Rome Didn’t Fall in a Day

Previously by Chris Sullivan: What’s Old Is New Again

Back in the ’70s, I used to expect the government to suffer a financial collapse at which time it would have to quit doing most of the things it’s doing because it would run out of money. That isn’t what has happened. Instead of cutting spending it has printed more money and tried to increase taxes on various things.

Like many things historical, there’s a precedent for this. There’s a proverbial saying that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” but it didn’t collapse in a day either. Probably most of the Romans who lived as the Empire was collapsing didn’t realize that was what was happening, but plenty of them realized they weren’t living in the good old days.

One such person was a man named Salvian, sometimes called Salvian the Presbyter. He wrote a treatise that is called in English The Governance Of God or De gubernatione Dei in Latin*. Its original title was On The Present Judgment and it is well worth reading to see how things played out then and probably always will. His purpose was to show that the then current problems were caused by moral collapse, excessive taxation and a greedy and conniving landed class, not an abandonment of the old pagan religion. Julian the Apostate who had made the opposite argument 70 or so years before, had tried to re-institute paganism and even tried to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, presumably because it wasn’t Christian and he liked practices such as animal sacrifice, but his efforts ended when he was killed in a war with the Persians after a short reign.

In making his case, Salvian left us a first-hand account of how things went to rot. One of the things he mentions over and over is how the peasant class was obliterated by oppressive taxation and how the small land owners indentured themselves to the large land owners who paid their taxes for them, but in return got their land and their labor, eventually leading to feudalism. Even after the small land owners had lost their land and become coloni – those who worked the land but did not own it – they still were liable for the tax, thus permanently indenturing them to the wealthy land owner who paid it for them.

The Romans had a system of permanent tax collectors called curiales. If you were born a curiale, you could not change jobs and were liable to pay any taxes you could not collect. Needless to say, this assured great diligence on the part of the curiales.

One of the many things Salvian mentions that is starting to be more common in the U.S., but was unheard of just a few years ago is people fleeing the Empire and renouncing their citizenship.

“Thus, far and wide, they migrate either to the Goths or to the Bagaudae, or to other barbarians everywhere in power; yet they do not repent of having migrated. They prefer to live as freemen under an outward form of captivity, than as captives under the appearance of liberty. Therefore, the name of Roman citizens, at one time not only greatly valued, but dearly bought, is now repudiated and fled from, and it is almost considered not only base, but even deserving of abhorrence.”(pg.136)

Just as Washington refuses to rein in its excesses, the same was true of Rome around A.D. 450.

“Then, indeed, the authors of base pleasures feasted at will in most places, but all things were filled and stuffed to overflowing. Nobody thought of the State’s expenses, nobody thought of the State’s losses, because the cost was not felt. The State itself sought how it might squander what it was already scarcely able to acquire. The heaping up of wealth which had already exceeded its limit was overflowing even into trifling matters.

But what can be said of the present-day situation? That old abundances have gone from us. The resources of former times have gone. We are already poverty-stricken, yet we do not cease to be spendthrift.” (167, 168)

It wasn’t just in fiscal matters that modern times resemble the fall of Rome. Salvian laments the obsession people had with attending American Idol the games. Rome had degenerated so far that there were 175 holidays per year, each with its state-sponsored amusements. The Roman Army had boy camp-followers instead of, or perhaps in addition to female prostitutes. The shouts of people being killed in defense of the city could not be distinguished from those at the games.

“As I have said, the noise of battle outside the walls and of the games within, the voices of the dying outside and the voices of the reveling within, were mingled. Perhaps there scarcely could be distinguished the cries of the people who fell in battle and the yelling of the people who shouted in the circus.” (174)

Things had declined so far that the public officials whom he classifies as robbers continued to rob the people even after they no longer held office. This has been refined in modern times to the revolving door system of going from elected office to lobbyist or CEO of some big company that conducts business with the government.

Salvian portrays the barbarians as virtuous people – much more so than his fellow countrymen – nothing like the people they are typically represented as being. Even back then, government knew best and imposed price controls which then as always caused black marketeers to provide for people’s wants and needs. One difference between then and now is that the Romans could not print money. They could debase it, but not print it as virtually all modern states do. They also had no efficient way of spying on the populace or freezing assets which is now routine. This enables us to postpone, but not avert the day of collapse. As everybody seems to be fond of saying, it allows us to “kick the can down the road,” but at some point we will find that the road is a dead end.

*The Governance Of God, translated by Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan, 1947, Fathers Of The Church

Reprinted with permission from Different Bugle.