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Three Things You Didn’t Know About the Fall of Rome


Technically, I should retitle this “Three Things I Didn’t Know About the Fall of Rome”. However, I thought that these items were surprising. If you already knew about the stuff in this essay, you are better informed than I am.

The source for all of this is Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (Verso, 1974). Perry Anderson is a prominent Marxist historian known for his analyses of the rise of the absolutist state and the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the 1300’s and 1400’s. There is some dispute about his position on the rise of capitalism. His treatment of the fall of the ancient empires, and the onset of the Middle Ages is less controversial. In the Antiquity book, he hedged himself nicely by making ten or twelve or twenty intelligent arguments about the fall of every ancient formation he looked at. I do not agree with all of his analyses. Being a Marxist, the fall of economic systems had to be linked to a crisis in labor productivity, even if he had to force the issue. So, if the work in the Western Roman Empire was done by slaves, there had to be some reason for why this worked in the glory days of 100 AD but was not working in 300 AD when things were getting bad. None of the literature I have consulted on Roman slavery agrees with this point. Nor do I find any compelling logic for this claim. However, get Perry Anderson away from his fixation with labor crises, and his arguments are erudite, empirically supported and eminently sensible. In this essay, I share with you three of his good points.

Rome Didn’t Fall Because It Was Conquered by Barbarians.

It Fell Because Roman Provinces Didn’t Want to Be Part of Rome Anymore

Rome was sacked by invaders several times without falling. It had been sacked by the Gauls once in 390 BC. Rome just came back from that one and conquered Gaul itself. In the fifth century AD., Rome was sacked no fewer than three times: by the Visigoths in 410, by the Vandals in 455 and by a mixed Germanic army in 472. Rome technically didn’t fall until four years after the mixed German sack. Rome continued to be governed by Roman rather than German emperors after each of these sackings. Rome was generally raided, rather than conquered. The barbarians would come. They would raise havoc and steal everything they possibly could. They would withdraw to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The bigger issue was large parts of the empire choosing to secede from Rome and become independent. Being part of the Roman Empire meant having to pay taxes to Rome. If a population of a province didn’t want to pay taxes, all they had to do was try to secede. The Romans would generally fight to keep the rebel province under its original obligations. If the Romans lost, no taxes would need to be paid and the province was more or less free.

Often these rebellions were carried out by lower-class people shaking off their upper-class overlords. Starting in the third century, Rome faced an ever-increasing number of slave revolts, mutinies from army deserters, and wars of secession by agricultural settlements. The pace of successful rebellions accelerated in the 400’s. Much of France and Spain became independent of the Roman Empire because of slave rebellions, agricultural colonist rebellions or both.

It goes without saying that it was harder for Rome to maintain a large army if much of the former empire was not contributing to the military budget. Shortfalls in the military budget create mutinies over pay and disputes between generals over the last dwindling lucrative positions.

Rome did not fall because of foreigners invading Rome. It fell because too much of the Empire did not want to be part of Rome.

The Parts of Rome with Slavery Fell Far Harder Than the Parts of Rome with a Free Peasantry

The Western Empire and the Eastern Empire were very different from each other. France, Spain, Germany and Britain were forested frontiers. They were like the Wild West. Economic development was minimal. Social and political development was minimal. The Eastern Empire, on the contrary, consisted of pre-existing empires with cities, well developed agriculture, established governance and legal systems and extensive trade networks. Although slavery existed in the Eastern Empire, most farming and most work was done by peasants with some sort of financial obligation to a landlord. Free peasants and free towns all existed.

The Romans largely left the social systems of the Eastern Empire alone, but they installed slavery in the Western Empire. The Romans built their own towns, built their own agricultural colonies, and built their own roads. Agricultural colonies existed whose workforces were not slaves. But most of the large farms were worked by slave labor.

Because the Western Empire started with a lower level of economic and political development to begin with, it was going to revert to a lower level of economic and political development if Rome fell. However, slavery set up the conditions for Western Rome to fall, while the absence of slavery provided the economic base for Eastern Rome to be robust and recreate itself as Byzantium.

Rome was a wealthy place. Its vast trade networks increased the income of every province lucky enough to be in the Empire. However, the East benefited far more from this than did the West.

Slavery stifles economic development, because it prevents the development of a merchant-and-craft-based middle class. If local enterprise is going to develop, the manufacturers and merchants need a local population to whom they can sell their goods. Free peasants have money to spend, notably after they have brought in their harvest. Slaves are not paid. With no money, slaves cannot purchase anything. Slave economies tend to have weak unimpressive cities, because they have weak, unimpressive markets.

The Eastern Empire had markets for their craftspeople. So the “Roman Boom” produced very real economic expansion in its major cities. Constantinople and Alexandria were particularly successful. Many smaller centers such as Antioch did well.

These economic differences had political and military consequences. The populations of the wealthy towns of the Eastern Empire were had high levels of education. There was a large body of citizens who were qualified for careers as public servants. There were also business people who were interested in public policy. The Eastern cities did not need a Roman Empire to govern them.

They also did not need to fight wars and engage in internecine battles. Everyone was making plenty of money growing crops, making trade goods and selling them to both locals and distant populations. The East saw very few rebellions. The East saw almost no civil wars. The East had almost no military factionalism.

Things were exactly the opposite in the Western Empire. Slaves grew crops that could be sold – generally to Italy. Local manufacturing was nearly non-existent. The Romans built many towns to serve as administrative and military centers. They developed only the most minimal commercial presence. The Western Empire had very few non-Italian technocrats or civil servants.

Power resided with the large landowners. The large landowners obtained their estates through military activity. Fighting was what those landlords did. The Western Empire was plagued with regional insurgencies, civil wars, factional politics and violent attempts to seize power in Rome.

The constant internal warfare vitiated the military strength of the Empire as a whole. Many of these wars had implications for who would be emperor; emperors participated because the kingdom and their lives depended on it. The constant warfare would have also inhibited economic development. It is hard to make rational long-term plans if you have no idea if your fields are about to be pillaged. Soldiers on campaigns are not at home digging irrigation ditches or improving roads.

After the Fall of Rome, the West would have been far more disorganized than the East because of its lower level of development. However, being in the Empire produced additional peace and prosperity in the East that was simply not matched in the West. In the West, slavery had gutted the domestic market, gutted education and ultimately gutted the rise of peaceful civilian technocratic government. The East had been governed by growth-oriented businessmen and bureaucrats, while the West was governed by warlords. The warlords led the West into chaos.

The Catholic Church of the Roman Empire Was Very Expensive.

The Ecclesiastical Establishment Posed a Major Financial Challenge to Rome

The fall of Rome in many ways looks like the fall of Spain. Spain was the richest nation in the world in 1500. It was an underdeveloped nation in 1800, poorer than even its colonies Venezuela and Argentina. Both of them fell in part from the financial burdens imposed on them by the Church.

There is nothing intrinsically expensive about Roman Catholic theology. It is easy to imagine an alt-Catholic church in Rome or an alt-Catholic church in Madrid that would have the same theology that the Catholics have always had – but which would have handled its finances in a different way. The political consequences of different ecclesiastical expenditures would have changed the course of history.

In both Rome and Spain, church properties were tax-exempt. In Spain, a large percentage of productive land was technically church property. These were lands attached to monasteries, convents or various churches or cathedrals. Rome had the same situation in the 300s and 400’s. Christianity was made the official state religion in 380. Immediately after that, there was widespread granting of land to the church. Some of these grants were made for bona fide religious reasons. Other grants were political. It was not uncommon for deposed emperors to be given religious estates and titles to keep them quiet and out of politics. Warlords often fought for religious titles because these provided access to ecclesiastical budgets based on the land associated with the position.

The rising creation of religious estates took land out of the tax base of the empire. There were additional demands by the Church for state support for religious building. Monasteries, chapels and basilicas had to be paid for out of the public purse. All of this took monies away from military defense – a issue due to the increasing Germanic threat- and from economic development projects such as the maintenance of roads and aqueducts.

A cheaper Church would have posed no problems. A highly expensive religious superstructure was problematic in an empire where tax revenues and economic growth were already under substantial pressure.

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Note the common explanations for the Fall of Rome that are NOT being advanced here.

Rome did not fall because of any moral decadence. Yes, the rich had their parties. Slavery led to the unsavory use of young people at those parties. Yes, the Romans loved gladiatorial sports and other forms of bloody entertainment.

However, if moral decadence was the cause of Roman weakness, then Christianization would have led to a stronger more robust Rome. The Christians were firm in their disapproval of orgies and blood sport. In reality, Rome became weaker rather than stronger under Christianity.

The fall of Rome was not about the collapse of classical values and the onset of a savage German barbarianism. Rome’s discontents were local. They had plenty of classical culture. They were not being paid fairly or taxed fairly.

Rome did not fall because of lead pots. Lead pots were used when Rome was at the height of its glory. In addition, nearly all ancient civilizations, including Rome were subject to horrific plagues and epidemics that had nothing to do with cooking utensils. Bubonic plague, cholera and typhus cut massive swaths out of the Roman population. Lead utensils didn’t help, but then neither did the equally common sepsis that would have occurred during difficult childbirths.

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Now comes the thought problem.

Think about why Rome fell.

Think about contemporary society.

Does Rome teach us anything about the dangers faced in our present age?

This is a question that can be answered both ways.

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