At the end of Volume 3 of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Gibbon is in a reflective mood. It feels very much like he is intending on finishing his story here with the end of the Roman Empire in the West as a legal entity. In fact I think that is exactly what his intentions were. This is how he puts it.
“I have now accomplished the laborious narrative of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, from the fortunate age of Trajan and the Antonines, to its total extinction in the West, about five centuries after the Christian era. At that unhappy period, the Saxons fiercely struggled with the natives for the possession of Britain: Gaul and Spain were divided between the powerful monarchies of the Franks and Visigoths, and the dependent kingdoms of the Suevi and Burgundians: Africa was exposed to the cruel persecution of the Vandals, and the savage insults of the Moors: Rome and Italy, as far as the banks of the Danube, were afflicted by an army of Barbarian mercenaries, whose lawless tyranny was succeeded by the reign of Theodoric the Ostrogoth. All the subjects of the empire, who, by the use of the Latin language, more particularly deserved the name and privileges of Romans, were oppressed by the disgrace and calamities of foreign conquest; and the victorious nations of Germany established a new system of manners and government in the western countries of Europe.”
It sounds pretty final.
He permits himself some time to mull it all over and describe what he thinks it all means. In particular he tackles the causes of the fall of the empire. It is often said that he blames the its fall on the rise of Christianity. In fact Gibbon doesn’t actually come out and say this. He is scathing of the behaviour of the Christians. He also takes the time to point out that given that religion is concerned with what happens in the next world, it is not logical to complain of any effects it has in this one. But his view is that the fall of the empire can easily be explained and it needs no particular cause- it is the rise in the first place that is more surprising.
He attributes to the Romans of the early phase of expansion a unique combination of military preparedness and social cohesion. This enabled them to beat all their rivals. But once the empire got so big it needed an army of full timers, the army itself became more powerful than the people. It used that power to relax its discipline, and then became vulnerable to the barbarians. The process was inevitable, the only surprise was that it took 5 centuries to work itself out.
Historians have continued to debate the reasons for the fall of Rome, and it has become one of those questions that have been so widely discussed that it seems unlikely that an firm conclusion will ever be reached. It is not really the kind of thing that a serious historian would devote time to any more. But luckily, I am not a serious historian and I have no need to worry about my reputation. So for the benefit of the small but perfectly formed group of hard core listeners who I still have left, here is my idea of what happened.
First of all, I think Gibbon is spot on in what led to the rise of Rome in the first place. In the pre-Industrial world the power of a state was purely and simply down to how many able bodied men they could put in the field, how well they could train them beforehand and how well armed they were when they got there. Rome had the advantage of being well situated to draw in manpower. Its apparent disadvantage was being located in a spot that left it open to attack from many directions by many assailants. But in the event this simply added to the motivation of its citizens. The small farmers that formed the backbone of the Roman republic had a real stake in their country’s constitution and were prepared to put the effort into defending it. This gave the Romans an edge when they came up against enemies who were motivated merely by pay, compulsion or the desire for booty. This was at its most potent during the first two Punic wars, when the Romans simply refused to accept defeat even when facing disasters that would have wiped out most states of the time.
As Roman power grew, another factor came into play. The bigger Rome got, the harder it became for anyone to defeat it or even realistically challenge it. It became a superpower without a peer, what today we would call a unipolar world. Its growth came to a halt not because a rival stood in its way. It had simply got as big as its logistics were able to handle. But at the same time the empire destroyed the basis of its own early success. The small farmers were more and more squeezed out by the bigger land owners who could operate efficiently using slave labour. The legal system remained intact, but the democratic control was gradually eroded by the combination of big money and professional soldiers. The distribution of wealth became more and more uneven, a process that continued for as long as the empire lasted. The number of people who had a vested interest in the fate of the empire became steadily smaller as inequality rose. The opportunities for advancement for those with talent but no money became ever smaller. One possible explanation for the rise of Christianity is simply that it offered an alternative career path to those that couldn’t be accommodated by the administration. The emperors became steadily more autocratic as the institutions that had been founded to share power eroded.
By the last years of the empire, the more perceptive emperors realised what was going on and were beginning to try and give power back to their citizens. We see this in the affectation of Julian in offering to report back to the Senate on his exploits on behalf of the republic as if he was simply another official. Honorius lamented that nobody seemed to want to take up the generous offer of serving on a people’s assembly. In the end Rome did not put up any serious resistance when the barbarians turned up to sack it. It was a huge contrast with the defiance shown to the genius of Hannibal. The most remarkable difference between the two eras was the availability of trained and effective manpower. The Republic was able to put large armies in the field drawn from the Italian population and keep them there for years on end. After centuries of peace, prosperity and presumably population growth the waning empire of Stilicho struggled to find a way to fill the ranks of its army even for the defence of the cities of Italy itself. There must have been just as many if not more Italian males around. The trouble was they weren’t independent farmers, or even former veterans. They were either slaves, or an underclass living on hand outs from the state. They were useless for military purposes. They didn’t have the training, and had no interest in getting themselves killed for the benefit of their oppressors anyway.
All in all it is a stark warning to us in the modern world. Like the Romans we have become accustomed to a peaceful life. We have also lived through a period where the rich are getting richer and richer. The concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands is less visible now that wealthy individuals no longer live in palaces in the middle of capital cities. But the way the global elite are beginning to be so rich that their lives bear no relationship to the rest of us is one that a Roman of the fourth century would recognise – even if it seems strangely invisible to us.
So although the Roman world was very different to ours in a great many ways, I think there are still some fundamental lessons that we can learn from it. Our institutions already seem less powerful than they once were. National governments now seem powerless in the face of the huge international financial flows that stream around the planet. If electorates are losing interest in electoral politics at least some of that is because quite simply they can see that it doesn’t matter much who you vote for. Even the parties that aren’t blatantly in the hands of rich donors are obliged to pander to the men with the money. Just as once the Praetorian guard put the interests of the state as a poor second to the interests of the Praetorian guard, so the markets are only interested in the interests of the market and carry on running the world their way regardless of elected governments. The Senate continued to sit long after the end of the republic. Indeed it actually lasted longer than the emperors. The existence of a representative body doesn’t mean it has any power.
Are we going to go the same way? It doesn’t seem very likely. But unlikely things happen. I wrote this post towards the end of 2013 and since then a new Islamic State has emerged in the Middle East. It still seems inconceivable that such a thing could happen right under our noses without any warning. But then the total extinction of the western empire must have seemed almost inconceivable too, right up to its final collapse.