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Facebook argument mentioned Roman empire

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Wheylous Posted: Tue, Nov 13 2012 2:45 PM

One of my friends posted this argument in a discussion on welfare and healthcare:

Classic example of reduction of central authority leading to provincialized individualized decision-making and eventual collapse: Late Roman Empire. Numerous comparisons have been drawn between the US and variously the Roman Republic and the Empire, and despite our lack of an emperor functionally speaking our federal system shares many commonalities in theory if not in exact application with the later Empire, especially with the dissipation of imperial authority in favor of provincial governance and individual dealings with foreign powers. Furthermore, sovereignty doesn’t just dissipate – if the powers of the national government are reduced, then either state governments or individuals have to pick up the slack, and honestly I don’t think a sink or swim system based on individual “ability” is what would result. I imagine you would be in favor of a meritocracy of some variety, but such systems have to by nature include controls for socioeconomic background and access to opportunity for the gifted regardless of background – hence welfare.

I have no knowledge of the late Roman Empire. Anyone here have any info?

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I don't, but these guys think they do:

The late Roman period (which we are defining as, roughly, AD 250–450) saw very important changes within the empire, which included a realignment of political power (away from the cities, and in favour of the central state)

Emphasis mine.

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The later Roman Empire was a period of increasing state power, especially over the economy.  It was only decentralized in the sense that the crumbling economy led to civil wars and reduced revenues that made rule more difficult.

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The East maintained central authority and a strong military throughout the period. 
 

The West was different, because as the provinces grew richer and Italy grew poorer, the power shifted around a lot.  There was civil war, then lots of attempts at dividing the territory among equal rulers.  That failed because they wouldn't work together.  Eventually so many people had risen to power with the strength of the military behind them, that elites were barred from military service and eventually they resorted to hiring military from outlying allies.  Those allies eventually turned into invaders as well.  I'd say that this period was constantly punctuated by failed attempts at maintaining centralized authority.

The eventual solution to centralization was the Roman Catholic Church.  The West turned into a kind of Plato's Republic with the church as the string-pulling mechanism. 

There was a period between the upheval and squabbles of the late Empire and the resolution of the Medieval states, when the church didn't wield such universal power in the West.  That, I find, was mostly populated by miniature states combining Germanic/Gallic social customs and Roman law.

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Kakugo replied on Tue, Nov 13 2012 3:57 PM

From Clive Foss Life in City and Country in The Oxford History of Byzantium

This voluntary and co-operative system [a system according to which the landowing "aristocracy" willingly shouldered the financial burden of financing provincial cities in return for promotion to a higher rank, a commission in the army, Imperial favor, government contracts etc]  functioned well for two hundred years, but began to break down in the crisis of the third century, when political chaos, invasions, civil war and enormous financial demands put intolerable burdens on the local administrators...

Firstly the newly Christian government confiscated the property of the temples [which were usually administered by the provincial cities themselves], then the endowments of the cities. Local treasuries became notably poorer, but the same ogligations still existed and people had to find to meet them. The government typically resorted to compulsion... Consequently the central government came to take an ever more active role. Its officials tended to take control, and the provincial governors constantly intervened.

To continue with Rome's successor, Constantinople, Paul Magdalino (The Medieval Empire 780-1204) has this to say:

Constantinople literally existed at the expense of all other towns on imperial territory. An Arab traveller of the tenth century was struck by the contrast between the rural, thinly inhabited appearance of Byzantine Asia Minor and the greater urban density of all parts of the Islamic world... And before the twelfth century, the most prosperous urban centers were to be found in the frontier zone: in Italy (Amalfi, Venice, Bari), along the lower Danube and in the Souther Crimea, in Armenia, and at Attaleia and Trebizond in Asia Minor, which were the main entrepots for trade with the Islamic world.

This urban propserity at the edge of the empire was partly due to the difficulties of imposing taxation so far from the center, but it was also the result of government concern for the stability of the frontier regions. Byzantium had neither the developed political ideology nor the repressive machinery of the modern totalitarian state. (Emphasis mine)

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