Friday, January 1, 2010
Hadrian By Anthony Everitt
Within a few days of assuming power, the emperor took the two most important, and bitterly controversial, decisions of his entire reign. One of them was tactical and the other strategic. neither was improvised, but must have been the product of hard thought.
Long imperial frontiers required a large standing army, and paying for this was extremely expensive, and new provinces meant new garrisons. The army was the state's largest single cost. There was also a limit to the available manpower that could be safely withdrawn from economically productive activity. The technology of warfare, the logistical difficulty of maintaining extended supply chains, and the slowness of long-range communications placed limits on the size of territory that a central government would find manageable. It is true that Rome ruled with a light touch and expected local elites to manage the day-to-day affairs of provincial towns and cities. However, government business seems to have grown inexorably.
In addition, it was not at all obvious that the benefits, the profits, that would accrue from new conquests would make the effort entailed worthwhile, at least in the medium term. Much of the land contiguous with the empire was ecologically marginal and, with the exception of the Parthian and Dacian empires, economically unrewarding- neither worth the trouble of annexing nor the expense of administering. What, one might ask, would be the point of taking over little populated Scotland?
The historian Appian, who lived through the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, made the point well: The Romans have aimed to preserve their exercise by the exercise of prudence, rather than extend their dominion over poverty-stricken and profitless tribes of barbarians.
Emperors, needing to balance their books, settled for the minimum military establishment consistent with safety. They felt he could not afford a a mobile reserve ready to meet crisis as and when they occurred. (Such a reserve, when unemployed, would also present them with a potential threat to their own power). Any aggressive expedition in one region of the Empire, whether resulting in victory or defeat, imperiled the stability in others. The enemies of Rome were ready to seize any opportunity for rebellion. In fact, just to maintain the status quo was almost too much for the legions. So military and financial reality argued against further enlargement of the empire.
It was against this background that Hadrian issued orders to immediately abandon his predecessor's three new provinces- Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria- and to regroup permanently behind Rome's traditional borders, the Euphrates. Rome was to abjure military expansion of any kind in the future. Negotiation was to replace ultimatum.
The withdrawals are evidence of Hadrian's clear-sightedness and political courage, but they deeply angered many senior personalities. Opinion in Italy had fed on a diet of victories and even at the time of his ascension had no clear idea that Trajan had not, after all, conquered Parthia. And even though Trajan's failure was common knowledge in leading circles, the ethos of aggression was too ingrained to accept that the days of imperium sine fine were over. After all, as often happens, military adventures abroad lend stability and popularity to governments at home- provided they bring victory. Lack of success in this regard helped seal the fate of Domitian. Would it do the same for Hadrian?