Overestimated historical states

Discussion in 'Alternate History Discussion: Before 1900' started by Koprulu Mustafa Pasha, Aug 11, 2019.

  1. Bluesock Banned

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    The Roman Empires capabilities are vastly overestimated, in comparison to states like China, which as a civilization and state had a great deal of continuity for almost 2000 years, the Romans lacked a proper civil service and its state institutions were extremely weak. Even by the 1st century AD its quite obvious that the only thing holding the empire together was its military power, which was its downfall. And as soon as foreign tribes began migrating and threatening the already weak provincial institutions in the state declined and then collapsed into warlordism. The Roman Empire as it was lasting any longer than it did in OTL is pretty ASB.
    Also this idea that Roman legions were somehow these elite super soldiers who could defeat any army on their day is pretty much the result of Roman propaganda. There main strength was the ability to have a tax system which allowed for the existence of a standing army but even then we know that even Ceasar relied heavily on his Gallic and German mercenaries. The empre was able to bully much smaller and weaker oppenents who lacked organized states or military institutions but as soon as the Roman came up against the Parthians and Sassanians we see that the myth of roman invincibility is just that, a myth.
     
  2. SeaCambrian Alien Space Bat

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    My totally factually supported opinion is that all states in history are overestimated, except for one, the glorious Holy Roman Empire (which is criminally underestimated by Voltaire apologists).
     
  3. NegusNegast Well-Known Member

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    Definitely! I think in many senses this is a rehashing of the "virgin land" myth which attempted to portray the vast majority of the Americas as unsettled/terra nullius, free for the Europeans to expand to. Except this version acknowledges the presence of Native Americans while explaining their disappearance in a way that absolves Europeans of guilt (after all, it isn't their fault for introducing disease) and suggests it was something innate in the natives themselves that led to their demise. And while there's of course scientific basis to the notion of diseases wreaking havoc on populations with no prior immunity, to stop the analysis there doesn't do it justice. It reminds me of how until very recently, American doctors believed that African Americans were genetically predisposed to be more likely to have certain disorders, only for them to later realize that African Americans that didn't live in poor neighborhoods didn't get those diseases. In short, the racial difference in disease prevalence was created by societal conditions being worse for black people and not some weird racial heritage thing. Not the case for Native Americans because virgin immunity is a factor, but what would casualty rates look like if natives were exposed to disorders while not simultaneously trying to fight off European encroachment, or invasions from neighboring people's due to continent wide population movements? Presumably a lot lower.

    Cocoliztli is a really fascinating epidemic mostly because there's uncertainty as to what it actually was, although most studies have adopted a safe approach of saying it was probably multiple different disorders all spreading at once. The reasoning given is that the population was severely immunocompromised by one of the worst droughts in Mexican history, combined with really bad living conditions under the Spanish conquest. A sequencing study on some old bones (or maybe teeth I don't quite recall) suggested Salmonella was a major contributor, but the authors of that study say Salmonella was probably just one of many concurrent disorders. It's also been suggested to be the result of an endemic viral hemorrhaegic fever that jumped from bats.

    If the authors are right and the epidemic was essentially the result of multiple disorders running haywire through an immunocompromised society, that presents two issues with cocoztli spreading to the Old World:
    1) Given that it's a multi-disorder epidemic and not just one, obviously cocoliztli itself can't really be "transmitted" per se although maybe the indigenous fever and other unfamiliar pathogens could spread back?
    2) If the major cause of the epidemic was as scholars suggest a severe drought and a severely immunocompromised society, then you'd have to replicate those conditions in an Old World country to get similar results; and even then it probably wouldn't result from a New World pathogen because Europeans had more than enough pathogens of their own to prey on them.

    Having said that, I do love the idea of exploring a sort of reverse Columbian epidemic, and it can't be dismissed out of hand as a TL premise because we know so little for sure about Cocolizitli, only a lot of conjecture and some unconclusive sequencing revealing that some people died of Salmonella around the same time; so if an author wanted they could certainly take the liberty of presuming the native bat fever was the major contributor and having it spread to Europe somehow. I'd read it!

    EDIT: I looked up the Salmonella study just to check (Salmonella enterica serovar Paratyphi C for those interested), and there have been some criticisms of it as although the sequencing was valid, S. Paratyphi C. symptoms in current patients don't match with the historically recorded symptoms, and the team that sequenced the teeth didn't screen for other pathogens so they might have missed something. So with the information we have I'd say it's safe to say there was S. Paratyphi C. and one or more other pathogens that caused the recorded symptoms such as gastrointestinal bleeding. In short, definitely at least two bugs running around.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2019
  4. Sertorius126 Badass guerrilla fighter

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    You have to consider that for the standars of antiquity, the Roman Empire was extremely advanced, and ruling over a state with so many diverse ethnicities and cultures while also keeping it cohesive is no mean task. The very fact that it succeeded in doing so for several hundred years is testimony to its strenght. The Chinese empire was split in different states more often than not, and civil war, not much unlike the Roman empire, was a constant reality, albeit on an even bigger scale.

    The Roman army wasn’t invincible, but it was still the best fighting machine of its time. The Parthians, although they managed to prevent the Romans from expanding in their territory, won a battle against them just once, at Carrhae, and the Sassanids were defeated several times. Whenever the Romans lost, it was almost always because of poor generalship, more than due to inadequacies of their armies. Cesar did rely on Gauls and Germans, as past generals and future emperors relied on auxiliary units from all over Europe and Africa, to compensate for the Roman army’s main weakness, the lack of a proper cavalry. Those units however would have accounted to nothing without the legionaries es. Their tactical abilities and the efficiency of their training was what made them unparalleled in the world. No army is invincible, but in antiquity the Romans were the one who came closer to that.
     
  5. Gloss Well-Known Member

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    Not really that lower when we compare, places in Europe lost 2/3 of their population(and stayed low for decades and generations) without being necessarily overpopulated of oppressed. There are a tons of factors in the Americas that add on top of diseases that weren't contingent on an evil force from the outside, like droughts and general climatic events.
     
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  6. Workable Goblin Chronicler of the Pony Wars

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    Well, isn't it helpful that we actually have relatively well-documented populations who experienced exactly that, isn't it? I speak, of course, of Pacific Islanders. For example, the Hawaiians who were first contacted by Captain Cook in 1778 but remained politically independent except for a very brief period until 1893 and had a long period of peace and stability without any major wars after Kamehameha the Great finished his conquests in 1795 and unified the Hawaiian Islands under one monarch in 1810. And subsequently...saw population declines of 50+% by 1875 (it depends on your estimate for pre-contact population, with 50% using smaller estimates; the 1875 population is actually known from censuses), necessitating mass in-migration (supported by the monarchy!) to provide laborers for the Hawaiian economy. Oh.

    Okay, so this story is complicated because of the influence of American missionaries and foreign advisors on the Hawaiian monarchs, as well as the power that non-Hawaiians developed over the Hawaiian economy, but I think it does illustrate that diseases really are very bad for isolated populations even if there's relatively little political or social disruption going on at the same time. You could argue that there was colonialism going on in Hawai'i, but it was a very, very different kind of colonialism than conquistadors swooping in and enslaving everyone to work in the sugar fields. So my suspicion is that native Americans probably were in big trouble after Eurasian contact even if the initial contacts were with people who had absolutely no intention of colonizing the Americas, and generally speaking I think the neorevisionists who are pushing the argument that it was mostly about colonialism are basically wrong. Colonialism just made something that would already have been catastrophic worse, it didn't make something that would have been moderately bad catastrophic.

    Also, I don't think you can disentangle the social and political disruptions you mention from the spread of disease in many areas; it's known that there was severe social upheaval across much of inland North America after the spread of European diseases into the area despite there not being any substantial European presence for many decades afterwards, for example, so it obviously could not be have been caused by the direct actions of conquistadors or their French or English counterparts. I think that this kind of upheaval should rightly be considered a part of the disease toll, only different from the usual causes of mortality because it isn't directly caused by disease. It might be possible to prevent this from getting out of control in a relatively limited and politically unified region like Hawai'i or perhaps some of the Caribbean islands, but across a huge territory like North America or Mesoamerica I don't see how you can avoid major breakdowns from taking place when the population is crashing over the course of a few decades from disease.
     
  7. Fabius Maximus Unus qui nobis cunctando restituit rem

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    The further you get from the empire's core territory, the more expensive it is to move troops up to carry on your conquests, the harder it is to keep an eye on disloyalty amongst your governors, the longer it takes to react to invasions or rebellions, and so on. Eventually you reach a point where these factors become so detrimental that further expansion is unfeasible, even if your state is by now the strongest in the area.

    Well for one thing, if the Aegean provinces can raise that many ships, they can have a second crack at winning their independence from Persia.
     
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  8. Grand Prince Paul II. Xenophobic Russian Agent, pro-Europa

    Look at ancient Egypt.
    It was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire, but the Egyptian satrapy was rebellious and neighboring African territories less valuable, limiting Persian expansion in Africa mostly to Egypt.
    The situation in Achaemenid Greece/Europe would be probably similar.
     
  9. Bluesock Banned

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    My problem with this is that nearly all accounts of the greatness of the Roman legions are based off accounts from the Romans themselves and some of them are beyond belief. I mean are we really supposed to believe that Ceasar defeated a relief force of 300 000 to 400 000 gauls at the battle of Alesia or that the Romans in Britain defeated Boudica's supposed force of 230 000 Britons with just 10 000 men? All accounts of Roman bad generalship that led to unlikely defeats should be taken with a grain of salt. r If anything its more likely that the roman armies were larger than their less advanced adversaries and used it to over power small and weak Chieftans.
     
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  10. water123 Really bad at names

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    I mean, even in the 1660s there were plagues and shit all over Europe. I did a research paper of Cocoliztli a while back, and it seems like the consensus right now is that Cocoliztli means different things to different people, and that there were outbreaks of it in South America (!) until the 1800s. I think the biggest thing is that the old standby "native americans didn't live in complex settled societies and therefore didn't have enough contact to develop disease" is very, very false. The Olmecs have been running around since the 1200bc's, and there were tons of complex societies.
    Yeah, but without colonialism, vast swathes of the Americas would not be utterly and completely devoid of their native populations. Not to mention that still ignores the fact that in a lot of AH maps the NAtive Americans are literally just ignored.
     
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  11. Sertorius126 Badass guerrilla fighter

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    In reality, some accounts of Rome’s greatness come from Greeks too, and Jews, if we count Joseph Flavius. Polybius, while being a patriotic Greek, also recognized Rome’s superiority on a political and military level.

    Of course we shouldn’t believe without proper evidence all the numbers given us by the ancients, but most of the time, when the Romans were equal in strenght or had superior numbers in pitch battles, it is admitted, as in the cases of Cannae, Zama, Cynoscephale or Adrianople, to mention both victories and losses. More often than not, when we find ourselves with such extravagant numbers as in the cases of Caesar’s battles, Lucullus’ Tigranocerta or some of Alexander the Great’s victories, I think it’s supposed to mean “the enemies outnumbered them, we don’t really know how much, but apparently it was a lot”, and it’s not that hard to believe. Barbarian troops were undisciplined, mostly with no armour, no training beyond the basics and no coherent tactic beyond “charge and smash ’em”. It doesn’t take much for a professional army to cut such enemies to pieces.
     
  12. Workable Goblin Chronicler of the Pony Wars

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    I was narrowly addressing the argument of historians who focus on the brutal and violent conquests and argue that those caused the disease losses (through malnutrition and mistreatment weakening people's immune systems) by pointing out that we have well-documented severe population drops from disease elsewhere, in the absence of significant colonial pressure during the most intense period of deaths. I do not presume to know or discuss what the Americas would actually look like in a no-colonialism-but-contact scenario.
     
  13. Fiver Curmudgeon

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    The Confederate Ststes of America, hands down, is the most over-estimated pre-1900 state. Any change bigger than Abe Lincoln gets a hangnail inevitably results in Lee annihilating the Army of the Potomac and seizing Washington DC, Lincoln folding after his brain and spine have been removed, Britain and France become willing to intervene militarily on the Confederacy’s behalf, and the Confederacy being given back every inch of lost territory, plus Kentucky as a special bonus prize. If they go after anything in Latin America, the conquest is quick, easy, and permanent.

    Second place is probably Britain. The rise of the British Empire was far from inevitable, and even at the height of OTL's power, they didn't always win. Yet some people treat the British as totally invincible against any odds and miss that most of their military power was needed to keep their existing empire under control.

    In a close third is the United States. Independence from Britain was far from certain. US force projection tends to be massively overrated. Canada did not fall in either the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812. The US could have seizied more of Mexico than in OTL, but all Mexico was a pipe dream. Even OTL's success required well above average generalship of the US forces and large amounts of ineptitude by Mexican generals.

    Fourth is the Roman Empire. Period logistics meant it was already too big to be a sustainable state - division into 2 to 4 major successor states was almost unavoidable.

    Fifth is the Mongols. Minor changes could have led to them conquering Japan, more of Europe, or more of the Middle East, but not a lot more. Again, period logistics meant it was already too big to be a single sustainable state.
     
  14. dandan_noodles Well-Known Member

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    Not really. The use of very specific Latin military vocabulary in Livy and The Gallic Wars, as well as episodes which show the contemporary assumption that Gallic and Roman troops were indistinguishable on the field, and exacting narratives full of clever maneuvering between barbarian and Roman armies show they were a very formidable enemy even without the advantage of numbers. Archaeology bears this out; finds in the Illerup valley in Denmark show uniform equipment and a clear officer hierarchy among Germanic warriors. The Romans probably had an edge in infantry quality, but by this point they no longer really have any native cavalry tradition against the excellent cavalry of the barbarians, so they're wholly reliant on Germanic and Gallic horsemen, who repeatedly turned the tide of battle in Caesar's favor. What really mattered was Caesar's gifts as a first rate general.

    With that caveat, I do agree that the Romans had a first rate army, though I'm far more interested in the mid-Republic period than the Principate or late Republic. At this point, the Roman army attained a balance of both relative numbers and fighting quality that very few states have ever matched. Their immense numbers on the strategic scale allowed the Romans to pursue a long, grinding war against Carthage (in raw numbers, by far the most powerful of their rivals on the Mediterranean stage) on multiple fronts. The superb fighting quality of this citizen militia is demonstrated by their repeated triumphs against the Hellenistic monarchies. In a 12 years period at the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 2nd century BC, the Romans put every other Great Power in the Mediterranean in the dirt with a string of decisive victories, most of them against superior numbers. Ilipa, Great Plains, Zama, Magnesia, and Pydna do demonstrate that the Romans had an army of excellent quality, though we shouldn't gloss over their many, many defeats (something like 90 distinct military disasters during the Mid-Republic period).

    In many ways, the track record of the manipular army anticipates the tactical transformations of the French Revolution and Napoleon, in that battles against such an army ceased to be a matter of piercing the battle line and more focused on consuming reserves, which the Romans had aplenty. It's interesting that, while casualties for victories ancient armies are often trivial, this is mostly not the case for Rome's enemies (Hannibal lost thousands of men even in his great victories, but to 10% dead, as did Pyrrhos). Against most armies, simply puncturing their line in one place was enough to drive them from the field, but fighting the Romans meant one had to chew through two reserve lines with shot troops. The evidence seems to indicate Romans formed up in relatively shallow formations, and kept a lot of spacing between men, as well as wide intervals between maniples. Combat, whether with swords or muskets being as exhausting as it is, the attack of fresh troops against men fatigued by combat is often decisive. An unarticulated line like the Classical Greek phalanx meant the whole army was being worn out during combat. The more open, shallow formations of the Romans in their the triple line meant they could engage the whole front of the enemy army while keeping most of their troops as fresh reserves.
     
  15. Fabius Maximus Unus qui nobis cunctando restituit rem

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    Sure the Romans would have exaggerated their success, but ultimately it was the Romans that conquered the biggest and longest-lasting Mediterranean empire, not anyone else. If we were just talking about success in a battle or two that could plausibly be attributed to luck, but you don't create the biggest empire in the known world without being pretty darn good at fighting.

    I don't know about that -- I don't think the Roman Empire could have got much bigger, but the "classic" shape of the Empire (Europe south of the Rhine and Danube, North Africa, Syria and Asia Minor) stayed together for several centuries, and even after division became a practice it was often reunited without obvious detriment to the Empire's functionality.
     
  16. Sertorius126 Badass guerrilla fighter

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    I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of the Roman army and of the tactical advantages of the manipular model. I didn’t want to say that the Romans were invincible or that barbarian armies couldn’t be formidable enemies in their own regard, indeed whenever a general knew how to properly employ them, they could overcome great numbers of Romans (Viriathus, Sertorius, Vercingetorix and Arminius offer good examples of that). What I was trying to say is that no barbarian foot soldier could ever compete in terms of training and equipment with any legionary, and that most barbarian foot soldiers fought with basic equipment since they couldn’t afford anything better, so the outcome of any pitched battle between a Roman army and a barbarian one was almost certainly going to go in favour of the Romans. Thus it’s not so outlandish that Paulinus could destroy Boudicca, or that Caesar could vanquish the Gauls at the siege of Alesia, even if they were severely outnumbered. The same of course could be said of African and Eastern armies, at least before the advent of the Sassanids, who brought a more aggressive model of warfare.
     
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  17. dandan_noodles Well-Known Member

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    Well, the problem is that it's just not that simple. The Roman army changed a lot over this period, and only really became the well trained professional force we typically imagine in the Principate; most of Caesar's men weren't professional soldiers, but fresh levies raised for his governorship. Whatever differences of equipment there were didn't really affect combat much; Caesar doesn't really write 'we broke through their line because we had armor and they didn't', it's about the courage of the troops and the tactical leadership of their officers. There's lots of reasons to believe there wasn't really much difference in equipment; as part of a battle stratagem, Caesar's troops have to distinguish themselves from a formation of Gauls by rolling up the sleeves of their tunics. If the differences of equipment were as different as you suggest, there'd be no reason, as the difference would be easily discernable from their arms. The mail worn by Romans was after all a Celtic invention, and they carried very similar swords and shields. Scholars are currently playing with the idea that there was really a general 'West Mediterranean' (Italians, Iberians, Gauls, possibly Libyans) fighting style centered on the use of swords and javelins with tall oval shields. In general, you'd expect Gauls to have general parity in battle, and really, they do; when the Romans win, it's because of specific tactical reasons, generally stemming from the decisions of their commanders, rather than any innate superiority in equipment or even training.
     
  18. Sertorius126 Badass guerrilla fighter

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    Not in equipment, but in the number of those who could afford equipment, from what I knew at least, only chieftains and nobility could really afford full mail armor, shield and spear among the Gauls. The Romans on their side were all armoured, all equipped with gladii hispanienses, crafted by the Iberian troops and notorious for being a sword of the highest quality, pila, pugiones, and siege engines. The difference in quality then becomes even greater in the early imperial period, when the Lorica segmentata became the standard armour for most imperial soldiers.

    Caesar pulled his weight in Gaul, but if it hadn’t been for his soldiers’ discipline and training, all his genius would have come to naught in the face of danger. That’s what Vercingetorix’s soldiers also didn’t have.
     
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  19. dandan_noodles Well-Known Member

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    Except they completely did. If you changed out the people/place names for Roman ones, there'd be almost nothing in Caesar's account to tell you he was fighting Gauls instead of Pompey; in terms of military skills, discipline, and organization, the Gauls were very much comparable to the Romans. Caesar uses pretty much the exact same specific military vocabulary to describe Gallic armies as he does Romans; he explicitly calls Gallic and even German formations phalanxes, which Romans only used for heavy infantry formations that displayed good order and discipline. Metalworking was very highly developed in Gaul, and the country quite wealthy, so we should expect armor to be widely available. Moreover, when troops carry large shields like those of the Gauls, torso armor is of comparatively marginal importance; even in periods where less armor is common, the typical pattern of wounds found on skeletons is a wound to the limbs [being much easier to reach without making one too vulnerable to the enemy], followed by a finishing blow to the head. With this in mind, it's not surprising that the quality or availability of armor pretty much never figures in Caesar's accounts of the conquest of Gaul. The fact that he accomplished what he did was absolutely extraordinary, and largely came down to his ability in diplomacy, strategy, and canny battlefield leadership, not the quality of troops.
     
  20. Arcavius Arms and the Man I Sing

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    Moreover, even if we accept a) that the Romans were universally better armored (which they probably were, but not by as much as is often assumed) and b) that this was a tactical advantage (which, as @dandan_noodles points out, often wasn't the case; armor beyond greaves and a helmet was basically secondary to the shield of the sort used by the Gauls and Romans) this tactical advantage would have been far from universal. Polybius reports that the Gaesatae chose to go into battle naked not because they couldn't afford armor, but rather because it made it easier for them to traverse rough terrain (among other things), and also that they were defeated not for their lack of armor, but rather for their lack of shields. Furthermore, it has been argued that victories like the Teutoburger Wald were only possible because lightly-armored German troops could maneuver through the fens whilst Romans were confined to solid ground, which amplified their advantage of surprise. So yes, in a strait-up fight, armor could provide an advantage in melee. But a more heavily armored force grows tired more quickly (especially in hot conditions), cannot move as quickly, and has more difficulty traversing rough terrain. Thus, there were reasons for soldiers to go unarmored when wearing armor was an option, and ancient sources retflect this.
     
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