Among the reasons I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been obsessively crunching on Mike Duncan’s incredible podcast “The History of Rome,” the 74-hour entirety of which I have inhaled over the past couple of weeks. I cannot recommend this podcast enough. Seriously, listen to this podcast.
Listening to this has led me to other related things – the “12 Byzantine Rulers” podcast, Edward Gibbon’s volumes of note, a lot of THE ORACLE – and as well as just learning a whole lot of facts, I think I’ve digested enough to draw the occasional broad analytical conclusion, which among other things I am wholly unqualified to comment on I will occasionally discuss in this space.
Basically, I think the whole way we divide time, space, and instituions in thinking about this whole “Rome” thing is kind of misguided. Check out this map:
So note that by the time Octavian Augustus formalizes the monarchical princeps (as opposed to the preceding century of barely-bound-by-law dictatorship) Rome had already grown from a single city-state to a massive power that nearly ringed the Mediterranean. And while the government bequeathed by Octavian would last for an insane 1500 years, it is only for the next century-and-a-half that Rome would add territory, and with the exception of Justinian all it basically does is shrink until 1453. This is decidedly not imperial. But it is largely not intended to be imperial. First Octavian, then Hadrian would try to establish firm borders for the “empire” that, like the double yellow lines on the road, are not to be crossed in either direction. That is, Rome is done a-conquering.
Now, soon after the establishment of the princeps the whole idea of an empire of subjugated provinces governed from a central city starts to disintegrate. By Caracalla citizenship had extended to all free males in the “empire,” by Diocletian Italy lost most of its special status, and by Constantine Rome would no longer be the political capitol of an entity of which it long ceased being the economic or cultural capitol.
So what do you call a large territory governed by a monarch? I call that a kingdom.
Anyway, my way of thinking about this is that a republican city of Rome greatly expanded and, towards the end of its expansionist, its republicanism declined and was replaced by a monarchy. Essentially, it became the Roman Kingdom. However, the symbolic fact that the kingdom was born in Rome, Italy was eventually washed over by material factors and the Roman Kingdom essentially became the Constantinian Kingdom. This Kingdom, primarily centered in the West, would lose, then regain, then lose again most of its territory west of Greece and spend most of its remaining and remarkably long existence centered around modern-day Greece and Turkey. Eventually it would collapse.
This is not the most novel framing in the world. But it really does challenge the whole narrative of a mighty Roman empire that fell in 476AD or whatever. The Constantinian Kingdom, born out of the expansionist Roman Republic, would reign in the northeast Mediterranian for a very long time. Why it remained so long in the East while failing in the West is a very interesting question, but not really the same question often asked.