the Decline of Rome
of the Roman Empire remains one of the great unsolved riddles
of history. Rome rose from obscurity
to dominate the ancient world until it became practically synonymous
with civilization itself. Yet a few centuries later its terrified
survivors, decimated by disease, famine, and infertility, eagerly
laid their necks beneath the swords of barbarian conquerors. Why?
who set out to solve this riddle at the time of the American Revolution,
had yet to find any but the vaguest of answers by the end of the
six volumes of his great work, The
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. By
answering the riddle of the fall of Rome, Gibbon hoped to discover
whether modern European civilization might be threatened by a
similar fate. Precisely because the riddle remains unsolved, Gibbon’s
History remains the standard work in its area a
unique situation in the field of history, where obsolescence overtakes
most works within a few years of publication.
his high reputation, Gibbon was something of a plodder, and his
work is full of repetition and the sacrifice of concept to narration:
a touchstone of English usage in its few inspired moments, a valuable
source even today, but scarcely a model of analytical clarity.
At the end of his study of the fall of Rome, Gibbon concluded
that modern civilization, unlike Rome, was too complex to fall,
without adequately specifying what the conditions for that complexity
vagueness has inspired a seemingly endless stream of alternate
explanations. After reviewing the same general evidence, scholars
have come to the most diffuse and frequently the most farfetched
example is F. W. Walbank’s account of the decline of Rome, The
Awful Revolution. While his narrative is elegantly constructed
and factually reliable, his conclusions are less convincing. Walbank
argues that the lessons of the decline can guide us in the present.
“Having learnt the lessons of that ‘awful revolution’, we can
more advantageously devote our passions and our energies to the
amelioration of what is wrong in our own society.” What are these
“lessons,” according to Walbank? He describes in detail the coercive
economic actions of the Roman state and then concludes that “private
enterprise, left to itself, was proving unequal to the task of
feeding the civilian population.” The fall of Rome is attributed
to insufficient government planning. We must, he writes, “attempt
to plan the resources of modern society for the whole of its peoples.”
Every misguided state action that hastened the fall of Rome
family policy, industrial policy, wage and price controls
is trotted out by such supremely accomplished scholars as Walbank
as a remedy for modern ills.
One is forced
to the realization that no matter how erudite a historian may
be, his conclusions about past socioeconomic events are only as
reliable as his grasp of economic theory. Since the 1920s, the
pick of classical scholars have lived amidst a miasma of fanciful
notions on the relation of government policy and social progress.
It is precisely in the most sophisticated milieus that the naïvetés
of leftism have bitten deepest, as in Britain, where many of the
leading historians of the past fifty years have been large-C Communists,
and in America, where socialist, Marxist, and New Deal mentalities
have great prestige in the academy and it is nonnative to ridicule
the free market.
explanation for the decline of Rome must address the universality
of the problems that confronted the Romans. The evils that Rome
faced were not worse than those faced by other societies before
or since. Political turmoil, civil war, invasion, plague, famine,
and all the other scourges of the ancient world can be found abundantly
in the histories of all societies, including modern and early
modern Europe. Why in the seventeenth century did England not
succumb to plague and civil strife, nor Holland to devastating,
repeated invasion? Rome itself had survived all these scourges,
including invasion, occupation, civil war, and ceaseless barbarian
pressure during the republic and the early empire. What none of
the factors, commonly advanced to explain the fall of Rome, can
do adequately, is to show why, at the very pinnacle of its grandeur
in the first century A.D., at a time when it utterly dominated
the ancient world, Rome’s culture and economy should have entered
a precipitous and ultimately fatal decline.
Free Market of the Ancient Mediterranean
civilization was a middle class civilization. It stood at the
pinnacle of a long process of democratization that had begun hundreds
of years earlier. Broadly speaking, the aristocrats first overthrew
the kings. The oligopolies they established were in turn overthrown
by the upper middle class.
A vast development
of trade between the ninth and the fifth centuries B.C. underlay
this development. The central importance of commerce was self-evident
to the ancient Greeks. As Plato has Socrates say in the Republic,
“To find a place where nothing need be imported is well-nigh impossible,”
to which Socrates’ interlocutor rejoins, “Impossible.”
of trade gave rise to a large and affluent middle class. Two of
the criteria of aristocratic worth wealth and military
value simultaneously passed to the middle class. Building
on these assets, the middle class sought and in many cases achieved
cultural and political influence commensurate with its economic
power. By the peak moment of Greek civilization in fifth century
Athens, the upper middle class occupied a position roughly analogous
to that of the upper middle class in Britain after 1688 or France
after 1789, as the cultural center of society.
If the Greeks,
along with the Phoenicians and their Carthaginian descendants,
were a thorough success as merchants, they were less successful
in their political efforts. They experimented with every form
of government without ever transcending the specter of political
instability. But the political turbulence of the Greek world may
have held unsuspected economic benefits.
world of the ancient Mediterranean constituted a de facto
free market. States, each one seeking its own interest, competed
against each other, with none able to gain a lasting advantage.
In this setting, commerce flourished. The population and prosperity
of the Mediterranean basin increased dramatically.
little Rome swallowed up the states of the ancient Mediterranean,
such as Marseille, Syracuse, Carthage, Athens, and Egypt. At first
the benefit seemed enormous. The chronic war and piracy which
had plagued the Greek world were suppressed. Briefly the world
knew peace and order and was able to expand its infrastructure.
The ancient world reached yet a new peak of population and prosperity.
But the state which made this possible carried within itself the
principle of its own destruction.
Collectivism Under the Roman Republic
its history, Rome defined civic rights and duties as the properties
of collective bodies. Under the republic (c. 500 B.C.-27 B.C.),
these bodies achieved a certain balance, so that, no one body
being able to completely dominate any other, the power of the
state over the individual, while in principle absolute, was in
practice limited. A senatorial governing class, an aristocracy
of “equites” or knights, and a distinct citizen body of plebeians
shared hegemony over the various aspects of public life. Further
segmented into influential extended families, the Roman republic
embodied powerful principles of both balance and unity.
In the later
years of the republic, the power of these intermediary bodies
eroded even as the aggregate power of the state, augmented through
conquests, reached unprecedented heights. After a series of civil
wars between rival generals, one of them, Julius Caesar, emerged
as supreme ruler. His successor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C. to 14
A.D.), founded the Roman Empire. Over the next four hundred years,
that empire was progressively to snuff out the power of all the
intermediary institutions. Ironically, the principle of collective
rights which had sustained Roman liberty under the republic would
be used to undermine ancient civilization itself under the empire.
in the late republic, the practices had begun which were to prove
fatal under the empire. The functions of society gradually became
the properties of exclusive classes. The upper classes were as
restricted as the lower. By a law of 218 B.C., senators were forbidden
to own cargo ships. This law forced the Roman upper class to invest
in land rather than commerce. Since induction into the senatorial
order was becoming a prerogative of success, the result was to
forbid successful men to engage in trade.
It is characteristic
of the low esteem in which the Romans held trade that Cicero described
it as a vile occupation, unworthy of a man of honor. “We condemn
the odious occupation of the collector of customs and the usurer,
and the base and menial work of unskilled laborers. . . . Equally
contemptible is the business of the retail dealer; for he cannot
succeed unless he is dishonest. . . . The work of the mechanic
is also degrading; there is nothing noble about a workshop. .
from commerce could legitimate a businessman. Cicero goes on to
say that “[I]f the merchant, satiated, or rather, satisfied, with
the fortune he has made, retires from the harbor and steps into
an estate, as once he returned to harbor from the sea, he deserves,
I think, the highest respect.”
commerce by law and custom, the upper class sought to maintain
its prerogatives by limiting the commercial opportunities open
to others. The Macedonian mines were closed, and those of Italy
virtually so, with this intention.
The lower classes of citizens were themselves not immune to such
purchase of grain from farmers at a price set by the state was
common by the late republic. Wreaking
further havoc with the market, much of this grain was resold by
the state at a yet further subsidized price. Some of it was distributed
outright to the lower classes of Rome. Seeking popular support,
demagogues increased the numbers of those eligible for these distributions.
Hundreds of thousands of Romans acquired the right to free grain.
finance, even more despised than trade, remained underdeveloped.
Throughout Roman times, successive attempts were made to legislate
the rate of interest: sometimes 4 per cent, sometimes 8 per cent.
At one point interest was forbidden outright, leading to surprise
when the supply of loan funds suddenly dried up. Denied the means
to meet changing economic conditions, the banking system of the
Hellenistic world was disrupted; it eventually disappeared altogether.
Such policies depressed the supply of loan capital, causing the
same excessive interest rates they were meant to discourage. Combined
with onerous taxation, the net result of state agricultural and
financial policy was to drive farmers off the land.
of the empire first conquered were the first impoverished. Even
before the establishment of the empire, Roman policy had ruined
fertile Sicily, previously the breadbasket of Italy, and virtually
ended the cultivation of grain in the Italian peninsula itself.
The thriving old Greek states of Asia Minor underwent a comparable
decline. The problem of agri
deserta fertile but deserted farmland was to
haunt Rome until its fall. The resulting combination of urban
unemployment with rural depopulation presented Rome with a quandary
it was never to resolve.
of grain consumed by the city of Rome alone was considerable.
Under the empire, the annual consumption of subsidized grain in
Rome probably exceeded 17,000,000 bushels.
The state expenditures necessary to maintain a supply of free
grain imposed a permanent need for revenue, which was not a problem
so long as Rome was a conquering power gathering to itself the
accumulated capital of the ancient world,
but became increasingly critical as the age of conquest came to
an end and taxation replaced plunder as a source of state income.
Most of the taxes were paid by the very farmers whose livelihood
they were used to undermine. Too, state appropriation of the grain
supply must inevitably have discouraged the development of efficient
tendencies were to accelerate under the empire, under an increasingly
absolute Emperor and a bureaucracy which relentlessly expanded
until it became virtually coterminous with society itself.
of the Decline in the Early Empire
republic was a period of chronic political instability
characterized by mob violence, political assassination, and intermittent
civil war. The price of involvement in politics was often violent
death. The assassination of Julius Caesar is only the best-known
of the political murders of this period. Yet despite this turmoil,
Rome’s aggregate wealth and power continued to increase up to
the founding of the empire in 27 B.C.
At the very
moment Rome triumphed over the rest of the ancient world, the
forces of statism were reaching a point of critical mass, at which
their full effects came into play. In consequence, the unparalleled
economic growth and cultural impetus of the classical world were
stalled and then reversed.
his History with the second century of empire, the age
of the Antonines. But towards the end of his life he regretted
he had not begun much earlier. In fact, the decline began as soon
as the empire. The flowering of the Augustan Age was remarkably
brief a matter of a single generation. After this one great
initial burst of energy, Rome lapsed into sterility and decadence.
Under the pressure of government interference, trade, agriculture,
letters, art, and personal freedom entered a decline which is
visible almost from the beginning, and was a frequent source of
concern for ancient writers.
economy reached its peak toward the middle of the first century
A.D. and thereafter began to decline. One symptom of this condition
was that long-distance trade in manufactured goods fell off noticeably
in the course of the first century.
Never halted, the economic decline would steadily accelerate until
the whole of classical civilization was sent into a tailspin.
followed. In the countryside, the peasants continued to desert
their lands, even as the competing slave population shrank with
the receding of the time of conquests.
In letters, the writers of the last generation of the republic
and the first generation of the empire set a dazzling standard
that was never matched. Cicero and Virgil would have many admirers,
but no equals, as education became a matter of imitative declamation.
The Emperors, as their power became increasingly absolute, accelerated
this trend by persecuting or simply killing adverse literati.
In portraiture, there is a falling off that is noticeable immediately.
High art, which had been the prerogative of many, increasingly
became a prerogative of the Imperial court. The scientific impetus
of the Greeks virtually disappeared, with a few isolated exceptions
like the physician Galen and even he may have been more
of a compiler than an originator. The story of the first century
A.D., the apex of Roman glory, is thus that of a rapid and progressive
enfeeblement of those very elements which had made classical civilization
a great age of achievement.
Golden Age of the Antonines”
By the end
of the first century A.D., the peak had passed and the decline
began in earnest.
in all aspects of society was associated with a continuous extension
of governmental functions. Social engineering was tried on the
grand scale. The state relentlessly expanded into commerce, industry,
and private life.
acquired near-monopolies of previously private or mixed sectors,
such as mines and quarries. Many
of the humble inhabitants of the empire became direct employees
of the state. At the same time, the bureaucracy grew, demanding
an ever-larger share of state expenditures.
became general. The problem was not limited to impoverished peasants.
The urban upper middle class on which so much of classical civilization
depended seems to have developed a catastrophically low birth
rate. As usual, the response of Roman government was to enact
coercive legislation. Under Augustus, elaborate laws had been
promulgated to penalize the unmarried and the childless. These
laws were to be frequently reaffirmed over the following centuries.
transfers were tried, whether to people recently conquered lands,
to replenish newly depopulated ones, or as political policy. The
Diaspora began as a characteristic act of Roman administration.
its growing expenditures from a shrinking tax base, the government
began to resort to deliberate inflation, devaluing the currency
time and again. A succession of attempts was made to restrict
wages and prices.
In the meantime,
plague struck the empire. The specter of famine had never been
completely banished by Rome even in the time of its prosperity.
It is not too much to speculate that a population weakened by
poverty and hunger proved newly susceptible to the ravages of
disease. The plagues, which devastated the Roman world, seem to
have had little lasting effect on the hordes of barbarians on
the fringes of the empire.
By the time
the so-called “Golden Age of the Antonines” ended in 235 A.D.,
the Roman world was weaker, poorer, less populous, and in important
ways less civilized than it had been in the mid-first century.
Yet no external force had intervened powerful enough to halt and
then reverse the progress of classical civilization, which for
the previous six hundred years had only gone from strength to
strength. Neither political chaos nor irresponsible rule can be
blamed for this state of affairs. The decline became most tangible
between 96 A.D. and 180 A.D. under the successive reigns of the
“five good emperors,” who were widely admired in their time and
recommended for centuries thereafter as models of enlightenment
to European monarchs and statesmen. Indeed the best of them, such
as Marcus Aurelius, came as close as humanly possible to fulfilling
the Platonic ideal of the “philosopher-king.” Though uniformly
conscientious, concerned, and hard-working, the Antonines seem
only to have exacerbated the problems of their society.
It was during
this period that Rome ceased its outward expansion and, turning
inward, began to suffer from the incursions of the barbarians
into whose lands it had previously expanded with impunity.
of the Fifty Emperors
that had slowly sapped the forces of the Roman Empire worsened
during the period of acute political instability from 235 to 284.
During this half-century, nearly every emperor died a violent
death, often after reigns of less than a year. As the civilian
fabric of the empire disintegrated, the military came to the fore,
making and breaking emperors as it pleased. As in the late republic,
the Roman world was once again ravaged by civil war but
this time there would be no recovery.
ended only with the accession of Diocletian in 284. Diocletian
was another “philosopher-king” in the Platonic mold, both a forceful
and a scrupulous monarch, so immune to the opium of power that,
still in his vigor, he chose to spend his later years in voluntary
retirement. Diocletian’s policy, designed to give the empire a
new lease on life, in fact practically ensured its downfall.
World after the “Reforms” of Diocletian
a world in which peasants are bound to the soil; in which the
military dominates society; in which soldiers form a hereditary
caste; in which sons are required to follow their fathers’ trade;
in which commerce is under the exclusive control of privileged
guilds; a world where material and moral progress are slow or
absent, but where poverty, hunger, and disease are ubiquitous,
and the magnificence of the few serves only to highlight the misery
and degradation of the many. Such an image evokes for many the
world of the Middle Ages; but it applies equally well, indeed
far better, to the society established by Diocletian and reinforced
by Constantine and his other successors. In fact the high Middle
Ages were a mecca of freedom and rapid advance in comparison to
the society of the late empire.
By the late
empire, the prevalence of slavery in the ancient world had diminished.
But slavery was merely replaced by other forms of unfreedom. The
technically free peasant of the late empire, the colonus,
is not distinguishable from the serf of later centuries. Like
the medieval serf, the Roman colonus owed a fixed proportion
of his produce to the landowner, was obliged to give him a certain
number of days of free service, and was obliged to dwell within
the landowner’s domain. Coloni were legally bound to the
soil. In addition, they were likely to be crushed by taxes and
on top of all this virtually enslaved by debt. A colonus
who fled and was recaptured could be returned in chains like a
rhetoric has sunk so deep into modern consciousness that we are
apt to overlook the fact that oppression fell not just on the
peasants but also on the landlords. Agricultural taxes were assessed
according to acreage, not production; thus in bad years they were
as high as in good years. Furthermore, landowners in the late
empire became liable for increasingly onerous payments in kind
to support the growing demands of the administration and the military.
Their role was made as economically impossible as that of their
radically expanded the civil service. The number of administrative
districts was more than doubled, requiring a vast expansion of
the Imperial bureaucracy. One can argue endlessly over whether
the Roman people were better or worse governed before Diocletian.
What is certain is that they were more governed after him.
part of this new state activity was explicitly devoted to repression.
Already under the “good emperor” Hadrian (117-138), the commissariat
officials or frumentarii had given rise to a secret state
police force. Assisted by a network
of informers, the secret police came to play a central role in
the administration of the later empire.
the expansion of the civil service went an expansion of the military.
A dual governmental structure was created, in which the military
administration of each province paralleled the civilian one. The
number of troops was vastly increased, from around 300,000 to
over 500,000, though the quality of many units seems to have been
poor. The trend was to rely on barbarian auxiliaries.
The Roman citizen, whose quintessentially hard-bitten character
in the republic had made it possible to win the empire, had become
a soft and unreliable soldier.
subjected to ever-more-detailed state restrictions. This is by
far the simplest and most plausible explanation for the decline
in commerce that began in the first century A.D. and accelerated
steadily throughout the remaining lifetime of the empire. Long-distance
commerce, the lifeblood of ancient Mediterranean civilization,
was replaced by a return to local production.
was no better with regard to trade with lands outside the Empire.
At various times the government prohibited “the export of . .
. wine, oil, grain, salt, arms, ivory, and gold.”
Foreign trade, already in decline since the first century, shriveled
to almost nothing.
its rising expenditures from a shrinking economic base, the state
resorted to a growing welter of financial manipulations. Deliberate
inflation destroyed the currency. Eventually the coinage became
so worthless that the monetary economy which had sustained commerce
for the previous thousand years disintegrated altogether. The
ancient world went back to barter. Even taxes, which remained
payable in specie after it had largely disappeared from commercial
transactions, often become payable in kind, presumably because
there was no other way to collect them. The legionaries, who originally
had been paid so they could purchase food and equipment, were
now issued food and equipment in lieu of pay, necessitating a
vastly enlarged state supply system.
had long owned a system of manufactories to supply the court and
army. This system was greatly expanded under Diocletian and his
successors. The government directly operated an extensive network
of wool and linen mills, dyeworks, embroidery ateliers, and possibly
boot factories. People who sheltered runaway textile workers were
liable to severe penalties, which are frequently articulated in
the celebrated law codes of late antiquity.
of munitions manufactories was set up on military lines. Each
factory was organized as a regiment. The workers were ranked like
soldiers, and like the soldiers they inherited their profession.
To prevent them from escaping, they were branded. The workers
in the government mints were subject to a similar system, and
were branded on the arm.
It is not
to be supposed that the weight of oppression fell only on farmers
and artisans. Middle-class life too became an intolerable burden.
In all periods,
the organization of classical civilization rested on the city-state
and its dominant middle class. The Roman municipal of-ricers or
curiales comprised in effect the upper middle class of
the Roman towns or municipia. Under the empire, the curiales
became personally responsible for the administration of their
municipalities, and financially responsible for the collection
of taxes required by the central government. Local office, once
vied for as a mark of prestige and a fount of influence, came
to be shunned. Economic success was directly penalized, for even
a fairly modest fortune subjected its possessor to induction into
the curiales, a status
which became virtually hereditary under the late empire.
coloni and the workers in the state factories, the curiales
were denied freedom of movement. If they migrated to a new town,
they were liable for a double obligation, in both their new and
former locations. The curiales were forbidden to join the
civil service, the army, the Church, after it was established,
and even the state factories. The fact that a member of the ostensibly
governing class had to be forbidden to accept this latter
employment, tantamount to slavery, suggests how low this class
had sunk, and with it the towns it theoretically ruled. In the
final act of this absurd drama, elevation to curial status came
to be inflicted as a criminal punishment.
organizations fared no better than the municipalities. Like the
guild which succeeded it, the Roman collegium was a cross
between a trade association and a trade union. Merchants and artisans
had organized themselves into collegia since the republic,
but under the empire these organizations acquired a growing importance.
associations provide a striking case of this trend. At first the
government offered concessions to shippers; little by little these
merged into demands. For example, tax concessions granted to the
shippers under Claudius (41-54) later provided a lever to bring
them to heel under Hadrian (117-138).
The general trend was for the collegia to become instruments
of state control.
of collegia was not restricted to a few occupations or
regions but became general throughout the empire. All trades were
inducted into the system. Members were forbidden to change occupations.
Their heirs inherited the same obligations.
trades, members were obliged to marry inside the guild. Such prohibitions
were not absolute, however: for instance, a non-baker was permitted
to marry the daughter of a baker provided he then became
a baker himself.
It is easy
to see that the ban on changing occupations made it impossible
for the Roman economy to adapt flexibly to changing circumstances.
for accepting state control of their lives, people received sustenance
those who survived the famines, plagues, civil strife,
and barbarian attacks. The inhabitants of Rome itself were the
special beneficiaries of this state largesse. In addition to the
free and the subsidized grain distributed since the republic,
other food items became the objects of government concern. From
the time of Septimius Severus (193-211), olive oil was distributed
by the government free of charge. In the course of the next century,
a pork ration became standard. Wine was also distributed free
or at very low cost. The shippers, bakers, and hog merchants acquired
official duties, becoming in effect direct servants of the state.
They were obliged to buy, transport, and sell goods in quantities
and at prices fixed by the state.
could be ruinous to the traders involved. For instance, shippers
were obliged in the early fifth century to transport state cargoes
in exchange for one per cent of their value a remuneration
that plainly could not have covered the costs incurred.
Under these circumstances, it is not surprising to discover that
harsh laws sprang up against speculation, illicit trading, delay,
and sabotage. Eventually membership in the collegia, like
that in the municipia, was meted out as a criminal punishment
a bitter finish for organizations that in the end were
able to serve neither the public nor the private good.
ways this mixed economy was crueler than a pure socialist system.
The possession of property merely obligated an individual to work
for the state. Individuals retained their property in theory,
only to be held responsible for the crushing liabilities it incurred.
Property, whether a baker’s shop or a landed estate, could not
be alienated by its owner. Often the compensation allotted by
the state was grossly inadequate, the burdens onerous, death the
punishment for avoiding them.
before the deposition of the last western emperor in 476, the
de facto free market of the ancient Mediterranean had been
replaced by a frozen society. With its secret police, branded
workers, and coercive family legislation, Rome was the first totalitarian
reforms of Diocletian were in place, the classical world had for
all intents and purposes ceased to exist and a new world, that
of the Middle Ages, had begun. The Dark Ages of Western civilization
did not begin with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, but
generations before with the self-strangulation of the Roman polity.
The barbarians, who had been there all along, stepped into a vacuum
created by the Roman state itself, not in spite but because of
End of the Ancient World
past generation it has become fashionable to downplay the catastrophic
effects of the fall of Rome and to stress instead the continuity
between classical and early medieval civilization. Rome, it is
argued, did not fall catastrophically; elements of classical civilization
persisted into later centuries. This schema is only partly correct.
Rome was a very different place in 400 from what it had been in
the time of Augustus. Something had happened in between.
a major discontinuity between classical and Dark Age culture.
But the source of discontinuity lies, not in the fifth century
with the sack of Rome and the deposition of the last Western emperor,
but in the first two centuries of empire, as the civilization
of the ancient Mediterranean slowly disintegrated under the growing
absolutism of the Roman state. By the end of Diocletian’s reign
in 305 A.D., the process had almost certainly passed the point
of no return. It is not so much that the Dark Ages were more “classical,”
as that the Roman Empire was more “medieval” than we have yet
most heedless moral relativism can blind us to the magnitude of
the catastrophe this development represented. The destruction
of ancient civilization was a veritable holocaust for the people
of the ancient world, who died like flies amid the poverty and
degradation of the period. It is fearsome to contemplate the broken
dreams and shattered lives that lie behind the ancient reports
of deserted farmland and the cold archeological maps of shrinking
city perimeters. The survivors were glad to trade their freedom
for work and bread, even if it meant living as branded laborers
in regimented state factories.
As the curtain
of the Dark Ages fell across the society of antiquity, it covered
a civilization paralyzed in the East, shattered in the West; the
currency worthless, trade at a standstill; learning forgotten,
agriculture devastated; the countryside deserted, the cities empty,
and military capacity so diminished that the once-war-like Romans
would do little but cringe before successive waves of Germanic,
Arab, and Scandinavian invaders. Sunk in poverty, tyranny, and
ignorance, the West was not to rise again for centuries.
re-emergence of the urban middle class in the decentralized trading
states that sparked the Renaissance of the West would end the
Dark Age culture of poverty and permit intellectual, economic,
and cultural progress to begin again. Before that could happen,
the remnants of the Roman Empire would undergo yet further fragmentation
under the cruelly repeated hammer blows of the barbarian invasions,
the Arab and Viking conquests, the Crusades, and the devastations
of the Turks and the Mongols.
never a democratic or ‘individualist society. But power under
the republic was highly diffused. Consuls, senate, tribunes, and
tribal assemblies shared influence in the early Roman state. The
destruction of the independent power centers and the resultant
concentration of power in the hands of a single ruler and his
direct subordinates was an ongoing process, which began in the
late republic and culminated in the late empire. With the destruction
of the centers of corporate power, the individual was left naked
before the state.
of the Romans to keep their government within functional bounds
was a cumulative process. At each stage it became harder to retreat.
Each new problem was met by an expansion of the functions of the
state. Each such expansion created unexpected new problems, requiring
a yet further extension of the scope of government.
to increasing the power of the state, each new intervention created
a constituency whose immediate self-interest turned it against
constructive change. These privileged constituencies cut across
social classes, from the senatorial aristocracy which forced the
closing of mines to weaken the commercial middle class, to the
shippers and tradesmen with their guild monopolies, to the Roman
mob with its entitlement of free bread, wine, and pork.
By the time
the process had reached its logical conclusion under the late
empire, a republic had been reduced to a despotism, a dynamic
and growing polity to a static and shrinking one, and while millions
had grown up amidst prosperity, millions more would perish through
famine, plague, and outright massacre.
follow from this discussion.
principles of the market are universal to complex economies that
depend on trade and manufacturing. They did not arise from the
genesis of a mystical entity called “capitalism.” Though masters
of war and engineering, the Romans lacked a science of economics.
societal suicide is not the only possible outcome of unfreedom.
The Greek East, with its long-established commercial traditions,
proved more resistant to state absolutism than the Latin West.
The crippling of enterprise which opened the western empire to
destruction opened instead the eastern empire to a long stagnation.
Surrounded by tributary lands, the Byzantine Empire lasted for
a thousand years. The Byzantines mastered the art of police, enabling
a subject population to be held in check regardless of changes
at the top. Defended by impregnable walls and the secret formula
for “Greek fire,” a primitive napalm, Byzantium fell only with
the development of a new technology, the cannon with which the
Turks shattered its walls in 1453. But the eastern empire did
not altogether perish. Its principles of government and diplomacy
moved north to the kingdom established by the lords of the Rus
Vikings. After the sack of Byzantium, their successor, Ivan III,
married the niece of the last eastern emperor and proclaimed a
“New Rome” in Moscow.
the quandary posed by Edward Gibbon can at last be answered. Any
society subject to the same restrictions as the Roman Empire would
speedily fall into economic stagnation and cultural decadence.
Ancient civilization was destroyed by unrestrained statism, which
flourished in the absence of a principle of individualism. Modern
civilization will not fall, because it has discovered the intimately
related principles of commercial vitality and individual freedom.
Will not fall, that is, unless those who ignore the lesson of
the ancient suicide of the West triumph, opening the way to the
Pre-twentieth century liberal interpretations of the decline
of Rome emphasize political at the expense of economic factors.
Recent liberal interpretations are rare, and most fail to bring
out the connectedness of the various economic, political, and
social aspects of the decline. The major exception is that of
the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who sketches the same
interpretation as mine in Human
Action (Third Revised Edition; Henry Regnery Co., 1966),
pp. 767-769. A generally similar thesis is presented by Lawrence
W. Reed in “The Fall of Rome and Modern Parallels,” The Freeman.
November 1979, pp. 647-652. For a compendium of interpretations,
see Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms (Munich: C, M. Beck,
works cited include W. L. Westermann, “The Economic Basis of the
Decline of Ancient Culture,” American Historical Review.
v. XX, 1914-15, pp. 723-743; Louis C. West, “The Economic Collapse
of the Roman Empire,” in Classical Journal 28 (1932), pp.
98-106; André Aymard and Jeannine Auboyer, Rome et son empire
(Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954); A, H, M. Jones,
Later Roman Empire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1964); F, W, Walbank, The
Awful Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press,
1969); and Arthur Fen-ill, The
Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation (London:
Thames and Hudson, 1986).
Walbank, pp. 71, 77.
Cf. Westermann, p. 734: “[W]e have in the Greek world,
from about 700 B.C., the development of cities with a wide expansion
of industry and transmarine trade between the farspread Hellenic
city-states such as, quantitatively, the world had never before
See West, p. 98, for a summary of the beneficial effects
of Imperial pacification on commerce.
Cicero, De officiis, i, 150-51; after Walbank, p.
Walbank, p. 44.
See Aymard and Auboyer, p, 152.
A parallel trend for industry may be suggested by the gradual
shift of the center of blown glass production a major industry
from Sidon and Alexandria to Campania, thence to Gaul,
and subsequently to Cologne on the Rhine frontier in other
words, from the least to the most barbaric parts of the empire.
In Italy itself, both agricultural and industrial activity declined
very early. For these points, see West, p. 100.
Walbank, p. 30.
Aymard and Auboyer emphasize the unprecedented centralization
of capital in the city of Rome.
Walbank, pp. 48, 70.
On the decline of the slave population, see for instance
Westermann, p. 740.
Cf. West, p. 101.
See Roberr L. Schuettingar and Eamonn F. Butler, Forty
Centuries of Wage and Price Controls (Washington, D.C,:
Heritage Foundation, 1979), pp. 9-27, for a comparative discussion
of Roman wage and price controls.
Cf., Aymard and Auboyer, p. 313.
Walbank, p. 63.
Eventually the army became numerically more barbarian than
Roman. See Ferrill, p. 84,
See for instance West, p. 98.
West, p. 102.
Walbank, p. 79.
Jones, p. 835.
This appears to be the upshot of the discussion in Jones,
The remarks on the collegia are indebted to Walbank,
Walbank, p. 72.
For this reason, once we stop trying to see late antique
culture with “classical” eyes and start looking at it with “medieval”
ones, its atmosphere and aesthetic begin to fall into place.