Corruption and the Decline of Rome

Corruption and the Decline of Rome

Author: Ramsay MacMullen

Yale University Press 1988

This is written by one of the most knowledgeable people on the Roman Empire. He has written over a dozen books on Ancient Rome. It is a moderately difficult read and may occasionally require going back a few pages to refresh your memory on who is who and which groups are which. Any student of history and follower of the political climate today will be able to overlay events of the past with the present. For those that do it is very obvious we are following the pattern. He goes into corruption, the policy of what we now call open borders, the weakening of the military and the privatizing government. Should be on everyone’s book shelf.


“The plan of this book is very simple. It examines what is conventionally called the decline of Rome, beginning (chapter 1) with a review of various phenomena which good scholars have used to explain it. Not finding in them any broad, clear meaning, I follow-up certain hints instead that point to a loss of power in the state, a diminishing control over the empire’s latent strengths and resources. In what might be called an exercise in historical sociology (chapter 2), I describe what power was and how it worked when it did work, and (chapter 3) when and why it didn’t, at the end. Rome’s ultimate impotence is easily illustrated (chapter 4) through a selection of specific incidents belonging to the fourth and fifth centuries. On the surface they would all be called political or military.” Page ix

“The second and, in some ways, the central, chapter attempts to describe the earlier prevailing, functionally successful structure of power in the empire’s society. By “power” I mean only the contrary of obedience. The two are opposite sides of a single coin. Rome, like any other state, could accomplish large goals only so long as its power-patterns permitted. During the better centuries of its history, enormous amounts of psychic and physical energy, the resolve and muscle of its citizens, could be brought to bear mostly on war but also on the spreading of a pattern of effective ties of obedience throughout the Mediterranean world. They made law enforcement possible, and public construction, and so forth. Local or central government was able to transmit its will through an armature of influence and obedience joining urban, provincial, and Imperial leaders and their dependents. It functioned effectively because a generally accepted code of obligations pervaded both the public and private relations.” Page x

“Of course, the military has often been chosen as the key to “the” decline. I do not believe in any such single event; but I do believe – and who can doubt – that physical security behind its frontiers has been a precondition for all other accomplishments of which any civilization may boast.” Page xi

Chapter 1 Choosing a Theme

“The people who were declining should have known it; therefore I turn to them first for their views. Indeed I do find them characterizing the whole world around them in despairing terms; only they do so too often.” Page 1

“Deterioration of the whole of Roman civilization, “the decline of Rome,” proceeded differently according to different regions.” Page 3

Why did literature, like a canary in a coal mine (as Walbank sees it), die first?” Page3

“Considerable heaps of evidence may prove unhelpful; or trivial. They may actually diminish our knowledge by making us think we know something that really is not true.” Page 8

“Here, except for Vercelli, we have no mention of urban decay; rather, scattered indications of renewal and investment and, from the time of Diocletian, when Milan began its long history as a government center, many proofs of wealth and growing population in that splendid city. The later Empire was also a period of repeated settlements of barbarians throughout The Po Valley.” Page 17

“…… is natural to wonder whether the employer class, and particularly those within it who controlled the most wealth and could best make their views prevail, really appreciated the economic possibilities in industrial technology or whether, in agriculture they attached as much value to invention as to management.” Page 18

“Throughout the North Balkans and lower Danube provinces, after a term of relative peace and perhaps prosperity, large-scale admissions of the Goths in A.D. 376 brought severe trials. The countryside had to arm itself, or submit to barbarian settlement; ……..” Page 19

“In this broad and manifestly penetrable northern zone below both the Rhine and Danube, raids by barbarians gave rise to a peculiar response: the building of hilltop refuges or the reoccupation of such sites not used since the Iron Age.” Page 23

“To the extent the rural population could satisfy most of its needs by itself, it had no need of cities. We know that most of them declined in size and wealth; since only by providing what was necessary to the surrounding countryside could they maintain their position. Thus (to repeat) physical security was the key; political weakness – the failure adequately to maintain the pax Romana – underlay both social and economic regression.” Page 25

“It is natural to see the latter, the urban part of civilization in the peninsula, as more vulnerable in the long-term than the rural parts. Walled circuits could do nothing to protect the patterns of exchange by which the cities met their daily needs.” Page 28

“The riches and buying power of a great urban center are bound to be felt by its rural neighbors.” Page 33

“What better than Constantinople could demonstrate the irrepressible life of one whole half of the ancient world, much of it even attaining new heights, while the other half gradually reverted to a lower plane? The decline of the Roman Empire was a decline of only its younger part.” Page 35

“Granted the importance of prosperity, most people in the empire surely could not have felt they were inhabiting a world in decline during that period that would be proposed today for that description – say, from A.D. 300 to 450 – since the economy surrounding them was demonstrably healthy.” Page 36

“Inflation, of course, arose principally from the governments minting more and more coins. There were other contributing factors but that was chief.” Page 37

“As a means of explaining how the empire’s economy, especially the urban economy, deteriorated where and when it did, the army’s history seems to be of little help except insofar as the Army failed in its chief function – security.” Page 41

“In default of statistics or statistical hypothesizing that can be trusted, there seems to be no better evidence than the intensity of protest and – the government’s, in legislation, and the citizens’, in cries of outrage – and the accumulation of arrears. Arrears testify to an inability to pay or an inability to collect.” Page 42

“And why such remissions during the ‘decline’? Explanation lies not in the soft heart and easy-going nature of government in those times, which was in fact most savage; but rather, in the realities of enforcement. Influential people could wangle immunity either as individuals or as a class; …..” Page 42

“Thus, “ultimately Rome fell because it was conquered. German tribes took over the Western part of the empire.” “ Page 52

“But something better is sometimes sought in two linked considerations: that the mass of the population cannot have had any spirit, courage, or love of country, and that they handed over their fate to barbarian defenders.” Page 52

“In a later chapter the matter of barbarians in the Romans’ service will recur for discussion. Here, it appears only among the items of general indictment laid against the later empire. On the cultural level and in the European provinces, there can be no doubt that the influx of strangers across the borders, ordinarily as captives or refugees in the wake of Rome’s victorious wars, gradually exceeded her powers of assimilation.” Page 55

“Whether it belongs to the ‘decline’ or not may be debated. With other items of cultural change, such as the very portrayal of its subjects, stiff and full faced, in the Panticapaeum dish as in the Ravenna mosaics, these ‘barbarisms’ in language, dress, and ceremony represent deterioration only if it can be proved that older Roman ways were good absolutely. [De gustibus non est disputandum!] Indeed, the Roman success from earliest times surely owed much to its capacity to absorb quite alien elements. It is, however, a more serious question whether cultural change weakened other, political, loyalties.” Page 55/56

“First, when the conditions of each of the various regions of the empire is considered separately, in the light of recent studies, we can see that they did not all share one and the same experience, but some measurably deteriorated while others flourished. No account of the ‘decline’ nor so much as the word itself, can claim validity if it does not apply to and assist in explaining the empire as a whole. As to the parts that did deteriorate in their urban civilization and subsequently dissolved into barbarian kingdoms, the common view – that the curial class and pax Romana were not adequately defended – seems to me still true.” Page 56

“Why were they too strong, and the Romans to the same degree weak?” Page 57

Chapter 2 Power Effective

“…..for government concentrates in the hands of a few people claims on the compliance of many.” Page 58

“However, even in the most heavily bureaucratic or tyrannous modern states, everybody is conscious of obeying private individuals as well: employers most of all, in every day; elder members of the family; teachers, for a time; perhaps also an instructor in one’s religious beliefs; purveyors of services, like a headwaiter or the bus driver who asks everyone to move to the rear, please; not to mention some angry drunk at a subway station.” Page 58

“In the ancient world, however, claims on compliance, public and private, were inserted in utterly different proportions. Officialdom occupied only a very minor place in life. It’s agents were a mere handful; its means of reaching people, few and primitive. Police were virtually nonexistent. There were no social workers or public defenders. Nor were the needs for services that were not addressed by the state adequately addressed by commercial enterprise. Quite to the contrary: there were no bail-bondsmen, no detective agencies, no nursing or real estate or insurance agencies, no lending agencies or banks, no professional advisers about the handling of money, no messenger services. In all sorts of real emergencies, as in a great variety of less pressing, quite predictable affairs, people could find no help either for hire or publicly provided.” Page 58

“…. I shall try to indicate how smoothly private power joined to public. The one was an extension of the other. That was essential. Given the tiny numbers and insignificant presence of imperial or municipal agents to ensure compliance with the aims of the state, obviously millionaires and magnates and local leaders of every sort had to cooperate, and willingly. Coercion was out of the question. They had to help in the maintaining of a large army without inviting constant civil wars; and the mediating of disputes among cities and citizens; in the raising of money and other things of value for the needs of the state. They had to help with their special skills, knowledge, and ties to other people.” Page 59

“I begin with the ability to hurt as seen in the most mismatched of all relationships, that between the rural poor, whether landless or nearly so, and some big landowner. Because the countryside was less observed by the cities’ population and therefore itself was less observant of the latter’s values it permitted less civilized behavior.” Page 84

“Inevitably at all periods, it was from the ranks of the elite that the Emperor recruited his more important deputies. And that fact should have lain a contradiction, a potential for conflict.” Page 110

“The municipal elite constituting the curia and magistracies were no doubt often arrogant, bullying, and thoroughly used to having their own way; and the populist as individuals just as surely could not stand against him; but en masse, it was sometimes a different matter. The spur to revolt was that very arrogance of the Haves, made more intolerable by their greed; and they might have enemies among their peers, too, to take advantage of popular hostility, to organize demonstrations, stir protests, and so bring about their overthrow.” Page 118

Chapter 3 Power For Sale

“From the drafting of tax receipts in a municipal office, to the choosing of next year’s consuls at Rome, every act of government was for sale; yet not every one was sold routinely. On the contrary, while there was criminal or reprehensible behavior in the empire, just as there is in any society that has developed norms, neither the norms nor the government appeared to have been overmatched. Had it been otherwise, the one or the other would have yielded. There would have been new norms or new governing institutions to allow the expression of whatever differing views had proved too strong.” Page136

“From the start, the rules offered very little protection to slaves. Even as innocent witnesses they were interrogated by torture. Not infrequently they died under it. It was by no means pro-forma. When charged with crimes themselves and found guilty, they had to undergo physical punishment because neither jail terms nor fines were possible alternatives; and they had therefore to suffer death on the cross, by burning, or wild beasts, or beatings of greater or lesser severity.” Page 138

“When a ruler in this period as a woman torn apart by wild horses or the Case children in the presence of their parents, we hardly know which world we are in, barbarian or late Classical.” Page 141

“Sheer abundance of legislation matched its fuzziness and contradictions, and its interpreters at every level gained a corresponding increase in their power.” Page 144

“Four or five men get together, they think of some way to fool the emperor, and they inform him of whatever he must approve. The emperor, living enclosed within his quarters, does not know what the truth is. He is obliged to know only what those men tell him. He appoints governors whom he should not, he deprives the state of those he should hold on to.” “ Page 147

“It was a nineteenth-century Tsar who exclaimed in frustration, “Russia is ruled by 10,000 clerks. “ “ Page 150

“As the Emperor lost control over the Imperial authority, itself unimpaired, he came to compete for it more and more on the level with his servants. Hence decisions could be made in defiance of his will, two or three useful collaborators at court being paid to support them,…….” Page 165

Chapter 4 The Price of Privatizing Government

“Only in the north and west, where the pax Romana was often disturbed, was the picture different. There, progressive failure to provide security was above all else responsible, first, for the severing of commercial ties between urban centers and their trade partners, whether other centers or the surrounding countryside. Next, the countryside and its richer villas deteriorated. More dramatically, entire areas of the empire had to be abandoned forever to the enemy outside. And that last, I propose, represents the very perfection of ‘decline’.” Page 171

I propose an examination of military effectiveness in the earlier and later periods; for the providing of security is, after all, fundamental to any state. It is the state’s most obvious business and justification. And it involves various processes – planning, scripting, taxing, equipping, constructing, transporting – that test far more than the armed forces themselves. Orders have to be followed throughout the whole train of power that originates in the imperial palace and reaches, at the end, to a hundred cobblers in the Bay-of-Naples area, a hundred peasant owners of ox-carts in Cappadocia. As intermediaries, the owners of greatest states must accept direction from city magistrates on behalf of their tenants, just as plain soldiers must do what their officers tell them; procurators’ accountants must calculate true totals of barley or boots, just as the village scribe must do his job accurately at the threshing floor. At every point of connection the original intent must be transmitted as it was received otherwise it will come to nothing. Thus an army assembled and ready to engage can emerge only from a broad texture of consent, in terms of which the comparison of one age with another may be most revealing.” Page 172

“Yet the severest judgment of all is to be read in the fact that the men credited with victory in one engagement after another, from 312 on, came from outside the Empire: Celts, Germans, Huns, Saracens, and Goths. No general wanted regular Romans. By the mid-fourth century the typical fighting force, as opposed to a more or less mass of men merely in uniform, appears to have been half imported. A generation later, imported soldiers formed the majority. Notoriously, before the century was over, barbarian commanders of essentially barbarian armies and gain control of the empire’s fate, in civil wars are armed rampages around Asia Minor, Greece, the Balkans, or Italy. Tens of thousands resided permanently within the borders. The sack of Rome itself was a purely domestic event.” Page 176/177

“For my purposes, however, it is not enough to show the general character of the army – numerically imposing only on paper, increasingly rooted in a civilian context and civilian activities, and ever more dependent on immigrants for its actual fighting capacity. I must also show how this decay followed on the developments described in the preceding chapter.” Page 177

“…. I turn back to earlier problems of defense reflected in Constantius’ response (A.D. 359) when barbarians applied for admission to the empire. “The emperor let them all in, himself aflame with an eagerness for greater gain intensified by his crowd of flatterers. They ceaselessly proclaimed that, with foreign relations, and peace universal, he could profit from thus augmenting the number of his childbearing subjects; and he would be able to assemble the strongest drafts of military conscripts – for his provincials would gladly put up the cash for recruits (and hope that has on occasion proved the bane of Rome).” “ Page 183

“From Hadrianople, the victorious Goths, soon joined by other barbarian immigrant groups, turned to further pillage. They were quite unopposed. …… They received lands in Moesia and Pannonia on the condition that they would respond to conscription when needed. Others, by a far different arrangement of October 3, 382, were scattered over a region in Thrace to live there under their own laws and rulers. They had attained something they might truly call Gothia inside the empire.” Page 185

The developments just outlined withdrew some part of the interior of the empire from effective control by the state.” Page 186

“Central to it, naturally, is that fateful crossing of the frozen Rhine in the last hours of A.D. 406 by a united front of a half-dozen tribes. They were the Vandals, chief, and Alans; mixed with these, Suebi, Gepids, and Quadi; Burgundians too, after two or three years numerous enough to found their own kingdom.” Page 190

But who can observe the will of a great empire dissolving in the uncontrolled impulses of private enterprise –of mercatores or kapeloi, as our fourth-century commentators call them – without wondering if there may not be some lesson there?” Page 197

That was the final chapter but there follows over a hundred pages of appendixes and notes many of which detail the settling of areas within the borders by barbarians.