The Ancient Suicide of the West


Nicholas Davidson holds a Master’s degree in European history from the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Failure of Feminism (Prometheus Books, 1987),

I. Interpreting the Decline of Rome

The fall of the Roman Empire remains one of the great unsolved riddles of history.[1] 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?

Edward Gibbon, 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.

Despite 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 might be.

Gibbon’s 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 Conclusions.

A classic 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.[2]

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.

A better 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.

II. The Free Market of the Ancient Mediterranean

Classical 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.”[3]

The expansion 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.

The disunited 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.[4]

Little by little Rome swallowed up the states of the ancient Mediterranean, such as Mar-seille, 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.[5] But the state which made this possible carried within itself the principle of its own destruction.

III. Collectivism Under the Roman Republic

Throughout 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.

Already 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. . . .”

Only retirement 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.”[6]

Barred from 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.[7] The lower classes of citizens were themselves not immune to such temptations.

The forced purchase of grain from farmers at a price set by the state was common by the late republic.[8] 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.

Meanwhile 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.

The parts 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.[9] 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.

The amount 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.[10] 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,[11] 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 private markets.

All these 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.

The Beginning of the Decline in the Early Empire

The late 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.

Gibbon began 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.

The Roman 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.[12] Never halted, the economic decline would steadily accelerate until the whole of classical civilization was sent into a tailspin.

A Rapid Enfeeblement

Depopulation 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.[13] 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.

“The Golden Age of the Antonines”

By the end of the first century A.D., the peak had passed and the decline began in earnest.

The stagnation 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.

Government acquired near-monopolies of previously private or mixed sectors, such as mines and quarries.[14] 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.

Depopulation 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.

Mass population 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.

To meet 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.[15]

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.[16] 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.

The Time of the Fifty Emperors

The problems that had slowly sapped the forces of the Roman Empire worsened during the period of acute political instability from 235 to 284. During this haft-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.

The anarchy 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.

The Roman World after the “Reforms” of Diocletian

Imagine 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 m 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 slave.

Marxist 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 tenants.

Diocletian 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.

A significant 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.[17] Assisted by a network of informers, the secret police came to play a central role in the administration of the later empire.

Along with 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.[18] 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.

Trade was 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.[19]

The situation 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.”[20] Foreign trade, already in decline since the first century, shriveled to almost nothing.

To meet 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.

The state 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.[21]

A system 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.[22]

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 cu-riales,[23] a status which became virtually hereditary under the late empire.

Like the 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.

Commercial 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.

The shipping 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).[24] The general trend was for the collegia to become instruments of state control.

The system 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.

In many trades, members were obliged to many 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.

In return 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.

The result 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.[25] Under these circum stances, 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 muni-cipia, 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.

In some 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.

Thus long 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 state.

Once the 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 gen erations 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 its might.

IV. The End of the Ancient World

Over the 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.

There is 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 imagined.[26]

Only the 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.

Only the 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.

V. Why Rome Fell

Rome was 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.

The inability 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.

In addition 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.


Three conclusions follow from this discussion.

First, the 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.

Second, 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, en-abling 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.

Finally, 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 new barbarians.

1.   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, 1984).

      Modern 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, The 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).

2.   Walbank, pp. 71, 77.

3.   Republic, 11.

4.   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 seen.”

5.   See West, p. 98, for a summary of the beneficial effects of Imperial pacification on commerce.

6.   Cicero, De officiis, i, 150-51; after Walbank, p. 43.

7.   Walbank, p. 44.

8.   See Aymard and Auboyer, p, 152.

9.   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 sub sequently 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.

10.   Walbank, p. 30.

11.   Aymard and Auboyer emphasize the unprecedented centralization of capital in the city of Rome.

12.   Walbank, pp. 48, 70.

13.   On the decline of the slave population, see for instance Westermann, p. 740.

14.   Cf. West, p. 101.

15.   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.

16.   Cf, Aymard and Auboyer, p. 313.

17.   Walbank, p. 63.

18.   Eventually the army became numerically more barbarian than Roman. See Ferrill, p. 84,

19.   See for instance West, p. 98.

20.   West, p. 102.

21.   Walbank, p. 79.

22.   Jones, p. 835.

23.   This appears to be the upshot of the discussion in Jones, pp. 738-739.

24.   The remarks on the collegia are indebted to Walbank, pp, 70-73.

25.   Walbank, p. 72.

26.   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.


December 1987

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