Before describing the sack of the city Gibbon treats us to a portrait of the city that is about to be destroyed.

Surviving documents enabled Gibbon to paint a very full and revealing picture of just what Rome was like in the reign of Theodosius, just before the final collapse of the western empire. We have just ploughed through thirty chapters largely composed of one military disaster after another accompanied with a relentless increase in authoritarian government, religious intolerance and the rise of what was in effect a police state. So it is quite surprising to find that in Rome itself quite a lot of people were doing rather nicely, thank you.

The Roman Republic had conquered the world on the backs of large numbers of independent but public spirited and not very rich farmers. In the process, the farmers had for the most part lost their farms and acquired debts. The winners had been the senatorial class who had succeeded in getting title to the land and the revenues that could be derived from it. They typically owned large swathes of Italy coupled with holdings in the provinces. The best way of exploiting these was a matter of some debate. The consensus seemed to be that if you were near enough by it was better to manage them yourself. Otherwise, long standing tenants who could hand on the tenancy and had an interest in maintaining the productivity of the soil was the second best.

But a lot of the farms were run by professional managers whose task was to generate cash for the land owner. Cheap labour was obtained – you could simply buy it. There were books on how to squeeze the best income out of your estate. So managers had guidelines to follow. Produce could be sold in the big cities or to the army. Everything slotted together nicely to provide a large and steady stream of income to the wealthy citizens in the cities, in particular in Rome itself. The name for the agricultural system was latifundia. It literally meant ‘large estate’ which pretty much sums it up. The origin of the latifundia was land conquered during the expansion of the empire, which was then sold off by the state to the only people with cash, which was big landowners in the Senate.

Arguably the acquisition of these latifundia, and the associated slaves to run them, was the real fundamental motivation behind the drive to create the empire in the first place. It would explain why Scotland for example was never conquered. There simply wasn’t any land that at the time was economically viable to exploit. Likewise, when the Romans got into Persia and Mesopotamia they found systems of farming that they didn’t understand and couldn’t work out how to make viable. So the latifundia system put a brake on the expansion of the empire. (This might explain why Hadrian could give up Trajan’s eastern conquests so easily.)

It was also a system which needed and encouraged stability. There was little incentive to come up with technical innovations. The latifundia were already making the owners rich. And in a basically agrarian society doing away with labour would not cut costs very much. And if you increased productivity who would buy the extra production?

The system also accounts for the chronic shortage of manpower in the army, which is otherwise rather hard to explain. Farming is a labour intensive business without tractors. This is especially the case at harvest time. Landowners would be very reluctant to let able bodied men out of their control for years on end if they could help it. Never mind defending Gaul from the Goths. I’ve got olives that need pressing.

The inequalities of the Roman world were simply astonishing, and hard to comprehend. In Rome the dwellings of the rich could be described, and were described, as palaces. But that doesn’t really do them justice. They were basically the capitals of little empires all of their own. They would have an extensive staff, their own baths, servants, a temple even. They drew revenues from all over the continent to support a small family in complete luxury. It is perhaps not too surprising that senators could reconcile themselves to the loss of political power when the republic was overthrown by the emperors. They still had plenty of stuff to look after in their private lives. It also explains how the empire was so cohesive. It was actually run by a fairly small elite that had lives that were totally at odds with everyone else. A rich man from Spain or Britain could probably relate to his counterpart from Africa or Egypt or from Rome itself much more easily than he could to his compatriots out working in his fields.

The interesting thing is that although the latifundium system broke down when the empire that supported it ceased to exist, the basic idea never went away. When the Spanish and the Portuguese acquired empires in South America it was the latifundia model that they turned to. The land in South America was divided into big parcels – really big parcels to the mind of somebody like myself from Britain. The local population were given very little in the way of rights and were exploited where possible as cheap labour. The aim was to produce cash crops that would make the land owner rich enough to become somebody who was somebody back home. The rich Brasilero who made his money in the colonies is a stock figure in Portuguese literature.

I have a feeling that someone from the end of the Roman Empire who somehow came back to life in Gibbon’s time would have had very little difficulty in working out how the European empires in South America were being run at the time. There were the landlords with their latifundia. They might even recognise the name used for them. In Spanish latifundios or hacienda, faziendas in Portuguese all come from the latin root. The work was being done by slaves or people who might just as well have been slaves for all the rights they had. They might well have also noted that rich and poor alike were still being hassled by Saxons from northern Europe arriving by boat.

But whimsy apart this is one of those Roman legacies the consequences of which we are still living with. Even today South America is not as developed as it might have been, largely as a result of the antique land tenure system it adopted from the classical model. It is also a warning of the dangers of allowing inequality to get out of control.

So what were these elites like? The accounts suggest that they weren’t so very different from elites at most times in history. They were polite to your face when you met them, charming even. But they were quite likely to forget you by the next day. They weren’t troubled to study greatly, preferring satirical amusements by the like of Juvenal or sensationalist history. Basically, they had it great and could have had no idea that the set up that had worked so beautifully for centuries was about to come to an end. When Alaric and his Goths turned up, it must have been one heck of a shock.

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