Historians over the past few decades have challenged the socially conservative interpretations of Rome's destabilization. These had been expounded, largely, by influential German academics (like Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, 1923) and British historians like Arnold Toynbee (A Study of History, 1931), who brought a new level of textual professionalism to the Anglo-American historical method. However, their analysis was also, in hindsight, darkly tarnished by their circumstances (both written between the World Wars, in the shadow of Versailles). For obvious reasons, these historians tended to focus on external sources of violence and internal elements of corruption; and when their accounts of Roman decadence hit the desks of historians around the world in the 1930s, something clearly rang true.
They put heavy emphasis on the strength of the medieval German tribes in bringing Europe to its knees (hmmm...), as well as stressing the inherent 'decadence' of the political leadership in Rome and underlying immorality of its citizens. For scholars at the time, these interpretations represented an interesting departure from the conclusions of Edward Gibbon, who pointed the finger largely at the inherent irrationality borne of the rise of Christianity, which had crippled the Roman "esprit de corps" and undermined her imperial "zeitgeist". The new German scholars had provided a wholly new reading of the 'invasions' of the third and fourth centuries and shifted the emphasis away from religious questions, which many academic historians were understandably uncomfortable addressing.
However, the historical evidence now put forward wholly underplays the vague historic presumptions of decadence, spiritual weakness or the introduction of 'thinning mongrel blood'1 (all causes taken quite seriously just a few decades ago). After all, moralistic insinuations about the psychological strength of a culture almost two millennia dead can be a bit difficult to substantiate. As one historian points out, for example, if one actually believed the Roman bloodline being thinned by new peoples had anything to do with the Empire's fall, it ought to be pointed out Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, Tactitus, Pliny, Juneval and Martial were all provincials. Not one of them was born of Roman ancestry, yet the exhibited understanding and intuition far beyond the pale of most of their Latin superiors.2
Soooo… (just as history tends in each period to be recast in the model of its own preoccupations) scholars now attending to this period focus almost exclusively on the material details of the empire's economic and political structure, as opposed to 'invasions from the North' or 'wanton vice' as underlying causes. Some key points:
Over-extended demands on the soil: governmental surveys from the period show agricultural land going out of cultivation across the empire, especially in Southern Italy and the province of Greece - Rome's primary continental farming areas. While Gaul, Spain and Egypt were still grain exporters at this point, local political/religious disturbances, ethnic uprisings and economic shortfalls effectively cut Rome off by the reign of Diocletian.3
Chronic rural labour shortages: ordinary farmers and craftsmen simply could not compete, economically, with the value of work offered by slaves, who flooded the labour market as the north-western Slavic regions of Europe came under imperial dominion (the word 'slave' being derived from Slav). 4
Pestilence: Justinian presided over Italy and her provinces just as the cities of the peninsula were stricken by one of the worst plagues in recorded history up to that point. Roman administrators were ill-prepared and under-staffed to deal effectively with the fallout. The already battered economy worsened.
Lower-Middle Class Taxation: The prodigious spending on frontiers pushed the imperial treasury perilously close to insolvency. The response of later emperors was to raise taxes to cover the shortfall, not on the elite senatorial or land-owning classes, but rather on farmers, merchants and new citizens. The result, as many historians have pointed out, was that Roman citizenship, once thought an honor world-wide, became a despicable burden; people left Italy for the north, preferring to live among the 'barbarians' rather than starve in the cities. In other words, just boring old bad economic policy.5
1 This mildly-offensive bit of eugenic historiography was the mastermind of Tenney Frank, who wrote sixteen books on the subject in the late 1920's and early 30's, stating at one point Roman funeral inscriptions from the period show 90% of her residents 'bore the taint of foreign birth' - a level of analysis was so esteemed University of Kansas still awards a $10K classics scholarship in his name.
2 H. J. Muller, The Uses of the Past : Profiles of Former Societies (NY: Oxford University Press, 1969), 212.
3 J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Barbarian West : The Early Middle Ages, 400 -1000 AD (London: Harper, 1962), 10.
4 H. Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1937), 17.
5 Another example: Roman emperors tended, when the treasury was depleted, to just order more coin be minted, with the resultant hyperinflation as the result.
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