100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 45





“The two greatest problems in history,” says brilliant scholar J. S. Reid, are “how to account for the rise of Rome, and how to account for her fall.” We may come nearer to understanding them if we remember that the fall of Rome, like her rise, had not one cause but many, and was not an event but a process spread over 300 years. Some nations have not lasted as long as Rome fell.   

    A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars. Christian writers were keenly appreciative of this decay. Tertullian, about 200, heralded with pleasure the ipsa clausula

saeculi—literally the fin de siecle or end of an era—as probably a prelude to the destruction of the pagan world. Cyprian, towards 250, answering the charge that Christians were the source of the Empire’s misfortunes, attributed these to natural causes:

    You must know that the world has grown old, and does not remain in its former vigor. It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the sun’s warmth are both diminishing; the metals are nearly exhausted; the husbandman is failing in the fields.

    Barbarian inroads, and centuries of mining the richer veins, had doubtless lowered Rome’s supply of the precious metals. In central and southern Italy deforestation, erosion, and the neglect of irrigation canals by a diminishing peasantry and a disordered government had left Italy poorer than before. The cause, however, was no inherent exhaustion of the soil, no change in climate, but the negligence and sterility of harassed and discouraged men.

    Biological factors were more fundamental. A serious decline of population appears in the West after Hadrian. It has been questioned, but the mass importation of barbarians into the Empire by Aurelius, Valentinian, Aurelian, Probus, and Constantine leaves little room for doubt. Aurelius, to replenish his army, enrolled slaves, gladiators, policemen, criminals; either the crisis was greater, or the free population less, than before; and the slave population had certainly fallen. So many farms had been abandoned, above all in Italy, that Pertinax offered them gratis to anyone who would till them. A law of Septimius Severus speaks of a penuria hominum—a shortage of men. In Greece the depopulation had been going on for centuries. In Alexandria, which had boasted of its numbers, Bishop Dionysius calculated that the population had in his time (250) been halved. He mourned to “see the human race diminishing and constantly wasting away.” Only the barbarians and the Orientals were increasing, outside the Empire and within.

    What had caused this fall in population? Above all, family limitation. Practiced first by the educated classes, it had now seeped down to a proletariat named for its fertility; by the year 100 it had reached the agricultural classes, as shown by the use of imperial alimenta to encourage rural parentage; by the third century it had overrun the western provinces, and was lowering manpower in Gaul. Though branded as a crime, infanticide flourished as poverty grew. Sexual excesses may have reduced human fertility; the avoidance or deferment of marriage had a like effect, and the making of eunuchs increased as Oriental customs flowed into the West. Plantianus, Praetorian Prefect, had one hundred boys emasculated, and then gave them to his daughter as a wedding gift.

    Second only to family limitation as a cause of lessened population were the slaughters of pestilence, revolution, and war. Epidemics of major proportions decimated the population under Aurelius, Gallienus, and Constantine. In the plague of 260-65 almost every family in the Empire was attacked; in Rome, we are told, there were 5,000 deaths every day for many weeks. The mosquitoes of the Campagna were winning their war against the human invaders of the Pontine Marshes, and malaria was sapping the strength of rich and poor in Latium and Tuscany. The holocausts of war and revolution, and perhaps the operation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide, had a dysgenic as well as a numerical effect: the ablest men married latest, bred least, and died soonest. The dole weakened the poor, luxury weakened the rich; and a long peace deprived all classes in the peninsula of the martial qualities and arts. The Germans who were now peopling north Italy and filling the army were physically and morally superior to the surviving native stock; if time had allowed a leisurely assimilation they might have absorbed the classic culture and reinvigorated the Italian blood. But time was not so generous. Moreover, the population of Italy had long since been mingled with Oriental strains physically inferior, though perhaps mentally superior, to the Roman type. The rapidly breeding Germans could not understand the classic culture, did not accept it, did not transmit it; the rapidly breeding Orientals were mostly of a mind to destroy that culture; the Romans, possessing it, sacrificed it to the comforts of sterility. Rome was conquered not by barbarian invasion from without, but by barbarian multiplication within.

    Moral decay contributed to the dissolution. The virile character that had been formed by arduous simplicities and a supporting faith relaxed in the sunshine of wealth and the freedom of unbelief; men had now, in the middle and upper classes, the means to yield to temptation, and only expediency to restrain them. Urban congestion multiplied contacts and frustrated surveillance; immigration brought together a hundred cultures whose differences rubbed themselves out into indifference. Moral and aesthetic standards were lowered by the magnetism of the mass; and sex ran riot in freedom while political liberty decayed.

    The greatest of historians held that Christianity was the chief cause of Rome’s fall. For this religion, he and his followers* argued, had destroyed the old faith that had given moral character to the Roman soul and stability to the Roman state. It had declared war upon the classic culture—upon science, philosophy, literature, and art. It had brought an enfeebling Oriental mysticism into the realistic stoicism of Roman life; it had turned men’s thoughts from the tasks of this world to an enervating preparation for some cosmic catastrophe, and had lured them into seeking individual salvation through asceticism and prayer, rather than collective salvation through devotion to the state. It had disrupted the unity of the Empire while soldier emperors were struggling to preserve it; it had discouraged its adherents from holding office, or rendering military service; it had preached an ethic of nonresistance and peace when the survival of the Empire had demanded a will to war. Christ’s victory had been Rome’s death.

    There is some truth in this hard indictment. Christianity unwillingly shared in the chaos of creeds that helped produce that medley of mores which moderately contributed to Rome’s collapse. But the growth of Christianity was more an effect than a cause of Rome’s decay. The breakup of the old religion had begun long before Christ; there were more vigorous attacks upon it in Ennius and Lucretius than in any pagan author after them. Moral disintegration had begun with the Roman conquest of Greece, and had culminated under Nero; thereafter Roman morals improved, and the ethical influence of Christianity upon Roman life was largely a wholesome one. It was because Rome was already dying that Christianity grew so rapidly. Men lost faith in the state not because Christianity held them aloof, but because the state defended wealth against poverty, fought to capture slaves, taxed toil to support luxury, and failed to protect its people from famine, pestilence, invasion, and destitution; forgivably they turned from Caesar preaching war to Christ preaching peace, from incredible brutality to unprecedented charity, from a life without hope or dignity to a faith that consoled their poverty and honored their humanity. Rome was not destroyed by Christianity, any more than by barbarian invasion; it was an empty shell when Christianity rose to influence and invasion came.

    The economic causes of Rome’s decline need only a reminding summary here. The precarious dependence upon provincial grains, the collapse of the slave supply and the latifundia; the deterioration of transport and the perils of trade; the loss of provincial markets to provincial competition; the inability of Italian industry to export the equivalent of Italian imports, and the consequent drain of precious metals to the East; the destructive war between rich and poor; the rising cost of armies, doles, public works, an expanding bureaucracy, and a parasitic court; the depreciation of the currency; the discouragement of ability, and the absorption of investment capital, by confiscatory taxation; the emigration of capital and labor, the strait jacket of serfdom placed upon agriculture, and of caste forced upon industry: all these conspired to sap the material bases of Italian life, until at last the power of Rome was a political ghost surviving its economic death.

    The political causes of decay were rooted in one fact—that increasing despotism destroyed the citizen’s civic sense and dried up statesmanship at its source. Powerless to express his political will except by violence, the Roman lost interest in government and became absorbed in his business, his amusements, his legion, or his individual salvation. Patriotism and the pagan religion had been bound together, and now together decayed. The Senate, losing ever more of its power and prestige after Pertinax, relapsed into indolence, subservience, or venality; and the last barrier fell that might have saved the state from militarism and anarchy. Local governments, overrun by imperial correctores and exactores, no longer attracted first-rate men. The responsibility of municipal officials for the tax quotas of their areas, the rising expense of their unpaid honors, the fees, liturgies, benefactions, and games expected of them, the dangers incident to invasion and class war, led to a flight from office corresponding to the flight from taxes, factories, and farms. Men deliberately made themselves ineligible by debasing their social category; some fled to other towns, some became farmers, some monks. In 313 Constantine extended to the Christian clergy that exemption from municipal office, and from several taxes, which pagan priests had traditionally enjoyed; the Church was soon swamped with candidates for ordination, and cities complained of losses in revenue and senators; in the end Constantine was compelled to rule that no man eligible for municipal position should be admitted to the priesthood. The imperial police pursued fugitives from political honors—as it hunted evaders of taxes or conscription; it brought them back to the cities and forced them to serve; finally it decreed that a son must inherit the social status of his father, and must accept election if eligible to it by his rank. A serfdom of office rounded out the prison of economic caste.

    Gallienus, fearing a revolt of the Senate, excluded senators from the army. As martial material no longer grew in Italy, this decree completed the military decline of the peninsula. The rise of provincial and mercenary armies, the overthrow of the Praetorian Guard by Septimius Severus, the emergence of provincial generals, and their capture of the imperial throne, destroyed the leadership, even the independence, of Italy long before the fall of the Empire in the West. The armies of Rome were no longer Roman armies; they were composed chiefly of provincials, largely of barbarians; they fought not for their altars and their homes, but for their wages, their donatives, and their loot. They attacked and plundered the cities of the Empire with more relish than they showed in facing the enemy; most of them were the sons of peasants who hated the rich and the cities as exploiters of the poor and the countryside; and as civil strife provided opportunity, they sacked such towns with a thoroughness that left little for alien barbarism to destroy. When military problems became more important than internal affairs, cities near the frontiers were made the seats of government; Rome became a theater for triumphs, a show place of imperial architecture, a museum of political antiquities and forms. The multiplication of capitals and the division of power broke down the unity of administration. The Empire, grown too vast for its statesmen to rule or its armies to defend, began to disintegrate. Left to protect themselves unaided against the Germans and the Scots, Gaul and Britain chose their own imperatores, and made them sovereign; Palmyra seceded under Zenobia, and soon Spain and Africa would yield almost unresisting to barbarian conquest. In the reign of Gallienus thirty generals governed thirty regions of the Empire in practical independence of the central power. In this awful drama of a great state breaking into pieces, the internal causes were the unseen protagonists; the invading barbarians merely entered where weakness had opened the door, and where the failure of biological, moral, economic, and political statesmanship had left the stage to chaos, despondency, and decay.

    Externally the fall of the Western Roman Empire was hastened by the expansion and migration of the Xiongnu, or Huns, in northwestern Asia. Defeated in their eastward advance by Chinese armies and the Chinese Wall, they turned westward, and about the year 355 reached the Volga and the Oxus. Their pressure forced the Sarmatians of Russia to move into the Balkans; the Goths, so harassed, moved again upon the Roman frontiers. They were admitted across the Danube to settle in Moesia (376); maltreated there by Roman officials, they revolted, defeated a large Roman army at Adrianople (378), and for a time threatened Constantinople. In 400 Alaric led the Visigoths over the Alps into Italy, and in 410 they took and sacked Rome. In 429 Gaiseric led the Vandals to the conquest of Spain and Africa, and in 455 they took and sacked Rome. In 451 Attila led the Huns in an attack upon Gaul and Italy; he was defeated at Châlons, but overran Lombardy. In 472 a Pannonian general, Orestes, made his son emperor under the name of Romulus Augustulus. Four years later the barbarian mercenaries who dominated the Roman army deposed this “little Augustus,” and named their leader Odoacer king of Italy. Odoacer recognized the supremacy of the Roman emperor at Constantinople, and was accepted by him as a vassal king. The Roman Empire in the East would go on until 1453; in the West it had come to an end.

* Q.v. Ernest Renan, Marc Aurèle, Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1894, 589; Ferrero, Guglielmo, The Ruin of Ancient Civilization, N. Y.: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1921, 7, 74; White, E. L, Why Rome Fell, N. Y.: Harper & Bros., 1927, passim.