Structure of Imperial Collapse?

Discuss historical events and information concerning any culture, time, or location in our world (or even the frontier beyond).

Structure of Imperial Collapse?

Unread postby agga » Tue Jan 22, 2013 9:14 pm

(*title change from Rome & China)

Just a point of curiosity here; I couldn't find a related discussion here, but if it exists, please point me to it!

I've been on a Roman history kick for a while now, and over the winter break I read Tacitus' Histories, and having thought about it, I've decided that there are interesting parallels to the early Three Kingdoms period, which is, I guess, my historical touchstone.

The parallels aren't so much in the individual characters involved, as in the larger dynamics, which I think are apparent. Here's the story of the Year of Four Emperors (we all know the story of the Three Kingdoms period, so I don't need to recount it here):

The emperor Nero presided over a decadent court, and a rebellion (of Vindex) that didn't even reach his capital resulted in the collapse of his government and his suicide. Galba, basically a long-time imperial functionary with no charisma but lots of institutional support, took over in Rome. Galba was quickly assassinated by another insider, the pro-Nero Otho, who made himself emperor and reinstituted a lot of Nero's government; he, in turn, was overthrown by Vitellius, the leader of the powerful armies stationed on the German frontier. After hanging onto power for the better part of a year, Vitellius was finally ousted by a coalition led by Vespasian.

Vespasian went on to put down numerous rebellions and establish himself and his sons as emperors. This is the extent of what Tacitus covers. Ultimately, Vespasian's second successor, his son Domitian, was assassinated in a palace coup and replaced by Nerva, who began probably Rome's most successful dynasty, with successors including Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.

On the one hand, I'm sure that all dynastic collapses have similar dynamics. But on the other, to my eye this situation looks a lot like the Three Kingdoms period, except much faster (and without the Three Kingdoms). Here are the parallels that I perceive:

Decadent Court of Nero == Corrupt Han Court (Zhang Rang & Co.)
Galba == He Jin
Otho & the Pro-Nero Camp == Zhang Rang and the Eunuchs
Vitellius == Dong Zhuo & other Military Governors
Vespasian == Cao Cao
Titus & Domitian == Cao Pi & Successors
Nerva et al == Sima Faction

Of course, the Jin dynasty did not go on to become successful, so the parallels end there. Although, when the Nervan dynasty finally did come apart (due to the famously inept Commodus), all hell broke loose and there was a century of chaos (with the Severans barely able to hold the center for a few decades) that the empire never really totally recovered from - China at least, eventually, made it to Sui/Tang. So, in a lot of ways the timescales aren't correspondent, but it's still interesting how the broader strokes align. Another anti-parallel is that Vindex was nominally allied with Galba, and it was Nero who was more widely popular (as opposed to the populist Yellow Scarves, Vindex was an Gaulish aristocrat).

I figure that really, this structure must be repeated all over the place. Does anyone know a good book on something like "dynastic collapse studies"?
Last edited by agga on Wed Jan 23, 2013 4:30 pm, edited 1 time in total.
造反有理!
User avatar
agga
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 1062
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2003 6:45 pm

Re: Rome and China

Unread postby Korin » Tue Jan 22, 2013 9:54 pm

Soshi.
User avatar
Korin
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 713
Joined: Fri Feb 11, 2011 10:50 pm

Re: Rome and China

Unread postby laojim » Tue Jan 22, 2013 10:10 pm

That the Roman empire fell because of decadence is the thesis of Burton. This is a highly questionalble proposition, however. In the first place Rome did not fall, it simply became an irrelevant part of the power struggles in Europe and maintained prestige more through the new Christian church than through political influence. The centers of power and wealth in Italy, a region rather than a nation, shifted to Vencie and Florence as well as Naple. leav ing Rome as a swampy town with bad air and bad water. Power within the old empire shifted to the East. That all this was caused by decadence is a moralistic interpretaton from a period in which such moralizing was terribly popular and frequently done in order to promote or disparage the rise of protestantism which had a motivation to claim that it was part of some sort of moral revolution.

To then impose this moralistic interpretation onto China is to do precisely what modern historians warn us not to do, which is to see other people according to out o3wn prejudices. The Europeans no sooner discovered China than they branded it as pagan and in need of European civilization. We find this sort of moralizing in many works of Western literature and drama.

For these reasons I think it is now worthwhile to try to compare Roma and the Had dynasty on the grounds of as assumed decadence. The decadence that Burton wrote about was a product of the reformation imposing a frame of reference on Rome, which was not dominaated bny Semitic religions as Europe has been for two milenia. China, a fortiore, was largely uninfluenced by by the Semitic religions that swept the West.
laojim
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 1278
Joined: Wed Sep 08, 2010 6:47 am

Re: Rome and China

Unread postby agga » Tue Jan 22, 2013 10:58 pm

thanks guys.

but i'm not really going for a china/rome comparison; rather, i'm wondering if anyone agrees or disagrees about my summary of the similarities, in terms of political dynamics, between the collapses of the Eastern Han and the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

as for the final end of the western Roman empire, i don't think the 'decadence' line is popular anymore. the empire seems to have fallen apart because it didn't have a solid system of maintaining central authority; whoever could claim and defend the office of emperor, could have it. there were two good runs of solid Roman imperial government (Julio-Claudian and Nervan), and aside from that it was endless civil war punctuated by a decade or two here and there of relative calm. in the end, the germans were participating in the civil wars as insiders, and at that point the struggles weren't really about rome anymore..
造反有理!
User avatar
agga
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 1062
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2003 6:45 pm

Re: Rome and China

Unread postby Korin » Wed Jan 23, 2013 12:48 am

Who Aeneas be compared to?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeneas

Liu Bang?
Soshi.
User avatar
Korin
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 713
Joined: Fri Feb 11, 2011 10:50 pm

Re: Rome and China

Unread postby laojim » Wed Jan 23, 2013 7:09 am

While one is free to compare anything to anything else, I think my point was that you are basing your comparison on something like Burton's moralistic interpretation of the decline and fall. It is a subtle distinction to determine what is proper and what is corrupt at the imperial court and it is also risky to say what is decadent among the Roman aristocrats. A brief summary of Chhinese history makes it clear that killing off the emperor was a standard way of gaining his position and might reasonably be called normal rather than corrupt. If offices and preferments are sold in every court then it is not corruption. Corruption always implies doing things that are contrary to accepted norms, but if the bribes are routinely paid then it isn't corruption, it is business as usual.

Some comparisons can be illuminating. For example, the Siouzx Indians used to stop travelers, like Lewis and Clarke, in order to squeeze them for tariffs in passing through their land. This is precisely how German nobles built those famous castles on the Rhine. Boats were stopped and tariffs were levied. It is the same racket, but Lewis and his fellow trevelers thought it was improper. I don't know if anyone ran that business on the Yang Tze, but I would not be surprised to find that it was so. It may be that it was considered normal in China as it was in America and Europe. Those who were forced to pay generally regarded it as piracy, but those who lived along the rivers thought it was reasonable so who is corrupt?
laojim
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 1278
Joined: Wed Sep 08, 2010 6:47 am

Re: Rome and China

Unread postby agga » Wed Jan 23, 2013 4:23 pm

laojim wrote:...Burton's moralistic interpretation of the decline and fall. It is a subtle distinction to determine what is proper and what is corrupt at the imperial court and it is also risky to say what is decadent among the Roman aristocrats...


tacitus also has a lot to say about corruption and he moralizes constantly. nero's court was 'decadent' in the sense that it was rotten, decayed, corrupt. it wasn't properly connected to the different parts of the roman state and society - those connections had been allowed to wither or atrophy under Nero (who wasn't totally incompetent, but it didn't take a lot of incompetence to do in an imperial Roman government, which was much more dependent on the person of the Emperor than an imperial Chinese government). when the center of a centralized government is broken down, as was Nero's - or as was Han Ling Di's - it is liable to collapse and invasion by more interested parties, which happens over and over again in human history. 'decadence' or 'corruption', these are just catch words that i think most people here should just understand as references and pass over.

on this point i'm just interested in discussing the specific structural parallels between the late eastern Han / three kingdoms period and the Year of the Four Emperors in Rome, or in finding other such parallels (with the 3k). i appear to have given my thread a bad title, but it's all there in my posts so far...
造反有理!
User avatar
agga
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 1062
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2003 6:45 pm

Re: Structure of Imperial Collapse?

Unread postby Zhai Rong » Thu Jan 24, 2013 7:45 am

I think the two events came about due to different flaws.

At that time, the position of Emperor in Rome was based upon actual power. Sufficient military backing is all that's required to give someone legitimacy in the role, so anyone with a powerful provincial army could see himself as a potential Emperor, and the armies knew that they had the power to create Emperors as well. All of these Emperors gained power because they had the support of troops, whether through regular command or bribery, and they lost power when they either lost the troops or someone else with a better army came by.

The Han Emperor's legitimacy, being granted by Heaven, couldn't be so easily attained by the average guy on the street, so usurpers have to waste a lot more time and effort building their power base before striking at the throne. The Liangs, eunuchs and Hes had to ingratiate themselves with the Emperor to gain power, and even then were content to rule as regents while leaving the Emperor to reign. Dong Zhuo's actions are more akin to those of the Roman contenders, but no one accorded him the legitimacy that was granted Vitellius. The Caos had to spend many years consolidating power before having the strength to topple Han.

There's also a difference in how Rome and China got into this parlous state in the first place. Child Emperors at this stage was not yet in vogue in Rome, so young and experienced though Caligula and Nero were when they came to the throne, they were nevertheless their own men and used their power to make their own bad decisions. China was happy with them though, and bad luck or political meddling was enough to leave the country with a child Emperor, and too often unscrupulous regents who then perpetuated the trend to maintain their power. This was a problem that China had had for centuries (and would have for centuries more), but since open confrontation was unnecessary, it allowed degeneration to occur more slowly. This was not so with the structural flaw in Rome's system (greedy soldiers) that would cause continuous turmoil from Pertinax's death onwards. While it was in play here, most of the changes of Emperor were due to actual differences in power so I would say that the downfall of each Emperor had a lot more to do with their individual flaws.
Zhai Rong
Master
 
Posts: 206
Joined: Sun Jun 16, 2002 5:19 am
Location: Melbourne

Re: Structure of Imperial Collapse?

Unread postby Jordan » Thu Jan 24, 2013 10:24 pm

I think your summary and analogy are pretty good. I don't disagree with anything you said in your first post. You mentioned a lot of the key differences between the two historical scenarios anyways. Of course when we're talking about completely different countries such as Rome and China, there are going to be a myriad of differences, but men rise and fall in various parts of the world often for similar reasons...
User avatar
Jordan
Scholar of Shen Zhou
 
Posts: 5884
Joined: Thu Dec 02, 2004 4:52 am


Return to World History Deliberation

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

Copyright © 2002–2008 Kongming’s Archives. All Rights Reserved

 
cron