The Ancient Suicide of the West

by Nicholas Davidson  

I. Interpreting the Decline of Rome

The fall of the Roman Empire remains one of the great
unsolved riddles of history.
[1 <> ]
Rome rose from obscurity to dominate the ancient world until
it became practically synonymous with civilization itself. Yet a
few centuries later its terrified survivors, decimated by disease,
famine, and infertility, eagerly laid their necks beneath the swords
of barbarian conquerors. Why?

Edward Gibbon, who set out to solve this riddle at the time of
the American Revolution, had yet to find any but the vaguest
of answers by the end of the six volumes of his great work, The
History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. By answering
the riddle of the fall of Rome, Gibbon hoped to discover whether
modern European civilization might be threatened by a similar fate.
Precisely because the riddle remains unsolved, Gibbon's History
remains the standard work in its area - a unique situation in the field
of history, where obsolescence overtakes most works within a few
years of publication.

Despite his high reputation, Gibbon was something of a plodder,
and his work is full of repetition and the sacrifice of concept to
narration: a touchstone of English usage in its few inspired moments,
a valuable source even today, but scarcely a model of analytical
clarity. At the end of his study of the fall of Rome, Gibbon
concluded that modern civilization, unlike Rome, was too complex
to fall, without adequately specifying what the conditions for that
complexity might be.

Gibbon's vagueness has inspired a seemingly endless stream of
alternate explanations. After reviewing the same general evidence,
scholars have come to the most diffuse and frequently the most
farfetched conclusions.

A classic example is F. W. Walbank's account of the decline of
Rome, The
Awful Revolution. While his narrative is elegantly constructed
and factually reliable, his conclusions are less convincing.
Walbank argues that the lessons of the decline can guide us in
the present. "Having learnt the lessons of that 'awful revolution',
we can more advantageously devote our passions and our
energies to the amelioration of what is wrong in our own
society." What are these "lessons," according to Walbank?
He describes in detail the coercive economic actions of the
Roman state and then concludes that "private enterprise, left
to itself, was proving unequal to the task of feeding the civilian
population." The fall of Rome is attributed to insufficient
government planning. We must, he writes, "attempt to plan
the resources of modern society for the whole of its peoples."
Every misguided state action that hastened the fall of Rome
- family policy, industrial policy, wage and price controls - is
trotted out by such supremely accomplished scholars as
Walbank as a remedy for modern ills.[2
<> ]

One is forced to the realization that no matter how erudite a
historian may be, his conclusions about past socioeconomic
events are only as reliable as his grasp of economic theory.
Since the 1920s, the pick of classical scholars have lived amidst
a miasma of fanciful notions on the relation of government
policy and social progress. It is precisely in the most sophisticated
milieus that the naïvetés of leftism have bitten deepest, as in
Britain, where many of the leading historians of the past fifty
years have been large-C Communists, and in America, where
socialist, Marxist, and New Deal mentalities have great prestige
in the academy and it is nonnative to ridicule the free market.

A better explanation for the decline of Rome must address the
universality of the problems that confronted the Romans. The
evils that Rome faced were not worse than those faced by other
societies before or since. Political turmoil, civil war, invasion,
plague, famine, and all the other scourges of the ancient world
can be found abundantly in the histories of all societies, including
modern and early modern Europe. Why in the seventeenth century
did England not succumb to plague and civil strife, nor Holland
to devastating, repeated invasion? Rome itself had survived all
these scourges, including invasion, occupation, civil war, and
ceaseless barbarian pressure during the republic and the early
empire. What none of the factors, commonly advanced to explain
the fall of Rome, can do adequately, is to show why, at the very
pinnacle of its grandeur in the first century A.D., at a time when
it utterly dominated the ancient world, Rome's culture and economy
should have entered a precipitous and ultimately fatal decline.

II. The Free Market of the Ancient Mediterranean

Classical civilization was a middle class civilization. It stood at
the pinnacle of a long process of democratization that had begun
hundreds of years earlier. Broadly speaking, the aristocrats first
overthrew the kings. The oligopolies they established were in turn
overthrown by the upper middle class.

A vast development of trade between the ninth and the fifth
centuries B.C. underlay this development. The central importance
of commerce was self-evident to the ancient Greeks. As Plato has
Socrates say in the Republic
<> ,
"To find a place where nothing need be imported is well-nigh
impossible," to which Socrates' interlocutor rejoins, "Impossible."
[3 <> ]

The expansion of trade gave rise to a large and affluent middle
class. Two of the criteria of aristocratic worth - wealth and military
value - simultaneously passed to the middle class. Building on these
assets, the middle class sought and in many cases achieved cultural
and political influence commensurate with its economic power.
By the peak moment of Greek civilization in fifth century Athens,
the upper middle class occupied a position roughly analogous to
that of the upper middle class in Britain after 1688 or France after
1789, as the cultural center of society.

If the Greeks, along with the Phoenicians and their Carthaginian
descendants, were a thorough success as merchants, they were less
successful in their political efforts. They experimented with every
form of government without ever transcending the specter of
political instability. But the political turbulence of the Greek
world may have held unsuspected economic benefits.

The disunited world of the ancient Mediterranean constituted
a de facto free market. States, each one seeking its own interest,
competed against each other, with none able to gain a lasting
advantage. In this setting, commerce flourished. The population
and prosperity of the Mediterranean basin increased dramatically.
[4 <> ]

Little by little Rome swallowed up the states of the ancient
Mediterranean, such as Marseille, Syracuse, Carthage, Athens,
and Egypt. At first the benefit seemed enormous. The chronic war
and piracy which had plagued the Greek world were suppressed.
Briefly the world knew peace and order and was able to expand
its infrastructure. The ancient world reached yet a new peak of
population and prosperity.
[5 <> ]
But the state which made this possible carried within itself the
principle of its own destruction.

III. Collectivism Under the Roman Republic

Throughout its history, Rome defined civic rights and duties as
the properties of collective bodies. Under the republic (c. 500 B.C.
-27 B.C.), these bodies achieved a certain balance, so that, no one
body being able to completely dominate any other, the power of
the state over the individual, while in principle absolute, was in
practice limited. A senatorial governing class, an aristocracy of
"equites" or knights, and a distinct citizen body of plebeians shared
hegemony over the various aspects of public life. Further segmented
into influential extended families, the Roman republic embodied
powerful principles of both balance and unity.

In the later years of the republic, the power of these intermediary
bodies eroded even as the aggregate power of the state, augmented
through conquests, reached unprecedented heights. After a series
of civil wars between rival generals, one of them, Julius Caesar,
emerged as supreme ruler. His successor Augustus (ruled 27 B.C.
to 14 A.D.), founded the Roman Empire. Over the next four hundred
years, that empire was progressively to snuff out the power of all the
intermediary institutions. Ironically, the principle of collective rights
which had sustained Roman liberty under the republic would be used
to undermine ancient civilization itself under the empire.

Already in the late republic, the practices had begun which were
to prove fatal under the empire. The functions of society gradually
became the properties of exclusive classes. The upper classes were
as restricted as the lower. By a law of 218 B.C., senators were
forbidden to own cargo ships. This law forced the Roman upper
class to invest in land rather than commerce. Since induction into
the senatorial order was becoming a prerogative of success, the
result was to forbid successful men to engage in trade.

It is characteristic of the low esteem in which the Romans held
trade that Cicero described it as a vile occupation, unworthy of a
man of honor. "We condemn the odious occupation of the collector
of customs and the usurer, and the base and menial work of unskilled
laborers. . . . Equally contemptible is the business of the retail dealer;
for he cannot succeed unless he is dishonest. . . .. The work of the
mechanic is also degrading; there is nothing noble about a workshop. . . ."

Only retirement from commerce could legitimate a businessman.
Cicero goes on to say that "[I]f the merchant, satiated, or rather,
satisfied, with the fortune he has made, retires from the harbor and
steps into an estate, as once he returned to harbor from the sea, he
deserves, I think, the highest respect."
[6 <> ]

Barred from commerce by law and custom, the upper class sought
to maintain its prerogatives by limiting the commercial opportunities
open to others. The Macedonian mines were closed, and those of
Italy virtually so, with this intention.
[7 <> ] The lower classes
of citizens were themselves not immune to such temptations.

The forced purchase of grain from farmers at a price set by the state
was common by the late republic.
[8 <> ] Wreaking further
havoc with the market, much of this grain was resold by the state at
a yet further subsidized price. Some of it was distributed outright to
the lower classes of Rome. Seeking popular support, demagogues
increased the numbers of those eligible for these distributions.
Hundreds of thousands of Romans acquired the right to free grain.

Meanwhile finance, even more despised than trade, remained
underdeveloped. Throughout Roman times, successive attempts
were made to legislate the rate of interest: sometimes 4 per
cent, sometimes 8 per cent. At one point interest was forbidden
outright, leading to surprise when the supply of loan funds
suddenly dried up. Denied the means to meet changing economic
conditions, the banking system of the Hellenistic world was
disrupted; it eventually disappeared altogether. Such policies
depressed the supply of loan capital, causing the same excessive
interest rates they were meant to discourage. Combined with
onerous taxation, the net result of state agricultural and financial
policy was to drive farmers off the land.

The parts of the empire first conquered were the first impoverished.
Even before the establishment of the empire, Roman policy had
ruined fertile Sicily, previously the breadbasket of Italy, and virtually
ended the cultivation of grain in the Italian peninsula itself. The
thriving old Greek states of Asia Minor underwent a comparable
decline.[9 <> ] The problem
of agri deserta - fertile but deserted farmland - was to haunt Rome
until its fall. The resulting combination of urban unemployment
with rural depopulation presented Rome with a quandary it was
never to resolve.

The amount of grain consumed by the city of Rome alone was
considerable. Under the empire, the annual consumption of
subsidized grain in Rome probably exceeded 17,000,000 bushels.
[10 <> ] The state
expenditures necessary to maintain a supply of free grain imposed
a permanent need for revenue, which was not a problem so long as
Rome was a conquering power gathering to itself the accumulated
capital of the ancient world,
[11<> ] but became
increasingly critical as the age of conquest came to an end and
taxation replaced plunder as a source of state income. Most of the
taxes were paid by the very farmers whose livelihood they were
used to undermine. Too, state appropriation of the grain supply
must inevitably have discouraged the development of efficient
private markets.

All these tendencies were to accelerate under the empire, under
an increasingly absolute Emperor and a bureaucracy which
relentlessly expanded until it became virtually coterminous with
society itself.

The Beginning of the Decline in the Early Empire

The late republic was a period of chronic political instability
characterized by mob violence, political assassination, and
intermittent civil war. The price of involvement in politics was
often violent death. The assassination of Julius Caesar is only
the best-known of the political murders of this period. Yet despite
this turmoil, Rome's aggregate wealth and power continued to
increase up to the founding of the empire in 27 B.C.

At the very moment Rome triumphed over the rest of the ancient
world, the forces of statism were reaching a point of critical mass,
at which their full effects came into play. In consequence, the
unparalleled economic growth and cultural impetus of the
classical world were stalled and then reversed.

Gibbon began his History with the second century of empire, the
age of the Antonines. But towards the end of his life he regretted
he had not begun much earlier. In fact, the decline began as soon
as the empire. The flowering of the Augustan Age was remarkably
brief - a matter of a single generation. After this one great initial
burst of energy, Rome lapsed into sterility and decadence. Under
the pressure of government interference, trade, agriculture, letters,
art, and personal freedom entered a decline which is visible almost
from the beginning, and was a frequent source of concern for
ancient writers.

The Roman economy reached its peak toward the middle of the
first century A.D. and thereafter began to decline. One symptom
of this condition was that long-distance trade in manufactured
goods fell off noticeably in the course of the first century.
[12 <> ] Never halted,
the economic decline would steadily accelerate until the whole
of classical civilization was sent into a tailspin.

A Rapid Enfeeblement

Depopulation followed. In the countryside, the peasants continued
to desert their lands, even as the competing slave population shrank
with the receding of the time of conquests.
[13 <> ] In letters, the
writers of the last generation of the republic and the first generation
of the empire set a dazzling standard that was never matched. Cicero
and Virgil would have many admirers, but no equals, as education
became a matter of imitative declamation. The Emperors, as their
power became increasingly absolute, accelerated this trend by
persecuting or simply killing adverse literati. In portraiture, there
is a falling off that is noticeable immediately. High art, which had
been the prerogative of many, increasingly became a prerogative of
the Imperial court. The scientific impetus of the Greeks virtually
disappeared, with a few isolated exceptions like the physician Galen
- and even he may have been more of a compiler than an originator.
The story of the first century A.D., the apex of Roman glory, is
thus that of a rapid and progressive enfeeblement of those very
elements which had made classical civilization a great age of

"The Golden Age of the Antonines"

By the end of the first century A.D., the peak had passed and the
decline began in earnest.

The stagnation in all aspects of society was associated with
a continuous extension of governmental functions. Social
engineering was tried on the grand scale. The state relentlessly
expanded into commerce, industry, and private life.

Government acquired near-monopolies of previously private
or mixed sectors, such as mines and quarries.
[14 <> ] Many of the
humble inhabitants of the empire became direct employees of
the state. At the same time, the bureaucracy grew, demanding an
ever-larger share of state expenditures.

Depopulation became general. The problem was not limited
impoverished peasants. The urban upper middle class on which
so much of classical civilization depended seems to have developed
a catastrophically low birth rate. As usual, the response of Roman
government was to enact coercive legislation. Under Augustus,
elaborate laws had been promulgated to penalizethe unmarried
and the childless. These laws were to be frequently reaffirmed
over the following centuries.

Mass population transfers were tried, whether to people recently
conquered lands, to replenish newly depopulated ones, or as
political policy. The Diaspora began as a characteristic act of
Roman administration.

To meet its growing expenditures from a shrinking tax base,
the government began to resort to deliberate inflation, devaluing
the currency time and again. A succession of attempts was made
to restrict wages and prices.
[15 <> ]

In the meantime, plague struck the empire. The specter of famine
had never been completely banished by Rome even in the time of
its prosperity.[16 <> ]
It is not too much to speculate that a population weakened by
poverty and hunger proved newly susceptible to the ravages of
disease. The plagues, which devastated the Roman world, seem
to have had little lasting effect on the hordes of barbarians on the
fringes of the empire.

By the time the so-called "Golden Age of the Antonines" ended
in 235 A.D., the Roman world was weaker, poorer, less populous,
and in important ways less civilized than it had been in the mid-first
century. Yet no external force had intervened powerful enough to
halt and then reverse the progress of classical civilization, which
for the previous six hundred years had only gone from strength to
strength. Neither political chaos nor irresponsible rule can be
blamed for this state of affairs. The decline became most tangible
between 96 A.D. and 180 A.D. under the successive reigns of the
"five good emperors," who were widely admired in their time and
recommended for centuries thereafter as models of enlightenment
to European monarchs and statesmen. Indeed the best of them,
such as Marcus Aurelius, came as close as humanly possible to
fulfilling the Platonic ideal of the "philosopher-king." Though
uniformly conscientious, concerned, and hard-working, the
Antonines seem only to have exacerbated the problems of their

It was during this period that Rome ceased its outward expansion
and, turning inward, began to suffer from the incursions of the
barbarians into whose lands it had previously expanded with

The Time of the Fifty Emperors

The problems that had slowly sapped the forces of the Roman
Empire worsened during the period of acute political instability
from 235 to 284. During this half-century, nearly every emperor
died a violent death, often after reigns of less than a year. As the
civilian fabric of the empire disintegrated, the military came to
the fore, making and breaking emperors as it pleased. As in the
late republic, the Roman world was once again ravaged by civil
war - but this time there would be no recovery.

The anarchy ended only with the accession of Diocletian in 284.
Diocletian was another "philosopher-king" in the Platonic mold,
both a forceful and a scrupulous monarch, so immune to the
opium of power that, still in his vigor, he chose to spend his later
years in voluntary retirement. Diocletian's policy, designed to
give the empire a new lease on life, in fact practically ensured its

The Roman World after the "Reforms" of Diocletian

Imagine a world in which peasants are bound to the soil; in
which the military dominates society; in which soldiers form
a hereditary caste; in which sons are required to follow their
fathers' trade; in which commerce is under the exclusive
control of privileged guilds; a world where material and
moral progress are slow or absent, but where poverty, hunger,
and disease are ubiquitous, and the magnificence of the few
serves only to highlight the misery and degradation of the many.
Such an image evokes for many the world of the Middle Ages;
but it applies equally well, indeed far better, to the society
established by Diocletian and reinforced by Constantine and
his other successors. In fact the high Middle Ages were a mecca
of freedom and rapid advance in comparison to the society of
the late empire.

By the late empire, the prevalence of slavery in the ancient world
had diminished. But slavery was merely replaced by other forms
of unfreedom. The technically free peasant of the late empire,
the colonus, is not distinguishable from the serf of later centuries.
Like the medieval serf, the Roman colonus owed a fixed proportion
of his produce to the landowner, was obliged to give him a certain
number of days of free service, and was obliged to dwell within
the landowner's domain. Coloni were legally bound to the soil.
In addition, they were likely to be crushed by taxes and on top
of all this virtually enslaved by debt. A colonus who fled and
was recaptured could be returned in chains like a slave.

Marxist rhetoric has sunk so deep into modern consciousness
that we are apt to overlook the fact that oppression fell not just
on the peasants but also on the landlords. Agricultural taxes were
assessed according to acreage, not production; thus in bad years
they were as high as in good years. Furthermore, landowners in
the late empire became liable for increasingly onerous payments
in kind to support the growing demands of the administration and
the military. Their role was made as economically impossible as
that of their tenants.

Diocletian radically expanded the civil service. The number of
administrative districts was more than doubled, requiring a vast
expansion of the Imperial bureaucracy. One can argue endlessly
over whether the Roman people were better or worse governed
before Diocletian. What is certain is that they were more governed
after him.

A significant part of this new state activity was explicitly devoted
to repression. Already under the "good emperor" Hadrian (117-138),
the commissariat officials or frumentarii had given rise to a secret
state police force.[17 <> ]
Assisted by a network of informers, the secret police came to play a
central role in the administration of the later empire.

Along with the expansion of the civil service went an expansion
of the military. A dual governmental structure was created, in
which the military administration of each province paralleled the
civilian one. The number of troops was vastly increased, from
around 300,000 to over 500,000, though the quality of many
units seems to have been poor. The trend was to rely on
barbarian auxiliaries.
[18 <> ] The Roman
citizen, whose quintessentially hard-bitten character in the
republic had made it possible to win the empire, had become
a soft and unreliable soldier.

Trade was subjected to ever-more-detailed state restrictions.
This is by far the simplest and most plausible explanation for
the decline in commerce that began in the first century A.D.
and accelerated steadily throughout the remaining lifetime of
the empire. Long-distance commerce, the lifeblood of ancient
Mediterranean civilization, was replaced by a return to local
<> ]

The situation was no better with regard to trade with lands
outside the Empire. At various times the government prohibited
"the export of . . . wine, oil, grain, salt, arms, ivory, and gold."
[20 <> ] Foreign trade,
already in decline since the first century, shriveled to almost

To meet its rising expenditures from a shrinking economic base,
the state resorted to a growing welter of financial manipulations.
Deliberate inflation destroyed the currency. Eventually the
coinage became so worthless that the monetary economy
which had sustained commerce for the previous thousand years
disintegrated altogether. The ancient world went back tobarter.
Even taxes, which remained payable in specie after it had largely
disappeared from commercial transactions, often become payable
in kind, presumably because there was no other way to collect
them. The legionaries, who originally had been paid so they
could purchase food and equipment, were now issued food
and equipment in lieu of pay, necessitating a vastly enlarged
state supply system.

The state had long owned a system of manufactories to supply
the court and army. This system was greatly expanded under
Diocletian and his successors. The government directly operated
an extensive network of wool and linen mills, dyeworks, embroidery
ateliers, and possibly boot factories. People who sheltered runaway
textile workers were liable to severe penalties, which are frequently
articulated in the celebrated law codes of late antiquity.
[21<> ]

A system of munitions manufactories was set up on military lines.
Each factory was organized as a regiment. The workers were ranked
like soldiers, and like the soldiers they inherited their profession.
To prevent them from escaping, they were branded. The workers in
the government mints were subject to a similar system, and were
branded on the arm.[22 <> ]

It is not to be supposed that the weight of oppression fell only on
farmers and artisans. Middle-class life too became an intolerable

In all periods, the organization of classical civilization rested on
the city-state and its dominant middle class. The Roman municipal
of-ricers or curiales comprised in effect the upper middle class of
the Roman towns or municipia. Under the empire, the curiales
became personally responsible for the administration of their
municipalities, and financially responsible for the collection
of taxes required by the central government. Local office, once
vied for as a mark of prestige and a fount of influence, came to
be shunned. Economic success was directly penalized, for even
a fairly modest fortune subjected its possessor to induction into
the curiales,[23 <> ]
a status which became virtually hereditary under the late empire.

Like the coloni and the workers in the state factories, the curiales
were denied freedom of movement. If they migrated to a new town,
they were liable for a double obligation, in both their new and
former locations. The curiales were forbidden to join the civil
service, the army, the Church, after it was established, and even
the state factories. The fact that a member of the ostensibly
governing class had to be forbidden to accept this latter employ-
ment, tantamount to slavery, suggests how low this class had
sunk, and with it the towns it theoretically ruled. In the final act
of this absurd drama, elevation to curial status came to be inflicted
as a criminal punishment.

Commercial organizations fared no better than the municipalities.
Like the guild which succeeded it, the Roman collegium was a
cross between a trade association and a trade union. Merchants and
artisans had organized themselves into collegia since the republic,
but under the empire these organizations acquired a growing

The shipping associations provide a striking case of this trend.
At first the government offered concessions to shippers; little by
little these merged into demands. For example, tax concessions
granted to the shippers under Claudius (41-54) later provided a
lever to bring them to heel under Hadrian (117-138).
[24 <> ] The general
trend was for the collegia to become instruments of state control.

The system of collegia was not restricted to a few occupations
or regions but became general throughout the empire. All trades
were inducted into the system. Members were forbidden to change
occupations. Their heirs inherited the same obligations.

In many trades, members were obliged to marry inside the guild.
Such prohibitions were not absolute, however: for instance,
a non-baker was permitted to marry the daughter of a baker -
provided he then became a baker himself.

It is easy to see that the ban on changing occupations made it
impossible for the Roman economy to adapt flexibly to changing

In return for accepting state control of their lives, people received
sustenance - those who survived the famines, plagues, civil strife,
and barbarian attacks. The inhabitants of Rome itself were the
special beneficiaries of this state largesse. In addition to the free
and the subsidized grain distributed since the republic, other food
items became the objects of government concern. From the time
of Septimius Severus (193-211), olive oil was distributed by the
government free of charge. In the course of the next century, a
pork ration became standard. Wine was also distributed free or
at very low cost. The shippers, bakers, and hog merchants acquired
official duties, becoming in effect direct servants of the state.
They were obliged to buy, transport, and sell goods in quantities
and at prices fixed by the state.

The result could be ruinous to the traders involved. For instance,
shippers were obliged in the early fifth century to transport state
cargoes in exchange for one per cent of their value - a remuneration
that plainly could not have covered the costs incurred.
[25 <> ] Under these
circumstances, it is not surprising to discover that harsh laws
sprang up against speculation, illicit trading, delay, and sabotage.
Eventually membership in the collegia, like that in the municipia,
was meted out as a criminal punishment - a bitter finish for
organizations that in the end were able to serve neither the public
nor the private good.

In some ways this mixed economy was crueler than a pure socialist
system. The possession of property merely obligated an individual
to work for the state. Individuals retained their property in theory,
only to be held responsible for the crushing liabilities it incurred.
Property, whether a baker's shop or a landed estate, could not be
alienated by its owner. Often the compensation allotted by the state
was grossly inadequate, the burdens onerous, death the punishment
for avoiding them.

Thus long before the deposition of the last western emperor in
476, the de facto free market of the ancient Mediterranean had been
replaced by a frozen society. With its secret police, branded workers,
and coercive family legislation, Rome was the first totalitarian state.

Once the reforms of Diocletian were in place, the classical world
had for all intents and purposes ceased to exist and a new world,
that of the Middle Ages, had begun. The Dark Ages of Western
civilization did not begin with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths
in 410, but generations before with the self-strangulation of the
Roman polity. The barbarians, who had been there all along,
stepped into a vacuum created by the Roman state itself, not in
spite but because of its might.

IV. The End of the Ancient World

Over the past generation it has become fashionable to downplay
the catastrophic effects of the fall of Rome and to stress instead
the continuity between classical and early medieval civilization.
Rome, it is argued, did not fall catastrophically; elements of classical
civilization persisted into later centuries. This schema is only partly
correct. Rome was a very different place in 400 from what it had
been in the time of Augustus. Something had happened in between.

There is a major discontinuity between classical and Dark Age
culture. But the source of discontinuity lies, not in the fifth century
with the sack of Rome and the deposition of the last Western
emperor, but in the first two centuries of empire, as the civilization
of the ancient Mediterranean slowly disintegrated under the growing
absolutism of the Roman state. By the end of Diocletian's reign in 305
A.D., the process had almost certainly passed the point of no return.
It is not so much that the Dark Ages were more "classical," as that
the Roman Empire was more "medieval" than we have yet imagined.
[26 <> ]

Only the most heedless moral relativism can blind us to the magnitude
of the catastrophe this development represented. The destruction of
ancient civilization was a veritable holocaust for the people of the
ancient world, who died like flies amid the poverty and degradation
of the period. It is fearsome to contemplate the broken dreams and
shattered lives that lie behind the ancient reports of deserted farmland
and the cold archeological maps of shrinking city perimeters. The
survivors were glad to trade their freedom for work and bread, even
if it meant living as branded laborers in regimented state factories.

As the curtain of the Dark Ages fell across the society of antiquity,
it covered a civilization paralyzed in the East, shattered in the West;
the currency worthless, trade at a standstill; learning forgotten,
agriculture devastated; the countryside deserted, the cities empty,
and military capacity so diminished that the once-war-like Romans
would do little but cringe before successive waves of Germanic,
Arab, and Scandinavian invaders. Sunk in poverty, tyranny, and
ignorance, the West was not to rise again for centuries.

Only the re-emergence of the urban middle class in the decentralized
trading states that sparked the Renaissance of the West would end
the Dark Age culture of poverty and permit intellectual, economic,
and cultural progress to begin again. Before that could happen,
the remnants of the Roman Empire would undergo yet further
fragmentation under the cruelly repeated hammer blows of the
barbarian invasions, the Arab and Viking conquests, the Crusades,
and the devastations of the Turks and the Mongols.

V. Why Rome Fell

Rome was never a democratic or 'individualist society. But power
under the republic was highly diffused. Consuls, senate, tribunes,
and tribal assemblies shared influence in the early Roman state.
The destruction of the independent power centers and the resultant
concentration of power in the hands of a single ruler and his direct
subordinates was an ongoing process, which began in the late
republic and culminated in the late empire. With the destruction
of the centers of corporate power, the individual was left naked
before the state.

The inability of the Romans to keep their government within
functional bounds was a cumulative process. At each stage it
became harder to retreat. Each new problem was met by an
expansion of the functions of the state. Each such expansion
created unexpected new problems, requiring a yet further
extension of the scope of government.

In addition to increasing the power of the state, each new
intervention created a constituency whose immediate self-interest
turned it against constructive change. These privileged constituencies
cut across social classes, from the senatorial aristocracy which
forced the closing of mines to weaken the commercial middle class,
to the shippers and tradesmen with their guild monopolies, to the
Roman mob with its entitlement of free bread, wine, and pork.

By the time the process had reached its logical conclusion under
 the late empire, a republic had been reduced to a despotism, a
dynamic and growing polity to a static and shrinking one, and
while millions had grown up amidst prosperity, millions more
would perish through famine, plague, and outright massacre.


Three conclusions follow from this discussion.

First, the principles of the market are universal to complex economies
that depend on trade and manufacturing. They did not arise from the
genesis of a mystical entity called "capitalism." Though masters of
war and engineering, the Romans lacked a science of economics.

Second, societal suicide is not the only possible outcome of
unfreedom. The Greek East, with its long-established commercial
traditions, proved more resistant to state absolutism than the Latin
West. The crippling of enterprise which opened the western empire
to destruction opened instead the eastern empire to a long stagnation.
Surrounded by tributary lands, the Byzantine Empire lasted for a
thousand years. The Byzantines mastered the art of police, enabling
a subject population to be held in check regardless of changes at the
top. Defended by impregnable walls and the secret formula for
"Greek fire," a primitive napalm, Byzantium fell only with the
development of a new technology, the cannon with which the
Turks shattered its walls in 1453. But the eastern empire did not
altogether perish. Its principles of government and diplomacy moved
north to the kingdom established by the lords of the Rus Vikings.
After the sack of Byzantium, their successor, Ivan III, married the
niece of the last eastern emperor and proclaimed a "New Rome"
in Moscow.

Finally, the quandary posed by Edward Gibbon can at last be
answered. Any society subject to the same restrictions as the
Roman Empire would speedily fall into economic stagnation
and cultural decadence. Ancient civilization was destroyed by
unrestrained statism, which flourished in the absence of a principle
of individualism. Modern civilization will not fall, because it has
discovered the intimately related principles of commercial vitality
and individual freedom. Will not fall, that is, unless those who
ignore the lesson of the ancient suicide of the West triumph,
opening the way to the new barbarians.


1.   Pre-twentieth century liberal interpretations of the decline of Rome
emphasize political at the expense of economic factors. Recent liberal
interpretations are rare, and most fail to bring out the connectedness of
the various economic, political, and social aspects of the decline. The
major exception is that of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who
sketches the same interpretation as mine in Human
Action (Third Revised Edition; Henry Regnery Co., 1966), pp. 767-769. A
generally similar thesis is presented by Lawrence W. Reed in "The Fall of
Rome and Modern Parallels," The Freeman. November 1979, pp. 647-652. For a
compendium of interpretations, see Alexander Demandt, Der Fall Roms (Munich:
C, M. Beck, 1984).
Modern works cited include W. L. Westermann, "The Economic Basis of the
Decline of Ancient Culture," American Historical Review. v. XX, 1914-15, pp.
723-743; Louis C. West, "The Economic Collapse of the Roman Empire," in
Classical Journal 28 (1932), pp. 98-106; André Aymard and Jeannine Auboyer,
Rome et son empire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1954); A, H, M.
Jones, The
Later Roman Empire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964); F, W,
Walbank, The
Awful Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969); and Arthur
Fen-ill, The
<> Fall
of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation (London: Thames and Hudson,

2.   Walbank, pp. 71, 77.

3.   Republic, 11.

4.   Cf. Westermann, p. 734: "[W]e have in the Greek world, from about 700
B.C., the development of cities with a wide expansion of industry and
transmarine trade between the farspread Hellenic city-states such as,
quantitatively, the world had never before seen."

5.   See West, p. 98, for a summary of the beneficial effects of Imperial
pacification on commerce.

6.   Cicero, De officiis, i, 150-51; after Walbank, p. 43.

7.   Walbank, p. 44.

8.   See Aymard and Auboyer, p, 152.

9.   A parallel trend for industry may be suggested by the gradual shift of
the center of blown glass production - a major industry - from Sidon and
Alexandria to Campania, thence to Gaul, and subsequently to Cologne on the
Rhine frontier - in other words, from the least to the most barbaric parts
of the empire. In Italy itself, both agricultural and industrial activity
declined very early. For these points, see West, p. 100.

10.   Walbank, p. 30.

11.   Aymard and Auboyer emphasize the unprecedented centralization of
capital in the city of Rome.

12.   Walbank, pp. 48, 70.

13.   On the decline of the slave population, see for instance Westermann,
p. 740.

14.   Cf. West, p. 101.

15.   See Roberr L. Schuettingar and Eamonn F. Butler, Forty
Centuries of Wage and Price Controls (Washington, D.C,: Heritage Foundation,
1979), pp. 9-27, for a comparative discussion of Roman wage and price

16.   Cf., Aymard and Auboyer, p. 313.

17.   Walbank, p. 63.

18.   Eventually the army became numerically more barbarian than Roman. See
Ferrill, p. 84,

19.   See for instance West, p. 98.

20.   West, p. 102.

21.   Walbank, p. 79.

22.   Jones, p. 835.

23.   This appears to be the upshot of the discussion in Jones, pp. 738-739.

24.   The remarks on the collegia are indebted to Walbank, pp. 70-73.

25.   Walbank, p. 72.

26.   For this reason, once we stop trying to see late antique culture with
"classical" eyes and start looking at it with "medieval" ones, its
atmosphere and aesthetic begin to fall into place.

May 6, 2004

Nicholas Davidson holds a Master's degree in European history from the
University of Chicago. He is the author of The
Failure of Feminism (Prometheus Books, 1987). Reprinted from The Freeman:
<> Ideas on Liberty with permission.

Copyright 1987 FEE <


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