Do all roads lead to Rome?

Here is a fascinating data visualization experiment by moovel lab testing a piece of ancient wisdom, “All roads lead to Rome” (link). The experiment is discussed in the CityLab blog of the Atlantic. It is not a full map of the auto routes of Europe; instead, it is a construction of the routes that exist from every grid point on the map of Europe to the destination of Rome. So properly speaking, it doesn’t confirm that “all roads lead to Rome”; instead it demonstrates that “you can get to Rome from virtually every point in Europe through a dense system of tributaries”. It’s an amazing representation of the capillaries of transportation throughout the continent.

Imagine what the system would look like if the destination were Stockholm instead. I imagine that the coverage of the map would be equally complete; “you can get to Stockholm from every point in Europe through a dense system of tributaries”. But I also imagine that there would be some important structural differences in the two maps, with a different set of most-travelled primary capillaries.

What about it, moovel lab folks — is this an experiment that could be readily performed?

 Here is a Google map of the Roman Empire prepared by the Pelagios Project demonstrating a much more reduced system of roads (link):

It appears visually that it is possible to align the two maps. Major roads in ancient Europe seem to follow the same course today.

It has sometimes been observed that, for the Romans, it might not have been such a good thing that all roads lead to Rome. This same system of roads served as conduits of invasion by waves of Germanic armies.


Here is a video by Mary Beard on the historical importance of the Roman road system.

Many small causes

When large historical events occur, we often want to know the causes that brought them about. And we often look at the world as if these causes too ought to be large, identifiable historical factors or forces. Big outcomes ought to have big, simple causes.

But what if sometimes the historical reality is significantly different from this picture? What if the causes of some “world-historical events” are themselves small, granular, gradual, and cumulative? What if there is no satisfyingly simple and macro answer to the question, why did Rome fall? Or why did the American civil war take the course it did? Or why did North Africa not develop a major Mediterranean economy and trading system? What if, instead, the best we can do in some of these cases is to identify a swarm of independent, small-scale processes and contingencies that eventually produced the outcome?

Take the fall of Rome. I suppose it is possible that the collapse of the empire resulted from a myriad of very different contingencies and organizational features in different parts of the empire: say, logistical difficulties in supplying armies in the German winter, particularly stubborn local resistance in Palestine, administrative decay in Roman Britain, population pressure in Egypt, and a particularly inept series of commanders in Gaul. Too many moving pieces, too much entropy, and some bad luck in personnel decisions, and administrative and military collapse ensues. Alaric sits in Rome.

What an account like this decidedly lacks, is a story about a few key systemic or environmental factors that made collapse “inevitable”. Instead, the account is a dense survey of dozens or hundreds of small factors, separated in time and place, whose cumulative but contingent effect was the observed collapse of Rome. No simple necessity here — “Rome collapsed because of fatal flaw X or environmental pressure Y” — but instead a careful, granulated assessment of many small and solvable factors.

But here is a different possible historical account of the fall of Rome. An empire depends upon a few key organizational systems: a system of taxation, a system of effective far-flung military power, and a system of local administration in the various parts of the empire. We can take it as a given that the locals will resent imperial taxation, military presence, and governance. So there is a constant pressure against imperial institutions at each locus — fiscal, military, and administrative. In order to maintain its grip on imperial power, Rome needed to continually support and revitalize its core functions. If taxation capacity slips, the other functions erode as well; but slippage in military capacity in turn undermines the other two functions. And now we’re ready for a satisfyingly simple and systemic explanation of the fall of Rome: there was a gradual erosion of administrative competence that led to increasingly devastating failures in the central functions of taxation, military control, and local administration. Eventually this permitted catastrophic military failure in response to a fairly routine challenge. Administrative decline caused the fall of Rome.

I don’t know whether either of these stories — the “many small causes” story or the “systemic administrative failure” story — is historically credible. But either could be historically accurate. And this is enough to establish the central point: we should not presuppose what the eventual historical explanation will look like.

I suppose there is no reason to expect apriori that large events will conform to either model. It may be that some great events do in fact result from a small number of large causes, while others do not. So the point here is one about the need to expand our historical imaginations, and not to permit our quest for simplicity and generality to obscure the possibility of complexity, granularity, and specificity when it comes to historical causation.

(Christopher Kelly’s The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction is a very readable treatment of Rome’s functioning as an empire. Kelly hands off the ball to Gibbon when it comes to explaining the fall of Rome, however (History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — as Kelly says, decidedly not a “short history”). Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 gives something of the flavor of my “administrative decline” musing above. Likewise, the style of reasoning about revenues and coercion is very sympathetic to Charles Tilly’s arguments about a somewhat later period in Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990 – 1992.)

The Franco-Prussian War

The rapid, bloody, and total defeat of the French army by the Prussian army in 1870-71 was an enormous and unexpected shock to France and to Europe. Since the Napoleonic Wars it was taken as given that France’s armies were powerful, well-equipped, and well generaled. But the Prussian army quickly defeated French armies across eastern France, from Wissembourg to Sedan, with massive loss of life on the French side. And the collapse of the army was rapidly followed by the siege of Paris and the Paris uprising leading to the establishment of the Commune of Paris and eventually its bloody suppression. So this period of two years was a critical moment in France’s history in the nineteenth century.

Michael Howard’s 1961 history, Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871, is probably the most comprehensive book in English on the Franco-Prussian War. Here’s how Howard expresses the the comprehensiveness and shocking totality of France’s defeat:

The collapse at Sedan, like that of the Prussians at Jena sixty-four years earlier, was the result not simply of faulty command but of a faulty military system; and the military system of a nation is not an independent section of the social system but an aspect of it in its totality. The French had good reason to look on their disasters as a judgment. The social and economic developments of the past fifty years had brought about a military as well as an industrial revolution. The Prussians had kept abreast of it and France had not. Therein lay the basic cause of her defeat. (1)

So Howard’s judgment of the causes of this massive military failure is ultimately technological and systemic. The technical changes to which he refers are familiar: the role that railroads could play in the logistics of nineteenth-century warfare (opportunities that needed to be recognized and incorporated into military plans and the design of operational systems); the advent of new infantry weapons (breech-loading rifles of greater range and speed of loading); and new advances in artillery. The Prussian army incorporated breech-loading rifles (the needle gun) as early as 1843; whereas the French (as well as the British and Austrian armies) retained the muzzle-loader until the 1860s. And the Prussian generals led major advances in artillery in the decades leading up to the Franco-Prussian war, with greater precision and fire power in their Krup guns.

Railroads played a key role in Prussia’s mobilization and logistics. The Prussians were able to maintain coordination and organization of their rail system; whereas the French rail system quickly fell into disorder. Howard describes the military potential of railroads in these terms:

Speed of concentration was only one of the advantages which railways provided. They carried troops rapidly to the theatre of war; and they enabled them to arrive in good physical condition, not wearied and decimated by weeks of marching. Armies needed no longer to consist of hardened regular troops; reservists from civil life could be embodied in the force as well…. Further, the problem of supplying large forces in the field was simplified. (3)

The systemic part of Howard’s diagnosis is a failure of government: a failure to coordinate ministries and the bureaucracy of the military in pushing forward the reforms that would lead to effective incorporation of new technological possibilities into the order of battle and mobilization. The Prussian army made intelligent use of the General Staff as a learning organization; the French had no comparable organization.

Military failure is perhaps best viewed as a single species of organizational failure more generally. Elliot Cohen and John Gooch offer a different analytical basis for trying to understand the military disaster of the Franco-Prussian War in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. Bad generals can cause military disasters; but Cohen and Gooch take the position that “human error” is an explanation we turn to too quickly when it comes to large failures. (Likewise, “pilot error” and “surgeon error” are too superficial in aviation and hospital failures.) Rather, it is important to look for the systemic and organizational causes of failure. They treat war as a complex organizational activity, and they attempt to discover the causes of military failures in a variety of kinds of organizational failure. They identify three basic kinds of failure: “failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt” (26). And when these kinds of failure compound in a single period, it is likely enough that the result will be catastrophic failure.

Cohen and Gooch offer a fascinating “matrix of failure”, partitioning “command level” (from president down to operating units) and “critical task” (communication of warning, appropriate level of alert, coordination) (55); and they demonstrate how mistakes at various levels of command in the several critical tasks can cascade into “critical failures”. The cases they analyze include the failure of American antisubmarine warfare, 1942; Israel Defense Forces on the Suez Front and the Golan Heights, 1973; the British at Gallipoli, 1915; the defeat of the American Eighth Army in Korea, 1950; and the French army and airforce, 1940.

It seems that the Cohen-Gooch framework can be usefully applied to the Franco-Prussian War. Each of the key failures occurred: failure to anticipate (especially, failure to anticipate the possible consequences of Prussia’s rapid military modernization in the 1850s and 1860s; failure to anticipate the fatal consequences that would follow from the French declaration of war in July 1870); failure to learn (an almost total lack of ability on the part of the French general staff to make sense of the causes of defeat as they occurred in summer and fall 1870); and, most strikingly, a failure to adapt (essentially the same tactics were used at Sedan as had first been applied at Wissembourg; Howard, 204-08).

Emile Zola’s treatment of the war, The Debacle: 1870-71, is not a piece of analytical history; instead, it is a brilliant novelist’s best effort to capture the horror and hopelessness of the campaigning in the summer and fall of 1870 from the point of view of the peasant Jean Macquart. The confusion of endless marches in one direction and then the reverse; the misery of driving rain; the hunger of poorly provisioned campaigning; and the seemingly endless terror of artillery and rifle fire put the reader into the shoes of the foot soldier as he approaches his end. The novel presents a textured and grim picture of the confusion of the march and the terrors of the battlefield:

In Remilly there was a dreadful mix-up of men, horses, and vehicles jamming the street which zigzags down the hill to the Meuse. Half way down, in front of the church, some guns had got their wheels locked together and could not be moved in spite of much swearing and banging. At the bottom of the hill, where the Emmane roars down a fall, there was a huge queue of broken-down vans blocking the road, while an ever-growing wave of soldiers was struggling at the Croix de Malte inn (139-40)

And a description of fighting in Bazeilles:

Clearly the attack was going to be terrible. The fusillade from the meadows had died down. The Bavarians were masters of the little stream fringed with poplars and willows, and were now preparing for an assault on the houses defending the church square, and so their snipers had prudently drawn back. The sun shone in golden splendour on the great stretch of grassland, dotted with a few black patches, the bodies of killed soldiers. (190)

Lying on the ground, sheltering behind stones or taking advantage of the slightest projections, the men were firing all out, and along this wide, sunlit and empty street there was a hurricane of lead with streaks of smoke, like a hailstorm blown by a high wind. A young girl was seen running across the road in terror, but she was not hit. But then an old man, a yokel in a smock, was insisting on getting his horse into a stable, and he was struck in the forehead by a bullet with such force that it knocked him into the middle of the road. The roof of the church was blown in by a shell. (191)

And here, the fateful trap of Sedan, where the larger part of the French army was annihilated:

The hundred thousand men and five hundred cannon of the French army were there packed together and hounded into this triangle. And when the King of Prussia turned westwards he saw another plain, that of Donchery, empty fields extending to Briancourt, Marancourt and Vrigne-aux-Bois, a waste of grey earth, powdery-looking under the blue sky, and when he turned to the east there was yet again, opposite the huddled French lines, an immense vista, a crowd of villages….. In all directions the land belonged to him, he could move at will the two hundred and fifty thousand men and the eight hundred guns of his armies, he could take in with one sweeping look their invading march. (197)

It is an interesting question to ask: to what extent do the skills of the novelist complement the theories of the social scientist and the narratives and analysis of the historian, in helping us to come to a better understanding of the reality of the historical moment? Is Zola’s novel a genuine addition to our ability to make sense of this period in France’s history? Or is it simply — fiction?

Logistics as a historical force

The constraint of what people can do often plays a large role in what they actually do. The study of logistics is the study of constraints. Logistics has to do with the intersection of resource, activity, space, and time. A plan is an orchestrated sequence of activities over space and time, provisioned by appropriate resources as needed. Historical actors orchestrate their actions in terms of extended plans — which means that they pay extensive and detailed attention to logistics. And historians need to do so as well.

One common species of historical question is, “Why did the agent do such-and-so?” Why did Napoleon’s invasion of Russia fail so formidably? Why did Charles Martel infeudate his central power? Why did Napoleon III fail to respond with effective military action to the Prussian invasion of France in 1870? Why did Alexander the Great avoid the direct route through the Thar Desert? Analysis of constraints is often critical to being able to answer these questions.

In each case logistics comes into the explanation at a more or less evident level. The historian’s first impulse is to ask the question of purpose and plan: what was the agent intending to accomplish? How was the observed course of action an intelligent solution? When there is no apparent rational explanation, the historian may then retreat to “miscalculation” or error. But choice always involves an assessment of constraints, and this is where logistics come in. What looks like error may actually be a rational adjustment to constraint. The point here is that logistical obstacles or difficulties are often a hidden factor on the agent’s choice — and these factors may ultimately dictate a strategy or plan that looks otherwise irrational. And historians sometimes give these constraints too little attention.

Logistics is relevant to a wide range of complex social action. Take, for example, the difficult chess match involving two NBA coaches during a forty-eight minute basketball game. Each coach makes a series of substitutions throughout the game. Some are dictated by “match-up” — getting the right defensive players on the floor given the current offensive set of the opponent. But some of the choices may appear dumb in the eyes of the duffer fan — “why did he take Iverson out now exactly when he’s on a run?” And often, I think, the answer is logistics. Each player has a finite amount of energy and spring in his legs. And each has a finite allotment of personal fouls to give. So the coach’s task, in part, is to manage substitutions in such a way as to make maximum use of his star players over the full forty-eight minutes. It doesn’t help much to have built up a 10 point lead with four minutes to go if the top scorer and rebounder are out of gas. And this is a logistics problem.

A more serious example — what about Alexander the Great in his celebrated and brilliant conquest of the world? Why did Alexander make the sometimes puzzling strategic and tactical decisions he made through his campaigns? The answer, according to Donald Engels, is logistics (Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army). As Engels puts the point, “When the climate, human geography, physical geography, available methods of transport, and agricultural calendar of a given region are known, one can often determine what Alexander’s next move will be.” Engels provides careful calculations of fodder, the number of horses needed to provision and feed the Macedonian army, and the rate of speed attainable by such an army — and finds that Alexander’s choices were generally well suited to the logistical constraints and his larger strategic goals.

The study of transportation technology as a historical factor certainly falls within the general topic of “logistics as a historical cause.” (See Transportation for more extensive treatment of this topic.) Transport systems like rail networks provide specific opportunities and constraints on choice, and intelligent strategists make every effort to understand these well. So, correspondingly, the historian needs to do so as well if he/she is to explain the choices taken. (If you want to invade Burgundy from Frankfurt in 1860, don’t plan to move your army by train. And if you plan to invade Russia by rail in 1910, be prepared for the change of gauge at the frontier.)

Military historians generally pay careful attention to logistical factors as they attempt to understand military choices and strategies. But analysis of resource-time-space-activity factors probably receive less attention in other parts of historical and social research than they should.

Where does the concept of logistics fit into the concepts we use to analyze historical processes and actions? Some historians might say that it is a minor and peripheral analytical tool. But seen properly, I would say that the notion of logistics is actually a key concept that ties together the complex and extended historical actions that we want to be able to explain. It is thus a central concept within an adequate historical ontology.

This point is relevant to historical research at two levels. First, it emphasizes the importance of incorporating a careful analysis of the agent’s beliefs about the constraints he/she faces into the analysis of the eventual plans and choices. And second, at a more systemic level, it suggests that study of major logistical systems –transport, water management, urban infrastructure, the food system — may have substantial value as a source of hypotheses about large historical causes. These systems structure the opportunities and constraints that face rulers and ordinary people alike, and they have the capacity of pushing development in one direction or another in a particular historical conjuncture. They therefore function as historical causes.

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