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Works and Days

Why Did Rome Fall—And Why Does It Matter Now?

February 11th, 2010 - 10:58 pm

Count the ways

A German scholar twenty years ago listed, I recall, some 210 reasons for the collapse of the Western Empire. Readers, you have heard many of them, plausible and otherwise — corruption, civil strife, Germanic barbarians, Christianity, lead in the pipes of the elite, etc.

Any such discussion is also predicated on two other twists: the Eastern Empire at Constantinople went on for nearly another 1,000 years until the 1453 sack by the Ottomans. And for the last twenty years, revisionists have disputed Gibbon’s notion of a dramatic “fall” in the West, and argued instead that it was a “transition” as the “barbarian” “other” was insidiously assimilated into what would emerge in the latter Dark Ages as “Europeans.”

The East certainly had more defensible borders with the Danube and the Hellespont. Constantinople was far better fortified naturally and artificially than was Rome; the defense of Byzantium could rely to a greater degree on naval forces. And greater wealth was to be had in Asia and Egypt than in the northwestern provinces.

How could Christianity have caused the Western ‘fall’ when a very Christian East survived? (So I postpone here discussion of that crux of why the East enjoyed another 1000 years (e.g., larger population, greater wealth, less civil strife, more defensible borders, fewer Germanic enemies, etc.), given it shared many of the same pathologies of culture as the West.)

Them and us

My concern, however, is instead with the indisputable decline in material culture in Britain, Iberia, Gaul, Italy and North Africa from the 4th-5th century AD onward, with the end of strong government that had resulted in everything from secure borders to internal calm (the sort of world that St. Augustine in Tunisia saw ending at his death).

Rather than rehash Gibbon, or review the spate of recent books on Rome’s decline and our own supposed end, I throw out a few general notions.


The Romans themselves by the first century AD (cf. Horace to Livy to Petronius to Juvenal) felt that the enormous influx of unearned wealth from conquered provinces had undermined the old republican virtues of small farmers and merchants (e.g., the old yeoman with four kids and a wife on five acres of grain now either devolved into the urban unemployed spectator in the Coliseum at Rome on the dole or evolved into the sterile estate owner with 50 slaves and 200 acres of wine grapes and an expensive pasture with a herd of beef cows.)

So the rise of latifundia, and the influx of unheard of wealth and slaves, gradually, in the ancients’ own view, created a dependent class on the dole and corruption among the elite. “Decline” as seen in the ancient mind was not inevitable, and was almost seen as a moral question — material progress resulting in ethical regress.

A Pretty Slow Fall

Yet Rome did not fall for four centuries after its moralists wrote of its decadence and decline. Why the resilience?

Entitlements and official corruption were for centuries subsidized by the profits accruing from global standardization and Romanization — brought about by the implementation and imposition of Roman law, order, and commerce throughout the Mediterranean. As long as the empire was cohesive, it brought in thousands yearly into its sphere of influence.

Those from the Black Sea to the Nile and from Portugal to Iraq were now subject to habeas corpus, a standard official language, regularization in weights and measures, and security on roads and the seas. The centuries-long result of such Romanization is easily discerned in the later historians from Ammianus to Zosimus, who remarked on both widening prosperity and a persistent moral crisis, rather than the dangers of material impoverishment.

We Are All Romans Now

So such global uniformity created real wealth in newfound places faster than such bounty could corrupt the citizens in the old Italian core to the degree to bring down what was now a world system. In other words, the creation of entirely new cities like Leptis or the growth of Asian centers such as Ephesus, brought previously unproductive tribal folk into the Roman system at precisely the time old Romans were no longer doing the things that had once created their own vibrant culture that swept the Mediterranean — the ancient version of the Chinese youth working 10 hours in an Adidas factory while an American counterpart is still “finding himself.”

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