The Fall of the Roman Empire

-Michael Grant


This is a book that everyone should read.


The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a narrative history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (unlike Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell (aka The Fall of the West).  Instead, it is a look at the stresses and strains on the Roman Empire as it grew older and an analysis of the factors that eventually weakened it to the point it collapsed.  And, rereading the book, it is striking just how many of the factors that eventually destroyed Rome are present in modern-day society.  Indeed, while our advanced technology is a blessing, it also makes some of the factors worse.


The core problem facing the Roman Empire might be termed the drain on every last sector of society (and the consequent lack of willingness to fight to save the empire.)  The rich (and successful) were punished for their success by increased taxes and obligations, while the poor were increasingly forced into effective serfdom (or banditry) as the only way to keep themselves alive.  In the meantime, the middle classes - such as they were in the Roman Empire - were squeezed by both sides.  All three classes had good reasons to feel that they were being victimised. 


This had all sorts of effects that weakened the empire.  Powerful landowners became effective aristocratic lords in their own territories, kicking out the bureaucrats, army recruiting officers, etc.  Indeed, they had no choice.  But it also led to the rise of banditry and social drop-outs, people who chose to abandon society completely.  This may well have led to declining birth-rates. 


Worse, perhaps, the army was both victimiser and victimised.  On one hand, the vast growth in military power proved a constant temptation to officers to make themselves emperors.  The army’s demands grew beyond reason, draining more and more money from the state (and its taxpayers).  And yet, on the other hand, the ordinary soldiers were starved of money (stolen by corrupt officers) and supplies, something that invariably turned them into legalised bandits.  Military service was no longer seen as a badge of honour in Rome, but something to be avoided at all costs.


And yet the army was necessary, because the Roman Empire had failed to solve its race problem.  German immigration posed a serious threat to the empire, all the more so because Rome needed the immigrants even as it despised them.  German manpower could and did fill the legions, but this wasn't matched by legal rights.  Rome had once been good at absorbing immigrants, when slaves would often work their way out of slavery and become citizens; now, Germans could never escape the taint of being German.  The Romans could neither expel them from the Roman Empire nor assimilate them.  What makes this particularly tragic was that many of the Germans probably would have happily joined Rome, if they’d been given the chance. 


Worst of all was the rise in bureaucracy and government.  The Roman Empire had once been a place where a man could rise high, but no more.  Now, each citizen was expected to know his place and stick to it.  An immense bureaucracy grew up, both draining the empire’s resources and isolating the Emperor from the common people.  Corruption spread rapidly, to the point that honest civil servants were regarded as heroes.  The bureaucracy was so vast, indeed, that the attempts made by a handful of emperors to weed out corruption were utterly futile.  And yet - again - the average bureaucrats were paid so poorly that they had reason to grab what they could.


It was not one of these factors that brought the Roman Empire down, but their effect in combination.  The empire was trapped in a whirlpool leading to inevitable destruction.  Individual freedom was practically stamped out, ensuring that there would be no attempt to rejuvenate the empire.  Loyalty to the emperors declined to nothing, both because the emperors were frequently overthrown and because the emperors were seen as causing the problems.  (By this point, that wasn't necessarily true.)  Racial tensions weakened the army, to the point where entire units either went over to the enemy or were accused of doing so.  And all the emperors could do was watch, helplessly, as their relative power declined to nothingness.


The early Romans - even after Augustus became the first true Emperor - believed they had a stake in their society.  The aristocracy was expected to serve as well as rule.  The legions were composed of small landholders, men who fought for the land and city.  There were opportunities for advancement for all, even new immigrants (Marius and Cicero were ‘new men’) and the descendents of slaves.  Indeed, one’s father or grandfather being a slave wasn't something bad.  There were grounds to admire a man who climbed out of slavery.  (And it also served as an escape value for slaves who might prove dangerous, like Spartacus.)


But this started to decline even before Caesar and Pompey.  The stubborn city fathers - including Cato - refused to admit that something would have to change.  They created a situation where losing meant certain death, causing the civil war.  These problems only got worse as the Republic became the Empire and advancement was sharply curtailed.  As Rome reached the limits of expansion, the escape value was closed and Rome started to die.


The barbarians might have stormed Rome, but it was the Romans themselves who committed suicide.


These problems are reflected, in many ways, in our own society.  On one hand, the rich are getting richer and more powerful; on the other, the middle classes are being squeezed and the poor are being supported by government hand-outs.  There is no shortage of bitter irony here - the middle classes believe, rightly, that they are being bled, but at the same time much of the money is being wasted rather than spent to help the poor.  The poor can also claim that they’re on the edge - and they’re right too.


In the meantime, the bureaucracy is out of control and the government has lost touch.  In the case of the former, the bureaucrats have to justify their existence - somehow - while, in the case of the latter, the political elites have forgotten how to serve.  (There is no way this could be said of Cato or Pompey - even Cicero served in the military during the Social War.)  We have bred a social class - the political elites - that have no experience of the world outside politics.  They have never run a business or served in the military.  Is it such a surprise, therefore, that men like Tony Blair and Barrack Obama are so frequently outmatched by Putin?  Or that politicians like John Edwards, Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel self-destruct so spectacularly?  They do not have the social contact they need to understand the situation on the ground. 


It is easy to condemn drop-outs from society, people who take drugs or spend all their time playing video games.  And yet, what prospects do they have?  It is harder, these days, to get a meaningful job, let alone one with any hope of advancement.  A wife and family?  Not a hope - these days, one can lose both in a moment.  And purchasing a home may be completely out of the question for years, if ever.  If it is harder to advance, people stop trying.  Indeed, the recent upswing in male suicides may be linked to simple hopelessness.  Why bother?


Like I said in The Living Will Envy The Dead, the more you ask your government to do for you ... the less it can do for you.


The Fall of the Roman Empire is a shorter book than one might expect, but it is an easy - and understandable - read.  I highly recommend it.