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Impearls: CotRCS: Foreword

Item page — this may be a chapter or subsection of a larger work.  Click on     link to access entire piece.

Earthdate 2007-10-13

Foreword   by Michael McNeil

For each of our own personal political and historical edifications, in my view we oh-so-sophisticated moderns might want to glance, at least once in our lives, over the constitution(s) of ancient Rome — particularly that (or those) which held force among the panorama of multitudinous, autonomous republican local statelets that persisted for long (centuries) under the Roman Empire system (among which Calleva Atrebatum, aka Silchester in modern England, illustrated above [f1, see also f2], will serve as our exemplar du jour).

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) — seat of the Atrebates tribe in the Roman province of Britannia (some 10 miles [17 km] southwest of Reading in modern England) — is a perhaps typical Roman provincial civitas (city-state) capital.  As the (Google Maps) aerial image incorporated within the foregoing map of the ancient site reveals (f1: click on it for a larger version), Calleva Atrebatum was abandoned in the post-Roman era and, for basically the last millennium and a half, has subsisted as simply a walled farm (lately including an archaeological dig — visible in insula [city block] IX on that same map).

Thus, unlike other cities in the Roman Empire and Roman Britain such as London and York (not to speak of Rome itself) which have remained vigorously alive and active ever since ancient times (all that activity brilliantly succeeding in obliterating most of the remains of eras prior to the modern), Silchester, rather like Pompeii (though the latter was annihilated and thus placed into a sort of archaeological time stasis far more abruptly), has preserved much of the evidence of times (Roman) when it was a living city.

Indeed, the Kingdom of the Atrebates, centered on Silchester, has an illustrious history.  Since Cæsar’s ephemeral invasion of Britain during the first century (55-54) b.c., the Atrebates had been longtime traditional allies of Rome, whilst around the turn of the next century they were locked in dynastic strife with the neighboring Kingdom of the Catuvellauni (resident north of the Thames; capital Verulamium, now St. Albans, today a distant suburb [northwest] of Greater London) — the twists and turns of which conflict had much to do politically with providing the ultimate stimulus for Claudius’ invasion of Britain (commencing in a.d. 43) in the first place.  After the Roman conquest, following an interval as a federated client kingdom, the Atrebatean realm subsequently became a self-governing civitas within the Roman province of Britannia. f2

For those who’d like to learn more about the Roman age in Britain and Silchester in particular, the University of Reading hosts a worthwhile web site providing information not only about Silchester Insula IX, otherwise known as the Town Life Project, encompassing the archaeological excavation of insula (city block) IX within the city (visible on the Silchester map at top f1), but the site also provides a nice set of web pages known as A Guide to Silchester, conveying much information about its early, middle, and later history along with a description of the local environs.

I also highly recommend checking out books like Prof. Sheppard Frere’s (of Oxford University) history of Roman Britain Britannia, as well as Prof. Peter Salway’s (at the Open University) history Roman Britain — both of which works are extremely interesting — for a completer picture. 2, 3


Moving from the specific to the general, we’re not concerned at present with the structure of the antique Roman Empire at its uppermost level(s) (particularly since, following the demise of the Republic and advent of the Empire, the government on the national stage was a kind of monarchy), but we’ll focus instead on the continuing republican constitutions extant during the so-called “Principate” period (that is, the first couple centuries) of the Empire, as constituting the fundamental unit of Roman civilization (in a sense similar to way that the fundamental unit of American civilization is the state) — to wit, the Roman city-state, known as the civitas, plural civitates.

Even following the transformation the Roman state from a Republic into an Empire governed by a (distant) Emperor, even then for centuries thereafter the individual localities of the empire remained self-governing republics, fundamentally republican in character, responsible for their own affairs and devices.  While the, theoretically all-powerful Emperor (as the Roman constitution — Republic or Empire — included hardly any modern-style guarantees of human rights and the like) governed, chiefly aloofly and disinterestedly, from afar, the Imperial Greco-Roman world continued for centuries (during the Principate) to ensure a practical right of republican self-government, at the local level, to the spectrum of diverse cities spangling the empire, in whose internal affairs the central government with the emperor at its head for long sought to interfere as little as possible.  The constitutions of these local statelets or counties were generally quite similar to those of old Republican Rome.  Thus, in that sense, the Roman Republic never ended (or was a very long time in passing).

It was the thriving urban life of a great constellation of these autonomous cities that was the glory of Rome during the first couple centuries (the Principate) of the Empire — as Edward Togo Salmon (Professor of History at McMaster University) strikingly observes, writing in Encyclopædia Britannica’s article “Rome, Ancient.” 4  (The following text was largely included in Impearls’ earlier piece about the autonomous Roman civitates, but in this case the quoted material has been somewhat expanded to fit the differing occasion, so it’s not all repetition!  It’s worth repeating anyhow….)

In the empire at large, Flavians and Antonines, like the better Julio-Claudians, aimed at stability in order that its inhabitants might live in security and self-respect.  In this they largely succeeded.  Gibbon’s famous description of the 2nd century as the period when men were happiest and most prosperous is not entirely false.  Certainly, by then men had come to take for granted the unique greatness and invincible eternity of the empire; even the ominous events of Aurelius’ reign failed to shatter their conviction that the empire was impregnable.

The empire was a vast congeries of peoples and races with differing religions, customs, and languages, and the emperors were content to let them live their own lives.  Imperial policy favoured a veneer of common culture transcending ethnic differences, but there was no deliberate denationalization.  Ambitious men striving for a career naturally found it helpful, if not necessary, to become Roman in bearing and conduct and perhaps even in language as well (although speakers of Greek often rose to exalted positions).  But local self-government was the general rule, and neither Latin nor Roman ways were imposed on the communities composing the empire.  […]

Where possible, the emperors kept direct administration from Rome to a minimum (except perhaps in Egypt), and the 2nd century was the most flourishing period of urban civilization that the empire ever knew.  Administration everywhere was in the hands of the local well-to-do, who alone could afford the costs attaching to it.  […]  It was from these local worthies that the emperor often found his candidates for the Senate at Rome, an honour that was eagerly sought by individuals but that was a mixed blessing for their local communities, which stood thereby to lose prospective benefactors.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the spectacle of the Roman Empire in its 2nd-century heyday, with its panorama of splendid and autonomous communities.




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