Bryan Caplan  

Tacitus, Peace, and Desolation

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One of Tacitus' most famous lines is "They make a desert and call it peace."  What I didn't realize until I read The Agricola is that Tacitus is quoting (or paraphrasing) Calgacus, an enemy of Rome.  The full speech (chaps 30-32) is awesome.  Highlight:

These plunderers of the world [the Romans], after exhausting the land by their devastations, are rifling the ocean: stimulated by avarice, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor; unsatiated by the East and by the West: the only people who behold wealth and indigence with equal avidity. To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

I can just imagine the Romans explaining that the slaughter was a small short-run cost dwarfed by massive long-run benefits.  I'm skeptical, but don't know enough about pre- and post-Roman Britain to speak with confidence.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Franklin Harris writes:

"All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"

Chandran writes:

I recommend Terry Jones and Alan Ereira's "Barbarians: An Alternative Roman History" (yes, Terry Jones of Monty Python fame).
Without denying Roman accomplishments, they offer a comprehensive and witty account of the way in which Rome ravaged Europe and destroyed numerous peoples who were actually quite good at building their own roads, maintaining public order, developing medicine, irrigating their crops and so on. In many cases the Romans simply plundered these communities to feed their own (often military) ambitions. But victors write the histories. The inhabitants of Dacia neglected to do so (having all been killed). Still, one must admire those aqueducts...

Todd Fletcher writes:

Compare levels of Mediterranean trade before, during and after the Romans, that'll answer the question in part.

Philip S. Huff writes:

I would be very cautious about attributing those words to Calgacus. It was a common and accepted practice among ancient historians to invent speeches; and Tacitus almost certainly was following that tradition here.

John David Galt writes:

Whoever wrote the speech, he seems to be accusing Rome of laying waste neighboring countries not merely to put a stop to attacks from them, but for the sake of destruction itself, like the Mongols and Zulus did on a regular basis. I find this hard to believe. A society that did not value building over destroying would not have had Rome's roads and aqueducts.

David Friedman writes:

At only a slight tangent, I've long been struck by the implications of estimates of the pattern of European population. According to the World Atlas of Population History, European population peaked about 300 A.D. and was declining through the late Roman period. In 600 A.D., with the Empire barely cold in its grave, it started back up. By 800 it had passed its previous peak, and continued growing faster and faster until the 14th c.

For a poor society, I take population growth as a proxy, although an imperfect one, for standard of living, which suggests that medieval feudalism may have actually functioned better than imperial rule, not worse. The idea of the "dark ages" as a period of ignorance and retrogression has become increasingly less accepted among historians over time--one reason why they have pretty much abandoned the term.

Jim Glass writes:

I can just imagine the Romans explaining that the slaughter was a small short-run cost dwarfed by massive long-run benefits.

I doubt if the Roman conquerers would have said that (they weren't notably altruistic) but a lot of historians certainly say that was the result.

Most importantly perhaps one should look at the opinions of the peoples in the Empire, and how they voted with their feet.

Adrian Goldsworthy for instance notes that the Roman Empire was unique in that (once two generations after being conquered had passed) there were no major nationalist/ethnic movements to escape it. As he said, "there were no Gahndis or George Washingtons". To the contrary, the fall of the West was largely driven by peoples trying to *get into* the Empire, to get the benefits.

I'm skeptical, but don't know enough about pre- and post-Roman Britain to speak with confidence

Bryan Ward-Perkins looks at the economics of this in some detail and notes many signs of higher welfare during the Roman stay and lower welfare before and after -- construction of buildings, size of cattle, existence of coins.

In particular, during the Roman years there were many low-denomination coins circulating in Britain that had come from as far away as the eastern end of the empire -- indicating that the lower-middle class benefitted from extensive trade. After the Romans left those coins disappear, only coinage consistent with limited trade by the wealthiest persists. (And housing became more rudimentary, cattle smaller in size, etc.)

And of course the Britons themselves were not happy about the Romans leaving -- see the Saxon invasion, Arthurian tales et.

North et. al. make the point that when kings/warlords/mafia dons succeed in taking over a primitive society the first thing they do is suppress/co-opt competitors, establishing a "monopoly of violence".

While they do this for entirely self-interested reasons, doing so provides huge benefits to society as a whole by reducing the great violence in early societies and facilitating economic surplus ... in good cases starting down the road to establish laws and voluntary social orders.

To us this looks like criminal barbarism -- the warlords/dons using force to secure power and monopoly rents that they distribute among their minions and soldiers to enforce their "monoply of violence". But compared to the *original condition* of real chaotic barbarism and endemic violence, it is a major evolutionary step forward.

cassander writes:

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