The Role Of Elites In The Fall Of Rome In Late Antiquity

In 376 A.D., the Goths found themselves on the wrong side of the Danube. Across the river lay the Roman Empire, an old enemy of the Germanic peoples but one with which they could negotiate. Behind them rode the Huns. Valens, the eastern Roman emperor, agreed to allow the Goths to enter the Roman Empire and to provide food for them on the condition that they serve as soldiers (foederati) in the Roman army. The deal was fair and satisfactory to all concerned.

All, that is, except the officials responsible for providing the food to the Goths. According to the agreement, the Goths were to be fed for free, but the imperial officials decided to sell the food to the Goths instead and charged exorbitant rates—many Goths were forced to sell their own children into slavery to afford the food they had been promised. Naturally enough, the Goths protested, so the officials invited the important Gothic leaders to a banquet to discuss the situation.  There, the Romans plotted to murder their guests and eliminate the Gothic leadership.

By the late fourth century, Roman civilization was so degenerate that even this simple assassination attempt was a failure: the Gothic leaders escaped and rose up in revolt. For two years the Goths fought with the local Roman forces and presented enough of a challenge that in 378 A.D., Valens assembled his own army and marched north to deal with the Gothic menace. He came upon the Goths’ camp at Adrianople in early August.

At Adrianople, Valens discovered that the Goths had built a wagon laager around their camp but had spread out their cavalry in foraging parties. Valens decided to attack the camp at once, meeting with initial success. However, the Gothic cavalry soon realized what was happening and swooped down on the Romans’ left flank. Many Romans fell to the sword, the emperor among them. Others were crushed to death, and a few managed to escape.

Thirty years later, in the western half of the Empire, a general named Stilicho held supreme power. The Romans continued to fail at repelling the barbarians, but Stilicho, the son of a Vandal mercenary, was able to negotiate with the German tribes and score enough military successes against them to at least protect Italy and maintain a semblance of order in the provinces. However, many Roman politicians did not trust him, and so they had him murdered as soon as he demonstrated weakness.

One of the barbarians with whom Stilicho had dealt was Alaric, leader of the Visigoths. Alaric was a wily and dangerous man—he had been one of Stilicho’s most intractable foes for a time—but Stilicho had made a deal with Alaric to help enforce the western Empire’s claim over Illyricum. When Stilicho died, the imperial government refused to honor his agreement with Alaric, so the barbarian chieftain laid siege to Rome. The people of Rome bought Alaric off; the imperial government continued to defy him.

Laying siege to Rome might seem like the most serious threat to the Roman government possible. In fact, even the in the West, the imperial government did not reside in Rome but in Ravenna. Thus, when Alaric attacked Rome again in 410 A.D., the emperor Honorius and his courtiers did not feel in the least bit threatened. Barbarians sacked Rome for the first time in 800 years when negotiations between Alaric and the emperor broke down once more.

Twenty-three years later, another soldier of Germanic extraction effectively ruled the western Empire: Flavius Aetius. As a boy, Aetius had been fostered first with Alaric and then with the Huns. By 533 A.D., Aetius managed to defeat his rivals and assume supreme power. Like Stilicho before him, Aetius both fought the barbarians and negotiated with them as necessary. He was not invariably successful, but on the whole Aetius managed to maintain order within the Western Roman Empire for twenty years.

When Attila invaded Gaul in 451 A.D., Aetius assembled a grand alliance of German tribesmen and defeated him in battle at Chalons. The next year, when Attila invaded Italy, Aetius harried his advance, cut off his detachments, and denied him forage, forcing the Hunnic horde to withdraw in failure. But the emperor Valentinian grew jealous of Aetius and, accusing him of treason, cut him down in the imperial court. Not twenty-five years later, Roman Empire in the west came to an end.

There are several major themes in the story of the fall of the Roman Empire. The foregoing episodes highlight an especially important one: the refusal of the Roman elite to respect the barbarians either as friends or as foes. During the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the Romans repeatedly proved incapable of making and upholding agreements with the barbarians or of subduing them militarily. When someone came along who was capable of doing these things and of maintaining order, usually a Romanized German, Roman courtiers who cared more about the height of their carriages than the integrity of the empire did away with him. Aetius’ was the only blood to stain Valentinian’s sword.

Under the Republic and the Principate, the Roman elite had been a military aristocracy. In the days of the Republic, all young noblemen were expected to serve in the military and learn how to lead soldiers into battle. During the Principate, this expectation was relaxed, but even the most foolish emperors knew to give high command only to professional soldiers. By the time of the Dominate, warlike Roman aristocrats were starting to die out and be replaced by more effeminate types who achieved high rank through flattery, bribery, and assassination rather than administrative or military competence.

These corrupt elites had vastly different priorities than those of earlier generations. Republican and Imperial officials had been focused on carrying out the missions given to them by either the Senate or the emperor quickly and efficiently because that was how they achieved wealth and prestige. Late-Dominate elites rested on their laurels and focused on stunts of one-upmanship in the sphere of conspicuous consumption. Actually being good at one’s job was a distraction.

The elites’ values prevented them from taking the barbarians seriously. By Roman standards, even the greatest Germanic chieftains were embarrassingly poor: they did not have ornate carriages, dedicated monuments, or fancy clothes, or if they did, all these things were gifts from the Romans. The barbarians wanted to become Roman: Rome was a superior civilization, and everyone knew that. The Roman elites let that idea go to their heads. They believed that the only true threats to their position were fellow Romans, and they were not completely wrong either as a fellow Roman was far more likely to assassinate you than was any barbarian.

The story of politics in the final years of the Roman Empire looks very much like lots of people arguing about how the deck chairs on the Titanic should be arranged. Doesn’t that metaphor sound familiar? It’s a good description of what happens when elites are so much more concerned with their own squabbles than with actually addressing serious problems that they will actively sabotage the latter in order to further the former.

What do you do in this kind of situation? Hold on tight. You’ll have some new elites before long; the trick is to survive until then and to avoid being totally at their mercy when they ascend to power.

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  1. A familiar pattern takes place in Chinese history. If you want to get an idea of how things went down in such and such a dynasty then do the following: take a ineffective “puppet” emperor, a dowager empress, a favorite concubine, a rejected concubine or two, some scheming eunuchs, a self important Confucian scholar, some Buddhist monks and an ambitious general. Give it all a shake and see what comes out. Some poisonings, some backstabbing (literally), a peasant uprising and bingo, bango, you’ve got a new dynasty.

    This is a problem with all ruling classes as time goes on. They become degenerate, decadent and more concerned with court politics than what is going on in the country they supposedly rule, or what threats may be massing on the border. The ruling class lives in a bubble, insulated from reality. Sooner or later, reality bursts the bubble.

    It is obviously apparent that our ruling class is now at the same level. Incompetent, insulated, squabbling with rival factions, unaware of the termite eaten foundations upon which their whole little world stands.

  2. What’s in a name? Rome was the name of the city and generally representative of a specific people. From the beginning of the empire, there was always some tension between true Romans and integrated Romans. That it managed to survive as it did is freakish in itself.

    “America/United States” though is a generic name and thus far more adept at assimilating peoples and not creating critical tensions between its various ethnic groups. Apart from maybe the African Americans, virtually all immigrant groups, even now, are quite happy to become American and fight for its Empire.

    Another point is the amount of “unknown unknowns” in the Ancient world. The degeneracy of Roman elites could have carried on fine — as it it did for 300 previous years — but how could they know a mass of Huns would ride out from Eurasia, dispersing the Germanics and creating chaos? Today, the intelligence agencies know (to some extent) what a terrorist will do before he even does it–no matter where they are hidden.

    1. There is a bait and switche in your comment that isn’t being addressed.

      “Another point is the amount of “unknown unknowns” in the Ancient world. The degeneracy of Roman elites could have carried on fine — as it it did for 300 previous years — but how could they know a mass of Huns would ride out from Eurasia, dispersing the Germanics and creating chaos? Today, the intelligence agencies know (to some extent) what a terrorist will do before he even does it–no matter where they are hidden.”

      Anything that an intelligence agency knows is, by definition, not an “unknown unknown”. The Unknown unknowns of the modern world are different but just as unpredictable as the example you gave for the ancient world. The may not be as catastrophic or they may be more catastrophic, we don’t know. That’s the point. Unknown unknown.

      I would also be wary of calling the United States or America a generic name. For some people it may be but for others maybe not. Will a practicing Muslim-american and a practicing Christian-american consider each other true Americans? Who knows? I know plenty who do not.

  3. Rome was doomed before the Germanic tribes went on the move. The third century crisis tells us that. All ruling classes become degenerate over time. They end up being replaced by a new ruling class one way or the other.

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