I just finished reading the third volume in Will Durant’s History of Civilization. Caesar and Christ covers the rise and fall of the Roman Empire (with far less detail than William Gibbon) and a brief history of the earliest centuries of Christianity.
Durant challenges Gibbon’s hypothesis that the chief cause of Rome’s fall was the rise of Christianity. Having not read Gibbon (hey, I’ve still got eight volumes of Civilization to go), I must satisfy myself with Durant’s summary: “For this religion, [Gibbon] and his followers argued, had destroyed the old faith that had given moral character to toe Roman soul and stability to the state.”
Durant explains his objection: “The breakup of the old religion had begun long before Christ…Moral disintegration had begun with the Roman conquest of Greece, and had culminated under Nero; thereafter Roman morals improved, and the ethical influence of Christianity upon Roman life was largely a wholesome one.”
(Seems to me that the disintegration of Roman character was caused by the people emulating the horny, capricious, and vindictive deities they worshiped, those centerpieces of the religion Gibbon heralded as a civilizing, unifying force.)
The author cites numeous factors behind Rome’s decline. Disease greatly reduced the population after Hadrian. Much of Italy was wrecked by deforestation; references to the rising of livestock on the peninsula suggest the possibility of overgrazing. Increasing barbarian attacks whittled away at the empire piece by piece. Government was overrun with corruption. (Durant could have added to his epilogue the fact that a large majority of Rome’s chief executives died unnatural deaths; this statistic alone would suggest that Gibbon overestimated Rome’s unity.)
And then there are economic factors: “[T]the rising costs of armies, doles, public works, an expanding bureaucracy, and a parasitic court; the depreciation of the currency [by reducing the precious metal content of the coinage]; the discouragement of ability and the absorption of investment capital by confiscatory taxation, the strait jacket of serfdom placed upon agriculture, and of caste forced upon industry: all these conspired to sap the material bases of Italian life, until at last the power of Rome was a political ghost surviving its economic death.” Also cited is the loss of trade to provincial competition.
How do all these factors tie together? Durant woudl do well to compare the fall of Rome to the demise of other empires, or to contrast Rome to the only great empire that remained strong after it lost most of its colonial expanse: Great Britain. The center of every other great empire is now a crumbling basket case. Despite the fact that this nation the size of a postge stamp suffocates under a greater bureaucracy than it employed at the height of its colonial expansion, England remains one of the most free and most commercially vibrant nations in the world.
Why? First of all, because unlike the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, Persians, and Spaniards, Britain did not allow any dependence on looting to overwhelm its dependence on commerce. (That the Spaniards and not the British discovered the gold-rich civilizations of the New World ultimately benefited the latter.) The Romans on the Italian peninsula got “free” goodies from the provinces and “free” goodies subsidized through exhorbitant taxation. They thought they could afford to neglect commerce. But in the long run, the provinces would revolt and the barbarian kingdoms would seek an eye for an eye.
Second, the British Empire respected individual rights more than the other historic empires. When people feel relatively secure in their persons, they don’t go running off to Philadelphia to declare their independence – Britain didn’t make that mistake very often. The feudal system and other inequities eviscerated Rome’s ability to maintain civil unity, without which it could not effectively face its enemies. Foreign policy mirrored domestic policy; the barbarians, like its citizens and vassals, were a resource to be milked. Thus Rome made more enemies, both foreign and domestic, than it would have otherwise.
Third, England was willing to let go of most of its colonies voluntarily, one of the fruits of the evolving doctrine of liberty raised in the second point. Rome remained relentless until it had no more might, and it was destroyed. Britain simply shrank – and it was able to maintain good relations with the former colonies and with other nations with a stake in their well-being. It’s good to have allies in hard times. Rome had few if any friends as the Huns swept through Italy; Britain had plenty (including those pesky Philadelphians) as the buzz bombs descended on London.