The End of Empire

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Rome wasn’t built in a day, they say. Nor did it fall in one. Maybe it didn’t even matter that it did.

The standard historical textbooks will tell you that the Romans, after nearly four centuries of occupation, abandoned Britain in the year 410AD, when the western Emperor Honorius sent a "Rescript" — or official proclamation — to the leaders of the British municipalities, telling them, thereafter, to look to their own defence.

Those same books — with their urge to chop history up into neatly packaged slivers — then roundly declare that the "Dark Ages" promptly began.

They will inform you that, within the space of barely two generations, the feeble British had abandoned the fertile lowland fields and farms, which their ancestors had tended since the last Ice Age, giving them up to a few boatloads of Germanic pirates and that they had fled to find a bleak refuge in the harsher highlands on the fringes of their island.

And why would this not be true — no less than Rome herself was sacked by Alaric and his Goths that same year, was it not?

Incidentally, that same Emperor Honorius was sheltering safely in Ravenna while his people were enduring the barbarian siege. When he heard the news of its ruin, he thought it was a lesser evil than would be the death of his pet cockerel of the same name!

But rather than using the words of a fool in purple, historians consider the cataclysm was better encapsulated by the pen of St. Jerome, who gave out a whole series of lamentations, wailing, in one letter, that:

"…the bright light of all the world was put out, or, rather, when the Roman Empire was decapitated, and, to speak more correctly, the whole world perished in one city."

Here and now, sixteen centuries later, we are coming across more and more latter-day St. Jeromes, ourselves.

I know of people who are selling up and moving to seek Shangri-La in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I’ve met those who think Paradise is to be found among the palm trees of the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica.

A very smart and highly-educated American with whom I’m friendly speaks for many when he ends an e-mail with the words: "I’m looking forward to seeing you in Zurich. The way things are here, I might even stay."

It is becoming increasingly common for well-to-do professional folks and retired businessmen to reveal, in the course of a conversation, that they are prey to increasing anxieties about their future and that they fear that their quality of life can no longer be guaranteed by any action they feel competent to take to ensure it.

Meanwhile, out in the wider world, the Gold Bugs and the more extreme religious crazies (of all faiths) have seemingly set up a joint venture.

These two incongruous lobby groups have joined hands in trying to persuade people that the End of Days — financial or universal — is at hand.

What they seem to have agreed upon is that when God/Jehovah/Allah/Shiva is shortly revealed in all His mighty wrath and when He causes JP Morgan and Fannie Mae to fall into a fully-deserved bankruptcy, He will expect the faithful not to be long the stock market.

Oh, no! For the mark of the True Believer is that he should be ready to take whomever he happens to hold as his Lord straight away to where he has his gold coins buried, instead!

As that mellifluous voice of carefully-crafted pessimism, Bill Bonner, put it, in a recent piece:

"We like gold the way we like stacks of firewood, jars of canned green beans and cheerful women. They make the going so much more fun when the going gets rough. As we mention above, the going has never been easier. So easy have things become that people no longer see the need for reserves… But someday, the going may not be so good. We hold it in inventory for the day when u2018just in time’ fails and u2018just in case’ comes back into style…"

This sounds eminently more reasonable, but, in truth, it is simply more of the same — just more soothingly and articulately expressed.

For my part, while I’ll admit that our rulers’ chickens finally may be coming home to roost, and that ours will be the generation up to our necks in guano, if they do, I’m among those who find this vogue for paranoia — this cult of the Apocalypse — both unattractive and unfruitful.

This is where the story of Rome — and the manner of its telling — is particularly instructive. This is because, as frequently happens in life, if we look beyond the banner headlines of despair, we can find cause for hope.

Let’s take a glimpse at how Rome and her history can give us a reaffirmation of our unshaken belief in the ability of Everyman, acting as a free individual, to repair all the damage ever done by history’s tyrants and their tax gatherers.

The first thing to be pointed out is that, however dramatic the official version of those past events, what historians — and, more emphatically, archaeologists — are coming to realize is that, changes in political leadership aside, nothing very much at all can be found to distinguish the days before 410AD with those afterwards.

Rome may have swapped leaders. Violence may have been done and property destroyed on a considerable scale. Individual tragedy was, we suspect, both undeniable and heart-rending, as it always is.

Yet, the vast majority of men and women still lived their lives, tended their livestock, took their goods to market, and worshipped their gods, as they had always done — Rome, or no Rome.

The thrifty and the enterprising still, on the whole, fared better than the prodigal and the unthinking. In fact, freed of the crushing exactions laid upon them by a Rome always eager to bribe its vast, unproductive military class into quietude, they may even have been left to enjoy more of the fruits of their own labours than usual.

Take the case of those feeble Britons.

Here, it should be noted that Honorius’ letter was not a denial of some grovelling plea for aid, but a recognition of their de facto and self-attained independence.

In early 5th-century Britain, memories still burned with the flames of the pogrom unleashed by Emperor Constantius II’s emissary, Paulus Catena, sixty years before, after the native leaders had backed the wrong contender in a struggle for his master’s throne.

Many of the current leaders’ fathers had probably collaborated in fomenting what the texts call the "Barbarian Conspiracy", in 367AD — traditionally viewed as yet another mark of Britain’s weakness, but now being revised into what may actually have been another concerted attempt to shed the Imperial yoke.

In fact, far from being wretched, the Britons invaded the continent several times themselves after this supposed disaster; notably, under Maximus in 383AD, and, again, under Constantine III in 409AD. They even deposed two previous, more circumspect leaders in swift succession in order to give Constantine his shot at the title!

Thus, just a year before Honorius wrote his famous missive, one faction of the Island Celts had already come close to deposing him, while another spurned his rule completely.

As Zosimus wrote of the period:

"…[events saw] some of the Celtic peoples defecting from the Roman rule and living their own lives, independent from the Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms and, braving the danger on their own behalf, freed their cities from the barbarian threat. And all Armorica and the other Gallic provinces followed their example, freed themselves in the same way, expelling the Roman officials and setting up a constitution such as they pleased…"

Nor was this an end of the matter.

Indeed, as late as 470AD — when the Saxons had supposedly started their "ethnic cleansing" — it was a contingent of 12,000 Britons under King Riothamus, Gibbon tells us, which was to sail up the Loire in the unsuccessful effort to succour the Emperor Anthemius against his Gothic foes.

This shows that, contrary to popular belief, military aid did not always flow from Rome, but often it was the other way around!

But, no matter. Objective truth counted for little when generations of Englishmen had been schooled in the ways of Rome and were taught to treat its authors’ propagandistic Latin as plain fact.

Who understood that these same worthies and their teachers were all too eager to trace their contemporary naval and commercial pre-eminence back to the alleged superiority of their race?

Who realized that history must bend if Victorian overlords were eager to see in their own Empire a reflection of more ancient glories?

Thus was conjured up the myth of the Anglo-Saxon supremacy and its counterpoise, the rapid descent of the degenerate post-Roman Britons back to the mud huts and pig sties from which their Italian masters had briefly roused them.

As evidence for this, the historians cited the collapse of urban society.

They noted the dwindling of the cash economy as the barely-civilized savages retreated to rural isolation and relied, once more, upon barter for the exchange of their few, poor goods.

Deprived of their Tacituses and Cassius Dio’s, they scorned the natives’ lack of learning and mocked the dearth of literacy, which had replaced the renowned intellectual salons of the auxiliary castra.

The fact that the Celtic Church, sponsored by the sovereign Celtic princes, was the re-educator of continental Europe and that its footsore saints were the proselytizers of both Faith and Science throughout these times, was neatly overlooked.

Even on the economic front, the distortions are plain.

New archaeological evidence and recent re-interpretations of old data suggest the towns had been undergoing a continual period of slow decay for many years prior to 410AD and that the cause was not to be found in barbarian depredations, but in Rome’s own dysfunctional society.

For far too long, Rome had lived by conquest — through seizing, by force of arms, what its spendthrift patricians and Caesarian mafiosi could not hope to gain by trade alone.

But once the Empire came to butt up against lands too infertile to be worth the taking, or against terrain too inhospitable for its Legions to control in the face of active native "insurgents", this predatory State turned increasingly inward to devour its own wealth producers instead.

Punitive taxes were needed, above all, to pay the vast numbers of soldiers.

In some strikingly modern ways, it was mainly the military contractors and the tradesmen (and trollops) in the towns (vici) which sprang up alongside the legionary camps who did well out of equipping and servicing (in all sorts of ways) their oppressors.

Naturally, in response to these tolls, rich men sought to keep their wealth to themselves, as far as was possible.

Rather than squandering money — some of it borrowed — to build public edifices, such as baths and temples, for reasons of prestige, the urban elite began actively to avoid such impositions.

Indeed, the former privilege of Roman citizenship and the pride of holding the offices which accrued to it became such a burden that the wealthy retired to their country villas. There, they could minimize the loss of their property both to overt taxation and to the constant, unsubtle pressure for those contributions which had to be made in order to display their loyalty to the regime.

So, unrepaired and unfrequented, town centres began to look dilapidated, long before any unwelcome barbarian tongues were heard in their near empty streets.

Added to all this was the presence of that perennial, wasting affliction, always visited by reckless rulers on their long-suffering subjects — inflation.

Long before Alaric’s Goths had plundered the so-called Eternal City, its money had become so debased that Imperial tribute and taxes were having to be levied in kind, not in cash, greatly decreasing the efficiency of the process even as it made collection more obvious and more violently confrontational.

Gradually, then, the whole empire had become little more than an arena in which competing warlords would raise forces to bid for the throne.

Increasingly, its farmers and merchants were seen as nothing more than tax slaves to be exploited in order to provide the Dole to the restless urban proletariat and to buy the fickle loyalties of the ever-important soldiers.

Over time, the difference between the "barbarians" and the Romans was becoming blurred, too.

This must have discomfited the Romans then no less than Chinese manufacturing competitiveness or Indian software programming skills frighten British and American union bosses today.

Furthermore, the legions’ military pre-eminence became eroded as the hardy peasants of Italy in its ranks gave way to the unwilling sons of the conquered who were conscripted in their place.

Additionally, many sons of the unconquered would volunteer to join them — attracted by the pay and conditions and by the very modern enticement of the chance to learn a trade.

There was also the prospect of becoming a man of mark back home when the volunteer’s term was up. This was an advancement aided substantially by the often sizeable retirement bonus with which nervous emperors made further attempts to keep the military caste onside.

That bonus, could, of course, be most readily employed as capital in a business which relied on the veteran’s ability to use his inside contacts. He could call in a few favours, grease a few palms and so win a lucrative tender to supply his old army mess mates with their victuals, their gear, or their trinkets.

Once more, the parallels with today’s "revolving doors" are obvious, Mr. Cheney.

But, it wasn’t just the soldiers. "Foreign" tradesmen and artisans, too, had learned what there was to learn from Rome and they applied it both in their home markets and inside the imperial limes.

While this meant tribal leaders far beyond the empire’s boundaries were able to show off their collections of Roman jewellery and plate and to quaff the best Roman wines when feasting with their henchmen — just as their unsavoury equivalents today all drive Mercedes and sport Rolex watches — it was they who often had the better of the terms of trade.

Rome, then, was not only undermined from within, but it became much less singular in its abilities, as knowledge of its technologies and innovations diffused across its borders.

The lessons we should draw from all this is that though things were, in some senses, gradually getting worse as the Fifth Century began, many of the evils were not the result of sudden irruptions of savages from the outer fringes of the world, but were due primarily to a slow corrosion from within.

Inflation, arbitrary government, swingeing taxation, the confiscation of property — often undertaken on the flimsy pretext of punishing dissent, or after the accidental infringement of some obscure regulation: these we would all recognise as things which plague us today.

The development of an increasingly remote, self-serving and fabulously wealthy governing elite; the destruction of the bedrock middle class; the reliance of the poor on State grants and subsidies; the inhibition of free enterprise and the pervasive militarization of society — these are all things we also know all too well.

Rome did not fall in an earthquake — it crumbled and rotted after its foundations had been undercut by generations of poor law, bad government, and flawed economics.

Our Rome, too, may be ending in this fashion. In this, the World-enders may be right.

But what we should also remember is that Rome’s passing was not universally mourned — certainly not by those at risk of its institutionalized terror.

As the noted British archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler summed it up, after a lifetime of work in the field:

"I suffered from a surfeit of things Roman. I felt disgusted by the mechanistic quality of their art and by the nearness of their civilization at all times to cruelty and corruption"

We should recall also the passages above which showed that the Briton and some of their Gaulish cousins thrived under their new found freedoms and their recovered self-determination.

We should listen to the testimony of the present generation of less-hidebound archaeologists and historians who are beginning to see matters in a different light to that by which their professors worked.

Men such as Francis Pryor, who goes to great lengths to point out that history (and prehistory, too, in his case) provides much more evidence of continuity overlaid with gradual change than it does of revolutions or mass invasions.

In fact, based on a careful study of settlement patterns, artefact finds and burial practices, Pryor even doubts whether the "Anglo-Saxons" themselves might not be largely or wholly a post-dated fiction, constructed to give a set of relatively successful British kinglets a suitably glorious lineage, the better to distinguish themselves more clearly from their losing opponents among the other, no-less British kinglets!

At present, that seems too far a stretch for me, but his point is nonetheless well made.

Over four centuries of occupation — and countless more of commercial traffic — Britons adopted certain Roman mannerisms, were influenced by Roman religious cults, and sought to purchase Roman consumer goods, just as people in Tehran today wear Levi Jeans and Nike trainers while listening to REM or Eminem on their iPods.

But, at heart they remained Britons and, beyond even that broad classification, they were individual acting humans, each driven to provide for himself and his family through working to satisfy their needs.

In their labours, these Britons were aided by the use of what capital they had and they appreciated the benefits which came from specializing in a trade.

In this, they did best when their property was most secure from either legal or criminal jeopardy.

Then, just as now, they would look for opportunities to exchange the surplus to which their trade gave rise, swapping it for others’ surplus goods at the mutually agreed rate which seemed the best they could achieve.

Do you suppose that all of this was called into question because a Pope died, or an Emperor was usurped?

Do you suppose people thought that the local warrior prince — even if he spoke German, or Welsh, not Latin — was any less, or any more, of an inevitable ill with which to put up than were the procurators and legates of a distant sovereign?


Men adapted — as they always do, if their government allows them — to their new circumstances.

Some economic activities became insupportable: many trading networks undoubtedly became defunct.

Equally, new business ventures must have suggested themselves as being potentially profitable and ships still plied the deep oceans, with holds stuffed full of goods to exchange.

Different loyalties came to be expressed, both upward and downward through society, as the balance of political risks changed.

Threats to life and property mutated into newer, though not necessarily less bearable forms.

The blessings of thrift and hard work and the fruits of enterprise were also still received — the more so, the smaller and lighter where the State’s footprint now lay on the soil.

In summary, life went on — even as the mightiest Empire history had known was sinking into legend.

Life went on — different, yet the same.

If we cut through the religious intolerance and ascetic distaste evident in the words of the sour old monk we met earlier, Saint Jerome himself, from his hermit’s cell in Bethlehem, had already recognised this, well before the embers had ceased to smoulder in his erstwhile City of Light:

"The world sinks into ruin: yes! but shameful to say our sins still live and flourish. The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire; and there is no part of the earth where Romans are not in exile."

"Churches once held sacred are now but heaps of dust and ashes; and yet we have our minds set on the desire of gain. We live as though we are going to die tomorrow; yet we build as though we are going to live always in this world" [my emphasis]

And so, give praise, it will always be!

Buy gold, then — but only because you share the view that it is much harder to create than paper money and so should tend to maintain its value better.

But, whatever you do, don’t buy it as part of a retreat from life you are making just because times are more uncertain than they used to appear.

In trying to preserve your liberty from the zealots in charge of today’s increasingly fascist — increasingly Roman — Global Police State, don’t surrender it instead to your fears by becoming a metaphorical (if not an actual) survivalist, holed up in the mountains with only your water purifier, your rifle, and your Krugerrands for company.

If the end of the world does come, no amount of gold is going to comfort you, but if it is only Rome which comes to an end — whether in our lifetimes, or after staggering on throughout our children’s — remember that your wealth is best preserved when it helps another in the process of creating his.

Perhaps Honorius was not such a fool, after all.

Maybe his rooster — an economically useful beast, you will agree — did matter more than any ruler, for the final lesson we must draw is that Entrepreneurship will always outlast Empire.

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] is the Investment Strategist at Sage Capital Zurich AG and co-adviser to the Bermuda-based Edelweiss Fund. The views expressed are, of course, his own.

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