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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

Rome's Recruits And England's Recruits

Title:     Rome's Recruits And England's Recruits
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

Two facts on which a sound estimate of the Roman corn-trade depends are these: first, the very important one, that it was not Rome in the sense of the Italian peninsula which relied upon foreign corn, but in the narrowest sense Rome the city; as respected what we now call Lombardy, Florence, Genoa, etc., Rome did not disturb the ancient agriculture. The other fact offers, perhaps, a still more important consideration. Rome was latterly a most populous city--we are disposed to agree with Lipsius, that it was four times as populous as most moderns esteem--most certainly it bore a higher ratio to the total Italy than any other capital (even London) has since borne to the territory over which it presided. Consequently it will be argued that in such a ratio must the foreign importations of Rome, even in the limited sense of Rome the city, have operated more destructively upon the domestic agriculture. Grant that not Italy, but Rome, was the main importer of foreign grain, still, if Rome to all Italy were as one to four in population, which there is good reason to believe it was, then even upon that distinction it will be insisted that the Roman importation crushed one-fourth of the native agriculture. Now, this we deny. Some part of the African and Egyptian grain was but a substitution for the Sardinian, and so far made no difference to Italy in ploughs, but only in _denarii_. But the main consideration of all is, that the Italian grain was not withdrawn from the vast population of Rome--this is _not_ the logic of the case--no; on the contrary, the vast population of Rome arose and supervened as a consequence upon the opening of the foreign Alexandrian corn trade. It was not Rome that quirted the home agriculture. Rome, in the full sense, never would have existed without foreign supplies. If, therefore, Rome, by means of foreign grain, rose from four hundred thousand heads to four millions, then it follows that (except as to the original demand for the four hundred thousand) not one plough was disused in Italy that ever had been used. Whilst, even with regard to the original demand of the four hundred thousand, by so much of the Egyptian grain as had been a mere substitution for Sardinian no effect whatever could have followed to Italian agriculture.

Here, therefore, we see the many limitations which arise to the modern doctrine upon the destructive agricultural consequences of the Roman corn trade. Rome may have prevented the Italian agriculture from expanding, but she could not have caused it to decline.[1] Now, let us see how far this Roman corn trade affected the Roman recruiting service. It is alleged that agriculture declined under the foreign corn trade, and that for this reason ploughmen declined. But if we have shown cause for doubting whether agriculture declined, or only did not increase, then we are at liberty to infer that ploughmen did not decline, but only did not increase. Even of the real and not imaginary ploughmen at any time possessed by Italy, too many in the south were slaves, and therefore ineligible for the legionary service, except in desperate intestine struggles like the Social war or the Servile. Rome could not lose for her recruiting service any ploughmen but those whom she had really possessed; nor out of those whom really she possessed any that were slaves; nor out of those whom (not being slaves) she _might_ have used for soldiers could it be said that she was liable to any absolute loss except as to those whom ordinarily she _did_ use as soldiers, and preferred to use in circumstances of free choice.

These points premised, we go on to say that no craze current amongst learned men has more deeply disturbed the truth of history than the notion that 'Marsi' and 'Peligni,' or other big-boned Italian rustics, ever by choice constituted the general or even the favourite recruiting fund of the Roman republic. In thousands of books we have seen it asserted or assumed that the Romans triumphed so extensively chiefly because their armies were composed of Roman or kindred blood. This is false. Not the material, but the military system, of the Romans was the true key to their astonishing successes. In the time of Hannibal a Roman consul relied chiefly, it is true, upon Italian recruits, because he could seldom look for men of other blood. And it is possible enough that the same man, Fabius or Marcellus, if he had been sent abroad as a proconsul, might find his choice even then in what formerly had been his necessity. In some respects it is probable that the Italian rustic of true Italian blood was at that period the best raw material[2] easily procured for the legionary soldier. But circumstances altered; as the range of war expanded to the East it became far too costly to recruit in Italy; nor, if it had been less costly, could Italy have supplied the waste. Above all, with the advantages of the Roman military system, no particular physical material was required for making good soldiers. For these reasons it was that, after the Levant was permanently occupied by the Romans, where any legion had been originally stationed _there_ it continued to be stationed, and _there_ it was recruited, and, unless in some rare emergency of a critical war arising at a distance, _there_ it was so continually recruited, that in the lapse of a generation it contained hardly any Roman or Italian blood in its composition, like the Attic ship which had been repaired with cedar until it retained no fragment of its original oak. Thus, the legion stationed at Antioch became entirely Syrian; that stationed at Alexandria, Grecian, Jewish, and, in a separate sense, Alexandrine. Caesar, it is notorious, raised one entire legion of Gauls (distinguished by the cognizance upon the helmet of the _lark_, whence commonly called the legion of the _Alauda_). But he recruited all his legions in Gaul. In Spain the armies of Assanius and Petreius, who surrendered to Caesar under a convention, consisted chiefly of Spaniards (not _Hispanienses_, or Romans born in Spain, but _Hispani_, Spaniards by blood); at Pharsalia a large part of Caesar's army were Gauls, and of Pompey's it is well known that many even amongst the legions contained no Europeans at all, but (as Caesar seasonably reminded his army) consisted of vagabonds from every part of the East. From all this we argue that _S.P.Q.R._ did not depend latterly upon native recruiting. And, in fact, they did not need to do so; their system and discipline would have made good soldiers out of mop-handles, if (like Lucian's magical mop-handles) they could only have learned to march and to fill buckets with water at the word of command.

We see, too, the secret power and also the secret political wisdom of Christianity in another instance. Those public largesses of grain, which, in old Rome, commenced upon principles of ambition and of factious encouragement to partisans, in the new Rome of Constantinople were propagated for ages under the novel motive of Christian charity to paupers. This practice has been condemned by the whole chorus of historians who fancy that from this cause the domestic agriculture languished, and that a bounty was given upon pauperism. But these are reveries of literary men. That particular section of rural industry which languished in Italy, did so by a reaction from _rent_ in the severe modern sense. The grain imported from Sardinia, from Africa the province, and from Egypt, was grown upon soils less costly, because with equal cost more productive. The effect upon Italy from bringing back any considerable portion of this provincial corn-growth[3] to her domestic districts would have been suddenly to develop rent upon a large series of evils, and to load the provincial grain as well as the home-grown--the cheap provincial as well as the dear home-grown--with the whole difference of these new costs. Neither is the policy of the case at all analogous to our own at the moment. In three circumstances it differs essentially:

First, provinces are not foreigners; colonies are not enemies. An exotic corn-trade could not for Rome do the two great injuries which assuredly it would do for England; it could not transfer the machinery of opulence to a hostile and rival state; it could not invest a jealous competitor with power suddenly to cut off supplies that had grown into a necessity, and thus to create in one month a famine or an insurrection. Egypt had neither the power nor any prospect of the power to act as an independent state towards Rome; the transfer to Egypt of the Roman agriculture, supposing it to have been greater than it really was, could have operated but like a transfer from Norfolk to Yorkshire.

Secondly, as respected Italy, the foreign grain _did not enter the same markets as the native_. Either one or the other would have lost its advantage, and the natural bounty which it enjoyed from circumstances, by doing so. Consequently the evils of an artificial scale, where grain raised under one set of circumstances fixes or modifies the price for grain raised under a different set of circumstances, were unknown in the Italian markets. But these evils by a special machinery, viz., the machinery of good and bad seasons, are aggravated for a modern state intensely, whenever she depends too much upon alien stores; and specifically they are aggravated by the fact that both grains _enter the same market_, so that the one by too high a price is encouraged unreasonably, the other by the same price (too low for opposite circumstances) is depressed ruinously as regards coming years; whence in the end two sets of disturbances--one set frequently from the _present_ seasons, and a second set from the way in which these are made to act upon the _future_ markets.

Thirdly, the Roman corn-trade did not of necessity affect her military service injuriously, and for this reason, that rural economy did not of necessity languish because agriculture languished locally; some other culture, as of vineyards, _oliveta_, orchards, pastures, replaced the declining culture of grain; if ploughmen were fewer, other labourers were more. It is forgotten, besides, that the decline of Italian agriculture, never more than local, was exceedingly gradual; for two hundred and fifty years before the Christian era Italy never _had_ depended exclusively upon herself. Sardinia and Sicily, at her own doors, were her granaries; consequently the change never _had_ been that abrupt change which modern writers imagine.

But let us indulge in the luxury of confirming what we have said by the light of contrast. Suppose the circumstances changed, suppose them reversed, and then all those evil consequence sought to take effect which in the case of Rome we have denied. Now, it happened that they _were_ reversed; not, indeed, for Rome, who had been herself ruined as metropolis of the West before the effects of a foreign corn-dependence could unfold themselves, but for her daughter and rival in the East. Early in the seventh century, near to the very crisis of the Hegira (which dates from the Christian year 622), Constantinople, Eastern Rome, suddenly became acquainted with the panic of famine. In one hour perhaps this change fell upon the imperial city, and, but for the imperial granaries, not the panic of famine, but famine itself, would have surprised the imperial city; for the suddenness of the calamity would have allowed no means of searching out or raising up a relief to it. At that time the greatest man who ever occupied the chair of the Eastern Caesars, viz., Heraclius,[4] was at the head of affairs. But the perplexity was such that no man could face it. On the one hand Constantine, the founder of this junior Rome, had settled upon the houses of the city a claim for a weekly _dimensum_ of grain. Upon this they relied; so that doubly the Government stood pledged--first, for the importation of corn that should be sufficient; secondly, for its distribution upon terms as near to those of Constantine as possible. But, on the other hand, Persia (the one great stationary enemy of the empire) had in the year 618 suddenly overrun Egypt; grain became deficient on the banks of the Nile--had it even been plentiful, to so detested an enemy it would have been denied--and thus, without a month's warning, the supply, which had not failed since the inauguration of the city in 330, ceased in one week. The people of this mighty city were pressed by the heaviest of afflictions. The emperor, under false expectations, was tempted into making engagements which he could not keep; the Government, at a period which otherwise and for many years to come was one of awful crisis, became partially insolvent; the shepherd was dishonoured, the flocks were ruined; and had that Persian armament which about ten years later laid siege to Constantinople then stood at her gates, the Cross would have been trampled on by the fire-worshipping idolater, and the barbarous Avar would have desolated the walls of the glorified Caesar who first saw Christ marching in the van of Roman armies. Such an iliad of woes would have expanded itself _seriatim_, and by a long procession, from the one original mischief of depending for daily bread upon those who might suddenly become enemies or tools of enemies. England! read in the distress of that great Caesar,[5] who may with propriety be called the earliest (as he was the most prosperous) of Crusaders, read in the internal struggle of his heart--too conscious that dishonour had settled upon his purple--read in the degradations which he traversed as some fiery furnace (yet not unsinged), the inevitable curses which await nations who sacrifice, for a momentary convenience of bread, sacrifice for a loaf, the charter of their supremacy! This is literally to fulfil the Scriptural case of selling a birthright for a mess of pottage.

For England we may say of this case--_Transeat in exemplum!_

Great Britain, on the contrary, is limited in her recruiting-grounds by modern political relations as respects Europe: she _has_ formed an excellent foreign corps long ago in the Mediterranean; a Hessian corps in America; an admirable Hanoverian legion during the late war. But circumstances too often prevent her relying (as the Romans did) on the perfection of her military _system_ so far as to dispense with native materials; except, indeed, in the East, where the Roman principle is carried out to the widest extent, needing only one-tenth of British by way of model and inspiration under circumstances of peculiar trial! In African stations also, in the West Indies and on the American continent (as in Honduras), England proceeds (though insufficiently) upon this fine Roman principle, making her theory, her discipline, and the network of her rules do the work of her own too costly hands. She, like Rome, finds the benefit of her fine system chiefly in the dispensation which it facilitates from working with any exhaustible fund of means. Excellent must be that workmanship which can afford to be careless about its materials; yet still--where naturally and essentially it must be said that _materiem superabat opus_, because one section of our martial service moves by nautical soldiers, and with respect to the other half because it is necessary to meet European troops by men of British blood--we cannot, for European purposes, look to any other districts than our own native _officinae_ of population. The Life Guards (1st regiment) and the Blues (2nd) recruit chiefly, or did so thirty years ago, in Yorkshire. This is a manufacturing county, though in a mode of manufacturing which escapes many evils of the factory system. And generally we are little disposed pedantically to disparage towns as funds of a good soldiery. Men of mighty bone and thews, sons of Anak, to our own certain knowledge, arise in Kendal, Wakefield, Bradford and Leeds; huge men, by thousands, amongst the spinners and weavers of Glasgow, Paisley, etc., well able to fight their way through battalions of clod-hoppers whose talk is of oxen. But, unless in times subject to special distress, it is not so easy to tempt away the weaver from his loom as the delver from his spade. We believe the reason to be, that the monotony of a rustic life is more oppressive to those who have limited resources than the corresponding monotony of a town life. For this reason, and for many others, it is certain--and perhaps (unless we get to fighting with steam-men) it will continue to be certain through centuries--that, for the main staple of her armies and her navies, England must depend upon the quality of her bold peasantry and noble yeomanry; for we must remember that, of those huge-limbed men who are found in the six northern counties of England and in the Scottish Lowlands, of those elegantly-formed men who are found in Devonshire, Cornwall, etc., of those _hardy_ men (a feature in human physics still more important) who are found in every district--if many are now resident in towns, most of them originated in rustic life; and from rustic life it is that the reservoir of towns is permanently fed. Rome was, England never will be, independent of her rural population. Rome never had a yeomanry, Rome never had a race of country gentlemen; England has both upon a scale so truly noble that it will be the simplest expression of that nobility to say, pointing to our villages, 'Behold the cradle of our army!' as inversely to say, pointing to that army: 'Behold the manhood of our villages!' As regards Rome, from the bisection of the Roman territory into two several corn districts depending upon a separate agriculture, it results that _her_ wealth could not be defeated and transferred; secondly, it results from the total subjection of Egypt, that no embargo _could_ be laid on the harvests of the Nile, and no famine _could_ be organized against Rome; thirdly, it results that the Roman military system was thus not liable to be affected by any dependency upon foreign grain. On the argument that this dependency had _always_ been proceeding gradually in Italy, so as virtually to reimburse itself by _vicarious_ culture, whereas in England the transition from independency to dependency, being accomplished (if at all) in one day by Act of Parliament, would be ruinously abrupt; and also on the argument _B_, that Rome, if slowly losing any recruiting districts at home, found compensatory districts all round the Mediterranean, whilst England could find no such compensatory districts--we deny that the circumstances of the Roman corn trade have _ever_ been stated truly; and we expect the thanks of our readers for drawing their attention to this outline of the points which essentially differenced it from the modern corn trade of England. England must, but Rome could _not_, reap from a foreign corn dependency: firstly, ruinous disturbance to the natural expansions of her wealth; secondly, famine by intervals for her vast population; thirdly, impoverishment to her recruiting service. These are the dreadful evils (some uniform, some contingent) which England would inherit of her native agriculture, but which Rome escaped under that partial transfer, never really accomplished. Meantime, let the reader remember that it is Rome, and not England--Rome historically, not England politically--which forms the _object_ of our exposure. England is but the _means_ of the illustration.

In our own days wars in their ebbs and flows are but another name for the resources of the national exchequer, or expressions of its artificial facilities for turning those resources to account. The great artifice of anticipation applied to national income--an artifice sure to follow where civilization has expanded, and which would have arisen to Rome had her civilization been either (_A_) completely developed, or (_B_) expanded originally from a true radix--has introduced a new era into national history. The man who, having had property, invests in the Funds, and divides between his grandchildren and the five subsequent generations what will yield them subsistence, is the author of an expansive improvement which has been enjoyed by all in turn, and with more fixed assurance in the last case than in the first. He is a public benefactor in more ways than appears on the surface: he takes the most efficient guarantees against needless wars.

Captain Jenkins's ears[6] might have been redeemed at a less price; but still the war taught a lesson, which, if avoidable at that instant, was certainly blamable; but it had its use in enforcing on other nations the conviction that England washed out insult with retribution, and for every drop of blood wantonly spilt demanded an ocean in return. Perhaps you will say _this_ was no great improvement on the old. No; not in _appearance_, it may be; but that was because war had to open a field which mere diplomacy, unsupported by the sword, could not open, and secured what we may well call a _moral_ result in the eye of the whole world, which diplomacy could not secure in our guilty Europe. But was that, you ask, a condition to be contemplated with complete satisfaction? No; nor is it right that it should. But the dawn of a new era is approaching, for which that may have done its installment of preparation. Not that war will cease for many generations, but that it will continually move more in greater subjection to national laws and Christian opinion. Nevermore will it be excited by mere court intrigue, or even by ministerial necessities. No more will a quarrel between two ladies about a pair of gloves, or a fit of ill-temper in a prince toward his minister, call forth the dread scourge by way of letting off personal irritation or redressing the balance of parties.

_Funding_, therefore, was a great step in advance; and even already we have only to look into the Exchequer in order to read the possibilities, the ebbs and flows of war beforehand. This consideration of money, it is true--even as the sinews of war--was not so great in ancient history. And the reason is evident. Kings did not then go to war _by_ money, but _for_ money. They did not look into the Exchequer for the means of a campaign, but they looked into a campaign for the means of an Exchequer. Yet even in these nations, more of their history, of their doings and sufferings, lay in their economy than anywhere else. The great Oriental phantoms, such as the Pharaohs and the Sargons, did, it is true, bring nations to war without much more care for the commissariat department than is given in the battles of the Kites and Daws. Yet even there the political economy made itself felt, obscurely and indirectly it may be, but really and effectively, acting by laws that varied their force rather to the eye than to the understanding, and presented indeed a final restraining force to these kings also. For examine these wars, fabulous as they are; look into the when, the whence, the how; into the duration of the campaigns, into their objects, and into the quality of the troops, into the circumstances under which they were trained and fought, and this will abundantly appear.

Certainly, the commissariat which we do by foresight, they did by brute efforts of power; but the leading economical laws which are now clear to us, and which, with full perception of their inevitable operation, we take into account, made themselves felt in the last result if only then blindly realized; and in the fact that these laws are now clearly apprehended lies the prevailing reason that modern wars must, on the side alike of the commissariat and of social effects in various directions, be widely different from war in ancient times.


[1] One pretended proof of a decline is found in the supposed substitution of slave labour for free Italian labour. This began, it is urged, on the opening of the Nile corn trade. Unfortunately, that is a mere romance. Ovid, describing rural appearances in Italy when as yet the trade was hardly in its infancy, speaks of the rustic labourer as working in fetters. Juvenal, in an age when the trade had been vastly expanded, notices the same phenomenon almost in the same terms.

[2] 'The best raw material.' Some people hold that the Romans and Italians were a cowardly nation. We doubt this on the whole. Physically, however, they were inferior to their neighbours. It is certain that the Transalpine Gauls were a conspicuously taller race. Caesar says: 'Gallis, prae magnitudine corporum quorum, brevitas nostra contemptui est' ('Bell. Gall.' 2, 30 _fin_.); and the Germans, in a still higher degree, were both larger men and every way more powerful. The kites, says Juvenal, had never feasted on carcases so huge as those of the Cimbri and Teutones. But this physical superiority, though great for special purposes, was not such absolutely. For the more general uses of the legionary soldier, for marching, for castrametation, and the daily labours of the spade or mattock, a lighter build was better. As to single combats, it was one effect from the Roman (as from every good) discipline--that it diminished the openings for such showy but perilous modes of contest.

[3] '_Any considerable portion of this provincial corn growth,' i.e._, of the provincial culture which was pursued on account of Rome, meaning not the government of Rome, but, in a rigorous sense, on account of Rome the city. For here lies a great oversight of historians and economists. Because Rome, with a view to her own _privileged_ population, _i.e._, the urban population of Rome, the metropolis, in order that she might support her public distributions of grain, almost of necessity depended on foreign supplies, _we are not to suppose that the great mass of Italian towns and municipia did so_. Maritime towns, having the benefit of ports or of convenient access, undoubtedly were participators in the Roman advantage. But inland towns would in those days have forfeited the whole difference between foreign and domestic grain by the enormous cost of inland carriage. Of canals there was but one; the rivers were not generally navigable, and ports as well as river shipping were wanting.

[4] '_Heraclius._' The same prosodial fault affects this name as that of _Alexandria_. In each name the Latin _i_ represents a Greek _ei_, and in that situation (viz., as a penultimate syllable) should receive the emphasis in pronunciation as well as the sound of a long _i_ (that sound which is heard in Long_i_nus). So again Academ_i_a, not Acad_e_mia. The Greek accentuation may be doubted, but not the Roman.

[5] We have already said that Heraclius, who and whose family filled the throne of Eastern Caesar for exactly one hundred years (611-711), consequently interesting in this way (if in no other), that he, as the reader will see by considering the limits in point of time, must have met and exhausted the first rage of the Mahometan _avalanche_, merits according to our estimate the title of first and noblest amongst the Oriental Caesars. There are records or traditions of his earliest acts that we could wish otherwise. Which of us would _not_ offend even at this day, if called upon to act under one scale of sympathies, and to be judged under another? In his own day, too painfully we say it, Heraclius could not have followed what we venture to believe the suggestions of his heart, in relation to his predecessor, because a policy had been established which made it dangerous to be merciful, and a state of public feeling which made it effeminate to pardon. First make it safe to permit a man's life, before you pronounce it ignoble to authorize his death. Strip mercy of ruin to its author, before you affirm upon a judicial punishment of death (as then it was) cruelty in the adviser or ignobility in the approver. Escaping from these painful scenes at the threshold of his public life, we find Heraclius preparing for a war, the most difficult that in any age any hero has confronted. We call him the earliest of Crusaders, because he first and _literally_ fought for the recovery of the Cross. We call him the most prosperous of Crusaders, because he first--he last--succeeded in all that he sought, bringing back to Syria (ultimately to Constantinople) that sublime symbol of victorious Christianity which had been disgracefully lost at Jerusalem. Yet why, when comparing him not with Crusaders, but with Caesars, do we pronounce him the noblest? Reader, which is it that is felt by a thoughtful man--supposing him called upon to select one act by preference before all others--to be the grandest act of our own Wellesley? Is it not the sagacious preparation of the lines at Torres Vedras, the self-mastery which lured the French on to their ruin, the long-suffering policy which reined up his troops till that ruin was accomplished? '_I bide my time_,' was the dreadful watchword of Wellington through that great drama; in which, let us tell the French critics on Tragedy, they will find _the most_ absolute unity of plot; for the forming of the lines as the fatal noose, the wiling back the enemy, the pursuit when the work of disorganization was perfect, all were parts of one and the same drama. If he (as another Scipio) saw another Zama, in this instance he was not our Scipio or Marcellus, but our Fabius Maximus:

'Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem.'--'Ann.' 8, 27.

Now, such was the Emperor Heraclius. He also had his avenging Zama. But, during a memorable interval of eleven years, he held back; fiercely reined up his wrath; brooded; smiled often balefully; watched in his lair; and then, when the hour had struck, let slip his armies and his thunderbolts as no Caesar had ever done, except that one who founded the name of Caesar.

[6] A brutal outrage on a Captain Jenkins--i.e., cutting off his ears--was the cause of a war with Spain in the reign of George II.--ED.

[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Rome's Recruits And England's Recruits