WHY DID THE ROMAN EMPIRE COLLAPSE
The historian Paul Kennedy described the problems encountered by Rome and other large super powers as "imperial overstretch." In his book “How Rome Fell,” Adrian Goldsworthy seems to say that “strength and success will always prove transitory in the end...and that civilization will not automatically triumph."
Historians still are not unified about what precipitated Rome's collapse. Over taxation and decadence led to some deterioration.In the third volume of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon's concluded "the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principal of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of the conquest; and, as soon as time or accident removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric-yielded to the pressure of its on weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long." In the end he said "after a diligent inquiry" there are "four principal causes of the ruin of Rome, which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years...I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of materials. And, IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans." ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]
It is believed that over the centuries many Romans died of malaria, and the disease may have even played a part in the decline of the empire and the surrender of Attila the Hun. After Alaric I, the Visigoth king, sacked Rome in 410 he suddenly died of disease, which some scientists speculate was malaria. Evidence on the presence of malaria includes a high number of children buried in child cemeteries in a short time around A.D. 450 and the presence of things like raven's claws and decapitated puppies, indicating desperation and panic as people sought folk cures and magic. DNA analysis of bones reveals the presence of malaria. Archaeologists admit that most of their evidence for the "malaria theory" is circumstantial, and based on the way the infants were quickly buried and reports of plagues in Roman literature of that time.
Categories with related articles in this website: Early Ancient Roman History (34 articles) factsanddetails.com; Later Ancient Roman History (33 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Roman Life (39 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Greek and Roman Religion and Myths (35 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Roman Art and Culture (33 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Roman Government, Military, Infrastructure and Economics (42 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy and Science (33 articles) factsanddetails.com; Ancient Persian, Arabian, Phoenician and Near East Cultures (26 articles) factsanddetails.com
Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ;
“Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu;
The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans;
The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ;
Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu;
De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org;
British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ;
Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art;
The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ;
Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com
Edward Gibbon On the Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “The rise of a city, which swelled into an Empire, may deserve, as a singular prodigy, the reflection of a philosophic mind. But the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“The decay of Rome has been frequently ascribed to the translation of the seat of empire; but this history has already shewn that the powers of government were divided rather than removed. The throne of Constantinople was erected in the East; while the West was still possessed by a series of emperors who held their residence in Italy and claimed their equal inheritance of the legions and provinces. This dangerous novelty impaired the strength, and fomented the vices, of a double reign; the instruments of an oppressive and arbitrary system were multiplied; and a vain emulation of luxury, not of merit, was introduced and supported between the degenerate successors of Theodosius.
“Extreme distress, which unites the virtue of a free people, embitters the factions of a declining monarchy. The hostile favourites of Arcadius and Honorius betrayed the republic to its common enemies; and the Byzantine court beheld with indifference, perhaps with pleasure, the disgrace of Rome, the misfortunes of Italy, and the loss of the West. Under the succeeding reigns, the alliance of the two empires was restored; but the aid of the Oriental Romans was tardy, doubtful, and ineffectual; and the national schism of the Greeks and Latins was enlarged by the perpetual difference of language and manners, of interest, and even of religion. Yet the salutary event approved in some measure the judgment of Constantine. During a long period of decay, his impregnable city repelled the victorious armies of Barbarians, protected the wealth of Asia, and commanded, both in peace and war, the important straits which connect the Euxine and Mediterranean seas. The foundation of Constantinople more essentially contributed to the preservation of the East than to the ruin of the West.”
Slow Collapse of Rome: an Immigration Crisis?
Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “A two-stage process occurred between the battle of Hadrianople in 378 AD, when the emperor Valens and two-thirds of his army (upwards of 10,000 men) fell in a single afternoon at the hands of an army of Gothic migrants, to the deposition of Romulus Augustulus nearly a century later. “This process created the successor kingdoms. Stage one consisted of immigration onto Roman soil, followed by a second stage of aggressive expansion of the territory under the migrants' control. All of it was carried forward at the point of the sword. [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“The central Roman state collapsed because the migrants forcibly stripped it of the tax base which it had used to fund its armies, not because of long-term 'organic' transformations. In this violent process of collapse, some local Roman societies immediately went under. In Britain and north eastern Gaul particularly, Roman landowners lost their estates and Roman culture disappeared with them. |::|
“In southern Gaul, Spain, and Italy, Roman landowners survived by coming to terms with the migrants. But to suppose that this was a voluntary process - as some of the revisionary work done since the 1960s has supposed - is to miss the point that these landowners faced the starkest of choices. As the central Roman state ceased to exert power in their localities, they either had to do such deals, or lose the lands that were the basis of their entire wealth. And even where Roman landowners survived, the effects of Rome's fall were nonetheless revolutionary. |::|
Roman-ness and Taxation
Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “In judging these effects, it is important to recognise two separate dimensions of 'Roman-ness' - 'Roman' in the sense of the central state, and 'Roman' in the sense of characteristic patterns of life prevailing within its borders. At the state level, the empire was not just replaced by mini versions of itself, even where Roman landowners survived. Within two generations of 476 AD, a new and weaker type of state structure had emerged right across the former Roman west. [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
“The old empire had employed two key levers of central power - large-scale taxation, two-thirds of which was then spent on maintaining the second lever, a large professional army. “This high-tax, high-spend structure meant that the Roman state both intruded itself bureaucratically into localities to raise taxation, and was also able, if necessary, to compel obedience to its demands by employing the army, which the taxation supported. The new states of post-Roman Europe were much weaker affairs. Even where other less important Roman institutions survived, the new kings had only much-diminished revenue rights and their armies were composed of semi-professional contingents of local landowners. |::|
“On the level of local 'Roman-ness' too, the revolution could not have been more profound. The characteristic patterns of local Roman life were in fact intimately linked to the existence of the central Roman state, and, as the nature of state structures changed in the post-Roman world, so too did local life. |The Roman city, for instance, was the basic unit of local administration through which taxation was raised. As central tax raising powers disappeared, so too did the need to keep the city, and by 700 A.D. it was history. |::|
“Many of the more advanced elements of the Roman economy, such as specialised production and long-distance trade, quickly disappeared too. The Roman state had subsidised large-scale transport structures for its own purposes, but these had also been used by traders. As this command economy collapsed, so did much of the trade dependent upon it. |::|
“Cultural patterns were also transformed beyond recognition. Roman elites learned to read and write classical Latin to highly-advanced levels through a lengthy and expensive private education, because it qualified them for careers in the extensive Roman bureaucracy. The end of taxation meant that these careers disappeared in the post-Roman west, and elite parents quickly realised that spending so much money on learning Latin was now a waste of time. As a result, advanced literacy was confined to churchmen for the next 500 years.” |::|
Christianity and the Fall of the Roman Empire
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies, and perpetual correspondence, maintained the communion of distant churches: and the benevolent temper of the gospel was strengthened, though confined, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but, if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed, which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the Barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.
“This awful revolution may be usefully applied to the instruction of the present age. It is the duty of a patriot to prefer and promote the exclusive interest and glory of his native country; but a philosopher may be permitted to enlarge his views, and to consider Europe as one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation. The balance of power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or the neighbouring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot essentially injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonies. The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilized society; and we may inquire with anxious curiosity, whether Europe is still threatened with a repetition of those calamities which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome. Perhaps the same reflections will illustrate the fall of that mighty empire, and explain the probable causes of our actual security.”
Decadence of the Rich in A.D. 4th Century Rome
William Stearns Davis wrote: “The following was written only about a generation before Alaric plundered Rome in 410 CE. Ammianus Marcellinus, who observed Rome on a visit, saw the city as full of emptiness, shallowness, and as lacking of all real culture.”
On the Luxury of the Rich in Rome in A.D. 400, Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330-395 A.D.) wrote in “History”: “Rome is still looked upon as the queen of the earth, and the name of the Roman people is respected and venerated. But the magnificence of Rome is defaced by the inconsiderate levity of a few, who never recollect where they are born, but fall away into error and licentiousness as if a perfect immunity were granted to vice. Of these men, some, thinking that they can be handed down to immortality by means of statues, are eager after them, as if they would obtain a higher reward from brazen figures unendowed with sense than from a consciousness of upright and honorable actions; and they are even anxious to have them plated over with gold! [Source: Ammianus Marcellinus (c.330-395 A.D.), “History, XIV.16: The Luxury of the Rich in Rome, c. 400 A.D. William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 224-225, 239-244, 247-258, 260-265, 305-309]
“Others place the summit of glory in having a couch higher than usual, or splendid apparel; and so toil and sweat under a vast burden of cloaks which are fastened to their necks by many clasps, and blow about by the excessive fineness of the material, showing a desire by the continual wriggling of their bodies, and especially by the waving of the left hand, to make more conspicuous their long fringes and tunics, which are embroidered in multiform figures of animals with threads of divers colors.
“Others again, put on a feigned severity of countenance, and extol their patrimonial estates in a boundless degree, exaggerating the yearly produce of their fruitful fields, which they boast of possessing in numbers, from east and west, being forsooth ignorant that their ancestors, who won greatness for Rome, were not eminent in riches; but through many a direful war overpowered their foes by valor, though little above the common privates in riches, or luxury, or costliness of garments.
Bacchanal before a statue of Pan by Nicolas Poussin
“If now you, as an honorable stranger, should enter the house of any passing rich man, you will be hospitably received, as though you were very welcome; and after having had many questions put to you, and having been forced to tell a number of lies, you will wonder — since the gentleman has never seen you before — that a person of high rank should pay such attention to a humble individual like yourself, so that you become exceeding happy, and begin to repent not having come to Rome ten years before. When, however, relying on this affability you do the same thing the next day, you will stand waiting as one utterly unknown and unexpected, while he who yesterday urged you to "come again," counts upon his fingers who you can be, marveling for a long time whence you came, and what you can want. But when at last you are recognized and admitted to his acquaintance, if you should devote yourself to him for three years running, and after that cease with your visits for the same stretch of time, then at last begin them again, you will never be asked about your absence any more than if you had been dead, and you will waste your whole life trying to court the humors of this blockhead.
“But when those long and unwholesome banquets, which are indulged in at periodic intervals, begin to be prepared, or the distribution of the usual dole baskets takes place, then it is discussed with anxious care, whether, when those to whom a return is due are to be entertained, it is also proper to ask in a stranger; and if after the question has been duly sifted, it is determined that this may be done, the person preferred is one who hangs around all night before the houses of charioteers, or one who claims to be an expert with dice, or affects to possess some peculiar secrets. For hosts of this stamp avoid all learned and sober men as unprofitable and useless — with this addition, that the nomenclators also, who usually make a market of these invitations and such favors, selling them for bribes, often for a fee thrust into these dinners mean and obscure creatures indeed.
“The whirlpool of banquets, and divers other allurements of luxury I omit, lest I grow too prolix. Many people drive on their horses recklessly, as if they were post horses, with a legal right of way, straight down the boulevards of the city, and over the flint-paved streets, dragging behind them huge bodies of slaves, like bands of robbers. And many matrons, imitating these men, gallop over every quarter of the city, with their heads covered, and in closed carriages. And so the stewards of these city households make careful arrangement of the cortege; the stewards themselves being conspicuous by the wands in their right hands. First of all before the master's carriage march all his slaves concerned with spinning and working; next come the blackened crew employed in the kitchen; then the whole body of slaves promiscuously mixed with a gang of idle plebeians; and last of all, the multitude of eunuchs, beginning with the old men and ending with the boys, pale and unsightly from the deformity of their features.
“Those few mansions which were once celebrated for the serious cultivation of liberal studies, now are filled with ridiculous amusements of torpid indolence, reechoing with the sound of singing, and the tinkle of flutes and lyres. You find a singer instead of a philosopher; a teacher of silly arts is summoned in place of an orator, the libraries are shut up like tombs, organs played by waterpower are built, and lyres so big that they look like wagons! and flutes, and huge machines suitable for the theater. The Romans have even sunk so far, that not long ago, when a dearth was apprehended, and the foreigners were driven from the city, those who practiced liberal accomplishments were expelled instantly, yet the followers of actresses and all their ilk were suffered to stay; and three thousand dancing girls were not even questioned, but remained unmolested along with the members of their choruses, and a corresponding number of dancing masters.
“On account of the frequency of epidemics in Rome, rich men take absurd precautions to avoid contagion, but even when these rules are observed thus stringently, some persons, if they be invited to a wedding, though the vigor of their limbs be vastly diminished, yet when gold is pressed in their palm they will go with all activity as far as Spoletum! So much for the nobles. As for the lower and poorer classes some spend the whole night in the wine shops, some lie concealed in the shady arcades of the theaters. They play at dice so eagerly as to quarrel over them, snuffing up their nostrils, and making unseemly noises by drawing back their breath into their noses: — or (and this is their favorite amusement by far) from sunrise till evening, through sunshine or rain, they stay gaping and examining the charioteers and their horses; and their good and bad qualities. Wonderful indeed it is to see an innumerable multitude of people, with prodigious eagerness, intent upon the events of the chariot race!”
Rome’s Ignorance About Its Enemies
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their danger, and the number of their enemies. Beyond the Rhine and Danube, the northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry. The Barbarian world was agitated by the rapid impulse of war; and the peace of Gaul or Italy was shaken by the distant revolutions of China. The Huns, who fled before a victorious enemy, directed their march towards the West; and the torrent was swelled by the gradual accession of captives and allies. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“The flying tribes who yielded to the Huns assumed in their turn the spirit of conquest; the endless column of Barbarians pressed on the Roman empire with accumulated weight; and, if the foremost were destroyed, the vacant space was instantly replenished by new assailants. Such formidable emigrations can no longer issue from the North; and the long repose, which has been imputed to the decrease of population, is the happy consequence of the progress of arts and agriculture. Instead of some rude villages, thinly scattered among its woods and morasses, Germany now produces a list of two thousand three hundred walled towns; the Christian kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden, and Poland, have been successively established; and the Hanse merchants, with the Teutonic knights, have extended their colonies along the coast of the Baltic, as far as the Gulf of Finland.
“From the Gulf of Finland to the Eastern Ocean, Russia now assumes the form of a powerful and civilized empire. The plough, the loom, and the forge, are introduced on the banks of the Volga, the Oby, and the Lena; and the fiercest of the Tartar hordes have been taught to tremble and obey. The reign of independent Barbarism is now contracted to a narrow span; and the remnant of Calmucks or Uzbecks, whose forces may be almost numbered, cannot seriously excite the apprehensions of the great republic of Europe. Yet this apparent security should not tempt us to forget that new enemies, and unknown dangers, may possibly arise from some obscure people, scarcely visible in the map of the world. The Arabs or Saracens, who spread their conquests from India to Spain, had languished in poverty and contempt, till Mahomet breathed into those savage bodies the soul of enthusiasm.”
Revolts in the Provinces
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “The empire of Rome was firmly established by the singular and perfect coalition of its members. The subject nations, resigning the hope, and even the wish, of independence, embraced the character of Roman citizens; and the provinces of the West were reluctantly torn by the Barbarians from the bosom of their mother-country. But this union was purchased by the loss of national freedom and military spirit; and the servile provinces, destitute of life and motion, expected their safety from the mercenary troops and governors, who were directed by the orders of a distant court. The happiness of an hundred millions depended on the personal merit of one or two men, perhaps children, whose minds were corrupted by education, luxury, and despotic power. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“The deepest wounds were inflicted on the empire during the minorities of the sons and grandsons of Theodosius; and, after those incapable princes seemed to attain the age of manhood, they abandoned the church to the bishops, the state to the eunuchs, and the provinces to the Barbarians. Europe is now divided into twelve powerful, though unequal, kingdoms, three respectable commonwealths, and a variety of smaller, though independent, states; the chances of royal and ministerial talents are multiplied, at least with the number of its rulers; and a Julian, or Semiramis, may reign in the North, while Arcadius and Honorius again slumber on the thrones of the South.
“The abuses of tyranny are restrained by the mutual influence of fear and shame; republics have acquired order and stability; monarchies have imbibed the principles of freedom, or, at least, of moderation; and some sense of honour and justice is introduced into the most defective constitutions by the general manners of the times. In peace, the progress of knowledge and industry is accelerated by the emulation of so many active rivals: in war, the European forces are exercised by temperate and undecisive contests. If a savage conqueror should issue from the deserts of Tartary, he must repeatedly vanquish the robust peasants of Russia, the numerous armies of Germany, the gallant nobles of France, and the intrepid freemen of Britain; who, perhaps, might confederate for their common defence. Should the victorious Barbarians carry slavery and desolation as far as the Atlantic Ocean, ten thousand vessels would transport beyond their pursuit the remains of civilized society; and Europe would revive and flourish in the American world which is already filled with her colonies and institutions.”
Barbarians Grow in Strength While Rome Losses Its Military Advantage
Edward Gibbon wrote in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “Cold, poverty, and a life of danger and fatigue, fortify the strength and courage of Barbarians. In every age they have oppressed the polite and peaceful nations of China, India, and Persia, who neglected, and still neglect, to counterbalance these natural powers by the resources of military art. The warlike states of antiquity, Greece, Macedonia, and Rome, educated a race of soldiers; exercised their bodies, disciplined their courage, multiplied their forces by regular evolutions, and converted the iron which they possessed into strong and serviceable weapons. But this superiority insensibly declined with their laws and manners; and the feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valour of the Barbarian mercenaries. [Source: Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Chapter 38, published 1776]
“The military art has been changed by the invention of gunpowder; which enables man to command the two most powerful agents of nature, air and fire. Mathematics, chymistry, mechanics, architecture, have been applied to the service of war; and the adverse parties oppose to each other the most elaborate modes of attack and of defence. Historians may indignantly observe that the preparations of a siege would found and maintain a flourishing colony; yet we cannot be displeased that the subversion of a city should be a work of cost and difficulty, or that an industrious people should be protected by those arts, which survive and supply the decay of military virtue.
“Cannon and fortifications now form an impregnable barrier against the Tartar horse; and Europe is secure from any future irruption of Barbarians; since, before they can conquer, they must cease to be barbarous. Their gradual advances in the science of war would always be accompanied, as we may learn from the example of Russia, with a proportionable improvement in the arts of peace and civil policy; and they themselves must deserve a place among the polished nations whom they subdue.”
Rise and Fall of Economic Growth in Ancient Rome
Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “Rome’s pro-growth policies, including the creation of a large common market encompassing the entire Mediterranean, a stable currency, and moderate taxes, had a positive impact on trade. Keith Hopkins finds empirical support for this proposition by noting the sharp increase in the number of known shipwrecks dating from the late Republic and early Empire as compared to earlier periods. The increase in trade led to an increase in shipping, thus increasing the likelihood that any surviving wrecks would date from this period. Rostovtzeff indicates that “commerce, and especially foreign and inter-provincial maritime commerce, provided the main sources of wealth in the Roman Empire.” [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=]
“Hopkins also notes that there was a sharp increase in the Roman money supply which accompanied the expansion of trade. He further notes that this expansion of the money supply did not lead to higher prices. Interest rates also fell to the lowest levels in Roman history in the early part of Augustus’s reign. This strongly suggests that the supply of goods and services grew roughly in line with the increase in the money supply. There was probably also an increase in the demand for cash balances to pay taxes and rents, which would further explain why the increasedmoney supply was non-inflationary. /=\
“During the early Empire revenues were so abundant that the state was able to undertake a massive public works program. Augustus repaired all the roads of Italy and Rome, restored the temples and built many new ones, and built many aqueducts, baths and other public buildings. Tiberius, however, cut back on the building program and hoarded large sums of cash. This led to a financial crisis in 33 AD. in which there was a severe shortage of money. This shortage may have been triggered by a usury law which had not been applied for some years but was again enforced by the courts at this time.The shortage of money and the curtailment of state expenditures led to a sharp downturn in economic activity which was only relieved when the state made large loans at zero interest in order to provide liquidity. /=\
“Under Claudius (41—54 A.D.) the Roman Empire added its last major territory with theconquest of Britain. Not long thereafter, under Trajan (98—117 A,D.), the Empire achieved its greatest geographic expansion. Consequently, the state would no longer receive additional revenue from provincial tribute and any increase in revenues would now have to come from within the Empire itself. Although Rostovtzeff credits the Julio-Claudian emperors with maintaining the Augustinian policy of laissez faire, the demand forrevenue was already beginning to undermine the strength of the Roman economy. An example of this from the time of Caligula (37—41 AD.) is recorded by Philo (20 B.C—50 A.D.): ‘Not long ago a certain man who had been appointed a collector of taxes in our country, when some of those who appeared to owe such tribute fled out of poverty, from a fearof intolerable punishment if they remained without paying, carried off their wives, and their children, and their parents, and their whole families by force, beating and insulting them, and heaping every kind of contumely and ill treatment upon them, to make them either give information as to where the fugitives had concealed themselves, or pay the money instead of them, though they could not do either the one thing or the other; in the first place, because they did not know where they were, and secondly, because they were in still greater poverty than the men who had fled.’” /=\
Inflation and Taxation in Ancient Rome
Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “As early as the rule of Nero (54—68 AD.) there is evidence that the demand for revenue led to debasement of the coinage. Revenue was needed to pay the increasing costs of defense and a growing bureaucracy. However, rather than raise taxes, Nero and subsequent emperors preferred to debase the currency by reducing the precious metal content of coins. This was, of course, a form of taxation; in this case, a tax on cash balances (Bailey 1956). [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=]
“Throughout most of the Empire, the basic units of Roman coinage were the gold aureus, the silver denarius, and the copper or bronze sesterce. 5 The aureus was minted at 40—42 to the pound, the denarius at 84 to the pound, and a sesterce was equivalent to one-quarter of a denarius. Twenty-five denarii equaled one aureus and the denarius was considered the basic coin and unit of account. /=\
“The aureus did not circulate widely. Consequently, debasement was mainly limited to the denarius. Nero reduced the silver content of the denarius to 90 percent and slightly reduced the size of the aureus in order to maintain the 25 to 1 ratio. Trajan (98—117 AD.) reduced the silver content to 85 percent, but was able to maintain the ratio because of a large influx of gold. In fact, some historians suggest that he deliberately devalued the denarius precisely in order to maintain the historic ratio. Debasement continued under the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161—180 AD.), who reduced the silver content of the denarius to 75 percent, further reduced by Septimius Severus to 50 percent. By the middle,of the third century A.D., the denarius had a silver content of just 5 percent. /=\
“Interestingly, the continual debasements did not improve the Empire’s fiscal position. This is because of Gresham’s Law (“bad money drives out good”). People would hoard older, high silver content coins and pay their taxes in those with the least silver. Thus the government’s “real” revenues may have actually fallen. As Aurelio Bernardi explains: ‘At the beginning the debasement proved undoubtedly profitable for the state. Nevertheless, in the course of years, this expedient was abused and the century of inflation which had been thus brought about was greatly to the disadvantage of the State’s finances. Prices were rising too rapidly and it became impossible to count on an immediate proportional increase in the fiscal revenue, because of the rigidity of the apparatus of tax collection.’ /=\
“At first, the government could raise additional revenue from the sale of state property. Later, more unscrupulous emperors like Domitian (81—96 AD.) would use trumped-up charges to confiscate the assets of the wealthy. They would also invent excuses to demand tribute from the provinces and the wealthy. Such tribute, called the aurum corinarium, was nominallyvoluntary and paid in gold to commemorate special occasions, such as the accession of a new emperor or a great military victory. Caracalla (198—217 AD.) often reported such dubious “victories” as a way of raising revenue. Rostovtzeff (1957: 417) calls these levies “pure robbery.” Although taxes on ordinary Romans were not raised, citizenship was greatly expanded in order to bring more people into the tax net. Taxes on the wealthy, however, were sharply increased, especially those on inheritances and manumissions (freeing of slaves). /=\
“Occasionally, the tax burden would be moderated by a cancellation of back taxes or other measures. One such occasion occurred under the brief reign of Pertinax (193 A.D.), who replaced the rapacious Commodus (A.D. 176—192). As Edward Gibbon (1932: 88) tells us: ‘Though every measure of injustice and extortion had been adopted, which could collect the property of the subject into the coffers of the prince; the rapaciousness of Commodus had been so very inadequate to his extravagance, that, upon his death, no more than eight thousand pounds were found in the exhausted treasury, to defray the current expenses of government, and to discharge the pressing demand of a liberal donative, which the new emperor had been obliged to promise to the Praetorian guards. Yet under these distressed circumstances, Pertinax had the generous firmness to remit all the oppressive taxes invented by Commodus, and to cancel all the unjust claims of the treasuly; declaring in a decree to the senate, “that he was better satisfied to administer a poor republic with innocence, than to acquire riches by the ways of tyranny and dishonor.’” /=\
State Socialism in A.D. 3rd Century Rome
Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “Most emperors continued the policies of debasement and increasingly heavy taxes, levied mainly on the wealthy. The war against wealth was not simply due to purely fiscal requirements, but was also part of a conscious policy of exterminating the Senatorial class, which had ruled Rome since ancient times, in order to eliminate any potential rivals to the emperor. Increasingly, emperors came to believe that the army was the sole source of power and they concentrated their efforts on sustaining the army at all cost. [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=] “As the private wealth of the Empire was gradually confiscated or taxed away, driven away or hidden, economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill. Moreover, once the wealthy were no longer able to pay the state’s bills, the burden inexorably fell onto the lower classes, so that average people suffered as well from the deteriorating economic conditions. In RostovtzefFs words, “The heavier the pressure of the state on the upper classes, the more intolerable became the condition of the lower”. /=\
“At this point, in the third century A.D., the money economy completely broke down. Yet the military demands of the state remained high. Rome’s borders were under continual pressure from Germanic tribes in the North and from the Persians in the East. Moreover, it was now explicitly understood by everyone that the emperor’s power and position depended entirely on the support of the army. Thus, the army’s needs required satisfaction above all else, regardless of the consequences to the private economy. /=\
With the collapse of the money economy, the normal system of taxation also broke down. This forced the state to directly appropriate whatever resources it needed wherever they could be found. Food and cattle, for example, were requisitioned directly from farmers. Other producers were similarly liable for whatever the army might need. The result, of course, was chaos, dubbed “permanent terrorism” by Rostovtzeff. Eventually, the state was forced to compel individuals to continue working and producing. /=\
“The result was a system in which individuals were forced to work at their given place of employment and remain in the same occupation, with little freedom to move or change jobs. Farmers were tied to the land, as were their children, and similar demands were made on all other workers, producers, and artisans as well. Even soldiers were required to remain soldiers for life, and their sons compelled to follow them. The remaining members of the upper classes were pressed into providing municipal services, such as tax collection, without pay. And should tax collections fall short of the state’s demands, they were required to make up the difference themselves. This led to further efforts to hide whatever wealth remained in the Empire, especially among those who still found ways of becoming rich. Ordinarily, they would have celebrated their new-found wealth; now they made every effort to appear as poor as everyone else, lest they become responsible for providing municipal services out of their own pocket. /=\
“The steady encroachment of the state into the intimate workings of the economy also eroded growth. The result was increasing feudalization of the economy and a total breakdown of the division of labor. People fled to the countryside and took up subsistence farming or attached themselves to the estates of the wealthy, which operated as much as possible as closed systems, providing for all their own needs and not engaging in trade at all. Meanwhile, much land was abandoned and remained fallow or fell into the hands of the state, whose mismanagement generally led to a decline in production.” /=\
Diocletian’s Economic Reforms
Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “By the end of the third century, Rome had clearly reached a crisis. The state could no longer obtain sufficient resources even through compulsion and was forced to rely ever more heavily on debasement of the currency to raise revenue. By the reign of Claudius II Gothicus (268—270 A.D.) the silver content of the denarius was down to just .02 percent. As a consequence, prices skyrocketed. A measure of Egyptian wheat, for example, which sold for seven to eight drachmaes in the second century now cost 120,000 drachmaes. This suggests an inflation of 15,000 percent during the third century. [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=]
“Finally, the very survival of the state was at stake. At this point, the Emperor Diocletian (284—305 A.D.) took action. He attempted to stop the inflation with a far-reaching system of price controls on all services and commodities.’° These controls were justified by Diodetian’s belief that the inflation was due mainly to speculation and hoarding, rather than debasement of the currency. As he stated in the preamble to his edict of 301 A.D.: ‘For who is so hard and so devoid of human feeling that he cannot, or rather has not perceived, that in the commerce carried on in the markets or involved in the daily life of cities immoderate prices are so widespread that the unbridled passion for gain is lessened neither by abundant supplies nor by fruitful years; so that without a doubt men who are busied in these affairs constantly plan to control the very winds and weather from the movements of the stars, and, evil that they are, they cannot endure the watering of the fertile fields by the rains from above which bring the hope of future harvests, since they reckon it their own loss if abundance comes through the moderation of the weather.’ /=\
“Despite the fact that the death penalty applied to violations of the price controls, they were a total failure. Lactantius (1984: 11), a contemporary of Diocletian’s, tells us that much blood was shed over “small and cheap items” and that goods disappeared from sale. Yet, “the rise in price got much worse.” Finally, “after many had met their deaths, sheer necessity led to the repeal of the law.” /=\
“Diocletian’s other reforms, however, were more successful. The cornerstone of Diocletian’s economic policy was to turn the existing A.D. hoc policy of requisitions to obtain resources for the state into a regular system.” Since money was worthless, the new system was based on collecting taxes in the form of actual goods and services, but regularized into a budget so that the state knew exactly what it needed and taxpayers knew exactly how much they had to pay. /=\
“Careful calculations were made of precisely how much grain, cloth, oil, weapons or other goods were necessary to sustain a single Roman soldier. Thus, working backwards from the state’s military requirements, a calculation was made for the total amount of goods and services the state would need in a given year. On the other side of the coin, it was also necessary to calculate what the taxpayers were able to provide in terms of the necessary goods and services. This required a massive census, not only of people but of resources, especially cultivated land. Land was graded according to its productivity. As Lactantius (1984: 37) put it, “Fields were measured out clod by clod, vines and trees were counted, every kind of animal was registered, and note taken of every member of the population.” /=\
“Taxable capacity was measured in terms of the caput, which stood for a single man, his family, his land and what they could produce.’ The state’s needs were measured in terms of the annona, which represented the cost of maintaining a single soldier for a year. With these two measures calculated in precision, it was now possible to have a real budget and tax system based entirely on actual goods and services. Assessments were made and resources collected, transported and stored for state use. /=\
Although an army on the move might still requisition goods or services when needed, the overall result of Diocletian’s reform was generally positive. Taxpayers at least knew in advance what they were required to pay, rather than suffer from A.D. hoc confiscations. Also, the tax burden was spread more widely, instead of simply falling on the unlucky, thus lowering the burden for many Romans. At the same time, with the improved availability of resources, the state could now better plan and conduct its military operations. In order to maintain this system where people were tied to their land, home, jobs, and places of employment, Diocletian transformed the previous ad hoc practice. Workers were organized into guilds and businesses into corporations called collegia. Both became de facto organs of the state, controlling and directing their members to work and produce for the state.” /=\
Economic Reasons Behind the Fall of Rome
Bruce Bartlett wrote in the Cato Institute Journal: “Constantine (308—37 A. D.) continued Diocletian’s policies of regimenting the economy, by tying workers and their descendants even more tightly to the land or their place of employment For example, in 332 he issued the following order: ‘Any person in whose possession a tenant that belongs to another is found not only shall restore the aforesaid tenant to his place of origin but also shall assume the capitation tax for this man for the time that he was with him. Tenants also who meditate flight may be bound with chains and reduced to a servile condition, so that by virtue of a servile condemnation they shall be compelled to fulfill the duties that befit free men.’ [Source: Bruce Bartlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994, Cato.org /=]
Despite such efforts, land continued to be abandoned and trade, for the most part, ceased. Industry moved to the provinces, basically leaving Rome as an economic empty shell; still in receipt of taxes, grain and other goods produced in the provinces, but producing nothing itself. The mob of Rome and the palace favorites produced nothing, yet continually demanded more, leading to an intolerable tax burden on the productive classes.’ /=\
“In the fifty years after Diocletian the Roman tax burden roughly doubled, making it impossible for small farmers to live on their production. This is what led to the final breakdown of the economy. As Lactantius put it: ‘The number of recipients began to exceed the number of contributors by so much that, with farmers’ resources exhausted by the enormous size of the requisitions, fields became deserted and cultivated land was turned into forest.’ /=\
Although Constantine made an effort to restore the currency, subsequent emperors resumed the debasement, resulting in renewed price inflation. Apparently, Emperor Julian (360—63 AD.) also refused to believe that the inflation was due to debasement, but rather was caused by merchants hoarding their stores. To prove his point, he sent his own grain reserves into the market at Antioch. According to Gibbon: ‘The consequences might have been foreseen, and were soon felt. The Imperial wheat was purchased by the rich merchants; the proprietors of land or of corn withheld from the city the accustomed supply; and the small quantities that appeared in the market were secretly sold at an advanced and illegal price.’ /=\
“Although he had been warned that his policies would not lower prices, but rather would exacerbate the shortage, Julian nevertheless continued to believe that his policy worked, and blamed complaints of its failure on the ingratitude of the people. In other respects, however, Julian was more enlightened. In the areaof tax policy, he showed sensitivity and perception. He understood that the main reason for the state’s fiscal problem was the excessive burden of taxation, which fell unequally on the population. The wealthy effectively were able to evade taxation through legal and illegal measures, such as bribery. By contrast, the ordinary citizen was helpless against the demands of the increasingly brutal tax collectors. /=\
“Previous measures to ease the tax burden, however, were ineffective because they only relieved the wealthy. Constantine, for example, had sought to ease the burden by reducing the number of tax units— caputs—for which a given district was responsible. In practice, this meant that only the wealthy had any reduction in their taxes. Jnlian, however, by cutting the tax rate, ensured that his tax reduction was realized by all the people. He also sought to broaden the tax base by abolishing some of the tax exemptions which many groups, especially the wealthy, had been granted by previous emperors (Bernardi 1970: 59, 66). /=\ “Nevertheless, the revenues of the state remained inadequate to maintain the national defense. This led to further tax increases, such as the increase in the sales tax from 1 percent to 4.5 percent in 444 A.D. However, state revenues continued to shrink, as taxpayers invested increasing amounts of time, effort and money in tax evasion schemes. Thns even as tax rates rose, tax revenues fell, hastening the decline of the Roman state. /=\
“In short, taxpayers evaded taxation by withdrawing from society altogether. Large, powerful landowners, able to avoid taxation through legal or illegal means, began to organize small communities around them. Small landowners, crushed into bankruptcy by the heavy burden of taxation, threw themselves at the mercy of the large landowners, signing on as tenants or even as slaves, (Slaves, of course, paid no taxes.) The latter phenomenon was so widespread and so injurious to the state’s revenues, in fact, that in 368 AD. Emperor Valens declared it illegal to renounce one’s liberty in order to place oneself under the protection of a great landlord. /=\
“In the end, there was no money left to pay the army, build forts or ships, or protect the frontier. The barbarian invasions, which were the final blow to the Roman state in the fifth century, were simply the culmination of three centuries of deterioration in the fiscal capacity of the state to defend itself. Indeed, many Romans welcomed the barbarians as saviors from the onerous tax burden.’ /=\
“Although the fall of Rome appears as a cataclysmic event in history, for the bulk of Roman citizens it had little impact on their way of life. As Henri Pirenne (1939: 33—62) has pointed out, once the invaders effectively had displaced the Roman government they settled into governing themselves. At this point, they no longer had any incentive to pillage, but rather sought to provide peace and stability in the areas they controlled. After all, the wealthier their subjects the greater their taxpaying capacity. /=\
“In conclusion, the fall of Rome was fundamentally due to economic deterioration resulting from excessive taxation, inflation, and over- regulation. Higher and higher taxes failed to raise additional revenues because wealthier taxpayers could evade such taxes while the middle class—and its taxpaying capacity—were exterminated. Although the final demise of the Roman Empire in the West (its Eastern half continued on as the Byzantine Empire) was an event of great historical importance, for most Romans it was a relief.” /=\
Did Rome Really Rise and Fall as Was Claimed?
Dr Peter Heather wrote for the BBC: “The 1960swere famously a time when all established certainties were challenged, and this applied to ancient history. The eastern half of the Roman empire not only survived the collapse of its western partner in the third quarter of the fifth century, but went on to thrive in the sixth. Under Justinian I (527 - 565 AD), it was still constructing hugely impressive public monuments, such as the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and had reconquered Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain. At the same time, there still lived in the west many individuals, who continued to describe themselves as Romans, and many of the successor states, it was correctly pointed out, were still operating using recognisably Roman institutions and justifying themselves ideologically with reference to canonical Roman values. [Source: Dr Peter Heather, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]
Consequently, by the late 1990s the word 'transformation' had come into vogue. No one denied that many things changed between 350 and 600 AD, but it became fashionable to see these changes as much more the result of long-term evolution than of a violent imperial collapse. These revisionist arguments have some real substance. There really was little change at one deep level - the life of the peasant producers who made up perhaps 90% of the population.
“I am still staggered by feats of Roman engineering, blown away by the beauty of some the buildings Romans lived in, and delighted by the sophistication of the empire's literary and political culture. But these cultural glories were limited to a tiny privileged elite - those who owned enough land to count as gentry landowners. They represented maybe 3% of the whole population. Its structures were probably unspeakable vile to pretty much everyone else. As late as 383 AD, captive barbarians were being fed to wild animals in the Colosseum, and its criminal law dealt ruthlessly with anyone seeking to remedy the highly unequal distribution of property. |In 650 AD, as in 350 AD, peasants were still labouring away in the much the same way to feed themselves and to produce the surplus which funded everything else. |::|
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2018