America As Rome

The history of the Roman Republic and Empire looms large in Western consciousness. Its existence marked the creation of a European civilization and the spread of Hellenic thought, which would become the intellectual foundation of the entire occidental world. Roman civilization’s ruins are spectacular, and its achievements incredible. We look back fondly at that height of civilization and civic virtue, as we consciously model our governments and societies on that of Rome.

The fall of the Roman Empire was lamented even by its contemporaries. Odoacer, the Ostrogothic King who deposed the last Roman Emperor in the West, wanted to claim the mantle himself and aped as many of the conventions of Rome as he, a foreigner, could. In fact, Gothic Kings pledged fealty to the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople and ruled ostensibly as Byzantine officials. But this was, over time, an elaborate fiction. Rome was dead. A city of over one million people at its Augustan height fell to only ten thousand by 1000 AD. The people who lived in Rome lived among ruins; the aqueducts lay dormant, while people lived in their own filth. Literacy was non-existent where once a center of culture housed Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. The change happened gradually, without anyone really understanding what was going on. But something had happened; something profoundly tragic. The question of what happened has haunted the collective western consciousness for the millennia and a half since the collapse.

America was clearly founded as a new Rome. This was done consciously by the intellectual class and was meant as more than a simple homage. Intellectuals in the new America wanted to create a republic to emulate and surpass the glory of Rome. Any walk down the Washington D.C. Mall will show they were more than moderately successful. Not coincidentally, the first modern historical text about Rome was published in 1776 by Edward Gibbon. Gibbon’s history graced the bookshelves of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. The book, entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ensured that America’s founders did a fair amount of navel-gazing in trying to prevent the fall of this New Rome.

Gibbon’s explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire was shocking and scandalous at the time. He laid the blame squarely at the foot of the Christian church, the inheritor of the Roman bureaucracy. Gibbons asserted that the cultural introduction of Christianity into the Roman Empire degraded the army’s martial spirit, as well as the intellectual curiosity of its lower classes and ensured the intelligentsia cloistered themselves in monasteries, concerned with spiritual rather than worldly problems. All of this served to hollow Rome out and accelerate its fall.

The history left quite an impression on the American Founders. The First Amendment of the Constitution was created to avoid the merger of church and state, which in their eyes transformed the Roman Empire into medieval Europe. They also created a Senate of enlightened aristocrats who governed for the glory of the country, rather than their own venal pursuits. George Washington styled himself after the Roman leader Cincinnatus, who possessed the ability to claim kingship, but declined and returned to his humble farm a citizen. The ideal was no man above any other man, a society of equals dedicated to the civic virtue of civilization against the kings and barbarians of the past. America’s Founding Fathers thought they emulated Rome’s virtues and avoided its problems. But 250 years later, history has not vindicated their propositions.

It’s my belief that we’ve fallen into the exact same trap as the Roman Empire. The founders did more than a wonderful job in recreating Roman government and society, but did an extremely poor job in creating safeguards which would insulate the new Republic from the decline and fall of government and society. We already have all of the symptoms of decline and it seems to me irreversible.

I agree with Edward Gibbon that the religion of Christianity was certainly a factor in the decline, but the fact that Christianity was a religion was unimportant in and of itself. What was important about Christianity was its nature. Christianity was a viral ideology that changed society into something which ensured that Roman civil society would vanish. Modern society is already infected by a viral ideology that avoids all of the conventional trappings of a religion while still being as corrosive to American society as Christianity was to Rome. That ideology is progressivism. In an America where all the fashionable and most moderately intelligent people in our nation are unabashedly progressive, it seems like we are quite far down the path of decline indeed.

Modern historians follow Gibbon’s example and take things one step further, presenting Rome as a secular, multicultural paradise which only fell due to the pernicious influence of Christianity. Given America’s intended status as the cultural inheritor of classical Roman virtue, these historians need to present the current state of America as analogous to the height of Rome and the opponents of progressivism as the forces which brought about its downfall. A more accurate reading of Roman history, however, can present a picture where the opposite is the case.

You can date the start of the cultural decline of the Roman Empire further back than most historians, even before its generally accepted civilizational height of Augustus Caesar.

I begin with the Gracchi brothers.

Rome had just won the ancient version of World War II, the Third Punic War. In that war, Rome devastated its rival, Carthage, and remade it in Rome’s image. General Lucius D. Clay, deputy to General Eisenhower and in 1945, the Military Governor of U.S.-Occupied Germany, was the first to compare the events.[1] If anyone was in a position to make the comparison, it would be him. The Punic Wars were defensive in nature, fought to protect Rome from the Carthaginian menace. In the process, Rome conquered the known world in a single generation. Does that ring any bells? Conquering the world in self-defense? The Founding Fathers really had no idea how much their copy of Rome would replay its history.

In the aftermath of the Punic Wars, Rome gained untold amounts of wealth which established it as the financial center of the Western Mediterranean world. When the Romans brought the wealth of the Carthaginians back home, it was concentrated in a few individuals. Most Romans found themselves poorer than they were before the wars.

Tiberius Gracchus was the first Roman politician to really address the political issue of financial inequality. Furthermore, he argued for granting citizenship to the Italic peoples that the Romans formerly held as slaves. His solution was land reform, progressive taxation, and the establishment of free food for the poor. Tiberius would be murdered for his suggestions, but his work marked the establishment of a political movement known as the Populares.

There are specific details which I could add, but the parallels between the establishment of political progressivism in the wake of World War I and II and the rise of the Populares in the wake of the Punic Wars are clear.

After the assassination of the Gracchi Brothers, there were a series of civil wars between the Populares (progressives) and Optimates (conservatives). While the Optimates put up a good fight; slowly, over time, every single piece of the Populares platform became Roman law: progressive taxation, government seizure and redistribution of land, the grain dole for the poor, and the expansion of citizenship (voting rights) to millions of disenfranchised former slaves.[2]

Does that sound at all similar to the political history of America in any way? Before you say, “We have not had a war pitting the progressives against the conservatives,” tell that to the Haymarket Square strikers, the Bonus Army, and the victims of the Weather Underground bombings. America isn’t immune to paramilitary political violence. The fact that there was comparatively little killing just means that our conservatives couldn’t hold a candle to the Roman Optimates. If Nixon had wanted to be Lucius Cornelius Sulla, he’d have had to dial up Kent State a thousand times and aim the tanks at Harvard Yard. See, that would be a real checkmate to the progressives. Seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it? That might suggest that the real ideological civil war ended before 1970.

The Roman Civil Wars were ended in 27 BCE, by a man of whom even the most historically illiterate know. He was born as Gaius Octavius to a relatively illustrious Roman family, but his real claim to fame was being the great nephew and heir to Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar’s policies were extensions of the Gracchi Brothers’ platform and many in the senate had him murdered because of his success and popularity among the people. In the anarchy afterwards, Octavius managed to finally subdue the Senate and convince the remaining Optimates to support his dictatorship as the first Roman Emperor, ruling as Augustus. The policies he put in place would dominate the operation of the Roman Empire for the 650 years.

Let’s talk about these policies.

The most important policy change affecting the long-term health of the Roman society was the grain dole. ‘Grain dole’ is a misnomer, as over the course of the Roman Empire, the dole grew more elaborate, with olive oil, meats, and dairy added by Trajan and Diocletian. But at the Empire’s demographic height, over 300,000 Roman residents were on the grain dole out of a population of 1 million. An interestingly parallel: today, 21.3 percent of Americans are on various welfare programs.[3]

These 300,000 Roman people bear more than a little resemblance to our welfare underclass in behavior and values. Infanticide, which was legal under Roman law, was practiced frequently, and normal family life was basically impossible. Crime was rampant. Augustus viewed the population on state programs as a security risk and attempted to reduce the welfare population down to 200,000 people. He was only temporarily successful. Augustus is considered the most powerful Roman Emperor. It’s remarkable, then, that he couldn’t combat the power of the grain dole. The establishment of our welfare state seems irreversible, and if the Roman grain dole is anything to go by policy-wise, that assessment seems to be correct.

The other most important policy program of the Roman Empire was the maintenance and growth of the security forces. The Roman legions need no introduction. Their excellence in combat allowed Rome to best all of their Mediterranean rivals and create the Empire. But their role in the Civil Wars were also incredibly important. Gaius Marius, a famous general and the uncle of Julius Caesar, initiated an important reform which both increased the strength of the army and set a dangerous precedent. Originally, Rome did not have a standing army. The civic duty of the citizens were to leave their farms and families to fight. There was a property and tax-paying requirement, and they also had to purchase and bring their own weapons. This citizen-volunteer soldier motif was the central idea behind the prohibition of a standing army in the American Constitution. The Second Amendment was created so that American citizen soldiers would bring their own arms to battle. But just like the American prohibition on standing armies, it wouldn’t last past the conquest of the known world.

Due to the constant fighting against Carthage and its allies, Rome’s conception of the army became impossible. The number of landowners shrunk and the cost of maintaining their own arms meant that there was an extreme shortage of manpower. Marius instituted a series of reforms. The first was the removal of the property and citizenship requirement, as well as the addition of a promise of citizenship to those who served for a long enough period of time. The second was the establishment of a spoils system, which was necessary as these men had no wealth to go back to. They only were paid if they collected enough bounty. This made them independent of the Senate and ensured they would not disband easily. The legions supported the wars of Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, and Augustus because of this system, and this support did not cease when Augustus completed the transition from Republic to Empire.[4]

In the creation of these legions, the Roman elite created a system where a large permanent army existed and the only way to continue to employ them was to launch wars against their neighbors, leading to large engagements with no clear objective. Augustus spent decades in the forests of Germany, Trajan spent years in Mesopotamia, and Marcus Aurelius spent his entire life in Dacia (Romania). None of these regions became integral parts of the Roman Empire, but existed as a money and manpower sink for the Roman legions to do something.

In other words, they created a military-industrial complex after a world war, which necessitated global interventions for questionable purposes at great expense to the taxpayer. This should start to sound familiar. Ultimately, when we look at the real financial makeup of the Roman government, we see two important cost centers. First, we see massive military expenditures punctuated by expensive preemptive wars against groups who posed no real existential danger to Rome. Second, we see large wealth redistribution programs which are permanent and expanding. Seeing the parallels to the United States budget is just a matter of looking at the Congressional Budget Office’s website. We have early Rome’s constitution, but we have late Rome’s bureaucracy and entitlements.

This grand explanation of Rome’s political formula is a Rorschach test for modern Americans. Those on the Left believe that it was the military adventurism that led to Rome’s downfall and the Right believe that it was the increase in bureaucracy and reliance on welfare was unsustainable. I argue both of them are unsustainable. I believe them both to be a symptom of progressivism. On the Left, it is the wealth transfer programs and bureaucracy. On the Right, it is the desire to spread democracy militarily throughout the world. Both of these ideas were foreign to both political parties in 1900. We are only 100 years into our current progressive experiment.

The really interesting question is how Rome made it financially sustainable for 700 years. How they did it varied by the Emperor, but the method they most commonly employed is my real explanation as why Rome became ripe for collapse.

The answer is monetary policy.

Over time, Roman emperors found it impossible to continue to increase taxes on wealthy Romans as they began to leave the cities in massive numbers, so they had to turn to money-printing as their only way to make up the budget shortfall. But given that fiat paper currency had yet to be invented, they had to resort to a practice called debasing the mint. This process involved taking in coins with a certain amount of precious metals in them and reissuing them with a smaller amount of those precious metals. In order to understand the gravity of this practice, you need to understand some minutiae about Roman currency.

Originally, there was only a gold currency called the Aureus and two denominations of silver currency called the Denarius and the Sestertius. Think of Aurei as dollars, Denarii as quarters and Sestertii as pennies. It was at tight as money goes at the time of Julius Caesar. In 33 BC, Aurei were weighted at eight grams of gold, Denarii were weighted at 10 grams of silver and Sestertii were weighted at 2.5 grams of silver. By Nero (68 AD), the mass of Aurei were decreased to 7.4 grams of gold. By Caracalla (217 AD), it was 6.5 grams. Diocletian (305 AD) introduced the Solidus to replace it, which was weighed at 5.5 grams. By this time, the Denarii was set at 1/1000th of a Solidus. Constantine (337 AD) rebased it to 4.5 grams of gold, and by this time it was worth 275,000 denarii. So, over the course of 400 years, the accumulated wealth of the richest Romans was halved, and the accumulated wealth of poorer Romans was annihilated to a fraction of its former value.[5]

In this economic situation, any wealth created by plebeians would evaporate within their lifetimes. The people who lived in this world began to have a very difficult calculus to make in creating a life and a family. Many sold themselves in bondage and became serfs, and still more decided against having children. Many Roman historians describe a general feeling of malaise among the inhabitants. The demography of the Roman Empire was marked by a severe decline in birthrates starting during the Roman Empire. In the year 100 AD, the Empire reached the peak of its population at 60 million inhabitants. By the year 300 AD, the population had declined to 40 million people even after the inclusion of Germanic settlers.[6]

The inherently short-term frame that unemployment is more important than inflation is indicative of a fundamentally unsustainable governmental system. Being able to print money is the only way our government can promise to pay for the ever increasing military and welfare state while not raising taxes on a majority of America. It is simply political anathema to suggest anything otherwise. It represents a failure state much like the irreversible economic decline of Rome.

Mainstream economic thinking is to accept inflation as standard in our economy. The last time in which we experienced any deflation was the year 1950. For 65 years, we have had varying amounts of inflation, but the average yearly inflation rate is roughly 4 percent. For perspective, if you put one dollar underneath your mattress in 1950, today it would only be worth seven cents. This has been incredibly destructive to America’s collective economic strength, a hollowing out of our society much like what happened to the Romans.[7]

The economic thinking among the Romans in the late Empire and America today is very similar.

By the late 200s, the Romans, like the Americans and Europeans, thought that this system of taxation was simply unsustainable. Population declines and public misery was at an all-time high. But since the entire economic and political system of Rome was propped up by this, hundreds of thousands of alien Germanic settlers were invited to immigrate. These groups had no incentives to follow Roman culture and a half-baked assimilation would only occur hundreds of years after the Empire’s demise. Through a series of wars and political compromises, Belgica became Burgundy, Gaul became France, Northern Italia became Lombardy, Moesia became Bulgaria, Illyria became Croatia, and so on. The Empire was so exhausted and empty that these people simply assumed their posts as leaders. They could not retain Roman civilization but merely marvel at its decaying ruins and use what still worked.

While late Roman society had no innate civic desire to continue the lineage of large families, Christians inherited sexual and familial development practices from the Jews. This ensured that a demographic shift continued to take place. Traditional pagan families had fewer children than Christian ones, and thus Christians grew in proportion to the Roman population. It was the thread that continued Roman tradition, even as it began to collapse. It civilized the barbarians, and thus the Roman Empire became Christendom. It managed keep the flame of Hellenic knowledge and memory of the glory of antiquity alive.

In short, Rome and America share the same problems and same terrible solutions which hollow out its population. This makes them susceptible to ideologies which prey on despair, hopelessness and envy. Rome, poisoned by its own political and economic failures, killed itself and invited in its replacements. America appears poised to do the same. It is our job to weather the storm and restore a Golden Age.

Bibliography:

[1] https://books.google.com/books?id=wFx4T9QvU94C&pg=PT226&lpg=PT226&dq=lucius+clay+germany+carthage&source=bl&ots=xhvoN_xG1x&sig=ya3ZIUC71VMcePYaewS-7Fm_3QA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjS6MyP2fbYAhWG14MKHSknCIYQ6AEIaDAQ#v=onepage&q=lucius%20clay%20germany%20carthage&f=false

[2] http://romans.etrusia.co.uk/roman_optimates.php

[3] https://fee.org/articles/poor-relief-in-ancient-rome/

[4] https://dailyhistory.org/What_were_the_impact_of_the_military_reforms_of_Marius_on_Rome%3F

[5] http://www.businessinsider.com/how-currency-debasement-contributed-to-fall-of-rome-2016-2

[6] https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0003598X00085859

[7] https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/inflation-cpi

Liked it? Take a second to support Social Matter on Patreon!
View All

21 Comments

  1. You lost me as soon as you agreed with Gibbon that Christianity was a cause of the fall of Rome. The Gibbonian view of Late Antiquity is no longer accepted by any specialist in the period that I know of. Far from sliding into inevitable decay, the Dominate is now recognized as having been a strong and effective state, a rational response to the new challenges posed to the Empire by the rise of the Sassanids ands the new Germanic confederations.

    To simplify a long and very complicated story, the fall of the Western Empire was caused by a series of blunders made in the critical period between the death of Theodosius in 395 and Visigothic sack of Rome in 410. The West was crippled by loss of control of its borders, and so was eventually destroyed by the barbarian warlords who had become a permanent feature of the landscape. The Eastern Empire, otherwise no different from the West, survived basically because it did not lose control of its borders.

    There is no evidence whatsoever to support the thesis that Christianity weakened either martial spirit or civic culture. In fact, the transition in the ruling ideology was remarkably smooth.

    For an updated view of the so-called fall of Rome, I recommend starting with Peter Heather’s “The Fall of the Roman Empire, a New History of Rome and the Barbarians.”

    Reply

    1. The Eastern Empire had the same problems with immigration and assimilation if the Bulgars are any indication. The Arabs are a special case and while the Byzantines did a remarkably good job of dealing with maelstrom, I think my piece holds up under the Eastern Empire’s historical example.

      Reply

      1. What is the situation with the Arabs like?

        Reply

        1. Frederick Franz February 3, 2018 at 1:18 pm

          I mean they were more of an existential threat to Rome like the Huns rather than the more pernicious settlement/conquest of the Franks and Goths. The East really ought to get it’s own post.

          Reply

      2. The Bulgars were invaders, not immigrants. Their historical role is as successors to the Huns. The East was quite capable of dealing with Bulgars, Persians, and Muslims individually. It was the series of hammer blows dealt by these enemies one after another in the 7th century that they could only barely survive. This would have been a colossal challenge for any state and that the Byzantines were able to withstand them at all is proof of the strength of their institutions.

        Reply

  2. When I said that I agreed with Gibbon, I meant that I understood that Christianity was present and necessary during its fall. It played a very different role than Gibbon necessarily gave it. Christianity saved the Western apocrypha during the dark ages as I said later in the piece.

    Reply

    1. Okay, I went back and read the whole thing and see that you’re view of the Christian role in Late Antiquity isn’t entirely negative.

      Roman history is my field of expertise; my interpretation of the Empire is rather different from yours. Instead of doing a piece by piece critique in the combox, I should write my own article. Or a series of articles, really, to do the subject justice.

      Basically, I agree with most of your reading of the Late Republic, but I differ in thinking that the Empire, for both America and Rome, was and will be a necessary development to keep the bottom of the world from falling out. Instead of looking back to the Republic that was, we need to look forward to the world order we need. Anyway, this topic is far too big for the combox.

      Reply

      1. I’d definitely be interested in having a look at anything you write on this subject, Pius, with an eye to publish here at Social Matter. Would be a good dialogue: socialmattermag@gmail.com

        Reply

  3. It’s good to have explicit connections made where there already exists in the minds of many a general sentiment which suggests comparison between the two as confirmation of that instinct.

    The ending was quite clarifying as to your sentiments concerning the position the Faith had in regard to the decline of Rome. I was actually a bit confused at first what point you were making about the Faith, but the end did nicely to wrap that up. I would recommend moving that bit up to the top though to avoid confusion for the reader, otherwise we’re left a bit hanging on your feelings

    Reply

  4. “It is our job to weather the storm and restore a Golden Age.”

    Thank you.

    I’m fighting for restoration and we wait for naught.
    For naught awaits us all if we remain passive.

    Unlike the Barbarians of old today’s Barbarians want to erase us from history. They make no bones about this and indeed trumpet it from the rooftops.

    We fight or we cease to exist. Anywhere.
    Western Civilization will not even be a taxidermist exhibit in the museums – simply put we never happened. Like Troy, like the Hittites, like so many peoples we vanish from history.

    We never happened.

    So gently we will weather no storm if you mean ride it out.
    We fight and survive and triumph or we go the way of most peoples in history we simply vanish.

    Reply

    1. We win or we cease to exist. How to do that is an open question. Fighting has a place and time – but only when the odds are favorable. Work towards bettering our odds.

      Reply

  5. William Fitzgerald February 3, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Great piece. A couple of questions about the economics part.

    Firstly, I was a bit confused by the claim that in an inflationary period, “in this economic situation, any wealth created by plebeians would evaporate within their lifetimes”. In particular, inflation doesn’t penalize all wealth, only holdings of money. It seems to hinge on the presumption (which may be true, but I’m not sure) that the plebians held a larger fraction of their wealth in coin than the rich. Admittedly, the wealthy probably held a lot more in land, which might make the poor hold relatively more in coin (in percentage terms). But I don’t know what how much the poor held in coins, as opposed to jewelry, or land, or nothing at all in the case of the truly poor. As long as they can hold wealth in something other than gold coins, they should be at least partially insulated from the debasement. In between the actual incidents of debasement, I wasn’t sure how the evaporation would occur. But I also don’t know a ton about monetary policy in Rome.

    Personally, I tend to think that debasing the currency in the case of Rome was more of a symptom of the decline, rather than the cause, but this is obviously an arguable position, and it seems likely that something as complicated as the fall of Rome probably doesn’t have a single cause. In principal, debasing the currency is just another kind of tax, albeit a pernicious one. The two big problems with the argument to me as it being the main cause of Rome’s decline are:

    1. If this is the cause, it took hundreds of years to operate, which is pretty damn slow moving.

    2. If we take the inverse of the value of gold per coin as the expansion of the money supply (ignoring any new gold that was discovered), then the annualized rate of expansion of the monetary base actually wasn’t very big, at least by modern standards. Unless my intuition is wrong here, (8/4.5 ) ^ (1/370) = 1.00216, or 0.2% per year. Admittedly, it didn’t occur like that, but in big one-off debasements. Though this argues for viewing these as particular incidents of debasement, rather than a general trend of “loose monetary policy” like the present. For most people’s lifetimes, there doesn’t seem to be any debasement at all. In this sense, both are expansions of the monetary base and implicit taxes on money, but the form they take is quite different.

    Switching to the modern context, it seems worth noting that even amongst people that argue in favor of loose monetary policy and quantitative easing, the argument isn’t really that higher inflation doesn’t matter. I think people are still worried about the idea of high and runaway inflation, just not small predictable inflation. In this sense, the better arguments for things like quantitative easing are that the large increases in the money supply so far haven’t actually produced a lot of inflation. Which, for reasons that are still puzzling to me, is true. In other words, it’s important to distinguish between the loose monetary policy itself and the potential inflationary effects.

    Reply

  6. The parallels are indeed interesting (e.g. See the John glubb piece).

    However, this era is very different due to quality information, knowledge, and experience readily available.

    The other kicker that will fuel the storm is the huge human population along with the disturbed natural environment. Human migrations will be normal. 7-10 billion humans or whatever is untenable.

    Yes, weather the storm, but by all means derive and test a solution that can be deployed to aid progress (opposed to ‘progression’) thereafter, I.e. Extending, expanding, and discovering knowledge for another thousand years – hopefully a bit more sustainable.

    Reply

  7. “hundreds of thousands of alien Germanic settlers were invited to emigrate”

    Don’t you mean immigrate?

    It seems to me there is a crucial difference between debasement of coins and inflation of fiat currencies. When more dollars are printed, the first receivers of the newly printed dollars gain wealth from the loss of value of the old dollars. But what happens when the aureus is debased? The people holding the old aureus still have them, and they still have the old percentage of gold in them. They will trade at the old rate, not the new one. It’s only when the old ones come into possession by the treasury that the actual conversion can be made.

    The above is just a guess. Perhaps I’m missing information on how debasement actually worked.

    Reply

    1. Fixed, thanks.

      Reply

  8. Samseau (@Sam_seau) February 6, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    Contrary to Gibbons, Christianity kept the Roman empire, and indeed the White race, going for much longer than it would have lasted otherwise.

    The decadence which took hold of the Romans so reduced their birthrates they went extinct.

    The Eastern Roman Empire went from Latin to Greek within 200 years of Constantine. The Latins preferred their sin and paid the price. The Greeks and Germanics adopted Christ and flourished.

    This view is 100x more consistent with what is actually recorded.

    Reply

  9. OK, I actually just read Gibbon, and I don’t see where the whole “Gibbon said it’s Christianity’s fault” idea came from. Gibbon is much more focused on laying down the narrative and spends quite little time on analysis. In a couple of quick comments he throws some shade on the monastic/hermit tendencies, and the theological schisms certainly didn’t help domestic unity, but I can’t recall any language identifying Christianity as *the* or even *a* major cause of Imperial decline. Maybe I just completely missed it, or maybe my (digital) copy was missing a volume or some such, if so please point me, otherwise maybe this is a myth that needs overturning.

    Reply

    1. Frederick Franz February 8, 2018 at 9:07 pm

      I think that Gibbon made the point subtly and in a very measured way like you said, focusing on deeper issues of Christian monasticism and schisms. However, subsequent historians and the general reading audience took it to be a full indictment of Christianity as the fall of Rome. Sort of an author interpretation gone awry due to the political expediency of later historians seeing the world from a secular angle.

      Reply

      1. Well, glad to know I’m not the only one finding a disconnect between Gibbon-as-written and Gibbon-as-conventionally-depicted. I’m secular so I don’t think I was reading with pro-Christian bias.

        Reply

  10. From my recollection, one of the major consequences of events pre Gracchi brothers was the breaking the transmission of the values and cultural technologies necessary to sustain a yeoman farmer society. Soldier/Farmers go off on extended deployments, come back to lands that have been repossessed into giant estates, a generation goes by and they fail to pass down the farming spirit to their children.

    Then when redistribution does happen you see would be farmers immediately selling the land back to the estates and returning to cities and the dole.

    Easy analogy to western countries and the loss of basic job getting / keeping skills amongst large parts of the population as a results of generational welfare. You also see something similar in SA with the very high failure rate (something like 98%) of their farm redistribution efforts.

    Effect is to ratchet in the problem as it’s now that much easier to just import manufactured goods from china, or grain from egypt, then retool your whole population.

    Reply

    1. But if the economic structure of the late Republic or early Empire was conducive to yeoman farming, wouldn’t we expect a new set of yeoman farmers to fill the niche? You would expect a dole-dependent underclass AND a productive yeomanry.

      I think the Republican system broke because: (A) the latifundia-owners could outbid the yeoman farmers for land, and (B) fighting was so distant and campaigns so long that it just wasn’t realistic to have a citizenry who were simultaneously yeomen and soldiers.

      So the Gracchi solution (make more yeomen) was doomed unless it addressed those issues. The Marian solution was more effective in solving the recruiting problem but the article above explained quite well how the Marian reforms killed the Republic in a couple generations.

      How could Marius have widened recruitment and adapted to long/distant campaigns etc without breaking soldiers’ loyalty to the government?

      -I think denying the soldiers families was a serious mistake. Providing and securing a man’s family is one of the better ways to earn his cooperation, but there’s also a Prof Cochran argument to be made here about selection.
      -Marius instituted regular pay. I wish they had tried regular pay while still operating under the yeomen model, might’ve kept them afloat economically a little longer. Also wish they had tried expanding the recruitment pool to allies while keeping more of the Republican model.
      -Farmland as the soldier’s “stake” stopped working, but much later the Japanese would add an interesting twist by buying off the samurai with government bonds.
      -Diocletian/Constantine split the armies into frontier (limitanei) and central/mobile. Logistically, I don’t see why yeoman settled in the frontier couldn’t have continued serving along Republican lines.
      -Loss-aversion and time-discounting means that gradually building up a soldier’s stake or retirement fund probably would’ve been more effective incentive than lump-sum at retirement, especially for younger soldiers.

      Apologies for thinking out loud. All this was running through my head while reading Livy and Gibbon.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *