The Decline of Material Welfare

VIII. The Decline of Material Welfare

In the first two centuries A.D. the general level of prosperity in Western Europe stood higher than ever before. But this material welfare did not rest, like that of modern times, on geographic discoveries or on scientific inventions; it was chiefly due to a political and military factor, the “pax Romana.” The Germanic invasions therefore could not fail to have a disastrous effect on economic conditions; not only did they entail destruction of property, but they dispelled the sense of security which had been the mainspring of economic activity.

Not that the invasions were the sole cause of impovererishment. The Roman Government contributed to the result by mistakes in finance. To the long-standing abuse of indiscriminate doles to the Roman proletariat they added other unnecessary drains upon the public purse, Oriental pomp at their court, an overgrown executive with an inflated salary roll, frequent payments of blackmail to mutinous troops or to greedy neighbours across the frontier. They aggravated the burden of increasing imposts by faulty administration. Under the Republic and the early emperors taxation was fairly well distributed between each economic group, it was levied at regular intervals, and it was paid almost wholly in money. Under the later emperors a new method of assessment gave an advantage to the owners of large undercropped domains over the smaller proprietors who practised intensive cultivation. For lack of sufficient cash reserves, or of an adequate system of raising loans, the government could only meet sudden calls for increased expenditure by heavy excess imposts, which were in effect a raid upon working capital. To save themselves trouble, officials fell back upon requisitions in kind and the conscription of labour, which in the nature of things could not be assessed equably. Lastly, the emperors of the third century produced economic chaos by a rapid depreciation of their gold and silver coinage. Under the Republic Roman money had almost always been honest, and in the first two centuries A.D. nothing worse had happened then occasional slight reductions of weight which did not impair public confidence. But about A.D. 250 the deterioration in the weight and quality of the coins was so sharp as to produce many of the effects which inflaton by paper  issues has recently caused in Europe. Prices rose by leaps and bounds, and the mechanism of exchange was so far thrown out of gear that a makeshift system of payment in kind had to be improvised. Under Diocletian and Constantine the currency was again stabilised, and to Diocletian was due one belated reform, by which Italy lost its no longer justifiable immunity from direct taxation. But even so taxation remained on balance heavier and more vexatious than under the earlier emperors. Moreover, the taxpayers were being forced to pay all manner of illegal exactions over and above the authorised impositions. The complaints against fiscal rapacity which now filled the air were amply justified: the administration was eating away reserves and retarding fresh production.

Among the symptoms of economic decline decreased cultivation of the land was for a time at least the most alarming. There is evidence of land left derelict, not only in the war zones, but even in such sheltered and fertile districts as Campania (near Naples). But it is probable that much of the damage to agriculture was not permanent. The Germanic invaders, having discovered that by indiscriminate devastation they endangered their own food supplies, devised orderly schemes of requisition, and eventually settled down on the conquered land as cultivators. It is doubtful therefore whether in the long run food production was seriously diminished. The principal agrarian change under the later Roman emperors probably lay in a new distribution of ownership. The smaller proprietors, who were hardest hit both by the German and by the official Roman plunderers, found themselves reduced to becoming tenants under the wealthier landlords, who had means to tide over a crisis and were ever ready to buy up their less fortunate neighbours. this process of concentration was indeed partly counteracted by the formation of new allotments which the government made to its soldiers, both to the regulars and to the German auxiliaries. Yet under the later emperors the typical agricultural unit was an estate embracing a few thousand acres, whose proprietor lived in affluence amid the general poverty and exercised a quasi-official power over his tenants. The authority of the landlords was further strengthened by a series of imperial enactments of the third and fourth centuries, by which their free labourers were tied down to the soil. The steps by which the free tenants were converted into serfs are not yet wholly clear, but it appears that the landlords carried their point by a chain of gradual encroachments on the tenants’ rights, thus presenting the government with an accomplished fact which the latter somewhat weakly sanctioned with ex post facto legislation. In any case, the ultimate relations of landlord and tenant on the large estates bore a strong resemblance – shall we say the likeness of father to son? – to those which obtained on medieval manors.

The economic effect of faulty finance and foreign invasions asserted itself in a more permanent form upon the craftsmen and traders. The loss occasioned by the German inroads resulted not merely from their direct damage, but more especially from the reversion to a more self-contained economy which the growing insecurity of intercourse imposed upon Western Europe. Where each town and each large estate separated off into an isolated unit, little scope was left for that wholesale long-distance trade in articles of everyday use which had been the distinguishing feature of previous centuries. This change of habits involved a decay of craftsmenship which is one of the most conspicuous marks of the third and subsequent centuries. A partial exception to this rule is furnished by the building industry, which still benefited by imperial patronage. The baths of Diocletian at Rome, his palace at Spalato, and the remarkable group of mausoleums and churches which the last Roman and the first Gothic rulers of Italy set up at Ravenna, are visible remains of surviving skill in architectural craft. But the specimens of industrial art from the third and later centuries are significantly few and poor. The decline of industry and commerce is also illustrated by the growing scarcity of enterprise and skilled labour, which threatened even the essential crafts and trades with extinction. To maintain the supply of weapons and uniform for the army, the emperors had to establish state armouries and textile factories. To avert famine at Rome, they bound down the members of the bakers’ and shippers’ gilds to remain at their existing occupations and to apprentice their sons to the same callings. It is not known how far this serfdom was extended to other industries and trades; but its imposition on such a comparatively elementary business as baking suggests a really desperate shortage of trained labour.

On the other side of the account it may be claimed that an actual improvement in economic conditions was brought about by the concomitant decay of slavery, which became a luxury beyond the reach of most. It may also be contended that the labouring class, which had not obtained its fair share of the previous prosperity, had little to lose in the general impoverishment. But a society which had lost its skilled craftsmen and its enterprising bourgoeisie, and retained little else but large landlords and their serfs, could not maintain the standard of wealth or the freedom of intercourse which are essential to a high civilisation. On economic grounds alone, to mention no others, Western Europe was bound to relapse into a Dark Age.