Insurrection in the cities of Iraq. Mass resistance across Palestine. Foreign troops bogged down and facing defeat. A crisis for western imperialism in the Middle East.
This may sound like a description of the world today. But the date was 117 AD and the policies of bull-headed Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) had set the region alight.
Trajan had first brought carnage and chaos to Dacia (ancient Romania), when he crushed the independent kingdom on Rome’s northern border, plundered its bullion reserves, took half a million slaves and replaced native farmers with colonial settlers.
Romania is “the land of the Romans” and Romanian is a form of Latin because Trajan’s policy of ethnic cleansing 2,000 years ago was so thorough.
Dizzy with success, he then went for Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), which was the main tax base of the sprawling Parthian Empire at the time. Mesopotamia was among the oldest, richest and most heavily populated centres of civilisation in the world.
But the Parthians were stunned by the Roman blitzkrieg and melted away. Within three years Trajan’s 130,000 strong army had reached the Persian Gulf and he appeared to be a world-conquering colossus – a new Alexander the Great.
Then the Middle East exploded. The people of the occupied cities turned on their Roman garrisons and massacred them. The Parthian Army swept down from the eastern uplands and cut the long Roman supply line to Syria.
Deep in the rear – in Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, and Palestine – the Jewish peasantry rose in revolt against Greek landlords, Roman tax-collectors, and local puppet-rulers.
As news of the debacle spread, the European heartlands of the empire came under attack and Trajan hurried home. He died en route and the succession passed to his second in command – Hadrian.
Hadrian was a highly intelligent and far-sighted member of the Roman ruling class. The revolt in Iraq taught him three lessons that he never forgot.
First, the Roman army could be defeated. Second, the empire was over-extended and risked further defeats if it failed to retrench. Third, such defeats could spark a tidal wave of resistance that might bring down the entire system.
It is surely not a coincidence that the British Museum has chosen Hadrian as the subject of its major exhibition this year. His achievement was to manage the greatest U-turn in Roman history and end a centuries-old policy of aggressive, predatory, expansionary imperialism. And defeat in Iraq was the catalyst.
It is difficult to exaggerate the militarism in Roman culture. Rome had waged wars of conquest, plunder, and enslavement in virtually every year of its existence. The imperial city was a showcase of victory monuments. Its greatest pageants were military parades. Its patron deities were ghastly war-gods.
Military history dominated literary output and images of war were the work of official artists. Slave-gladiators fought mock battles in the arena for public entertainment.
But Roman military imperialism had hit the buffers. Great hauls of booty, slaves, land, and tribute had sustained the war machine as it expanded across the plough-lands of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Agriculture yielded large surpluses, and these were the basis of civilisation and empire.
But by Hadrian’s day, Rome’s frontiers had come to rest at the limit of plough-agriculture – beyond was a wilderness of hills, forests, and deserts, sparsely populated by crofters, pastoralists and nomads. The one exception was in the East, but here Rome faced a rival superpower that could be overcome only in a long war of attrition.
Any such war would drain the frontiers elsewhere of soldiers. The empire had reached its limits.
Hadrian’s response was two-pronged. The frontiers would become fixed and heavily policed borders. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain is the supreme symbol of the new policy – a symbol of defeat in Iraq and an empire at bay.
A continuous wall, it ran for 73 miles across Northern Britain from sea to sea. In front was a ditch and a thicket of spikes and along the length of it were watchtowers and forts manned by several thousand troops.
The wall allowed the border to be defended, policed, and taxed. It also fostered racism. It was part of a new ideology that counterposed “Romans” and “barbarians”. Those outside the empire were now excluded aliens. Those within, by contrast, were “the civilised”.
The second prong of Hadrian’s policy was to impose a uniform top-down culture on the inhabitants of the empire.
Democracy had long ago been bloodily suppressed by Greek aristocrats, Macedonian kings and Roman imperial governors. At the top, the empire was run by army officers, state bureaucrats and millionaire landowners. Locally, it was run by property-owning gentry.
The classical culture of towns and villas – the culture of the Roman archaeological sites we visit today – was that of the ruling class. This culture now became compulsory.
There were massive urban redevelopment projects across the empire. Everywhere there were new temples, public squares, leisure centres, and shopping malls. Often the emperor was present in person, giving orders, making plans, contributing funds. We see the results in the monumental ruins that still stand in a hundred ancient cities.
Who paid for this? Ancient cities were places of consumption, where agricultural surpluses were turned into monumental architecture and luxury lifestyles. They were centres of elite power and status display. But the wealth of the ancient world came from the countryside.
The vast majority of the population were rural producers. Their legal status varied. There were slaves, serfs, debt-bondsmen, poor tenant farmers and landless wage-labourers – all exploited in different ways by urban-based landowners and tax collectors. Even freehold peasants paid taxes and performed labour services.
Exploitation was brutal. Under capitalism, the reality of exploitation is disguised by the contract between boss and worker. In antiquity, it was open.
Bailiffs and hired thugs were sent into the villages at harvest time to extract the surplus. Tax collection was a military operation. Flogging was routine. In the Roman Empire class relations were based on force.
Most of the time, resistance was low-level and local. Because of this, it is largely hidden from history. Only occasionally did it flare into generalised revolt against the system.
Italy and Sicily were shaken by three great slave revolts between 136 and 71 BC. An Italian social bandit called Bulla – a Robin Hood figure – led a force of several hundred in the early 3rd century AD.
Sometimes revolts headed by traditional leaders were fuelled by the class bitterness at the base of society. A German insurrection under Arminius threw the Romans out in 9 AD and a British one under Boudica came close to achieving the same in 61 AD.
The most persistent rebels were the Jews of Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Ancient Judaism was a missionary religion of the poor. Mass conversion had spread the religion from Palestine to many of the cities and much of the countryside of the East. In Hadrian’s time, there may have been ten million Jews in all.
Jewish politics were a ferment of sects and debates. Radical groups like the Essenes – the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls – predicted an imminent “Apocalypse” in which the poor would rise up against the Romans, the Greeks and the Jewish aristocracy.
Slaves would be freed, debts cancelled, rents and taxes abolished and the land restored to the people.
Jesus Christ was part of this movement. His political message has been corrupted by Christianity into a fantasy of life after death. But the class war in the Roman Empire echoes through the Gospels. “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled… But woe unto you that are rich...”
Judaism provided the Jewish peasants of the East with both organisation and an ideology of resistance. Three times they exploded into revolt – in 66-73 AD, in 115-118 AD, and finally, under Hadrian, in 132-136 AD.
Hadrian hated the Jews. A cultural racist and a class snob, he viewed the lives and values of the provincial peasants who created the wealth of empire with sneering contempt. He saw the Jews in particular as an enemy within.
Like the Palestinians today, they represented a hard core of resistance to imperialism and exploitation in the Middle East.
Just as Tony Blair travels to the region intent on crushing the Palestinian Hamas group and Lebanese Hizbollah, so Hadrian went to Jerusalem in 130 AD intent on the destruction of Judaism.
The holy city was refounded as a Roman colony. A temple to Hadrian – Jupiter – was erected on the site of the demolished Jewish temple. Jewish cultural practices were banned. Hadrian sang the praises of historic enemies of the Jews.
Greek cities were conspicuously reconstructed at lavish expense. Classical culture was to be imposed by force from above. The canker of peasant Judaism was to be excised.
Goaded to resistance, the Jews of Palestine rose under the leadership of a new “messiah” – a warrior-prophet of the Apocalypse – known as Bar-Kokhba (“Son of the Star”).
The war lasted four years. The Romans poured in troops, but were soon bogged down in relentless guerrilla warfare. By the end, Roman victory depended on deploying an army in Palestine as big as that which had invaded Mesopotamia 20 years before.
Trajan had discovered the physical limits of Roman imperialism. Hadrian had discovered the class limits.
Because it was based on violence and exploitation, and was held together by force and fear, the Roman Empire faced the sullen resentment of its subject peoples. They could never be won over. And the potential was always there for explosive class revolts.
Neil Faulkner is an archaeologist and a historian based at Bristol University. He was historical advisor on the BBC Timewatch documentary on Hadrian’s Wall in 2007.
See also Neil Faulkner interviewed about his history of Rome » Empire of the Eagles
The Hadrian Empire and Conflict exhibition is on at the British Museum until 26 October. For details go to » www.britishmuseum.org