Causes of the Decline

V. Causes of the Decline

In the third century the solid prosperity which the Roman Empire had enjoyed since the commencement of the Christian era came to an end. In the ensuing period of decline the western half of the Empire in particular underwent a transformation, and by A.D. 455 it was entering upon that chrysalis stage of its existence which is known as the Dark Ages.

This decline, as is now generally agreed, was not due to any one overwhelming force, but to a multipicity of causes. But among these factors we must endeavour to single out those which contributed most to the process of decay. There is at present a tendency to emphasise various physical agencies which may have been working silently under the surface of Roman society. A question well worth considering is whether the territories of the Roman Empire were suffering from a progressive exhaustion of the soil. There is reason for suspecting that ancient agricultural processes had the effect of slowly killing the land under crops and plantations, and there is actual evidence that increasing areas were being left derelict from the third century onward. But as yet it is impossible to determine whether exhaustion of the land was more than a local phenomenon, and the depopulation of the countryside may be explained by causes of a local rather than a physical order.

Another line of research supposes a serious physical deterioration of the Mediterrean races. One old-standing explanation of the decline of the Roman Empire finds its main cause in the loose manner of life of its inhabitants, and points by way of proof to the extravagances of society in Rome itself. But we have seen that the escapades of the idle rich in the capital are no criterion of the general morality of the Empire: there is no evidence here of a decline sufficient to account for wholesale physical decay. A more recent hypothesis declares that the decline was due to the spread of malaria in the Mediterrean lands. Of the existence of malaria in antiquity there can be no reasonable doubt, for Greek and Roman writers have described its symptoms unmistakably. But in this instance again we are dealing with a factor of merely local importance. At the present time malaria is only endemic in a few small areas of the Mediterrean region, and shows no signs of spreading. There is no reason for thinking that the particular mosquito which is the sole carrier of the disease had a wider range in ancient times than today, and we cannot argue from its occurrence in certain marshy districts, such as the Tiber mouth, to its prevalence all over Italy, Spain, and Gaul.

A more adequate explanation, if correct in point of fact, could be found in the alleged deterioration of the stocks in the Roman Empire by dysgenic breeding. In view of the undoubtedly considerable intermixture of ancient races which resulted from war, slavery, and commerce, such deterioration might have been on a scale sufficient to make history. The difficulty here is to distinguish the superior stocks from the inferior. Attempts have been made to play off Nordic against southerners, or Westerners against Orientals. But if a sufficiently wide survey of the history of Europe and the Nearer East be taken, it at once appears that their human store more uniform than diverse, that all of it was eminently civilisable, and yet liable to relapse into barbarism; and nothing in the known facts of ancient history enables us to pick out a hero and a villain to the piece. If racial deterioration took place at all, a better explanation may perhaps be found in the dysgenic effects of warfare, especially of the systematic and highly organised fighting which makes up so large a part of Roman history. So much at any rate is certain, that the conquering peoples of ancient history commonly ended by losing their military aptitudes, and the Italians, as we have already noticed, are no exception to this rule. This disappearance of soldiery qualities among the leading peoples of the Roman Empire would help to explain the loss of enterprise and of resourcefulness which characterises them in the days of the decline. But it is difficult to give actual proof of over-killing, or to trace out in detail the dysgenic effects of such a process. To sum up, the physical factors in the decline of the Roman Empire have not yet been proved to be of such exclusive importance as to dispense us from considering other causes of decay.

Among the various social influences which may have acted adversely upon the Roman Empire, its educational system calls for a passing notice. In its higher stages, at any rate, this was too narrowly literary and bookish. It unduly neglected both natural and social science, and it merited the reproach which one ancient critic directed at it: “Our studies are for scholarship, not for life.” But its sins of omission concerned only a small class and can hardly have had a far-reaching effect. The educational influence of Christianity has also been blamed, because of its anti-social teachings. The Christians, it is argued, ignored or opposed the Roman state authorities, and by their refusal of service in the army and in the civil administration seriously weakened the government. This accusation, if true, would be important, for in the third and fourth centuries the Church was permeating the West no less than the East, and its power for good or harm had by then grown considerable. But the anti-social tendency of early Christianity has been much exaggerated, The opposition of the Church to the emperors was but a passing phase: long before the Empire broke up the Christians had become reconciled with their former persecutors and had entered the imperial services in large numbers. It is equally mistaken to speak of the early Christians as being an obscurantist force. No doubt they shared in the general intellectual decline which marks the later days of the Roman Empire, but in no greater degree than others. The organisation of the early Church, which was the only notable piece of constructive statesmanship in the early centuries A.D., is clear proof that it contained its full share of the Roman Empire’s remaining “intelligentsia.”

The detrimental influence of slavery may be set down as a more serious factor. Its tendency to weaken self-reliance and to kill scientific inventiveness has been thoroughly proved in modern times, and no doubt also holds true of antiquity. In addition, as we have seen, it had the effect of keeping the labouring classes, both servile and free, too near the level of mere subsistence. But the economic hardships of these classes did not, at any rate, constitute such a direct menace to social order as has sometimes happened in modern societies. The Roman government was fully able to cope with manifestations of discontent on the part of the proletariat. In the republican period slave revolts had not been uncommon, but they had been crushed so effectively that under the emperors they did not recur on any serious scale. In the third and later centuries A.D. rebellions by serfs on the countryside of Gaul and Spain occasionally gave trouble, but do not appear to have been frequent incidents. The free labouring population in the towns sometimes took part in a riot, but in general it lacked the spirit of revolt, and was readily appeased by the government’s generosity in the matter of doles and public amusements. It has been recently suggested that the insubordination of the later Roman armies, to which we shall have to refer presently, was in reality a manifestation of class-hatred on the part of the peasantry, from whom the soldiers was largely recruited, against the wealthy bourgeoisie. but the existence of any such class-feeling within the Roman army cannot be proved: on the other hand, its prevailing sentiment was an extremely strong espirit-de-corps and professional pride, and the resentment of the troops, so far as it showed itself in acts of vengeance, was directed against their personal superiors, the emperors and other high officers, rather than against any social group.

Whatever value be attached to causes of another kind, it is clear that the political condition of the Empire had something to do with its decline. In Chapter II. It was suggested that the Roman Empire would have gained in strength if, say, from the second century onward its government had been Progressively decentralised. In point of fact, its movement was in the opposite direction: the absolutism of the administration grew more rigid, and the capacity of the subjects for self-help was further undermined. This inertia of the “home front” certainly aggravated the troubles of the Roman emperors during the critical wars of the third and later centuries, and it helps to explain how German kings came to rule, as it were, by default where the Roman system had broken down. But it does not account for the initial failure of the Roman Government. This failure must have been due to some weakness within its own organisation.

The weakness did not lie in the personalities of the emperors. Among the later as among the earliest rulers there were occasional wantons and weaklings: Caligula, Nero and Commodus in the first two centuries A. D. are balanced by Maxentius, Honorius and Valentinian III, in the fourth and fifth. But it is at least as true of the later emperors as of the earlier that they were for the most part serious-minded men with a real capacity for leadership; for sheer energy, Dioclectian, Constantine, and Valentinian I, may compare Hadrian and Septimius Severus, while Aurelian stands unsurpassed in the list of Roman rulers. The only serious charge that can be brought against them is that they resorted to temporary palliatives where a radical cure was called for. But if they did not prevent the break up of the Empire, they are more to be pitied than blamed for their failure.

A more serious reproach may be cast upon the imperial executive. We shall see in Chapter VII, that this body, which in the first two centuries A.D. had greatly contributed to the consolidation of the Roman Empire, subsequently prepared in equal measure for its dissolution. From being strictly responsible for its administration, it became in effect more absolute than the emperors themselves, and by systematic abuse of its untrammelled power dissipated the fund of loyalty which previous centuries of good rule had built up among the subjects. In an age when the capacity for self-government was dying out, it was all the more essential that loyalty to the rulers should be fostered and preserved; when it was replaced by disaffection, or at least indifference, the Roman Empire truly became a colossus on feet of clay.

But even a clay-footed giant may stand firm so long as he does not receive a push. Who was it then that first jerked him off his balance? The initial impelling force came from the Roman army, which from one point of view was the saviour of the Roman Empire, and from another was its destroyer. We have already seen that in the last century B. C. the army allowed itself to be used as an instrument of political rivalries, and thus extinguished the republican government. Under Augustus the soldiers settled down again to their proper duty of frontier defence, and for over two centuries they were generally to be found at their posts. But the tradition of interference in politics, once established, was never quite forgotten. A presage of future trouble was offered in A.D. 37, in 41, and again in 54, when the “praetorii” or household troops quartered at the gates of Rome took an active part in proclaiming three new emperors (Caligula, Claudius, and Nero), in each case putting pressure on the Senate to ratify their own choice of a candidate. this kind of electioneering did no more immediate harm than the similar intrusions of the Janissaries into Turkish, or of the Mamelukes into Egyptian politics; but the making and unmaking of emperors was a game that more than one could play at. Presently the troops on the frontiers discovered “that emperors could be set up at other places than at Rome.” In A.D. 69-69, after the deposition of Nero by his own guards, a round of civil wars was fought, in which the army of the Rhine defeated the praetorii and in turn succumbed to a force from the Danube sector. For the time being, it is true, the fire burnt itself out, and a similar bout in A.D. 193, in which the guards and the armies of the Danube, of Syria, and of Britain took part, had a sudden similar ending. But in A.D. 235 the soldiers, as it were, established revolution in permanence. Having murdered a capable but not sufficiently masterful emperor, Alexander Severus, they kept on for fifty years at a game of political ninepins. Within this period no less then twenty-five emperors were hurried on and off the scene. With hardly an exception they were military officers who rose up, or raised up by their troops, as pretenders, and after a brief and uneasy reign were killed by some other pretender or by their own doubly faithless soldiery. After A.D. 284, with the accession of Diocletian, the orgy of emperor-making at last came to an end; but the fourth and fifth centuries witnessed several fresh outbreaks, and in the meantime the mischief had been done. The soldiers, intent on their political objects, had left the frontiers wide open. Enemies poured in on several sides and were defeated, only to come back. From this time onward the Empire stood under continual siege, and the western portion of it eventually gave way under the strain. The Roman army, therefore, may be regarded as the effective proximate cause of the age of insecurity and decline that set in about A.D. 235.