Rome vs. China

About my earlier China post, from Harrison Searles of GMU:

On the comparison of China and Rome, one of the factors that immediately came to my mind was a combination of (2) and (4): The Roman Empire faced a much more complex logistical problem of maintaining territorial integrity than did China and its territorial integrity could be destroyed from a sea campaign.

These two themes actually did greatly contribute to Rome’s unraveling during the Crisis of the 5th Century: One of the under-appreciated aspects of the Crisis of the 5th Century that led to the Fall of the Roman Empire was the loss of North Africa to the Vandals. Peter Heather provides a short description of how destructive the loss of North Africa was to the empire in The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006):

“No other single blow could have done the Empire so much harm. At a stroke. Geiseric had removed from Aetius’ control the richest provinces of the Roman west, with the result that financial crisis looked How was it allowed to happen? Presumably, after four and a half years of relative peace, and thinking that Geiseric was going to keep the treaty made in February 435, people took their eyes off the ball. There was, I suspect, simply too much instability in other parts of the empire for troops to be left in Carthage on a ‘what if?’ basis. The Visigothic war in particular, brought to an end just before Geiseric made his move, had probably demanded every available man. So with the Carthage garrison at minimum strength, the cunning Vandal had taken full advantage.” (p. 289)

Here, I see the theme of (4) in your blog post: “[China] has a large space of relatively flat plains.” Chinese generals did not face the same complex logistical problems that Roman ones did in deploying their military force across their nation.

When North Africa was lost, retaking it to reassert territorial integrity was not as easy as simply marching a couple of legions there. If it were that easy, I very much doubt the Vandals could have held onto North Africa. Instead, the Roman Empire needed to launch a sea campaign, which is theme (2) of your post: “when it comes to naval warfare — more common for Europe — small countries have a chance to punch above their weight, witness England and Portugal.”

In 468 both the Western and Eastern Empires launched a massive joint campaign to take back North Africa. However, the armada they had launched was smashed at the Battle of Cape Bon by a much smaller Vandal fleet that had the weather gauge to its advantage. Punching above their weight, the Vandal kingdom of North Africa was able to beat back a campaign manned and funded by both Ravenna and Constantinople—a feat that would have been close to impossible on land.

The failure of that armada to land on North Africa doomed half of the Roman world to extinction, for without the North African provinces, the Western Roman Empire could not reassert its hegemony over the centrifugal forces now at full force across Gaul and Hispania. The difficulties of maintaining optimal deployments of troops in an empire largely bifurcated (at least in scale of importance) by a sea and the hazards of warfare at sea conspired to make the problem of maintaining imperial territorial integrity too difficult for Roman politics to solve during the Crisis of the 5th Century, contributing to the total collapse of that integrity in the west. Had the Western Roman Empire not been encumbered by (2) and (4) the survival of said integrity is certainly imaginable—and within the capability its resources offered it.


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