I have recently been reading again Gibbon's Decline and Fall. And, as I was reading, it struck me how many historians, political scientists, economists and others have used the collapse of the Roman Empire to justify their pet theories in various fields. Even Gibbon himself is often terribly distorted by those who hope to use a mangled version of his message to support their own.
Most often, one hears that Gibbon blames the collapse of Roman power on Christianity, and he does argue at several points that early Christianity's emphasis on a contemplative life helped sap the martial and industrial power of Rome. But, that is just one of many factors Gibbon presented, and it is hard to make the case for Christianity as the primary cause, as he does not start his tale at the Milvan Bridge, or somewhere thereabout, nor even with the appointment of Constantius, or the reign of Diocletian, which set the stage for the rise of Constantine and the conversion of the empire. Instead, he starts with the death of Marcus Aurelius and the ascension of Commodus, which is hardly consistent with a theory based primarily on Christianity. And, to anyone who has actually read the whole thing, or even the popular abridgments, it seems absurd to argue Gibbon was writing mainly to criticize Christianity. I grant, he is critical of many changes Christianity introduced, but he is equally critical of the introduction of the hereditary principle, in the transfer of emphasis from rule through the senate and the old republican mechanisms to Serverus and later emperors' emphasis on strictly military justification of authority, the use of mercenary armies and the exposure of alien troops to Roman tactics and discipline in the legions, and probably even more critical of the dilution of the value of citizenship as it was continually expanded and eventually made universal by Caracalla. All of which makes me wonder how so many commentators can, with a straight face, offer up the proposition that Gibbon was interested in little more than bashing Christianity.
Prominent as he is, Gibbon is not the only thinker to have written on the subject, and many others have been as reductionist as his popular characterization. For example, von Mises, as one would expect, finds largely economic causes for the collapse, and makes a good case for it, though personally I think he may be looking a bit too late. In Human Action, von Mises argues the Diocletian and his successors, in making professions inherited, and in fixing prices, destroyed the economic power of Rome, sapped its military strength found in the free small holders, and generally set the stage for the barbarians to come in and take care of a corpse already eaten away from within.
I found another interesting argument in a book entitled Empires and Barbarians, though largely focused not on the collapse of Rome, but on the question of what really occurred during the many migrations starting from the early empire until the fall of Byzantium, it still dealt, if indirectly, with Rome's collapse, and made a fair case for several of the points Gibbon raised, mostly training barbarian auxiliaries who returned home to train enemy armies, as well as settling imperfectly integrated, or completely alien, tribes within the borders, creating groups which passed intelligence of the wealth and opportunities back to tribes still interested in war and plunder. The one point made in this work overlooked by Gibbon was how Roman wealth trickled out to the closest neighbors, gradually strengthening and modernizing them until they became valid competitors for Roman arms. The book did not make the comparison, but we can see something similar in the way the Greek city states elevated colonies and neighbors until non-Greek states such as Macedon, Epirus and others could rise to challenge and even defeat the Greeks.
As should be obvious, I have no real objections to any of these argument. All of them are valid in some way, painting at least part of the picture of what brought about the fall of Rome. However, I would argue that it is akin to saying someone was killed because his heart stopped beating. True, that was the final step in the process, but something else caused his heart to stop, and, that was in turn probably caused by something else. Of course, one could take this to absurd lengths and say we were all killed because we were born, as without birth none of the rest would have followed, but, ignoring such absurd extremes, I think it is possible to follow back a chain of causes and,maybe not with certainty, but with a fair amount of confidence, one can say there is some event which was the turning point, one event which, but for it happening, Rome could have continued on for a very long time. And, though I find the arguments offered interesting, I have to say that all of them come too late, they all present symptoms of a collapse already underway, or ,at most, contributing factors that made the collapse faster or more severe, but were not the original cause.
As I see it, Rome had two problems from the moment they expelled the kings. They had no clear ruling principles, relying instead on a free form, intuitive understanding of freedom, of the rights of citizens and of traditional privileges. They also had very strong class distinctions that allowed for a great deal of future mischief. However, neither of those were, in themselves, enough to destroy Rome. The Romans may not have had a set theory of freedom or rights, but they were very firmly dedicated to maintaining their way of life, the freedom of citizens and so on. In many ways, Rome was much like England, which also had, and to a degree still has, no fixed, established constitution, while having very clear cut social divisions. And, much like England, for quite some time, Rome survived and prospered under such conditions. There were ups and downs, such as the reforms of the Gracchi, the Social Wars, and many other struggles over what rights each class held, or who was to be recognized as citizens and who would not, but for several centuries Rome proved the equal of these struggles.
It was not until the rise of Gaius Marius*, and the Marian reforms of the army, as well as the subsequent civil strife bewteen Marius and Sulla, that I think Rome finally began its slow decline. I know many will disagree, and point to the fact that most of the expansion of the Roman Empire came after Marius and Sulla to prove it. However, I would argue, just because a state still seems to be growing, that does not mean the seeds of its destruction have not been sown. To draw an analogy, Germany was essentially doomed with the passage of the Enabling Act in 1933, but it would not end up falling for another 12 years, and in the interim it would subjugate most of Europe. Just because Hitler's mania managed to succeed for a time does not mean that his madness had not already condemned the state, it was doomed to eventual failure from the start.
Similarly, I believe that the essential change of the Marian age, or rather two changes, made the eventual creation of the Empire, and thus the inevitable fall of Rome, unavoidable. The Marian age introduced two features essential to the rise of Casear, the creation of armies more devoted to charismatic generals than the republic, and the introduction of strictly drawn class lines in politics, creating two clearly defined factions. Prior to Marius, class had played a part in politics, but I believe it was not until Marius that the stage was set for the eventual feud between optimates and populares that Caesar and the other triumvirs would play to their advantage.
Of course, these factors did not destroy Rome. They simply made it inevitable someone would eventually do what Caesar did, make himself king in all but name. And that is what destroyed Rome.
If you look at the things that destroyed Rome, from each and every list above, you will note one thing, nearly all of them are related to the establishment of empire. The decline of a native military and rise of mercenary troops? Of course! In a free state, men fight for their own, but when the emperor rules all, men tend to avoid service if possible, and fight poorly when drafted, creating the need for mercenaries and other similar substitutes. Price controls? A free state may, from time to time make such foolish mistakes, but they rarely persist in the face of the sort of dire consequences Roman price controls brought about, that takes a dictator. Hereditary professions? This too is clearly the outcome of an all powerful ruler, as it is unlikely a majority of free men would love their job so much they would want to make it hereditary. And the list goes on.
But it is not only the specific errors, so much as that empire made it all possible. As soon as you have a single ruler making decisions, you end up with two related problems. First, you have the constant threat of civil war, as death of the monarch is the sole means of changing government, and, as should be obvious, constant civil war is certainly one of the surest ways to weaken a state. Second, you have the constant possibility of a bad policy. Now, I know bad policies can exist in any government, but dictatorships tend to have a special affinity for bad policies. In representative states, even ones with very powerful governments, to some degree or another the rulers are subject to the laws, or at least see their effects. Dictators rarely feel the losses their subjects do, and so bad ideas can persist for a very long time, as the sovereigns are insulated from the consequences**. And thus, by creating a single all powerful ruler, you make it more likely bad ideas will be introduced, and, worse, will persist.
Add to those the secondary effects of dictatorships. The economic inefficiency, especially when favorites gain privileges and monopolies. The loss of civil spirit among the people, with the consequent decline in military service, patriotism, and so on. The increasing uncertainty engendered by arbitrary government, with the subsequent decline in investment, planning, large scale undertakings, savings and so on***. All of these simply add to the slow grind of absolutism, punctuated by intermittent crises, which gradually bring low even the most most mighty state.
And that, I believe, was the case with Rome. There were hundreds of causes of its collapse, hundreds of points at which it was made weaker, or collapse made more likely, but all of them were, in one way or another, the result of the loss of freedom and the rise of the emperors.
* See "Modern Marius and Sulla".
** See "Elective Government Versus Monarchy".
*** See "In Praise of Slow Changes", "Conservatism, Incremental Change and Federalism", "Predictability", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Traffic Lights, Predictability and Conservatism", "Inflation and Uncertainty" and "Juvenile Culture and Totalitarianism".
For those interested in more recent historical essays I suggest "Peaceful Matriarchies, Noble Savages and the Industrial Revolution", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age", "A Passing Thought", "The Best Historical Example", "Ordered Liberty and Our Modern Mindset", "Rethinking the Scopes Trial", "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution", "Knights and Bandits", "A Timeline Part One", "A Timeline Part Two" and "A Timeline Part Three".