Which of these weaknesses are plausible to reform?

  • Military command structure

    Votes: 26 51.0%
  • Provincial government structure

    Votes: 24 47.1%
  • Centralization of such large territory

    Votes: 5 9.8%
  • Insufficient financial resources/institutions

    Votes: 26 51.0%
  • Stable legitimizing force

    Votes: 23 45.1%

  • Total voters
    51
First off, I should admit some bias. As a student of comparative government, I am of the mind that any country, regardless of all the inherent complexities therein, can be governed effectively and survive in the long term provided it has all the necessary institutions (except in the case of conquest or a major ecological disaster). So, for the purpose of this thread, I have assumed that there is an ideal institutional arrangement that could stabilize the Roman Empire, at least for a timeframe preceding conquest by another power, i.e. a large confederation of steppe tribes.

With that out of the way, I’ve identified a few key weaknesses, and the purpose of this thread is to try and establish believable or plausible ways to address these institutional shortcomings within the timeframe of the early Roman Empire (i.e. during the 1st and 2nd centuries).
  1. Poor military command structure: Modern militaries have complex and well-defined chains of command to eliminate the possibility for any individual command group to disrupt the overall stability of the state (not always successfully, of course). The early Roman Empire had no central command to speak of, and each individual governor was equally ranked and directly subordinate to the emperor. Constantine’s reforms altered this substantially, which is one reason why the late Roman Empire was far more able to combat internal revolts. This is the easiest to remedy, since it happened relatively smoothly IOTL, without too much backlash from any extant institutions (except for the Praetorian guard, who were irrelevant by the 4th century anyways).
  2. Diffusion of command structure: This is related to the above point. The decentralized nature of the military coupled with the placement of military commands in the hands of uninterested transplanted governors meant that the nature of power relations in the empire was constantly in flux, which is good when you have a strong emperor on the throne, but lends itself be leveraged by usurpers when the emperor is weak or very young. Diocletian’s reforms addressed this to some extent by bifurcating provincial administration between governors and vicari (governors themselves had no martial authority thereafter). But is it feasible for this or the above reforms to be undertaken during the 1st or 2nd century?
  3. Too large to be effectively centralized: The Roman Empire was the second-largest contiguous European state to ever exist (after Russia). Obviously that makes administration and communication difficult, which is what led to the problematic autonomy of provincial generals. The emperors of the principate accommodated this by sending senatorial amateurs to govern each province for a few years and then recalling them to Rome where the emperor could keep an eye on them. However, this is unworkable in the long-term, as foreign military threats tend to increase in intensity over time, and there comes a point where senatorial amateurs are broadly insufficient in their command ability. The importance of imperial oversight on governors doesn't change, so one of two solutions must be settled upon: either establish a federalized government where provincial elites contribute directly to imperial government or radically expand the central governing apparatus in terms of manpower in order to accommodate more top and mid-level bureaucrats.
  4. Insufficient financial resources: The Roman army on its own is very expensive to maintain, and that's before one even considers the cost of maintaining the central bureaucracy (which increases in size over time). By the end of the 2nd century, the legions were unsustainable at contemporary income levels, which was the primary impetus behind the Edit of Caracalla, and Diocletian’s later tax and price reforms. The result was the ability by the empire to double and even triple the size of the army during the 3rd and 4th centuries. My primary question is this: is there a long-term solution to this deficit?
  5. Lack of legitimizing force: The principate was legitimized when Augustus negotiated the constitutional settlements of 27 and 23 BCE, which effectively used the decaying corpse of the republic to mask the brute-force nature of this one-sided arrangement. Diocletian and Constantine attempted to remedy this by establishing the personage of the emperor as divine, first through the medium of classical paganism and later through Christianity. There are three broad approaches to government legitimacy: traditional (monarchies, theocracies), charismatic (dictatorships, direct democracy), and legal rational (republicanism). The transition from the principate to the dominate was largely an attempt by Diocletian to transfer the legitimizing force of the empire from one of charismatic legitimacy to one of traditional legitimacy (since the most stable, legal-rational legitimacy, failed during the fall of the Republic). Often times, discussions of Roman institutional weakness are reduced to talking about the imperial succession, but I believe that any instability on that front is a reflection of this underlying failure. The main challenge here is that modern states broadly derive their legitimacy from a constitution, national identity, or some other ideological framework that came about during the rise of Westphalian sovereignty and later the Enlightenment and the rise of nationalism. I’m pretty much at a loss here. It may not be feasible to accommodate for this failing since the institutional framework of the Roman Empire was never fully divorced from that of the Republic until late in the 3rd century.
I used the Roman Empire as a specific example, but these issues are symptomatic of all large states in antiquity, so feel free to expand the discussion to include the Persians, Macedonians, Chinese, Indians, or any others. Go nuts, no ideas are bad ideas.
 
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This is a daunting enterprise, and something I intend to tackle in later TL's I want to write about the Roman Empire. I'm not sure if I'll be able to give any meaning contribution, but one thing I find worth to point out is that an interesting thought exercise (IMO) is to compare the Late Roman Empire with the pre-1204 Byzantine Empire, which, in spite of its much smaller size and (apparent) cultural homogeneity and a more established "dynastic institutionalism" (I mean, the fact that "Byzantine" dynasties fared longer, as a rule, than those of the Principate/Dominate Roman Empire), faced very similar problems involving constant civil wars and disputes for the throne.

A system that preserves imperial and dynastic legitimacy is essential preserve the integrity of the Empire. If by no means prevents rebellions or usurpations - it did not in Byzantium -, but it apparently makes them more scarce (it is worth to compare how many revolts the Macedonians and the Komnenoi faced in relation to what has been seen in previous centuries). The deification of the Imperial office, as you pointed out, was a peculiar characteristic of the post-Dominate Empire, and to some extent we saw that dynasties were more consolidated in the later period than on the Principate (this consideration must be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but it seems that the Constantinian, Valentinian the Theodosian dynasties were relatively more successful in this regard than, say, the Valerian one).

Now, regarding the centralization question, I beg to differ, perhaps the solution could be found in a more stable duumvirate or quadrumvirate system. I know people usually bash the Tetrarchy, considering it a massive failure, but I have the impression that co-ruling Emperors tended to be more successful in the short to medium-term period than isolated ones. It seemed that even before Diocletian institutionalized the "Augustus/Caesar" system, it was poised to become a norm (Valerian + Galienus, Carus + Carinus), and it certainly could have benefited from a more stable and formalized structure of power delegation from the "crown" to the provinces.

Anyway, I really don't have good answers for the questions you posed, but I'm very interested to see the opinions of the Forum.
 
I voted for a stable legitimizing force. You need to find a way to keep the transfer of power from devolving into a pissing match between Legions every time the Emperor dies. You also need to find a way keep ambitious Legionary or government officials from just straight up having the Emperor murdered.
 
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I know people usually bash the Tetrarchy, considering it a massive failure, but I have the impression that co-ruling Emperors tended to be more successful in the short to medium-term period than isolated ones. It seemed that even before Diocletian institutionalized the "Augustus/Caesar" system, it was poised to become a norm (Valerian + Galienus, Carus + Carinus)
to some extent we saw that dynasties were more consolidated in the later period than on the Principate (this consideration must be taken with a grain of salt, of course, but it seems that the Constantinian, Valentinian the Theodosian dynasties were relatively more successful in this regard than, say, the Valerian one).

Personally, I think the Tetrarchy itself may be the most viable solution. The main failing on Diocletian's part was trying to divorce this system from the dynastic patronage that defined Roman political relationships. The failure of the Tetrarchy came when Diocletian and Galerius orchestrated the political marginalization of Maxentius and Constantine in favor of their own lackeys, Severus and Maximinus Daia. The Constantinian and Valentinian dynasties functionally continued the tradition of the Tetrarchy (albeit on a far less formal basis) wherein each of the Augusti would nominate a co-ruler upon their colleague's death (generally a younger brother or son). This served the function of preserving dynastic integrity in spite of revolt and usurpation, since for every Honorius that got assassinated, there would be an Arcadius on the throne to march West, beat the usurper, and install another family member on the vacant Western throne. Of course, this relied on a) the sitting emperor winning the war with any given usurper, b) the emperor not being distracted with another campaign, and c) plentiful adult male heirs. The weaknesses of this system would be shone bare with the collapse of the Valentinian dynasty, when Valentinian died from health problems only five years before his brother was killed in battle at Adrianople, leaving the child-emperor Gratian as the sole Augustus. A formal system for regency could help in this way, since imperial regents were only ever established on an informal basis, and it was thus very easy for generalissimos to do away with the emperors when they became old enough to cause problems (or vice versa).

You also need to find a way keep ambitious Legionary or government officials from just straight up having the Emperor murdered.

Well, I'm not sure there's any way to *completely* stop ambitious men from seizing the throne. The ideal solution is to establish a more coherent military command structure, which was gradually innovated upon IOTL. At the creation of the empire, the command structure was basically: emperor>governor>legate>centurion>decanus>legionary. The fact that there were only four to six ranks between the emperor and the rank-and-file makes it very difficult to establish any kind of coherent chain-of-command without it devolving into the slug match that we saw IOTL. By the late empire, the command structure had been expanded into emperor>co-emperor/heir>magister militum>magister pedium>comes>dux>legate>centurion>decanus>legionary. This made it easier for the emperor to manage all the interests of the various general-level officers.

The command structure I've developed is roughly this:
--emperor
--co-emperor/heir
--general staff in Rome: top-level officers (basically analogous to the joint chiefs of staff) that advise the emperor, led by a Magister Equitum (although these officers would have no direct command authority and only exercise command through appeals unless specifically proscribed by the emperor)
--theatre commanders: top-level field officers (one each for the various theatres of war -- West, East, Danube, Africa, at sea, etc.) that command large army groups
--field staff: officers tasked with the various operational-level tasks in the legions (planning campaigns, military intelligence, legionary payments, etc)
--legates, etc.

However, in order to counter the sheer manpower of the various theatre commanders, there would ideally be a reserve force (in addition to the praetorian guards) stationed in Northern Italy to dissuade anyone from marching on Rome. Obviously, the introduction of any of these offices would necessarily take place over a long time, and I'm working on a way to plausibly introduce them
 
I voted for a stable legitimizing force. You need to find a way to keep the transfer of power from devolving into a pissing match between Legions every time the Emperor dies. You also need to find a way keep ambitious Legionary or government officials from just straight up having the Emperor murdered.

Ruling by the sword or succession by the sword is not always negative. In the positive, it ensures that fearsome rulers and those with extensive political connections achieve power. Many steppe hordes and eastern states had successions that were very unstable and it did lead to a sort of devolving powerbase. However, if this sort of rule by sword could be somehow ritualized and made in such a way that does not lead to a rapidly devolving power at the expense of great military commanders, would be something to look into.

The only successor that is worse than a civil war, is successive weak rulers controlled by varying pieces of the court and army, battling each other over their claimant. The Abbasid Caliphate bears witness to this, wherein weak Caliphs became the normal and were used like coins in the market during the Anarchy of Samarra. This is far worse of a situation than war between successors.
 
In terms of deficits, would not one of the best ways at achieving less deficit and also controlling the military, is to keep and send the army constantly to the frontiers to wage war? The deficit is assisted by sending the army to specifically acquire slaves and other loot and they become payed by amounts of enemies they capture in the markets in addition to their general pay. Meanwhile, their status at war means they are too distant to become involved in internal politics. Generally, we may say that the best way to keep a large state coffer (without taxation or lower spending), is to accumulate ever greater loot. Of course the weakness is what occurs when you lose wars and the coffers begin to dry.
 
Ruling by the sword or succession by the sword is not always negative. In the positive, it ensures that fearsome rulers and those with extensive political connections achieve power. Many steppe hordes and eastern states had successions that were very unstable and it did lead to a sort of devolving powerbase. However, if this sort of rule by sword could be somehow ritualized and made in such a way that does not lead to a rapidly devolving power at the expense of great military commanders, would be something to look into.

The only successor that is worse than a civil war, is successive weak rulers controlled by varying pieces of the court and army, battling each other over their claimant. The Abbasid Caliphate bears witness to this, wherein weak Caliphs became the normal and were used like coins in the market during the Anarchy of Samarra. This is far worse of a situation than war between successors.

I don't disagree, and during the 4th century, there was a somewhat ritualized pattern of strongmen deposing weak emperors and fighting their co-emperor for the right to appoint a dynastic colleague (see also: Magnentius, Procopius, Eugenius, Magnus Maximus, etc.). The primary flaw in this system is that it has a tendency to deplete any given dynasty of adult male heirs quickly, especially given that the mortality rate of Roman emperors is already precarious due to wars and such. The lack of suitable male heirs lends itself to the puppet regencies of Stilicho, Aetius and so on that was seen during the early 5th century. So the system relies mostly on luck for a consistent line of strong emperors (given that civil wars are acceptable, but can't be too frequent, less they compromise border security)
 
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