ROMAN EMPIRE

When the Roman Empire lost battles

We always think of the Roman Empire as being completely invincible. But the Romans lost a few battles and some of them pretty disastrously. There were at least two occasions when Roman emperors were killed and one where the emperor was captured and then executed.

Take for example the Battle of Carrhae in the dying years of the Roman Republic. This was a time when three men – the so-called Triumvirs – shared control of Rome. They were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. The latter was an obscenely wealthy senator who also famously crushed the slave revolt of Spartacus.

But in 53BC he overreached himself in a bid for glory by attempting to invade the Parthian Empire with its base in modern Iran. He marched a vast army through the deserts of the Middle East being drawn deliberately deep into Parthian territory. The enemy cut down the legions with an astonishing number of arrows that showered down ceaselessly. Here is an amazing computerised depiction of the battle.

Some of you will have watched Barbarians on Netflix. This is a loose retelling of how several Germanic tribes wiped out three legions under the control of a Roman general called Publius Quinctilius Varus under the first Roman emperor, Augustus.

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Like Crassus, Varus was guilty of overreach and hubris. He also ignored good advice when deciding to launch punitive raids against the so-called ‘barbarians’. At this stage of history the military balance favoured the Roman Empire overwhelmingly. But the terrain didn’t. Roman armies just weren’t cut out for fighting in dense forests and that proved to be their undoing.

And then if we go to the closing centuries of the Roman Empire, we come to the disastrous Battle of Adrianople in the year 378. The empire was now ruled by two co-emperors with Valens in charge of the eastern half with his capital at Constantinople.

He’d been moderately successful in repelling the Persian based Sassanian Empire in the east but then faced demands from a huge mass of Goths north of the Danube river to be admitted into the empire.

Now, this wasn’t unusual. The Romans had often allowed in tribes from outside the empire but they were disarmed on entry and settled on Roman terms. However, Valens was busy on the Sassanian border and the local governor simple didn’t have the troops to enforce the required conditions.

This led to an uncontrolled influx of armed Goths into Roman territory. The rest, as you might say, was history. By the time Valens marched his armies up to meet the Goths, the whole thing had spun wildly out of control. The resulting battle of Adrianople saw the Romans defeated and the emperor possibly burned alive after taking refuge in a barn.

Is Babylon Berlin a warning for our own time?

Babylon Berlin has been the most enjoyable TV viewing for a while. A three season drama steeped in the sleazy but vibrant world of the Weimar Republic. It weaves crime stories with political intrigue and the decadent night life of Berlin in the 1920s.

And yet – it seems compelling to watch because there’s a warning for our own time. Here was a democratic Germany in the 1920s. It had an elected parliament, trades unions, combative political parties of all colours and strong feminist, anti-racist and LGBT friendly aspects to its society. And yet – it all collapsed into Nazi tyranny by 1933.

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In Babylon Berlin, you get all the warning signs flashing big, bold and red. We get a constant sense that none of this is going to end well. Young people are joining the Hitler Youth. German Jews are being disparaged and insulted as sub-human and wicked. Democratic politicians are the subject of assassination plots. All the institutions of the state from the courts to the police, army and civil service are not just corrupt but appear to be employing murderers.

Weimar is fun. Weimar is cultured. But Weimar is also in constant crisis. And eventually, the embattled middle class will give their votes to Hitler. At the end of season three we see one reason why that would happen – the 1929 stock market crash. One police officer – a typical mediocre petit bourgeois – has been trading in stocks way beyond his means and conned into doing so by silver-tongued financial salesmen. A desperate man like him will turn to extreme political solutions.

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Hyper-inflation was another curse of that era.

I have a sheet of stamps I bought years ago from around 1924 that were printed on top of to change their value by adding six or seven noughts. In addition I have a bank note from 1923 with a face value of 100,000 Marks. Here I am holding it below…

No wonder Weimar tottered so badly throughout the 1920s.

But it was also a cultural nirvana. Great artists and authors flourished in Berlin at this time. In season three, the plot of Babylon Berlin centres on the filming of a movie in the German Expressionist style. In the Weimar era, the director Fritz Lang reigned supreme making such incredible films as Metropolis and Dr Mabuse. And if you can, watch the 1920 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Yet it was all about to end. And maybe as our own society seems to be transitioning from post-war liberal democracy to something potentially more disturbing, Babylon Berlin resonates on many levels. I strongly advise you to watch it for yourself.

Meanwhile – here are some snippets from the incredible Metropolis!