Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Fall of Rome: Condensed Version

Look, I hope you aren’t expecting a six-volume masterpiece….

Davis summarizes the reasons for the fall (actually a slow, grinding, gradual decline) of Rome into four:

…by the beginning of the fifth century the Roman Empire had been suffering from economic decline for at least two centuries.

…the Romans were already being “barbarized.”

…the barbarians were already becoming Romanized

…the precise manner in which the barbarian settlements were made.

I will expand on one of these: the economic decline.  Let’s just say it is expensive to run an empire.

The primary cause of the economic decline was that the Roman economy had become unproductive.  Wealth was gathered via conquest; the people ate free corn from Africa and Sicily, selling nothing in return.  The chief trade was money lending.  When the frontier of empire could not be further extended, growth in this manner stalled – the unproductive Romans ran out of productive to consume.

What is one to do in such a situation?  Debase, debase, and then debase some more, of course.  The decline was long and slow, lasting not for decades but for centuries: from a silver denarius to a silver-washed bronze coin – maintaining, relative to gold, one fortieth of its value.

There was no crash; there was no collapse; there was (apparently) no hyper-inflation.  Just a slow burn.  The single-most important commodity in support of the division of labor was being mistreated, and the commodity just went along for the ride.

The wealthy bought land – it could not be debased; they moved from towns to the country – unknown at the time, but a necessary building block for future medieval life. 

Further, the population in any case was declining; Davis says the reasons are not explained.  However, he describes a system implemented by the government where sons were allowed only to take the profession of the father and marry daughters of others in the same profession.  It isn’t difficult to imagine some might consider striking out for adventure elsewhere in such a scheme.

Rome continually made concessions of land to the barbarians in order to buy peace.  I recall reading elsewhere that free Roman citizens voluntarily gave themselves to slavery to landowners given the life they faced in Rome; it was to both these barbarian landowners and the Romans who previously move to landed estates that they offered themselves.

Bit by bit, perhaps unnoticeable day-to-day or year-to-year, from all angles, the Empire was declining.  Once the barbarians gained access to the Mediterranean, the entire Empire was doomed – control of the Mediterranean (along with the need for continual expansion) was the Roman Empire.

It wasn’t a fall, as in collapse; instead, a decline over an extended period of time.  It takes a long time to fully consume the wealth produced over centuries.  Of course, Rome continued in the East, in Constantinople, for another 800 years or more.  But in Europe, Rome as Rome came to an end.


  1. Bionic Mosquito:

    Given your interest in the subject, and assuming you have not already read the following piece, the link below may provide further insight into Rome's eventual decline:

    1. also a good brief essay on the slide is by Thomas Cahill at the start of his "How the Irish saved Civilization"

  2. I also submit that speed of communication was a factor. When the spread of bad ideas only moves as fast as a man can walk or a horse can gallop, it takes decades, even centuries, for stupid policies to become completely infused within a civilization.

    Hence an important warning for the US Empire…thanks to 21st century communications technology, idiotic ideas can circle the earth 3 times before logic and rationality can get its first cup of coffee. The American collapse will not be a slow burn, but a flash-bang grenade. I give it a decade, maybe less.

    1. But from when do you start the timeline? I could suggest not later than 1971, but could consider 1913 or maybe even 1865.

      The good news regarding the speed of communication: people will be looking for GOOD ideas when it is time for answers - these can move just as quickly

    2. Haskell's new deal in old rome seems to be a good reading on the subject , I have it in my kindle , it's an interesting topic I'll pick it up and read it

  3. "I recall reading elsewhere that free Roman citizens voluntarily gave themselves to slavery to landowners"
    During the famine recorded in Genesis, the Egyptians freely gave their land and themselves into slavery to Pharaoh in order to be fed.

    1. the first step on the roman power ladder was that of tax collector and if you couldn't collect the cash had to come out of your own pocket which means they had to crawl to the giant landowners usually of the senatorial class (tax exempt) for a loan and when that got called in..... well hmm. so that how roman citizens ended up as serfs, you would be working off your debts.

  4. Great! another book to read!! I still haven't finished The New Nation ,Advanced to Barbarism,and Dawn to Decadence.Can we get back to Donny Osmond or Britney Spears?What's the Cowboys/Redskins line up for this fall?Matt Damon really have contact with Extraterrestrials?Get back to what's important dammit!!!!!!

    1. Life was simpler back then! Oh, to be young (or old) and still living in dreamland.

    2. The gaining of "Knowledge" is strange thing.I used to have friends.
      Now they think I am goofy, anomaly, abstract freek.

      There all making money on cattle (have you bought a steak
      lately?)and don't see that there being sucked into the economic vortex. John Wayne is not going to save them.

  5. An excellent book in this regard is "Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited." Rome was collapsing in the west from the 3rd or 4th century. When the central state died, wealth INCREASED as people no longer had to pay for a useless imperium.

    Scott makes the point that the economy and population were increasing up to the 7th century. What caused the collapse was the cut-off of trade from the East, traceable through the lack of Syrian coinage after Muslim conquest. A fascinating conjecture is that the end of papyrus meant an end to easy record-keeping (and literacy) and that with no easy way to keep records, commerce in the West that did NOT depend on trade also collapsed.

    Gregory of Tours is interesting reading in this regard.