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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Collapse of Rome (p. 374)

From chapter "Collapse"

War has certainly played a part in collapses of the past, and the collapse of the Roman Empire is particularly illustrative. The cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire has been an obsession of historians for centuries, but more recent explanations have moved away from mystical causes like “moral decay” and toward more rigorous understandings.

One of the most exhaustive analyses in the twentieth century was undertaken by influential historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who spent three decades writing his twelve-volume A Study of History, which traced the expansion and decay of more than twenty historical civilizations.

Although some previous historians had argued that the decline and fall of Rome was caused by some moral or political change, Toynbee did not agree. In his analysis, the problems had been there all along, and the empire was marching toward its own demise from the very beginning. The problem, according to Toynbee, was that the Roman Empire (like all empires, I would add) was not based on sustainable economics. Instead, he characterized the Roman system as Raubwirtschaft, German for a “plunder economy” or “robber economy”, a word which deserves more use in our everyday discussion of modern economics. Instead of actually producing things, Rome was externally based on continuing conquest and systematic plunder of colonies and subjugated territories, and internally based on the extensive use of slave labor. This of course recalls anthropologist Stanley Diamond’s famous opening to his book In Search of the Primitive, “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”

Writing decades after Toynbee, Joseph Tainter came to conclusions that share similarities with Toynbee’s. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Tainter observes that the Roman Empire “was paid for largely by the monetary subsidy of successive conquests. Captive peoples financed further subjugations, until the Empire grew to the point where further expansion was exceedingly costly and decreasingly profitable.”Eventually the Empire had successfully conquered most of its known world, and its series of expansionist wars came to an end in a period remembered as Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Superficially, Pax Romana was for some an era of relative prosperity, commerce, and peace (since the Empire had essentially expanded as much as it could). Underneath, though, the Empire was in trouble. Since the Empire was funded by continuing plunder, the fact that it could no longer expand meant that its Pax Romana was not a genuine peace, but simply a plateau, like the moment a ball tossed in the air seems to pause at the apex of its trajectory before it plummets back to earth. Also, even though the interior provinces were comparatively tranquil, discontent and rebellions in recently occupied regions on the frontier still made plenty of work for soldiers of the Empire.

Stop me if any of this seems familiar.

Tainter writes that as the Empire expanded, it required more and more money and resources to maintain its extensive infrastructure and armed forces. Without expansion, the Empire had to increase the exploitation of those already conquered in order to maintain itself. It increased taxation, forced peasant children into slavery, and devalued its own currency in order to artificially inflate the budget. As Tainter writes, the effect of this was to repeatedly pass on current expenses to future generations— again, stop me if you’re feeling a sense of déjà vu.

Eventually, of course, the Empire’s strategy of displacing costs and consequences caught up with it. Those living in the Empire became apathetic or disaffected: when they had directly or indirectly reaped the benefits of external conquests and exploitation, the Empire was able to buy their loyalty, but things changed when they were the ones being (openly) exploited. As treasuries emptied, Rome could no longer maintain its military, the outlying territories crumbled, and the “barbarians” moved in. The people were no longer sympathetic towards Rome, and many rose up and joined the invaders. Eventually they succeeded, Rome was sacked, and the Empire was split apart into declining remnants. Some historians mourn the fall of Rome as a descent into “The Dark Ages,” but for the vast majority of those who weren’t part of the elite, the removal of the Empire meant a notable improvement in their daily lives. Despite the mythology of toil developed about the so-called Dark Ages following the Roman collapse, many historians believe that medieval peasants actually worked fewer hours than Americans do today, in part because they didn’t have to support a parasitic ruler class.