Tuesday, February 28, 2012

America, Where the Buffalo Rome...

There’s only one reason why most Americans ever mention “the fall of the Roman Empire,” and that’s to attribute something they don’t like as being the cause of Rome crumbling. I see it not only with politicians, but also among hack historians and even everyday people.

Any good historian will say basically the same thing: you can’t pin down what caused Rome to fall. This isn’t to say, “We don’t know what caused it to fall,” but rather, so many different factors played a part, so many variables need to be considered, and so many details are even missing, that it’s impossible to draw a simple, “this is what caused Rome to fall” conclusion.

Christians claim it was sexual deviance, moral depravity, pagan excess, and basically everything non-Christian which caused Rome to fall… completely ignoring that Rome fell while under Christian rulership, and to Christian invaders, no less. Good luck with that bullshit…

I’ve also seen atheists try to just flat out blame Christianity, as if the Christian religion somehow caused Rome to fall. Don’t get me wrong, I hate what Christianity did to Europe in the 3rd-5th centuries and beyond, but it would be ridiculous to blame Christianity as even a prime factor, let alone the leading cause. The worst thing Christianity did during this time was close down non-Christian institutions like the Academy. That is sad and an embarrassing legacy for Christians, but it’s not the cause of the fall of Rome.

Economists claim it was currency devaluation or the rising costs of running a large empire, all valid points. Socialist and Communist thinkers blame opulence among the nobility, economic exploitation of the poor, and the rise of workers as the cause. Medically inclined individuals will point to disease and lead poisoning as taking a heavy toll on the population. Sociologists point to changing social norms, demographic shifts, and mass immigration. Those more environmentaly minded point to changes in climate, deforestation, and soil degradation.

Most of these are true, in that they happened, but they do not individually account for the “fall of Rome.”

Call me crazy, but if I was going to blame one thing, it would be a single policy decision made by Constantine: to move the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I think the decision to move the political, military, and cultural center of the empire from Europe to the Middle East probably had a little something to do with Europe’s eventual fall. Keep in mind that Rome fell, but the Byzantine empire remained in place as the true heir of Rome for centuries to come.

Looking at Rome specifically, it catastrophically “fell” for a very simple reason: water. The aqueduct system was the pinnacle of technological achievement at the time, bringing fresh water into the city for use by over a million people. Then, through lack of maintenance and attacks upon the infrastructure by Rome’s enemies, the aqueducts failed. Within a matter of years, the population shrank to tens of thousands, because cities don’t just work like magic: they require civic planning.

If you don’t have something as basic as water, the people will not – nay, cannot – stick around. But it’s more complex than all of this.

Why did Constantine move the capitol? Well, the empire was expanding east (they already went as west as you could go). Constantinople (modern day Instanbul, in Turkey) is also geographically superior in many respects, as it is near the crossroads of where two continents meet by land (with easy sea-access to a third, Africa). As a center of trade, Constantinople was a better choice.

It’s also closer to the religious heart of the empire’s new faith, and if you want to rebrand your empire, you are better off going someplace fresh and building from the ground up than you are trying to tear down all the memories of the old ways. In a very real sense, Rome was literally abandoned, left to rot.

Without the economic and engineering might of the Roman empire propping it up anymore, Rome was bound to fall. The aqueducts were the final catalyst, but the near constant danger of invaders didn’t make the city a very attractive home. It was a liability to be in a place known for its wealth, especially after it was no longer the military center of the empire.

And really, people didn’t leave Rome for thirst, they left it because it was unlivable. The first thing to go after the aqueducts began to fail was not drinking water, but wash water. Hygiene has already been an issue since the Christians ended the practice of public baths, but with the loss of fresh water from afar, people were now doing laundry and dumping their waste into the same water they had to drink from. It shouldn’t shock anyone that disease became a serious problem at this point.

There was also a shortage of water for irrigating crops. Arable land became harder to come by, as much of it also became over farmed and became nutrient-poor. With all the usable land already under ownership and people’s options slowly disappearing, you begin seeing a gradual shift from independently minded Roman citizens and farmers to serfs working the land of a wealthy noble.

One of the primary problems at this time in history was the lack of opportunity; if you were not already a wealthy land-owner with good, fertile farms or you didn’t serve in the military, your options at this time often dried up pretty quickly.

Increasingly, Rome could not depend on the Emperor for protection and began privately funding their defense. Germanic mercenary armies worked out for a while, until Rome could no longer pay them… then these same armies became Rome’s oppressors. Rome made the fatal mistake of entrusting their defense to a source that had no loyalty or accountability to the people. You cannot vote mercenaries out of power; you either pay them, or they take from you what they want.

Rome also had one of the strangest economies in history. From a production standpoint, they really produced only a few things in vast quantities: food, basic goods (like pottery), art, and weapons. The bulk of the economy of Rome was dependent upon a system that was doomed to fail, that of a plunder economy.

Rome had gotten rich, not from the sweat of the backs of Roman citizens, but from the sweat of those they defeated in battle. Even most of the real work done in Rome was not done by Romans, but by slaves taken in battle. Rome did not mine for metals on a scale you might expect from an empire that relied so heavily upon iron, copper, nickel, silver and gold. Rather, they demanded these as “tribute” from weaker, neighboring groups.

Once Rome ran out of people to exploit (and they almost did, once their boundaries stretched to the limits of populated Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa), their economy began to shrink. In a plunder economy, any empire not growing is dying. There is no balanced state of equilibrium in a plunder economy. You’re either expanding and enriching the empire, or you are slowly using up your reserves, waiting for those you exploit to revolt.

Throw in the addition of a few Asian invaders, like the Huns, and it’s no surprise that the borders of Rome began to crumble. No economy of this type can persist, because there is an inevitable breaking point where the military power is spread too thin to continue the necessary growth. Then, it’s only a matter of time before interior and/or outside forces upset the delicate system of extorting the disparate people on the fringe of the empire.

Too often, modern people want to associate their political views with Rome, because Rome is such a tragic story. No one wants to end up like Rome did, and yet everyone wants to be as great as Rome was. Every empire in Western Civilization since the fall of Rome has seen itself as Rome’s successor, and America is just the most recent incarnation of that.

It should be no surprise that ideologues want to superimpose their dire warnings of modern problems upon Rome. “If only I can prove Rome did this, and that this is why the empire fell, I might be able to save my people.” It’s almost valiant, in a way, if it weren’t for how egotistical and self-aggrandizing most of these people are, and how little they actually understand of Rome.


  1. I'm always glad to be the well from which you draw inspiration for your posts.

  2. I think you missed a factor that I actually find very compelling: the fall of meritocracy of the emperors. Rome seems to have succeeded most when the next emperor was an adopted son who was chosen based on merit instead of a birth-right heir. But yeah, shit's complicated.

    1. Successorship was definitely on the decline by the late Roman era, but at the same time, you do see a slight rise right at the end of meritocracy, as it's primarily military greats who are the last emperors, though by then it was pretty much doomed.

      You're certainly right, though. The factors I didn't even cover could fill books, and the emperors would constitute a few volumes all by themselves.

  3. "Why did Constantine move the capitol? "

    He didn't move the capitol. He moved the capital.

    Rome never truly fell. There was a gradual transition of administrative duties to the Catholic Church and to local feudal lords. It underwent a transformation, but didn't 'fall', no more than the Soviet Union 'fell'; it simply transformed into the modern Russian Federation. What happened is that the political structure changed, but the people that were part of that empire lived on. Same circus, new clowns.

    1. Well, what was the Soviet empire certainly collapsed (fell apart, if you will), with freedom for Eastern Europe, implosion of decades old dictatorships and all that resulted, e.g., Berlin Wall coming down, reunification of Germany, etc.

    2. Many would say it ceased being Rome when it ceased being a circus, and started being like church services.

    3. What's the difference between a service and a circus?

      So in regards to the USSR, a group of statists got replaced by a slightly less authoritarian group of statists. I guess you could say the old regime fell in a way, but another took its place. As I said, same circus, new clowns.

    4. A circus is fun, a service is something you get dragged to against your wishes.

      I see what you're trying to say, but by your logic, nothing changes. What's the difference between the US being a British colony or governing itself? It's still people living in America, the "clowns" are just different... and selected in a different process... and are expected to abide by different standards... and live nearby...

      So yeah, there's even now still people living in Rome, so it hasn't "fallen," but it's not like I could see a gladiatorial match in the Coliseum when I was there, and that was the circus. I did get to tour the Vatican, though... and that was like church services, being shuttled through in an orderly fashion, staring at lots of images of Jesus.


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