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The following item has been doing the rounds today, that the mobility of the population through Italy was the cause of downfall of the Roman Republic.

Rethinking the fall of Rome’s republic – MIT News Office:

The result, he adds, was “a new system of recruitment where a powerful general goes to the population and says, ‘Will you all fight with me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’ because any such volunteers were likely to enjoy the spoils of war. Population movement led to the personal client army of the late republic, which has long been recognized as a key to understanding its fall.”

Well, who I am, a mere PhD student, to argue with a MIT professor? But I do think that there’s something wrong with the picture. Also bear in mind I’m basing my information off a press release from the MIT press office (it doesn’t mention a book or an article where Professor Broadhead develops his point in detail). The issue that I find isn’t that the explanation is wrong, just that’s it’s only (perhaps) necessary but not sufficient. Broadly, I’m sceptical of anything touted as “the” explanation for just about any historical event, and especially the “Fall of the Republic”; a topic on which you could probably stock a small library.

Kristina Killgrove at Powered By Osteons has a great take on this news:

What’s cool about Broadhead’s theory is that it’s testable! (What’s not cool is that there’s no mention in the article that it can be tested.) Using skeletal remains and isotope and aDNA analysis, we can find out more about geographical mobility in the Republic.

Now, this is more like it. We can quantify the mobility! That information will be really interesting when the research is done and it is available. Of course, Kristina’s data as presented in that post concentrates on mobility from the rest of Italy to Rome, rather than intra-Italian movements, which is what seems to be required to verify the Broadhead theory. I also take mild exception to the broad assertion that “classicists” don’t pay attention to these matters, I am not sure that the conclusion that three of four people buried at Rome grew up outside it would actually excite the ire of any classicists that I know. That, to me, just seems like scientific confirmation as to something that’s already expected, maybe even taken for granted.

Even if this internal migration turns out to be archaeologically validated and scientifically proven, the thing that makes me take pause the subsequent connection of this (potential) fact to the supposedly sole role that the idea of the personally-loyal army plays in the downfall. To put the blame solely at the cause of these “personal armies”, whether or not caused by internal Italian location mobility, seems to me to be manifestly inadequate. For a start, this explanation ignores the whole trajectory of Roman politics of the first century B.C.[1]

This is of course not to ignore the role that Italy plays in shaping the Roman political dynamic (the Social War just to start); a complex dynamic that many classical historians do, in fact, research and discuss. The failure of the Republic is a complex topic and has many facets. There is no single “cause”; there were a whole series of historical contingencies and war at no point was inevitable. As historians I feel we are doing ourselves a disservice if we ever act as if there are simple, singular causes to most of the complex events of history.

[1]Ever since (at least) Erich Gruen wrote The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, scholars have been stressing the extraordinary continuity of the Roman political system (as in the one that Sulla basically created). This argument is only even more convincing to me after reading K-J Hölkeskamp’s recent book on the topic, and hearing Erich Gruen’s lecture a couple of months ago at AMPHORAE on what he’d write differently in LGRR if he was to re-write it. After Sulla there’s effectively an entire generation of essential stability before civil war again erupts. Right up to the very moment where war once again erupts, Caesar and Pompey and all the others (nearly all – Cataline & c. excepted) behave normally, that is, within the accepted boundaries in the system of elite competition that they share.