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Chapter XXX

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Rome
Tenney Frank

published by
Henry Holt and Company
New York 1923

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter XXXII

 p565  Chapter XXXI

The Causes of Rome's Decline

Ever since the "decline and fall" of Rome, the only "world-empire" that European history has known, men have tried to explain the disaster. Statesmen have sought the answer in Rome's political structure, moralists in the behavior of her people, economists in "soil exhaustion," in the failure of the currency system, and the like. We must admit that a definite and adequate answer will never be attainable: the political, psychological, and economic sciences to which we go for data are at best descriptive. They can tell us how men and states have behaved, but they cannot lay down invariable laws of cause and effect in any field where the human mind operates. In the few paragraphs that follow we can only state probabilities that occur to those who have carefully observed the behavior of states and nations. And we need hardly refer to the final crash in the fifth century when the barbarians broke over all the frontiers and took possession of the empire, for Roman culture had ceased to be a vital force long before that date.

Political causes of the decline were serious and were inherent even in the behavior of the old Republic. The republican statesmen, like those of practically all modern states, too often let themselves be enticed beyond the point of prudence by the acquisitive instinct. Dew had the courage of Cato and Scipio Nasica to point out the dangers of expansion. This is not saying that Rome was wilfully aggressive. Rather, like England and America, Rome fought out her wars, however they arose, with a dogged persistence till she won, and then, following natural human  p566 instincts, she usually incorporated what lay at her disposal, not always estimating the far off consequence of her acts upon future generations. Rome grew far too rapidly, and far beyond her power to assimilate. The first evil consequence was that she had to hold her subjects with standing armies which soon dominated the government and which finally had to be so large that they sapped her strength. If Rome had been given the wisdom — which no government seems as yet to have acquired — of refusing proffered gain, if, for instance, she had resisted the temptation of touching Asia, she might have slowly built up a sound western state with easily protected frontiers, and have assimilated and educated its people without the use of dangerously large standing armies.

Closely connected with the political question is the "racial" one. We know as yet so little about race and racial inheritance that extreme caution is necessary in attempting to estimate this factor. Furthermore ease of communication has now so thoroughly mixed peoples of different parts of Europe that "pure races" hardly exist from which to draw safe illustrations. Yet biological study, advancing upon the work of Mendel, seems to have gone so far as to show that the historical theories of the 19th century, based upon Buckle's doctrine of environmental influences, were unsafe, and that in the future history must take into more generous account the mental and physical inheritance of the individuals that constitute a nation. The emphasis on racial inheritance is the more important in ancient history because the European folk groups of 3000 years ago were generally more homogeneous than those of to‑day, for the reason that the migrating Indo-European hordes were landseekers who dispelled and scattered rather than assimilated the non‑landholding savages which they found. This seems in general true of the early Latin, Celtic, and Germanic migrants.

Race-mixture may produce good results, but it has also  p567 been established that in the mixture of two excellent stocks of widely differing qualities an unstable fusion often results which perpetuates the poorer qualities of both. Applying this consideration to Rome, if we find that the Latin stock advanced consistently along certain lines so long as it was fairly unmixed, and that it gradually declined from about the time that racial fusion was marked, we may fairly attribute this new trend in some measure to the process of the "melting‑pot."

Even a hasty survey of the Republic is enough to show how the original peoples were wasted in wars and scattered in migration and colonization, and how their places were filled chiefly by Eastern slaves. As early as 130 B.C. Scipio Aemilianus reminded the voters of Rome, in words pardonably exaggerated, that he had led many of them as captives to Rome. The assimilation of the foreign element was so rapid that the son of Marcus Aurelius seems to be the last emperor of Rome who could claim untainted descent from Italian parentage. That calm temper of the old state-builders, their love for law and order, their persistence in liberal and equitable dealings, in patient and untiring effort, their deliberation in reaching decisions, their distrust of emotions and intuitions, their unswerving devotion to liberty, their loyalty to tradition and to the state are the things one expects to find so long as the old Roman families are the dominant element in the Republic. By contrast the people of the Empire seem subservient and listless, caloric and unsteady, soft of fiber, weak of will, mentally fatigued, wont to abandon the guidance of reason for a crepuscular mysticism. The change is so marked that it is impossible to speak of the "spirit of Rome" or the "culture of Rome," without defining whether the reference is to the Rome of 200 B.C. or of 200 A.D. History must take cognizance of this change, and in doing so it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the change is primarily due to the fact that the Romans partly gave way before and partly merged  p568 their inheritance in a new brood which came largely from Asia Minor and Syria. According to this view the decline of Rome had begun in the last decades of the Republic.

There were also deficiencies of an economic nature which contributed to the decline; though the importance of this factor has probably been over-rated in recent years owing to the tendency to project the phenomena of modern industrial states into ancient societies. The exhaustion of resources by undue taxation had created some havoc in the East even during the late Republic. But during the first two centuries of the Empire taxation was fair, and the East recovered till it was more prosperous financially than it had ever been. Distressing taxes were again imposed only after Caracalla's day when they doubtless helped choke an Empire already expiring.

The same may be said of the general industrial breakdown. The provincial industries had actually benefitted much by the roads built and the sea routes safe-guarded by the imperial government up to the time of Alexander Severus. The chaos in industry that came during the army contests thereafter were consequences rather than causes of the general demoralization.

Deficiency in currency has frequently been blamed on the basis of a statement in Pliny that more gold flowed out of the realm than could be recovered in the exhausted mines. But the fact that even Diocletian could issue gold, silver, and copper at nearly the old ratios, and that Constantine could establish a fairly good gold and silver currency would seem to indicate that all these metals sufficed for the industry of that day. Perhaps there would not have been enough for a vigorous expansion of capitalistic business, but Oriental industry, which had also invaded the West, was never fond of capitalistic methods. It had always shown a tendency to cling to the individual shop. And such large-scale industry as Italy had seems to have suffered from the havoc of the wars during the third century  p569 as much as from financial stringency. The greatest harm that resulted from an inadequate currency system came doubtless to invested capital and credits because of the rapid debasement of coins during the third century. Yet even this need not have been fatal, given a sound and industrious people. The Romans after all did not lose as much through debasement of their currency in 200 years as Germany lost in three years after the Great War. In fact it would be difficult to prove that an inadequacy of precious metals in a world-state need greatly hinder business if the deficiency makes itself felt gradually. Rome had from time to time used a gold-silver mixture called electron,º and a silver-bronze alloy and might have done so again if gold and silver did not suffice in quantity. It was not so much the failure of gold, as the failure of a listless and deteriorating government adequately to manipulate the metals it possessed.

Distinguished economists have also attributed Rome's decline to lack of labor when cheap slaves ceased to come by way of warfare. In point of fact slavery began to be discouraged even before slaves ceased to come; and the raising of slave children would have been continued if it had been profitable, as it continued, for instance, in our South after importation of slaves was forbidden. In Cicero's day landowners had for economic reasons begun to farm estates through coloni, and they even found it profitable to free their slaves and use them rather as freedmen tenants. In the period of greatest financial stress, that is, all through the third and fourth centuries A.D., the state was not so much concerned in finding more laborers — captives were seldom enslaved though hundreds of thousands were taken — but rather in forcing idle guild members to remain in their guilds even when they had not enough work to occupy their time. Industry seems not to have declined for want of a laboring-class.

Other historians have been wont to attribute Rome's  p570 decline to "exhaustion of the soil," and it is correct to consider this as one factor. That it was a serious item is, however, difficult to prove. The temporary exhaustion of the soil of Latium in the fourth and third centuries B.C. has been noticed above. But it has also been pointed out that the soil of the volcanic littoral of Italy recovers with relative speed under careful rotation of crops and grazing such as the farmers of the Republic practised. Sicily at first bore the burden of cereal culture while this readjustment was in process. When Sicily was overworked Italy was again able to take care of itself with the aid of the rich Po valley. Then, in the early Empire, the province of Africa produced much grain, until in the second century A.D. when its thin soil was exhausted by intensive culture under irrigation. By that time Egypt, which could not readily be worn out so long as the Nile overflowed its banks, was turning to cereal culture, and Gaul was far from being exhausted.

There were, then, regions that had been worked till they had to be given a rest. Indeed there are several references in the Greek authors of the Empire to large and small districts which were nearly depopulated though they had once supported many people. Such districts can be found in all of our Eastern states to‑day.º They are usually places which once had a rich but thin soil over sand or some unproductive kind of rock, and which even scientific cultivation cannot bring back to profitable cultivation. Furthermore we must also consider that in Italy the coloni on the state lands of the empire were shiftless farmers who cared little whether the soil, not their own, was properly manured. They doubtless mistreated the soil in a way that Cato and his neighbors would not have endured. Nevertheless there are no sufficient proofs that the land of the empire was not meeting fair demands. The prices of wheat, barley, oats and vegetables, as given in Diocletian's edict, show clearly that the products of the soil are moderate in price  p571 compared to many other commodities. In fact a study of modern agricultural conditions in Italy and France, in districts where for two thousand years agriculture has continued with almost the same methods that were used by the Romans, will show that it is incorrect to speak of permanent exhaustion of the soil. The Po valley with its very deep alluvium and the western half of Italy, for instance, have always quickly recovered from temporary exhaustion, and Roman commerce was in a condition to carry the surplus products of such places as well as of the rich fields of Gaul and Egypt to whatever point needed rest. At most one meets with temporary inconveniences, raising of prices in certain places, and here and there a temporary readjustment of crops. If Italy itself was not yielding what it might have done, this was partly due to the government's policy of overtaxing and of interfering with the colonate, partly to the fact that the new coloni were not as skilful or as conscientious in using manures, in planting legumes and clovers, and in judicious rotation of crops as the old farmers of Italy had been.

In a word, the economic factors to be considered in discussing the decline of the Roman empire, while numerous, do not seems to be the most vital ones. Most of them may be defined as symptoms of a general decay in the intelligence and vitality of the people then in possession of the government and its policies.

When we turn to moral and religious considerations, we are in the region of mists, and yet we have not the right to leave these influences out of account simply because we have no way of accurately estimating their importance. No notice need be taken of Nietzsche's assumption that the adoption of Christianity so softened the fiber of the people that it was rendered unfit to resist the barbarians. It is now clear that Rome was doomed long before the frontier line broke, and equally clear that after the state adopted Christianity, the Christians were fully as loyal in their efforts  p572 to protect the realm from invasion as were the pagans. Indeed the Christians, through their belief in divine aid and their respect for duty, seem to have developed a vigor and determination that might if anything have revitalized the Empire had not leader­ship totally failed.

The failure of Rome's own religious faith many centuries before might with more reason be considered as an item of some importance. Not that the old animism contained any ethical principles that aided directly in keeping up the morale of the people. But the old religion had at least encouraged a healthy propagation of a sound stock by insisting upon parent-worship and consequently upon the importance for every family of having children who would continue the cult of the parentalia.

The accumulation of wealth through conquests and foreign investments also affected the morale adversely, but here again the social sciences have failed to provide the historian with any reliable gauge. All we can say is that the leisure classes of Rome which are pictured in the pages of Ovid were by every standard we know a deleterious force and that the possession of wealth seems to have released them from mental as well as physical exercise. They devoted themselves to the attainments of creature comforts only, becoming parasites upon society. Men and women alike, pampered from youth, untrained to exert effort or endure pain, shrank from meeting the normal obligations of the family, society and state. After the Punic wars it seemed to be generally true that families which had acquired great wealth gave out in a very few generations. There are various reasons for this, but the generalization is at least justified that, whatever may be true of other civilizations, at Rome in the late Republic and during the Empire striking economic success occasioned social corruption and endangered the survival of the stock of its possessors.

The Romans of the Empire seem to have suffered from  p573 the lack of a stimulating philosophical atmosphere. The trend of thought was pessimistic, myopic, and unprogressive. Rome in fact when she reached the days of highest cultural possibilities fell on evil days so far as speculative thought was concerned. The conquests of the imagination, so stimulating in Plato's day, had ended abruptly and unexpectedly in general skepticism at about the time when the Romans were ready to speculate. It seemed that the world had been cheated by the lavish promises of philosophy. The sons of Roman senators dashed off to the philosophers of Athens and Rhodes to solve the riddle of the universe, and they came in time only to be told by Asiatic polymaths, who had assumed the philosophers' mantles, that metaphysics had been a mirage. There was nothing left but to get back to earth. Not to mention the doubting Academicians and the cynical skeptics, there were the Epicureans, basing hedonism on an incomplete science, and the Stoics, abandoning the search for truth for the satisfactions of a practical life. Education and philosophy were told to conform themselves to the needs of here and now, an attitude all too attractive to democratic society and guaranteed to put the intellect to sleep.

Finally the historian must put into the adverse scale the devastating consequences of slavery. The benefits which early civilizations drew from the institution by acquiring mental leisure for the few through the exploitation of the unfortunates were of course quickly offset by the evils inherent in the system. Economically, slavery retarded progress. Very cheap servile labor clogged industry by retaining in vogue an unprogressive household production and hindering the invention of labor-saving machinery. Socially, it destroyed the opportunities of citizens to make a fair living, and rise to positions where they might try out their capacity for larger service to society. A large class of futile "poor whites" is a direct consequence of slavery.  p574 Furthermore by associating every kind of labor, not only physical but mental as well, with servility, the institution degraded all trades and crafts, and finally even the arts, till citizens of respectability found themselves deprived by caste-customs of all normal exercise. This was not only a great economic waste, but a calamity to the national morale. But doubtless its worst evil was the ethnological one, which we have discussed above under the race question. Slaves displaced the citizens of a race that had made Rome what it was. And however clever, however efficient they might be as individuals, they were Romans neither in tradition nor in temper, and they were all too apt to carry a slave's ideals of conduct into the performance of their new offices as citizens.

If from these many causes of Rome's decline we must select the more potent ones, we should be inclined to name first Rome's rapid and ill‑considered expansion, the existence of slavery on a vast scale, and as an immediate consequence of these two, the thorough-going displacement of Romans by non‑Romans.

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