From the May 2005 Idaho Observer:
The Cycle of the Ages
compiled and edited by Hari Heath
In 1918, at the peak of the First World War, H. G. Wells, English novelist, sociologist, historian and utopian, began to compile his private "Outline of World History" into a publishable document. The war compelled many people to consider why such a human tragedy could have occurred, "Everywhere there were unwonted privations; everywhere there was morning. The tale of dead and mutilated had mounted to many millions. Men felt they had come to a crisis in the world’s affairs."
Everyone was trying to "think internationally," but there was a wide spread realization that the essentials of the huge problems that had been thrust so suddenly and tragically upon the world were insufficiently understood. Everyone "had been taught history, they found, in nationalist blinkers, ignoring every country but their own, and now they were turned out into a blaze."
Wells stated he was not in any professional sense a historian, but he had been making out his own private "outline" from the beginnings of his career. Wells had been working on the problems of after-war settlement and the proposed League of Nations, at least until President Wilson took possession of the project. He discovered that the people involved with League of Nations projects were at odds with themselves "because they had the most vague, heterogeneous and untidy assumptions about what the world of men was, what it had been, and therefore what it could be. In very many cases there was extraordinarily exact special knowledge combined with the most crude and naïve assumptions about history in general."
Wells began to compile his "OUTLINE OF HISTORY—Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind" because "this writer’s standing which is by nature and choice as remote from academic respect as he is from dukedom, enabled him to interest the public in history without any such sacrifice of dignity and distinction, as a recognized authority would have had to incur. It was his happy privilege to offend inaccessibly; he is a literary Bedouin, whose home is the great outside and who knows no prouder title than his name…his simple undertaking was to collect, arrange, determine the proportion of the parts and phases of the great adventure of mankind, and write. He has added nothing to history. At least he hopes he has added nothing to history. He has merely made a digest of a great mass of material and he has done so in the character of a popular writer considering the needs of other ordinary citizens like himself."
The Table of Contents itself is a full dozen pages, which promise entertaining reading. Beginning with the Earth in space and time, and including, to name but a few subjects: geology, biology, paleontology, early philosophy, races, languages, early empires; Gods and stars, priests and kings, serfs, slaves, social classes and free individuals. Not just a western world-view, he includes near and far east Asian history, cultures and religions in a timeline throughout the ages up to his final chapters, "The Catastrophe of Modern Imperialism" and "The World After the Great War."
First published in 1920, the new and revised 1931 edition presents a chapter, which outlines the "Rise and Collapse of the Roman Empire."
Rome, the nation, was an early adventure in human development that went beyond the Greek city-states and previous empires built upon the conquests and accomplishments of a single human ruler. The history of Rome parallels some of the components of American history. Since it appears we are about to repeat some of the same historical cycles that befell Rome, we might do well to examine history and possibly consider other options before we reach a similar fate. Excerpted portions of Mr. Wells’ outline on the Romans follows:
But we write "Rome" and the "Romans," and we have still to explain what manner of people these were who were playing a role of conquest that had hitherto been played only by able and aggressive monarchs.
Their state was, in the fifth century B.C., a republic of the Aryan type very similar to a Greek aristocratic republic. The earliest accounts of the social life of Rome give us a picture of a very primitive Aryan community. In the second half of the fifth century before Christ, Rome was still an aristocratic community of free peasants occupying an area of nearly 400 square miles, with a population certainly not exceeding 150,000, almost entirely dispersed over the countryside and divided into seventeen districts or rural tribes. Most of the families had a small holding and a cottage of their own, where father and sons lived and worked together, growing corn, with here and there a strip of vine or olive. Their few head of cattle were kept at pasture on the neighboring common land; their clothes and simple implements of husbandry they made for themselves at home. Only at rare intervals and on special occasions would they make their way into the fortified town, which was the centre, at once, of their religion and their government. Here were the temples of the gods, the houses of the wealthy, and the shops of the artisans and traders, where corn, oil, or wine could be bartered in small quantities for salt or rough tools and weapons of iron.
This community followed the usual traditions of a division into aristocratic and common citizens, who were called in Rome patricians and plebeians. These were the citizens; the slave or outlander had no more part in the state than he had in Greece. But the constitution differed from any Greek constitution in the fact that a great part of the ruling power was gathered into the hands of a body called the Senate, which was neither purely a body of hereditary members nor directly an elected and representative one. It was a nominated one, and in the earlier period, it was nominated solely from among the patricians. Before the expulsion of the kings, it was the king who nominated the senators. But after the expulsion of the kings (510 B.C.) the supreme government was vested in the hands of two elected rulers, the consuls; and it was the consuls who took over the business of appointing senators. In the early days of the Republic only patricians were eligible as consuls or senators, and the share of the plebeians in the government consisted merely in a right to vote for the consuls and other public officials. Even for that purpose their votes did not have the same value as those of their patrician fellow-citizens. But their votes had at any rate sufficient weight to induce many of the patrician candidates to profess a more or less sincere concern for plebeian grievances. In the early phases of the Roman state, moreover, the plebeians were not only excluded from public office, but from intermarriage with the patrician class.
The early phase of Roman affairs was therefore an aristocracy of a very pronounced type, and the internal history of Rome for the two centuries and a half between the expulsion of the last Etruscan king, Tarquin the Proud, and the beginning of the first Punic War (264 B.C.), was very largely a struggle for mastery between those two orders, the patricians and the plebeians.
The mass of the details of this struggle between patricians and plebeians we can afford to ignore in this Outline. It was a struggle which showed the Romans to be a people of a curiously shrewd character, never forcing things to a destructive crisis, but being within the limits of their discretion. The patricians made a mean use of their political advantages to grow rich through the national conquests, at the expense not only of the defeated enemy but of the poorer plebeian whose farm had been neglected and who had fallen into debt during his military service. The plebeians were ousted from any share in the conquered lands, which the patricians divided up among themselves. The introduction of money probably increased the facilities of the usurer and the difficulties of the borrowing debtor.
Three sorts of pressure won the plebeians a greater share in the government of the country and the good things that were coming to Rome as she grew powerful. The first of these was the general strike of plebeians. Twice they actually marched right out of Rome threatening to make a new city higher up the Tiber, and twice this threat proved conclusive. The second method of pressure was the threat of a tyranny. Just as in Attica (the little state of which Athens was the capital) Peisistratus raised himself to power on the support of the poorer districts, so there was to be found in most periods of plebeian discontent some ambitious man ready to figure as a leader and wrest power from the senate. For a long time the Roman patricians were clever enough to beat every such potential tyrant by giving in to a certain extent to the plebeians. And finally, there were patricians big-minded and far-seeing enough to insist upon the need of reconciliation with the plebeians.
Thus, in 509 B.C., Valerius Poplicola, the consul, enacted that whenever the life or rights of any citizen were at stake, "there should be an appeal from the magistrates to the general assembly. This Lex Valeria was "the Habeas Corpus of Rome," and it freed the Roman plebeians from the worst dangers of class vindictiveness in the law courts.
In 494 B.C. occurred a strike. After the Latin war the pressure of debt had become excessive, and the plebeians saw with indignation their friends, who had often served the state bravely in the legions, thrown into chains and reduced to slavery at the demand of patrician creditors. War was raging against the Volscians; but the legionaries, on their victorious return, refused any longer to obey the consuls, and marched, though without any disorder, to the Sacred Mount beyond the Anio (up the Tiber). There they prepared to found a new city, since the rights of citizens were denied to them in the old one. The patricians were compelled to give way, and the plebeians, returning to Rome from the ‘First Secession,’ received the privilege of having officers of their own.
In 486 B.C. arose Spurius Cassius (2), a consul who carried an Agrarian Law securing public land for the plebeians. But the next year he was accused of aiming at royal power, and condemned to death. His law never came into operation.
There followed a long struggle on the part of the plebeians to have the laws of Rome written down, so that they would no longer have to trust to patrician memories. In 451-450 B.C. the; law of the Twelve Tables was published, the basis of all Roman law.
But in order that the Twelve Tables should be formulated, a committee of ten (the decemvirate) was appointed in the place of the ordinary magistrates. A second decemvirate, appointed in succession to the first, attempted a sort of aristocratic counterrevolution under Appius Claudius. The plebeians withdrew again, a second time, to the Sacred Mount, and Appius Claudius committed suicide in prison.
In 440 came a famine, and a second attempt to found a popular tyranny upon the popular wrongs, by Spurius Maelius, a wealthy plebeian, which ended in his assassination.
After the sack of Rome by the Gauls (390 B.C.), Marcus Manlius, who had been in command of the Capitol when the geese had saved it, came forward as a popular leader. The plebeians were suffering severely from the after-war usury and profiteering of the patricians, and were incurring heavy debts in rebuilding and restocking their farms. Manlius spent his fortune in releasing debtors. He was accused by the patricians of tyrranous intentions, condemned, and suffered the fate of condemned traitors in Rome, being flung from the Tarpeian Rock, the precipitous edge of that same Capitoline Hill he had defended.
In 376 B.C. Licinius, who was one of the ten tribunes for the people, began a long struggle with the patricians by making certain proposals called the Licinian Rogations, that there should be a limit to the amount of public land taken by any single citizen, so leaving some for everybody, that outstanding debts should be forgiven without interest upon the repayment of the principal, and that henceforth one at least of the two consuls should be a plebeian. This precipitated a ten-year struggle. The plebeian power to stop business by the veto of their representatives, the tribunes, was fully exercised. In cases of national extremity it was the custom to set all other magistrates aside and appoint one leader, the Dictator. Rome had done such a thing during times of military necessity before, but now the patricians set up a Dictator in a time of profound peace, with the idea of crushing Licinius altogether. They appointed Camillus, but he was a wiser man than his supporters; he brought about a compromise between the two orders in which most of the demands of the plebeians were conceded (367 B.C.), dedicated a temple to Concord, and resigned his power.
Thereafter the struggle between the orders abated. It abated because, among other influences, the social differences between patricians and plebeians were diminishing. Trade was coming to Rome with increasing political power, and many plebeians were growing rich and many patricians becoming relatively poor. Intermarriage had been rendered possible by a change in the law, and social intermixture was going on. While the rich plebeians were becoming, if not aristocratic, at least oligarchic in habits and sympathy, new classes were springing up in Rome with fresh interests and no political standing. Particularly abundant were the freedmen, slaves set free, for the most part artisans, but, some of them traders, who were growing wealthy. And the Senate, no longer a purely patrician body, since positions were now open to plebeians, was becoming now an assembly of all the wealthy, able, energetic, and influential men in the state. The Roman power was expanding, and as it expanded these old class oppositions of the early Latin community were becoming unmeaning. They were being replaced by new associations and new antagonisms. Rich men of all origins were being drawn together into a common interest against the communistic ideas of the poor.
In 390 B.C. Rome was a miserable little city on the borders of Etruria, being sacked by the Gauls; in 275 B.C. she was ruling and unifying all Italy, from the Arno to the Straits of Messina. The compromise of Camillus (367 B.C.) had put an end to internal dissensions, and left her energies free for expansion. And the same queer combination of sagacity and aggressive selfishness that had distinguished the war of her orders at home and enabled her population to worry out a balance of power without any catastrophe, marks her policy abroad. She understood the value of allies; she could assimilate; abroad as at home she could in those days at least "give and take" with a certain fairness and sanity. There lay the peculiar power of Rome.
According to a census made in 265 B.C., there were already in the Roman dominions, that is to say in Italy south of the Arno, 300,000 citizens. They all had a common interest in the welfare of the state; they were all touched a little with the diffused kinship of the republic. This was, we have to note, an absolutely new thing in the history of mankind. All considerable states and kingdoms and empires hitherto had been communities by mere obedience to some head, some monarch, upon whose moods and character the public welfare was helplessly dependent. No republic had hitherto succeeded in being anything more than a city-state. The so-called Athenian "empire" was simply a city-state directing its allies and its subjugated cities. In a few decades the Roman republic was destined to extend its citizenship into the valley of the Po, to assimilate the kindred Gauls, replacing their language by Latin, and to set up a Latin city, Aquileia, at the very head of the Adriatic Sea. In 89 B.C. all free inhabitants of Italy became Roman citizens; in A.D. 212 the citizenship was extended to all free men in the empire. This extraordinary political growth was manifestly the precursor of all modern states of the western type.
One natural result of this growth of a democracy of hundreds of thousands of citizens scattered over the greater part of Italy was the growth in power of the Senate. There had been in the development of the Roman constitution a variety of forms of the popular assembly, the plebeian assembly, the assembly by tribes, the assembly by centuries, and the like, into which variety we cannot enter here with any fullness; but the idea was established that with the popular assembly lay the power of initiating laws. It is to be noted that there was a sort of parallel government in this system. The assembly by tribes or by centuries was an assembly of the whole citizen body, patrician and plebeian together; the assembly of the plebeians was, of course, only of the plebeian class.
With the growth of Rome an unanticipated weakness crept into political life through these causes, and the popular assembly became more and more a gathering of political hacks and the city riffraff, and less and less a representation of the ordinary worthy citizens. From that period it steadily declined, and the new Senate, which was no longer a patrician body, with a homogeneous and on the whole, a noble tradition, but a body of rich men, ex-magistrates, powerful officials, bold adventurers and the like, pervaded by a strong disposition to return to the idea of hereditary qualification.
The Senate was a comparatively compact body varying between three hundred as a minimum, and, at the utmost, nine hundred members. The power of nominating and calling up the senators vested in the Republic first with the consuls, and some time after "censors" were created, many of the powers of the consuls had been transferred to them. Appius Claudius, one of the first of the censors to exercise it, enrolled freedmen in the tribes and called sons of freedmen to the Senate. But this was a shocking arrangement to the conservative instincts of the time; the consuls would not recognize his Senate, and the next censors (304 B.C.) set aside his invitations. His attempt, however, serves to show how far the Senate had progressed from its original condition as a purely patrician body.
The interests of its members were naturally antagonistic to the interests of the general body of citizens, but for some generations that great mass of ordinary men was impotent to express its dissent from the proceedings of this oligarchy.
While Italy under Rome was a republican country; Carthage was a republican city. She had an "empire," as Athens had an "empire," of tributary states which did not love her, and she had a great and naturally disloyal industrial slave population.
The two great western powers, and Rome perhaps more than Carthage, were strained mentally and morally by the stresses of the First War. The evil side of life was uppermost. The history of the Second and Third Punic Wars (218 to 201 and 149 to 146 B.C.), it is plain, is not the history of perfectly sane peoples. It is nonsense for historians to write of the political instincts of the Romans or Carthaginians. Quite other instincts were loose. The red eyes of the ancestral ape had come back into the world. It was a time when reasonable men were howled down or murdered; the true spirit of the age is shown in the eager examination for signs and portents the still quivering livers of those human victims who were sacrificed in Rome during the panic before the battle of Telamon. The western world was indeed black with homicidal monomania. Two great peoples, both very necessary to the world’s development, fell foul of one another, and at last Rome succeeded in murdering Carthage.
Carthage submitted without any further struggle. The terms were severe, but they left it possible for her to hope for an honorable future. She had to abandon Spain to Rome, to give up all her war fleet except ten vessels, to pay 10,000 talents (£2,400,000), and, what was the most difficult condition of all, to agree not to wage war without the permission of Rome. Finally a condition was added that Hannibal, as the great enemy of Rome, should be surrendered. But he saved his countrymen from this humiliation by flying to Asia.
These were exorbitant conditions, with which Rome should have been content. But there are nations so cowardly that they dare not merely conquer their enemies; they must mak’ siccar and destroy them.
The history of Rome for the fifty-three years that elapsed between the battle of Zama and the last act of the tragedy, the Third Punic War, tells of a hard, ungracious expansion of power abroad and of a slow destruction, by the usury and greed of the rich, of the free agricultural population at home.
The spirit of the nation had become harsh and base; there was no further extension of citizenship, no more generous attempts at the assimilation of congenital foreign populations. Spain was administered badly, and settled slowly and with great difficulty. Complicated interventions led to the reduction of Illyria and Macedonia to the position of tribute-paying provinces; Rome, it was evident, was going to "tax the foreigner" now and release her home population from taxation. After 168 B.C. the old land tax was no longer levied in Italy, and the only revenue derived from Italy was from the state domains and through a tax on imports from overseas. The revenues from the province of "Asia" defrayed the expenses of the Roman state. At home, privileged men were acquiring farms by loans and foreclosure, often the farms of men impoverished by war service; they were driving the free citizens off their land, and running their farms with the pitilessly driven slave labor that was made cheap and abundant.
Sicily was handed over to the greedy enterprise of taxfarmers. Corn could be grown there by rich men using slaves, and imported very profitably into Rome, and so the home land could be turned over to cattle and sheep feeding. Consequently a drift of the uprooted Italian population to the towns, and particularly to Rome, began.
The general grim baseness of the age produced the wasting disease of the Second Punic War—a disease of the state, which was producing avaricious rich men exactly as diseases of the body will sometimes produce great pustules.
We must note here, a change in the military system of Rome, after the Second Punic War, that was of enormous importance in her later development. Up to that period the Roman armies had been levies of free citizens. Fighting power and voting power were closely connected; the public assembly followed the paraphernalia of a military mobilization. The ordinary Roman citizen, was a farmer. At the summons of his country he went "on commando." But at the back of their minds was an anxious desire to go back to their farms. For prolonged operations, such as the siege of Veii, the Romans reinforced and relieved the troops in relays.
The necessity for subjugating Spain after the Second Punic War involved a need for armies of a different type. Spain was too far off for periodic reliefs, and the war demanded a more thorough training than was possible with these on and off soldiers. Accordingly men were enlisted for longer terms and paid. So the paid soldier first appeared in Roman affairs. And booty was added to pay. The introduction of military pay led on to a professional army, and this, a century later, to the disarmament of the ordinary Roman citizen, who was now drifting in an impoverished state into Rome and the larger towns. The great wars had been won, the foundations of the empire had been well and truly laid by the embattled farmers of Rome before 200 B.C. In the process the embattled farmers of Rome had already largely disappeared. We shall find we are dealing with a new kind of army altogether, no longer held together in the solidarity of a common citizenship. As that tie fails, the legions discover another in esprit de corps, in their common difference from and their common interest against the general community. They develop a warmer interest in their leaders, who secure them pay and plunder. Before the Punic Wars it was the tendency of ambitious men in Rome to court the plebeians; after that time they began to court the legions.
The history of the Roman Republic thus far is in many respects much more modern in flavor, especially to the American or Western European reader, than anything that has preceded it. For the first time we have something like a self-governing "nation," something larger than a mere city state, seeking to control its own destinies. For the first time we have a wide countryside under one conception of law. We get in the Senate and the popular assembly a conflict of groups and personalities, an argumentative process of control, far more stable and enduring than any autocracy can be, and far more flexible and adaptable than any priesthood. For the first time also we encounter social conflicts comparable to our own. Money has superseded barter, and financial capital has become fluid and free; not perhaps so fluid and free as it is today, but much more so than it had ever been before. The Punic Wars were wars of peoples, such as were no other wars we have yet recorded. Indubitably the broad lines of our present world, the main ideas, the chief oppositions, were appearing in those days.
~From The New and Revised Outline of History (Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind), by H.G. Wells, Garden City Publishing Company, Inc., Garden City, New York (1931)
Note: We have seen the old movies and have read enough of Roman history to make the statement, "The same forces that caused the fall of the Roman Empire will cause the fall of the American Empire." But, if challenged to cite specifics to support the claim, we (myself included) don’t really have any to cite. With thanks to H.G. Wells for leaving us with a few real parallels with which we can back up our comparison. (DWH)
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