October 22, 2014

The fall of the Roman Empire

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A social and ecological interpretation

In this popular essay, Edward Goldsmith finds that internal moral and political decay and unsustainable agriculture underlie the fall of the Roman Empire, while the Barbarian invasions were merely the coup de grâce. The comparisons with our own society and misguided sense of permanence are unsettling.

Originally published in The Ecologist, July 1975, then in Le Sauvage (France), April 1976. This revised version appeared as Chapter 1 of The Great U-Turn, published by Green Books in 1988.

There is the moral of all human tales;
’ Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First Freedom, and then Glory—when that fails
Wealth, Vice, Corruption—barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page—

    —Lord Alfred Byron

It is said of the Bourbons, that during the time they were in power, they neither learnt nor forgot anything. This could equally well be said of our political leaders, probably too, of the scientists and economists who advise them. It is a great tragedy that we seem incapable of learning the lessons of history.

Of these, one of the most instructive would undoubtedly be that of the fall of the Roman Empire. The parallel it affords with the breakdown of industrial society, which we are witnessing today, is indeed very striking. The two processes differ from one another in two principal ways. Firstly, the former was a very slow one, spread out over hundreds of years, whereas the latter is occurring at a truly frightening pace; and secondly, the role played by slavery in the former case is fulfilled in the latter by machines.

In both cases, the collapse was unexpected. In the same way that even today many intelligent people cannot bring themselves to believe that the industrial world is about to disappear for ever, the intelligentsia of Imperial Rome undoubtedly found it impossible to accept that Rome could be anything but ‘eternal’ and that its great civilising influence could ever wane.

Surprising as it may seem, Rome’s Barbarian conquerors also seemed to share this belief. The Vandals belied their reputation and never really destroyed Rome. They had far too much respect for what it stood for. Even after Odoacer had defeated the last Western Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and had assumed the government of the Western Empire, he carefully refrained from proclaiming himself Emperor. His letter to Emperor Zeno of Byzantium, after his victory, illustrates his great respect for the institution of the Empire. First of all as we learn from Gibbon, he tried to justify rather apologetically his abolition of the Western Empire, on the grounds that:

“The majesty of a sole monarch was sufficient to protect, at the same time, both East and West”. [1]

Then he goes on to ask the Emperor to invest him with the title of ‘Patrician’, and with the Diocese of Italy. His successor, Theodoric, it seems, shared Odoacer’s respect for the institutions of Rome.

The Barbarian invasions

It is customary to regard the Barbarian invasions as the main cause of the fall of Rome, just as a thermonuclear war might one day mark the end of our industrial society. However, though the invasions undoubtedly contributed to the plight of Roman society, they were probably but a minor cause of its collapse.

Let us not forget that the Roman armies had been successfully fighting migrant German tribes since the days of Augustus. Why should they suddenly be overcome by those they came up against in the sixth century?

In fact, Samuel Dill considers the invasions of the third and fourth centuries to have been considerably more formidable, but,

“The invaders, however numerous, are invariably driven back and in a short time there are few traces of their ravages. The truth seems to be that, however terrible the plundering bands might be to the unarmed population, yet in regular battle, the Germans were immensely inferior to the Roman troops.” [2]

Ammianus, who had borne a part in many of these engagements, also points out that, in spite of the courage of the Germans, their impetuous fury was no match for the steady discipline and coolness of troops under Roman officers. The result of this moral superiority, founded on long tradition, was that the Roman soldier in the third and fourth centuries was ready to face any odds.

It would thus appear that if the invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries were more successful than the previous ones, it was not because of the increased strength of the invaders.

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The Barbarian rule

If the fall of the Empire cannot be attributed to the invasions, still less can it be ascribed to the subsequent Barbarian rule. From all accounts, life during this period suffered no radical change. If anything, it changed for the better under the rule of the very able Theodoric, who, according to Gibbon, re-established an age of peace and prosperity, and who did everything he could to restore the facade if not the spirit of the old Roman State, and under whom the people

“enjoyed without fear or danger the three blessings of a capital: order, plenty and public amusements.” [3]

It must also be remembered that Barbarian generals had taken over long before Odoacer defeated Romulus Augustulus, but, for reasons already mentioned, were content to remain in the background, allowing the Empire to survive under the titular head of an emperor who had some claim to legitimacy.

In fact, since the death of Theodorius, the emperors of Rome ruled in name only. During the reign of Honorius and until his murder in 408, Stilicho, a Vandal, was the effective master of the Empire. Among other things he prevented the Empire from falling to Alaric and the Goths. The Emperor Avitus was named and supported by Theodoric. His successor, Majorian, was a nominee of the Suevian general Ricimer, as was his successor, Severus. So was the next Emperor, Anthemus, who reigned from 462 to 467.

During the six years between the death of Majorian and the elevation of Anthemus, the government was entirely in the hands of Ricimer, who ruled Italy with the same independence and despotic authority which were afterwards exercised by Odoacer and Theodoric. The three emperors who followed were also the nominees of foreign powers, two of them owing their investiture to the Emperor of Byzantium, the third to a Burgundian prince. Finally, Orestes, a Pannonian, who had served in the army of Attila the Hun, took over power. He characteristically refused the purple though he accepted it in the name of his son, Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor of the West, who was, in origin at least, a Barbarian himself.

Nevertheless to refer to these men as Barbarians is very misleading. As Dill points out,

“Many of these German officers were men of brilliant talents, fascinating address and noble bearing. To military skill they often added the charm of Roman culture and social patter which gave them admission even to the inner circle of the Roman Aristocracy.”

Valuable testimony to this is provided by letters of the Christian, Salvianius, who passionately decried the individualism and selfishness of the ruling classes of the Empire and “considered the Barbarians to be without question their moral superiors”.

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The forces which made Rome

The fall of the Roman Empire can only be understood if we examine what were the features of Roman society which assured the success of the Republic.One can then see what were the factors that caused the erosion of these qualities during the latter days of the Republic and of the Empire.

The first of these qualities was the tribal structure of Roman society. The Roman Republic was originally made up of three separate tribes, the Ramnes, the Tities and the Luceres, each of which was in turn divided into ten clans or curies, of which many of the names have come down to us. [4] Indeed, the institutions of the Republic as well as the structure of its army faithfully reflected these tribal and curial divisions until the reforms of King Servius, who, like Cleisthenes in Athens, established geographical divisions to replace tribal ones as the basic administrative units of the State. Nevertheless, the tribal character of the Roman City persisted throughout the Republic.

Tribal societies are remarkably stable. Like all stable systems, they are self-regulating or self-governing. Liberty, in fact, among the Greeks meant self-government, not permissiveness as it means with us today. The Greeks were free because they ran themselves, while the Persians were slaves because they were governed by an autocrat.

Self-government is only possible among a people displaying great discipline and whose cultural pattern ensures the subordination of the aberrant interests of the individual to those of the family and the society as a whole. Under such conditions, there is little need for institutions and, as has frequently been pointed out, the only institution that one finds among tribal peoples is that of the Council of Elders whose role it is to interpret tribal tradition and ensure that it is carefully observed and handed down as unchanged as possible to succeeding generations. The qualities which the classical Roman writers extolled were in fact those which are usually extolled in tribal societies.

Ennius, for instance, attributed Rome’s greatness to three factors:divine favour, which presided over Rome’s destiny from the very start, the steadfastness and discipline of the Romans and, finally, their moral character. This he expresses in his famous line:

“moribus antiquis res stat Romana virisque” [5]

or “the Roman state stands firm on its ancient customs and on its men (or heroes)”. It is significant that he makes no mention of the form of the Roman State as such. One can only assume that he realised that political forms areof little importance when compared with the spirit which animates them.

If in early times, the Plebeians did not participate in government, it was because they were not members of the original tribes, nor further organised into curies, gens and families. This meant that they could not practise the religion of the Roman State which consisted of the cult of the family gods, the Lares and the Penates, of which the paterfamilias was the priest, the gods of the gens, those of the curie, the tribe and those of the City itself, of which the high priest or Pontifex Maximus was originally the king himself. An essential feature of these associated cults was their social nature. Without them the cohesion and stability of Roman society could not have been possible.

It is significant that the Romans had no word for religion. Religio simply meant “matters of state”. The reason is very simple. There was no need for such a word; no more than there is in the case of any African tribe. All the beliefs and rituals which we regard as making up a society’s religion were an essential part of its culture, which controlled its behaviour, i.e. which provided it with its effective government. As Fustel de Coulanges wrote, of the Ancient City:

“This State and its religion were so totally fused that it is impossible not only to imagine a conflict between them, but even to distinguish one from the other.” [6]

In the case of Rome, as in the case of many tribal societies, the land it occupied was itself closely associated with its religion. It was holy land, the land where the society’s ancestors were buried. In the same way, Roman society was a holy society since its structure was sanctified by its gods whose own social structure closely reflected it.

It is not surprising that the Plebeians were originally excluded from active participation in public affairs. If they had no place in the body religious they could have none in the body politic with which it coincided.

The story of their mass departure from Rome and voluntary exile to the Sacred Mountain is well known. They left saying:

“Since the Patricians wish to possess the City for themselves, let them do so at their leisure. For us Rome is nothing. We have neither hearth nor sacrifices nor fatherland. We are leaving but a foreign city. No hereditary religion attaches us to this site. All lands are the same to us.” [7]

However, their voluntary exile was short-lived. This structureless mass of people was incapable of creating a city on the model of that which they had known. Consequently they returned to Rome and after many struggles established themselves as citizens of the Republic. If they were eventually enfranchised, it was that they had become culturally absorbed into Roman society, but for this to be possible the latter had to undergo considerable modifications. It could, in fact, no longer remain a tribal city.

Thus, whereas previously it was the Patricians, an aristocratic elite, who ruled Rome, a new elite slowly developed to replace it, the Senatorial class, composed of both Patricians and Plebeians. Its power was not based on hereditary status but much more on wealth. Such a change in itself must have seriously undermined the basis of social stability, by substituting the bonds established by “contract” for those dependent on “status” as a basis for social order.

The resultant society, however, was still reasonably stable and probably would have lasted a very long time if it had not been for Rome’s expansionist policies, which led to the establishment of the Empire. The changes which this slowly brought about to every aspect of social life were far-reaching and profound and it is to them above all that one must look for the causes of the decline and fall of Rome. [8]

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Foreign influences

Foreign influences were undoubtedly the first cause of the changes which overcame Roman society. The cultural pattern which holds together the members in a traditional society and controls its relationship with its environment rarely survives the onslaught of powerful and unfamiliar foreign influences. Consider how that of the tribes of Africa has been disrupted by the colonial powers. The literature on the subjectis voluminous. Think of the terrible cultural deterioration of the society of South Vietnam as a result of harbouring in its midst half a million affluent and pleasure-loving American soldiers. Look at the havoc at present being wrought to the very essence of Indian society by the cinema – which reflects a spirit totally alien to the Indian tradition.

But what were these foreign influences in Rome? First of all, after Sulla’s conquest of Greece, Roman society was seriously affected by Greek influences. Greek literature, Greek philosophy, Greek manners, Greek dress became the rage. It spread from the fashionable circle of Aemilius Paulus and his friends to the people at large. These influences were not those of the Greek City States of the age of Pericles but those of an already degenerate Greece – one that had been long subjected to autocratic Macedonian rule, that had largely forgotten its ancient traditions and with them its spirit of self-government.

The warnings of the elder Cato were in vain. Greek influence was highly disruptive, just as several centuries later was the influence of a decadent Rome on the German tribes that had the misfortune to be attracted within its orbit. (It is indeed no coincidence that such tribes as the Suevians, the Vandals, and the Ostrogoths, who figure so prominently in Roman history, disappeared without trace, while their more barbarous cousins, the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Helvetiae,and the Franks, etc., who succeeded in remaining outside the orbit of the Roman world, developed into the modem nations of northern Europe.)

To the Romans, however, more destructive than Greek influence was that of the Eastern Provinces. In antiquity there had been stable traditional societies in Syria, Palestine, Persia and Mesopotamia. These however had been engulfed into the Empires of Babylonia, Assyria and of the Persian Achaemenids and their successors, and within them there had predictably arisen vast shapeless cities like Ninevah, Babylon, and Persepolis with their structureless and demoralised proletariats, which had much in common with the conurbations of our own industrial society.

Not surprisingly, there arose in these cities all sorts of monotheistic cults of the sort that tend to satisfy the requirements of alienated and demoralised people. As Roman society disintegrated, so did these cults appear ever more attractive to the urban masses of Rome. Indeed the vogue for Eastern religions spread throughout the Roman Empire.

The philosopher, Themistius, during the reign of Valens writes of the “mass and confusion of varying pagan religious views”. [9] He thought that there were at least 300 sects and “as much as the deity desires to be glorified in diverse modes and is more respected, the less anyone knows about them”. Christianity was in fact but one of these importations. It is probable that if it had not been adopted by the Empire, another very similar one would have been adopted in its stead, possibly, as Ernest Renan suggests, Mithraism. [10]

If these cults spread so easily within the Roman population, it was because the ground was fertile for them. In fact the Roman people had grown more similar to those among whom these cults had originally evolved, and had developed the same psychological requirements which the cults were designed to satisfy. Undoubtedly they would have had little chance of spreading among the Romans of the days of Cincinnatus – no more indeed than would the strange sects (many of them too of Oriental origin) which are gaining ground today among the culturally deprived youths of our own conurbations to replace the discredited culture of industrialism.

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