Public choice on the ancient Roman frontier

This is another blog post about the “Migration Period” in the late Roman and early medieval eras. But first…

One of my core beliefs about politics is that foreign policy is just domestic policy where the action happens outside of the country, i.e. it is the interactions among domestic entities that produces foreign policy, and not a coherent internal reaction to foreign phenomena. To say, for example, that France’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia was to exploit resources and protect the Catholic Church is really to say that French raw material importers and French Catholic Church supporters were the winners in the internal debates about how the French government should use its military forces. If Catholic missionaries were considered at risk in a different part of the world that also had natural resources, the winning coalition would have had French military forces sent there instead; if the missionaries were proselytizing in a barren wasteland, the coalition would have had a different composition that did not include raw material importers; if the missionaries were warmly received and very successful in Southeast Asia, the Catholic bloc might have focused on other matters and the importers would have paired with a different group. You get the picture.

This post is prompted mainly by Guy Halsall’s ideas, the ideas I could read on Google Books and from book reviews either by him or of his works, stuff that was available to me via JSTOR. M.A. Claussen’s review of Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376–568 makes an intriguing point most succinctly:

Finally, the last chapter of the section deals with the relations between the Romans and the barbarians before 376. Halsall convincingly shows that, despite the money the Romans spent on the maintenance of the frontier throughout the history of the empire, the barbarian threat was generally minimal, that the frontier played a more important role in internal Roman politics than it did in Roman “foreign policy,” and that the management of the Rhine and Danube frontiers, when they were supervised appropriately and regularly by conscientious emperors, ensured that the Roman state would not be threatened by those on the other side.

Future analysis of what to us is the contemporary American political scene will necessarily flatten out complexity and nuance for a general picture, and one of the parts of that picture will be that in 2003 the United States began a war against Iraq. The further into the future this analysis is, the more likely it will be that the vigorous internal opposition to the war and the actions of the various pro-war interest groups are minimized. The picture will be tied into 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, and it will in all likelihood be painted as a sort of clash of cultures, making it seem more natural and inevitable than the war’s opponents thought it was. (Whether this is the correct short version is beside the point.)

I say this because this is the prevailing way in which we today look back on the Roman Empire’s foreign policy. For lack of detailed knowledge, from having absorbed the interpretation of the culture I come from, and due to having a far perspective, even I do this sometimes. But as you can guess by now, I’m especially receptive to Halsall’s interpretation. War has almost always been a strong motivational technique, and internal political debates invariably discount the value of foreign populations who aren’t even involved in the debate. The usual tendency in politics is to magnify rather than downplay threats, just in case. Why would this have been different in the Roman Empire? It could have been different because wars cost resources, and they were much closer to the Malthusian edge than we are. But they were nevertheless at war constantly for hundreds of years, so the cost factor doesn’t seem to have dissuaded them frequently enough to use this explanation. If the reasoning behind the modern field of public choice is correct, and I think it mostly is, applying it to ancient Rome yields the picture presented here.

It could be argued that the ease with which the Germanic tribes took over formerly Roman territories despite being vastly inferior in numbers indicates that they were a serious threat. If it only takes 150,000 Franks to take over 5+ million Gallo-Romans, the Romans were right to play up the foreign threat of the 150,000 Franks. I partially answered this in an earlier post: Roman elites expected an increase in their status under direct barbarian rule—the barbarians were good at fighting, not ruling a civilized society—and the tax payers were pleased to find a decrease in their taxes. But this was only after the Roman state had grown bulky, as centuries of growth, special interest wrangling, and mismanagement will do, and after several generations of Romanization of the barbarians. The early days of Roman-Germanic interaction were nothing like the later days. This public choice interpretation of Roman history is brief, but I think there are good reasons to take it seriously.


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