draw.  So as neat as Tacitus' story might be, there is good reason to believe that Germanicus withdrew because outright victory simply eluded him.

But the second problem with Venning's conclusion that conquering Germania up to the Elbe would make a difference lies in its assumptions about the significance of the Germanics in the fall of the Western Empire.  It assumes (with Heather) that the Germanic incursions were a primary cause of the fall of the Empire and not (as Goldsworthy argues, and I have to agree) more of a symptom of fundamental internal collapse.  Whenever the Empire had been weak before, the barbarians had tested and sometimes breached the frontiers.  They breached them permanently in the Fifth Century only because that time the internal collapse was terminal.

Even if the tribes west of the Elbe had been subdued, there were still plenty of tribes beyond the Elbe who could have exploited any weakness in the Empire - in fact, most of the tribes who carved out successor states in the old Western Empire were from further east anyway: the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Burgundians, Vandals and Lombards were all from beyond Venning's hypothetical stronger frontier.  And while the Carpathians may have been more defensible than the Danube, the Rhine would still have been porous and the even more defensible Alps did not prove much of a barrier in the Fifth Century anyway.  And that was because the Fifth Century Romans were locked in an endless cycle of petty civil wars that were fundamental to the spiral of decline, fragmentation and collapse.

The "Military Anarchy" and the Dominate

To his credit, Venning recognises that a victory by Varus or an northern frontier along the Elbe were unlikely to have made much difference at all:

Incompetent leadership and/or the bad luck of a civil war were crucial factors that better frontiers would not have affected.
(Venning, p. 8)

He refers to the relatively stable succession of emperors (hiccups like 69 AD aside) from Augustus to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD as a "run of good luck".  He then explores some alternatives  by which this "good luck" could have gone on longer, avoiding the near collapse of the Empire in the Third Century and the consequences of that period which led to the final downfall in the Fifth Century.  Perhaps if Commodus' twin brother, Titus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, had not died aged four, he could have ruled alongside his brother and proven the better ruler, leaving his lazy and possibly mad twin to indulge his penchants for parties and gladiator fights.  Perhaps, but then again his brother could also have proven even worse than his brother for all we know.

Alternatively, he argues that Septimus Severus could have stabilised things after the civil war that resulted in the overthrow first of Commodus, then Pertinax and then Didius Julianus, arguing that the Empire had recovered from a similar civil war in the "Year of the Four Emperors" in 69 AD.  This is true to an extent, but the difference is that Vespasian had two able sons who were capable enough to secure stability via a dynasty that spanned 27 years.  Septimus Severus' son was Caracalla - a tyrant whose reign was seen as even less legitimate than that of his "foreign" father.

The stabilisation of the Empire by Vespasian and the Flavians had been because they had been able to quickly restore the facade that Goldsworthy calls "the veiled monarchy" - the shared fiction that hid the fact that the Roman Empire was a military dictatorship and always had been.  The Julio-Claudian, Flavian and Antonine dynasties had maintained stability by propping up this fiction, but it was inevitable that the facade would crumble eventually.  Venning explores some "what ifs" about Third Century emperors who may have stayed in power longer and so, perhaps, have restored the fiction of "the veiled monarchy".  I'm afraid I found this wishful thinking.  Like Goldsworthy, I feel that once the veil had been torn off the fiction was dead.  All that could save the Empire was what did save it (for a while): the establishment of a true, despotic and highly centralised monarchy that made no bones about its despotism - the one established by Diocletian.

The establishment of the Dominate, a new kind of emperor far more like an eastern demi-divine potentate and a new administrative structure pulled the Empire back from ruin, but in the west it ultimately contained the seeds of its own downfall.  A formal division between the eastern and western halves of the Empire was on the cards even before Diocletian and once it came in the later Fourth Century the western poor relation was highly vulnerable if not actually doomed.

The Calamitous Fifth Century

Venning's examination of the Fifth Century also examines some "what ifs", but again many of them fail to convince.  He suggests that all the consequences of the Goths being allowed to cross the Danube in 376 AD, including Alaric's later sack of Rome and the establishment of the Visigoth kingdom in Gaul and Spain, could have been avoided if Valens had handled the situation better.  That may be, but the later crossings of the Danube by Alatheus and Saphrax and then by Radagaisus shows that the pressures further east caused by the Hunnic incursion were pushing many tribes east and south.  If Fritigern's people had been refused entry or been settled peacefully, it is highly likely that some other migratory groups would have done more or less as the Goths did eventually.  The game of "what if" can be played many ways.

After rehearsing an overview of what he correctly refers to as "a vicious circle of gradual collapse" that saw some provinces abandoned, others lost due to virtually no resistance and the core of the Western Empire slowly dwindling as political and economic collapse spiraled out of control, Venning proposes how things could have been different:

Outlying provinces and their resources might have fallen away under the pressures of from outside from around 395, but the core of the Empire would have remained intact if there had been domestic stability and an unbroken run of powerful military leaders from Theodosius the Great to Stilicho to Constantius III to Aetius to the latter's heirs.
(Venning, p. 49)

The problem here is that the "domestic stability" on which the "if" in that sentence depends was never going to happen because the cycle of civil wars that Diocletian had arrested broke out again in the West.  This was actually precisely because of "powerful military leaders".  As Ian Hughes argues in his Stilicho: The Vandal Who Saved Rome, it was the concentration of military power in the hands of a single magister militium in the West which was a key fatal flaw in the Western Empire's administration. This never happened in the East and it was this factor that was one of the key differences in the fates of the two Empires.  That aside, outlying provinces did fall away and "the core of the Empire" did remain intact - for a while.  But the "core of the Empire" could not survive without being sustained by provinces like southern Gaul, parts of Spain and, particularly, Africa.  So the idea that a more politically stable "core" would have survived is hard to credit anyway.

From about this point the book becomes increasingly speculative, with all kinds of scenarios like the breakaway northern sub-Romans Gallic state of Aegidius and Syagrius for some reason being "likely to rally to the Empire" after a succession of other "what ifs" that have the "core of the Empire" coming back from the brink.  If anything, the sheer effort Venning has to go to so as to have the Western Empire survive served to underline for this reader exactly how inevitable its collapse really was.

Romans versus Mongols (ands Spiderman versus Batman?)

There is a silly meme on historical internet fora where people speculate which ancient peoples from different time periods would have prevailed over other such peoples if they could somehow have met in battle.  So ancient Japan fanboys argue at length with Roman fanboys over whether an army of samurai and yari-armed Japanese infantry troops could have beaten the armies of Trajan.  These debates have all the rigor of comic book nerds arguing if Spiderman could beat up Batman.  I must say that while I found Venning's faith that the fall of the Empire was not inevitable unconvincing, at least the first half of his book was a stimulating and detailed examination of that collapse and it made me look at these events from many fresh angles.

The second half, however, moves to try to hypothesise how a surviving Roman Empire would have shaped later history and as it went on it began to increasingly feel like a Spiderman versus Batman discussion.  Topics like how the Romans would have dealt with the Vikings or the Roman colonisation of the Americas (with Romans fighting Vikings in North America,  no less) began to feel increasingly contrived.

It also felt that anything about these later centuries that Venning liked, such as the Twelfth Century Renaissance or the Reformation, was considered "likely" to have still happened under his hypothetical continued Roman Empire.  While things he does not like do not appear in his contracuted alternative history.  And things he seems to think would be cool, of course, do happen, however implausible or even silly they may be.  By the time we get to the Romans resisting and containing the armies of Islam and gloriously expanding to the Hindu Kush to tackle the Mongols, we are not quite at the level of the "Trigan Empire" comics that inspired the young Venning, but we are getting dangerously close.

This is a mildly intriguing book on the whole and the first half is an interesting way of re-examining history.  For this reader, the second, far more speculative half was not so fruitful, but others may enjoy it.  After all, maybe a Viking would kill a ninja and Batman would make short work of Spiderman.  Who knows.


Humphrey said...

This review reminds me of an argument I once saw on the 'total war forum' (back when I actually had enough free time to play the Total War series - one turn use to take me 3 hours or something ridiculous on my crap machine).

I believe the topic in question was over whether some type of obscure Lithuanian lancer would have been able to defeat a Saxon Cuirassier. This blew up into a massive row, consisting of about 8 pages of increasingly vitriolic posts with the two of them f-ing and blinding back and forth. That's probably the worst type of what-if history - though maybe Jim - no beliefs - Walker's stuff is even worse.

Hans said...

Superb, as usual.

"What if" history will always be the guilty pleasures of historians. More dangerous is the fact that many people seem to think that history actually does hinge on a few coincidences, and from there they speculate how their least favourite parts of the world could easily have been avoided.

TheOFloinn said...

Harry Turtledove is well-known for his alternate histories, but has also written straight historicals. One was Justinian, which is based on the chronicles of Justinian II of which Harry was the reference translator. Another one, pertinent to the present post, is Give Me Back My Legions, regarding Varus and Hermann in the Teuroberger Wald.

Kaptajn Congoboy said...

Trigan Empire. Bah. Back when I was a wee'un, we had translated versions of Simon de Fleuve, Valérian et Laureline, the Incal and the Nikopol trilogy for our science fiction cartoon needs. There was always a suggestion that there was more to the different series than us kids could catch, but it was still awesome.

Stevo Darkly said...

Glad to see a lot more activity around here.

(And in a battle between Spider Man and Batman, Spider Man would obviously win. While Batman is in pretty good physical shape and has the aid of various technological tools he has developed, he has no superpowers as such. Spider Man on the other hand, as the result of being bitten by a radioactive spider, has proportionately greater strength plus the ability to grip and clamber up walls -- in addition to the synthetic webstuff that he invented, which he can use to swing about as well as immobilize his opponents. I could not forebear to point that out.)