I often wonder what it was like to live in third century Italy, say a city like Milan. For the first half of the century or so, emperors were a dime a dozen. A general would win a battle, his men would proclaim him emperor and he would go kill the the current emperor. This went on for roughly half a century from the death of Severus Alexander. There were 22 emperors between him and Diocletian.
There were also endless wars, invasions and re-invasions during this period. Most people find this period of Roman history dull, but the fact that the Western Empire did not collapse in the third century is one of the great lessons of history. Human societies have great momentum that can carry even the most inept ruling elites along for generations before the energy of society is drained.
There’s also the fact that without a plausible alternative, people tend to bugger along as they have always done, despite their terrible rulers. This is true of the ruling elites as well. Rome stuck with the old ways long after those ways no longer made any sense. The cost of maintaining domination of Gaul and Germania far exceeded the benefits, but that’s all they knew so they exhausted themselves maintaining it.
That came to mind when reading this story about the latest act in the Greek drama. This thing is now in its sixth year and no one has the slightest clue as to how to resolve it. The Euros are stuck in a mode of thought that says the Greeks must be brought into alignment with the Frankish core of Europe, no matter the cost to the Greeks. The Euros will consider no other option, because they can imagine no other option.
The Greeks, to their credit, understand that this can never happen. But, they are locked into a mode of thought that says they must have their debts forgiven so they can start over, while maintaining their traditional social welfare state. In other words, they will be Greek and there’s no other alternative they can imagine, much less consider.
This stand-off will eventually reach some sort of conclusion. The betting seems to be that the catalyst will be a default and then either the Greek people yield and submit to their European rulers or the Germans yield and let the Greeks walk away from some or all of their debts. Strangely, no one ever discusses a middle option between the two. The only alternative mentioned is catastrophe, however you wish to define it.
That’s the stuff in the news. On the street, Greeks go about their lives, arranging their affairs around the machinations of their rulers, real and de facto. That means moving money into foreign accounts, hiding it under beds and scheming around the tax system. In other words, Greeks go on being Greeks, regardless of what the people in charge have to say about it.
That, I suppose, was the way thing were in the third century, to circle back to where I started. The average guy in a town on in the fields was largely immune to what was going on in imperial politics. Young men joined the legions because that was what you did. It afforded a chance at a better life than as a peasant in the fields. Then as now, people choose from the options available to them and live their lives accordingly.
That’s not without consequences. Once people stop caring about the legitimacy of their rulers or even the identity of their rulers, there can be no law, just the strong ruling the weak. The Western Roman Empire collapsed when there was no one left to defend it. Once being a Roman went from being an asset to being a liability, the die was cast, so to speak.
Something similar seems to be happening in Greece. Being a citizen has no benefits. Being in the Euro, a citizen of Europe, still has value because the money has value, but how much longer that remains true is open to debate. Whether or not the Greeks have the will to riot, much less revolt is the big question.The evidence suggest they lack the will to govern themselves so revolt does seem unlikely.
That’s what brings me back to thinking what life was like in third century Italy. Did the average person suspect the end was near? Did they know their culture was in decline? Was there a pervading sense of foreboding that haunted the people? The evidence suggest not. Just as today, it appears the people just went about their business and the rulers did as they always did, trying to keep it all together.