Review:The Fall of the Roman Empire

24 Jan

-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.


15 Responses to “Review:The Fall of the Roman Empire”

  1. Stuart Robertson January 24, 2017 at 8:22 am #

    Not available for my kindle, SAD

  2. BobStewartatHome January 24, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    The book sounds fascinating, and I was surprised to see that I hadn’t read “The Living Will Envy the Dead”, so I bought both of them (yours for the Kindle and the other a used hardback.) And in your list of the means by which the poor are getting poorer, don’t forget the student loan scam. The indebtedness of our millennials for their indoctrination has grown from $200B in 2002 to $1.2T in 2015. Most of these poor kids would have been better off at a community college learning the stuff they should have gotten in high school, for a few thousand dollars and two years of work. Instead, they’re baristas with $100K of debt trying to start out in life, many without a degree. And bankruptcy isn’t an option. This will make the Tulip Bubble look like child’s play when it finally comes crashing down.

    Trump is a symptom of what ails us. Surprisingly, he might offer some solutions, who knows?

    • Drowe January 25, 2017 at 2:30 pm #

      This is desaster waiting to happen. The problem is, that tuition is way too expensive, while it is way too easy to get a student loan. But there is a cultural factor there as well, the jobs you can get without a degree are getting less and people without degrees are looked down upon by those with a degree as ‘uneducated’.

      There are multiple ways how this could be mitigated. If you make it harder to get student loans, especially if you are getting a worthless degree, fewer people would go to college, which would in turn cause tuitions to go down, assuming supply and demand applies to tuition.

      One thing that exists in Germany is, that companies hire people right out of highschool and send them to a partner college. The student’s time is split between work and study, and he gets a modest salary. The colleges have shorter semesters, but the rest of the time you’re learning on the job. In the end you get a degree and in most cases a job at the end, while the employer gets an employee with both the on the job experience and the theoretical knowledge of a college graduate. Since Germany doesn’t have tuition fees, this may not work quite as well in the US, but it’s a good way to get highly qualified workers. Something similar is the standard for most other jobs which don’t require a degree, learn some basics in a specialised school twice a week and learn on the job the rest of the time. I don’t know if something like that could work in the US though.

  3. Anarchymedes January 24, 2017 at 10:21 am #

    Well, this is how all empires die. The only question is – knowing all that, why the hell do we keep building, and even trying to rebuild them? 😉

  4. PuffinMuffin January 24, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    Strange you mention Germans because I immediately thought of WWI and its causes. If you think about it, the situation is quite similar to today: the West is run by weak, vain and greedy fools. It is as if it were a gigantic balloon being pumped up and up until it’s overstretched, and then a pin comes along and pops it. Those at the time see only the pin. From our perspective, one might ask and wonder how one assassin could cause 17 million deaths: it actually seems utterly absurd to think that Gavrilo Princip killed them all. No, it was all waiting to happen. We were waiting for the pin.

    And now who are aware of the current situation are waiting for the next pin.

    Or else our “leaders” could keep on deluding themselves (and us) that it will never happen and can carry on pumping up the balloon forevermore. That is vast complacency.

  5. PhilippeO January 24, 2017 at 11:57 am #

    what is Conservative solution to dying Empire then ?

    the left answer is clear and same since Mazdak and Han dynasty, kill some of the rich and redistribute the wealth/land. and it has been proven successful dseveral time: Heraclius redistribute land to theme, Basil I redistribute land, most Chinese dynasty founder redistribute land.

    many people ‘benefit’ from Empire, they certainly wouldn’t accept Fall easily. and even Fallen Empire get resurrected repeatedly.

    • Vapori January 24, 2017 at 7:08 pm #

      Hmm Interesting question, there are many possible answers. But most would be also leftish.
      The only conservative answer had been so far, to put a strongman in power to simplify things,

      When we look closer at it, the failings of the western Elites were partly written into the constitutions. Democracy was for ancient times, actually a mandate given by lot. It the american and french were the first to give most mandates by popular vote. (the greek also gave some mandates, only to people with qualifications.)

      While in young Parlaments people of any social class get into the Parlament, this tins out later on. Slowly a caste of professional politicians forms. In some states extremer then in others.

      Ones the Professional politician is really a carrier path. The diversity amongst them declines.

      As a certain job usually defines ones politcal views. Most taxi drivers and booksellers are democrats , one working on an oilfield will very likly be a republican. ..

      Now that goes normaly further then just democrat or republican.

      An Oil worker will Support a Republicans, even when most of his other world views are leftist.
      When he runs the risk that the dems want to shut down his work for the benefit of environmental safety.

      Now in the current form of civilization our profession is something that is very formative in defining us.

      Now, it is very likely that in a representative republic, that the viewpoint of the typical professional politician is different from that of the average citizen that the politician should represent.

      For example when the German Parlament allowed the intake of 1 millions of refuges 80%of the pople in Parliament were in favor of that. in the broad population only 60% were in favor of that. Both statistics were taken on the same day.

      Now if you look at the German parliament, with 630 seats. 149 were officials (usually higher ones) Another 80 were lawyers another 30 had studied politics and 40 were high school teachers or proffessors.
      For the US congress the same groups are even more dominiering of 541 members. 271 were in public service or in politics, another 80 were in education and 151 were jurists.

      Now looking at the numbers it’s in my option quite easy to come to the conclusion that, a group composed like that is unfit to represent all citzens.

      Of course Trump, Obama, Merkel, Hollande May or whoever will always claim that they will be a president/ prime minister for anybody.
      But they can hardly to that.

      I guess the easiest way to change such a misrepresentation, would be, to force the parties to make a quota for their nominees

      No group of professions should be allowed to hold more then 10 % of all mandates or something along those lines might be helpful to keep the elites in touch with Reality.

      • Drowe January 25, 2017 at 11:32 am #

        Interestingly, Merkel is an exception in politics in so far, that she was a physicist before she went into politics.

  6. kell January 24, 2017 at 7:50 pm #

    Well some solutions involve decreaseing the government. There are positions and jobs we can get ride off. Like in the army we have all of these civilian contracts on government pay doing what army guys can do. Why? Some of our contracts take there dear sweat time getting anything done. What a waste.Then welfare needs to be reformed. More accountability. Its a safety net not a permanent way off life. Tax’s need reforms so med and small businesses can bloom. No more government ball outs for these big companies. They need to manage there money better or fall. Smaller companies will take there place. Research into cheaper fuel sources like theranium that’s spelled wrong and electric cars that our actually cost efficient. This will lower our dependence on foreign oil. These are some suggestions.

  7. Big Ben January 25, 2017 at 1:15 am #

    Perhaps the answer is history … rather, that no empire or superpower has ever survived. Like humans, death is inevitable. So perhaps the best that any empire or superpower can achieve is to decline gracefully instead of implode into catastrophe.
    And here’s the big hiccup with the “small government” argument – I heard on the radio yesterday that Trump signed an executive order or memorandum putting a freeze on any new federal hiring. I’m sure many of his supporters cheered. However, according to the news cast over 70% of “federal jobs” created since the year 2000 have been given to contractors, and the document Trump signed explicitly excludes a freeze on hiring new contractors. So his administration simply stops the government from hiring and … the government hires more contractors.
    Halliburton and KBR with their no-bid contracts in Iraq, for instance. And anyone remember Edward Snowden, NSA contractor? For goodness sake, if a nation’s premier clandestine intelligence agency is hiring civilian contractors to fill such sensitive positions something’s very, very wrong.
    For the nation to function, the work has to get done. Government must govern, not pass the buck or kick the fiscal can down the road. I guess the debate comes down to small government with a lot of contractors or a larger professional government with fewer profiteers. I’m not sure anyone’s figured out which is better … at least not before their empire collapsed.

  8. Veraenderer January 25, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    Except that Angela Merkel did never self destruct. She made a gamble and lost, at this moment her popularity is recovering btw..

    The point is Merkel makes sometimes bad decisions and her decision making is slow, BUT she is not corrupt (unlike Clinton, Trump and Co.), she is tough. She can make bad decisions and survive then while many other politicans can’t.

    • Drowe January 25, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

      On the one hand, you are right, she doesn’t appear to be corrupt, on the other hand, she’s been in power for so long that she lost touch with the population. She also has a way of getting rid of competition within her own party, which hamstrings her party in the long run.

      • Veraenderer January 25, 2017 at 9:44 pm #

        At the other hand there is not even competion to her in the other parties (Grüne, Linke and FDP are to small and specialised to even have a chance of having their Kanzlerkandidate become Kanzler and the SPD is completly incompetent and uncharismatic at Bundesebene) and she did not destroy her competition, the competition did selfdestruct, if you want to call people like von Gutenberg competition.

        Furthermore she mastered the art of stealing ideas from other politicians and parties and making compromises, so it doesn’t matter how much she is in touch with the people but how much the others are, what matters more is her experience.

  9. His Dad February 2, 2017 at 6:53 am #

    got it out of the library. Interesting.

  10. georgephillies February 7, 2017 at 8:23 pm #

    Also, the barbarian populations increased a great deal.

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