By Gerhard Rempel
"If," writes Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, " a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world when the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus"-- that is, the period from 98 to 180 AD.
Yet in the next century the Roman empire crumbled. There were civil wars between 180 and 285 AD. Of twenty-seven emperors or would-be emperors all but two met violent deaths. Meanwhile, the Persians raided to Antioch in the East and in Europe the barbarians broke through the frontiers. Huge tracts of country were devastated. The middle-class was squeezed out of existence. Farmers and laborers were transformed into serfs. When in 285 AD Diocletion pulled the empire together again, there was but little left of the prosperity of the Pax Romana.
It seems clear, then, that the causes of the collapse must, like hidden cancers, have been developing during Gibbon's period of happiness and prosperity. Some of the symptoms, at least, can be recognized. To take one example, in the first century of the empire there had still been a vigorous literature. But in the second century AD from Hadrian onward, apart from Suetonius' Biographies of the Emperors, the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, and the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, Latin literature is overcome by a sort of indolent apathy. The same apathy began to exhibit itself in municipal life. Financial burdens which were imposed on the local magistrates and senators. By the second century many cities had spent themselves into debt.
There was the cost of repairing and maintaining the temples, public baths, and the like. There were also heavy expenditures for civic sacrifices, religious processions, feasts and for the games necessary to amuse the proletariat. The wealthy citizens of the municipalities who were, in effect, the middle-class, began to grow weary of the load: especially since the constantly rising taxation rates were shearing them closer and closer. Furthermore, they were expected to help their communities out of debt by voluntary loans. By the middle of the second century, there were cases where compulsion had to be used to fill the local magistracies. There were other cases, beginning with Hadrian, where, when municipalities got into financial difficulties, imperial curators were put in change and the cities lost their independence. The people did not seem to mind. As often happens today, they were quite willing to resign their control of affairs and to let the government take care of them.
This extension of paternalism was accompanied by a tremendous increase in the personnel of the imperial civil service. Each bureau expanded its field and new bureaus were constantly being created. By the time of Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161 AD, the Roman bureaucracy was as all-embracing as that of modern times. Naturally, too, as benevolent paternalism and bureaucracy took over, personal freedom tended to disappear. By the third century, to quote the historian Trever, "the relentless system of taxation, requisition, and compulsory labor was administered by an army of military bureaucrats. . . .Everywhere . . .were the ubiquitous personal agents of the emperors to spy out any remotest case of attempted strikes or evasion of taxes." To the cost of the bureaucracy was added the expense of the dole.
Originally, this was passed out once a month. By the time of Marcus Aurelius, there was a daily distribution of pork, oil, and bread to the proletariat. Meanwhile, the expenditure on the public spectacles kept mounting. A hundred million dollars a year is a moderate estimate of what was poured out on the games. There was likewise an attempt to combine subsidy to Italian farmers with charity to needy children. This was called the alimenta and was instituted by Nerva, who reigned from 96 to 98 AD. His system was to lend money at five per cent instead of twelve per cent to farmers with the proviso that the interest should be used to support needy children. Boys received seventy cents a day, girls sixty. And then there was the army. The army was essential to the security of the empire. The cost of it, though, more than doubled between 96 and 180 AD.
All these expenditures had to be recovered from the taxpayer. To compound the difficulties, there was an adverse balance of trade. Roman currency, for example, poured into India and the East to pay for luxuries. Even in the time of Nero, Seneca estimated that it cost Rome five million dollars a year to import its luxuries from the East. In a word, though seemingly prosperous, in the second century AD the Roman empire was overspending to such an extent that it was moving to an economic crisis. When in 167 AD Marcus Aurelius was faced by the attack of the Germanic Marcomanni and Quadi, he was forced to sell, is it were, the crown jewels as well as the household furnishing of his palace to finance the war.
To add to his troubles a plague, brought back from the East, was ravaging the empire. By 180 AD at least one-fourth of the population of the whole empire, both civilian and military, had perished. In any estimate of the reasons for the decline of Rome, the moral and physical effects of this plague and the later one (252-267 AD), ought not to be omitted. Thus, the seemingly happy world of Gibbon's day was sleepwalking its way to catastrophe. The plague contributed to the decline. But, even before the plague, the Roman world was rotting from within.
Government paternalism, bureaucracy, inflation, an ever-increasing taste for the brutal and brutalizing spectacles of the amphitheater and the circus were symptoms of spiritual malaise which had begun when political freedom was tossed away in the interests of peace, security, and materialism. There was the cancer of slavery and the equally dangerous practice of keeping a segment of the population permanently on the dole. There was free labor subsisting on starvation wages because of the competition of slavery. At the other end of the scale lolled a group of multi-millionaires for whom no luxury was too extravagant. Nor did anyone perceive that inflation and rising taxation must ultimately squeeze the middle class out of being. Meanwhile, a tide of Oriental religions tried to fill the spiritual vacuum.
A sense of futility seemed to permeate society. There were many outstanding administrators and good governors but, on the whole, the Roman spirit which had conquered the world seemed to have dissolved into an indolence which preferred ease and comfort to a facing up to the dangers which threatened civilization. Some authors suggest that the change in racial stock was responsible for this attitude. Others mention the plague and malaria as possible causes. One might better, perhaps, simply call it the disease of materialism or, if you like, of the "affluent society" .
In any case, few Romans or Italians now served in the legions. Beginning with Hadrian, the army was decentralized, immobilized, and, if one may invent a word, foreignized. It was Hadrian who built the great wall in Britain from the Tyne to the Solway. He also constructed a three-hundred-and-forty-mile-long palisade of spit oak logs, nine feet high, along the frontier in Germany and Rhaetia. Behind this palisade were forts of earthworks which his successor replaced with stone. Behind this Maginot Line, if one may be permitted an anachronism, and elsewhere in the empire, each legion was settled in a permanent camp. This camp often became a town such as Lambaesis in Africa or Carnutum in Austria. Moreover, Hadrian also began the policy of filling up the army with provincials from the area to be defended and of allowing the Germans to settle in the Danubian provinces, provided they served in the auxiliary troops when called upon.
Thus by the time of Marcus Aurelius the army was composed either of ignorant countrymen from the most backward parts of the empire or of foreigners. In spirit and in culture they were peasant wolves with little, if any, respect for the fat sheep they were supposed to protect. This divorce between barbarized army and civilized but soft civilians was the immediate cause of the collapse. The apathetic Romans soon reaped the whirlwind they had sown. When in 191 AD Commodus, the brutal son of the Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was assassinated, a man named Pertinax put on the purple. He promised large gifts to the legions and to the praetorians, those soldiers who from their camp just outside Rome dominated the city. When he tried to enforce discipline, he in turn was murdered. The praetorians then sold the throne to Julius Julianus for a bribe of $1,200 per soldier. But the legions promptly put forward three other candidates. After three years of civil war Septimius Severus emerged as the victor. He ruled harshly but capably until 211 AD and had the good luck to die in bed in Britain. You can see his triumphal arch today in the Roman Forum. But the army now knew its power. During the next twenty-four years, four Caesars ruled and four Caesars were assassinated.
Then in 235 AD, the legions raised the first barbarian to the purple. This man, Maximinus, was a Thracian peasant of mixed Gothic and Alan descent who had begun his career as a common soldier. According to the legends about him, he was eight-and a-half feet tall, could crumble stones in his hands and break a horse's leg with a kick of his heel, and each day ate forty Pounds of meat and drank nearly eight gallons of wine.
Maximinus never even visited Rome. His three years of rule were a reign of terror. After him followed fifty years of military anarchy. During that half-century twenty-six Caesars in all donned the purple and only one died peacefully in bed. Almost all of them were first the nominees and then the victims of the soldiers. In one year, 259 AD, there were eighteen pretenders to the throne. Sections of the empire seceded, as, for example, Gaul, in which Postumus, and after him Albinus, held power for fifteen years with Britain and Spain as tributary provinces.
As if the civil wars were not enough to fill full the cup of woe, in the East the second Persian empire raided as far as Antioch and took the Emperor Valerian prisoner. The situation in Europe was even worse. Here, the Germans burst through the barrier of the Rhine and the Danube. In 257 AD the Goths overran Dacia, crossed the Danube, and penetrated into Greece. In 269 the Heruli and the Goths, in their biggest invasion, crossed the Danube with their families, 320,000 strong, and sailed with 2,000 ships into the Mediterranean. Fortunately for Rome the Emperor Claudius cut to pieces both their fleet and their army. Further west another German tribe, the Marcomanni, had already in 254 penetrated Italy as far as Ravenna. A few years later the Alamanni got as far as Milan. Meanwhile, in 256 and 258, the Franks and allied tribes wept across the Rhine and ravaged the whole country as far as Tarragona in Spain. Still farther west the Saxons were sailing against Britain.
To pile disaster on destruction, from about 252 AD the second plague, which has already been mentioned, devastated the Roman world for fifteen years. Alexandria lost two-thirds of its population and in Rome, at the peak of it, five thousand died each day. The Emperor Aurelian did something to check the complete disintegration of the empire. In addition to capturing some enemies in the East he brought back Gaul, Britain and Spain into the empire. But it was he who abandoned Dacia and built around Rome the great wall, twelve feet thick and twenty high, of which you can still see large sections in the imperial city. But Aurelian was assassinated, and so there was another period of chaos until in 285 AD the Illyrian, Diocletion, gained control.
Such is a brief sketch of the ordeal through which the Roman world passed in the one hundred and five years from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the accession of Diocletion. Mere words can scarcely convey the agony through which the inhabitants of that world passed. There was murder, rape, and pillage. What the soldiers or the barbarians spared, the agents of the emperors took for taxes. The old bureaucracy of senators and knights was pretty well exterminated. In its place came a military hegemony of soldiers who had risen from the ranks. Both the army, which now included many barbarians, and the senate were equalized and, in consequence, barbarized. It was the members of the military who formed the new landed aristocracy. The middle-class and labor had both become serfs of the state. Increasing taxation and paternalism meant, inevitably, regimentation.
Such was the situation when in 285 AD Diocletion took charge. He drove back the barbarians and reconstituted the empire. but it was a new type of Roman empire, one which was ruled by an Oriental despotism. No one could approach Diocletion without prostrating himself on the ground and kissing the hem of his garment. Furthermore, he appointed three other caesars and divided the empire prefectures. His own capital was not at Rome but at Nicomedia in Asia Minor. The army was reformed and enlarged; and was composed chiefly of Germans and Sarmations or else of the sons of veterans. A mobile force of infantry was supplemented by a powerful cavalry. For the foot-soldiers of the legions could no longer be trained in the old Roman way.
But there was no escape from the relentless regimentation which pervaded all aspects of life. For regimentation was the end-result of the abdication of political freedom and of the pursuit of materialism. The welfare state had become a despotism. This new and dreary type of empire still possessed sufficient power to hold the frontiers against the barbarians for another century.
In 324 AD Constantine the Great won the purple under the sign of the Cross. Hence came an edict of toleration for Christianity. But the despotism was tightened rather than eased; and it is an interesting note on the morals of the age that within three years of his championship of orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine put a nephew to death, drowned his wife in a bath, and murdered a son. Constantine put his capital in Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. Thus Rome was now no longer the center of the empire.
Finally, in 395 AD, the former Roman world was formally divided into an Empire of the East and an Empire of the West. The eastern empire survived until the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 AD. In the west, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Franks, and Huns burst over the frontiers and the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons planted themselves in Britain. In 410 AD Alaric and his Goths sacked Rome. Then, in 476 AD, the last of the Caesars, Romulus Augustulus, was dethroned. The Germanic kingdoms took the place of the Imperium Romanum.
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