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.”
One can see the resultant transition in the center of power — emperors mostly were born in the provinces, wealth centers were increasingly found in Asia and Africa, and good soldiers were no longer native Latin-speakers. The West taught the East, and the East soon became not only the more productive hemisphere of the empire, but also the more enthusiastic upholder of being Roman itself.
Petronius’s Satyricon (ca. AD 60) is a glimpse into the world of tough-minded Asian immigrants who had created fortunes in business — and who were desperately (and crudely) trying to buy into the snotty aristocratic and bankrupt world of fossilized Old Rome.
The point? We see something like this today. What made American culture boom through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were traditional American values like the Protestant work ethic, family thrift, limited and stable government, equality of opportunity rather than result, lower taxes, personal freedom, opportunity for advancement and profit, and faith in American exceptionalism.
But the cloning and spreading of this system after WWII (“globalization”) did two things: literally billions of non-Westerners adopted the Western mode of production and began, in economic terms, becoming far more productive in creating valuable manufacturing goods, food, and exporting previously unknown or untapped natural resources; in addition, the vast rise in population added billions to the world’s productive work force.
Two, this influx of imported goods and inclusion of hundreds of millions into the American orbit enriched the United States in unimaginable ways. In my own life, the very notion that I would have a tooth implant rather than one of my grandfather’s poorly constructed false teeth is mind-boggling. We once huddled around a 19-inch fuzzy black and white TV to watch 4 days of the JFK funeral in 1963 in a small 800 square foot house; now today I have 2 plasma 500-channel cable TVs. Poverty, as I saw it as a boy in Selma in 1960, might be defined by occasional homes with outhouses in the back yard, gravel rural roads, no TVs and rampant illiteracy among those over 30.
Today, the “poor” as I see them daily at Wal-Mart and Food-4-Less in Selma (a poor town in a poor county in poor central California) buy blue-ray DVD players, have to buy food-stamp subsidized sirloin rather than rib-eye (as I can attest watching 5 carts ahead of me in line tonight), and drive used 2000 Tahoes and 2001 Yukons rather 2010 Honda Accords. Government subsidies for housing, food, transportation, etc., coupled with cheap Chinese and Indian imported consumer goods, have for a time been substituted for the old manufacturing jobs or resource-based work (e.g., we don’t make steel, we increasingly curtail farming, we don’t drill, etc.). In other words, we are enjoying a lifestyle undreamed of by our grandparents who had values quite different from our own — a result of globalization, advances in technology, and massive borrowing and debt.
But as in the case of Rome, there is a price for all these sudden riches. Just as the Iberians, and Libyans, and Thracians were hungrier and more enterprising than Italians back in the bay of Naples, so too we, the beneficiaries of this wealth, lost the values that were at its heart, in a way that the Indians, Chinese, and others have not — yet. Our youth in schools are not so excited by the notion of creating 100 new nuclear power plants, creating new mountain reservoirs, building new railroads and highways, or eager to rebuild the steel industry, or dreaming of increasing food production or eager to mine more ores. Instead, the emphasis in our schools is more on race/class/gender engineering, regulation, redistribution, etc, all of which in classical terms is not necessarily wealth creation.
We are now borrowing nearly $2 trillion a year to do things like ensure the 84-year old has a hip replacement — nearly half of it from the Chinese where 400 million have never been to a Westernized doctor. We spend $45,000 to incarcerate the felon in California, to meet utopian court-ordered mandates. As imperial Romans, we are felt to be owed a standard of living, even as our own daily habits would no longer necessarily translate into such largess, even as those on the periphery have learned what made America so wealthy from 1950 to 1990.
Where does it all end? I have no idea, but offer only competing scenarios: 1) as our debt becomes unsustainable, we react and increase the retirement age, cut spending and entitlements radically, and renew our work ethic (impossible by choice, made possible by necessity), and enjoy a renaissance; 2) we become a UK-like museum, with witty cynical observers, as the new giants in Asia produce the next Microsoft, Exxon, and Ford, and we fade; 3) India and China discover that they too have a rendezvous with suburban blues, environmentalism, consumer regulation, and a pampered citizenry, and there is some sort of shared global postmodernism.
We inherited a wonderful infrastructure from our parents. A superb system of politics and economics was likewise given to us at birth. Many of us try to copy our grandparents and parents whose values and work ethic we increasingly eulogize. But against all that is that Roman notion of luxus, untold wealth and leisure that we see juxtaposed with shrill cries and accusations that we are too poor, exploited, and in need of someone else’s income. The wealthier we become, the louder and angrier we become that we are not even more wealthy.
In short, what ruined Rome in the West? Lots of things. But clearly the pernicious effects of affluence and laxity warped Roman sensibility and created a culture of entitlement that was not justified by revenues or the creation of actual commensurate wealth — and the resulting debits, inflation, debased currency, and gradual state impoverishment gave the far more vulnerable Western Empire far less margin of error when barbarians arrived, or rival generals marched on Rome. For a while the Romanization of the wider Mediterranean subsidized this ennui, but eventually the old western and southern provinces neither could protect what they had created nor could continue to be as productive as in the past nor believed that being Roman was any better than the alternative.
A State of Mind
The strange thing is that these wild swings in civilization are at their bases psychological: decline is one of choice rather than necessity. Plague or lead poisoning or famine did not destroy Rome. We could balance our budget tomorrow without a great deal of sacrifice; we could eliminate 10% worth of government spending that is not essential; we could create our own energy with massive nuclear power investment, and more extraction of gas, oil, and coal. We could instill a tragic rather than therapeutic world view that would mean more responsibilities rather than endlessly more rights. We could do this all right — but too many feel such medicine is worse than the malady, and so we probably won’t and can’t. An enjoyable slow decline is apparently preferable to a short, but painful rethinking and rebirth.