Montreal, June 15, 2010 No 279


Martin Masse is publisher of QL.



Statism and the Decline of the Roman Empire*


by Martin Masse


          Historians have proposed several theories to explain the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Some have emphasized the influence of Christianity and its pacifist (at the time) and miserabilist notion of human relations, which contradicted the more brutal and merciless ethic required for imperial domination. Several have of course noted the irresistible advance of the barbarians along the borders of Rome and the military impossibility of controlling such a vast territory indefinitely. Others emphasized more specific causes like demographic decline due to the gradual poisoning of Romans who were drinking water contaminated with lead. Most of the time, it is these popular theories we are fed by historical documentaries shown on television.


          Less often raised, though it is the primary cause and the source of all the other ills, is the rise of state tyranny.

          A state is a structure designed for control and redistribution that feeds off the wealth produced by the population under its authority. When those structures are relatively flexible and accommodating, when laws are enforced in a relatively fair and predictable manner, individual initiative can flourish and a prosperous, civilized society can develop. When, on the other hand, laws are imposed in an arbitrary, tyrannical manner, they crush the initiative of individuals and bring about economic stagnation and ultimately political decline.

          This rule applies to the Roman Empire as well as to the Soviet Union or the Quebec provincial government. Just as a farmer who overexploits his fields will end up harvesting smaller and smaller yields, a government that squeezes the tax lemon and tightens the bureaucratic screw ever tighter will see its revenues diminish inexorably. In the case of an empire that must maintain order among a submissive population and keep its borders secure, the enormous means necessary to support an army can therefore lead to collapse. This is what happened to the Roman Empire, especially as of the 3rd century A.D.

An inevitable conclusion

          Michael Grant is probably the foremost contemporary populariser of Greco-Roman history. One can easily find one or another of his twenty or so published volumes in the History section of any bookstore. His writing does not reveal any libertarian sympathy, at least not in the four or five books I have read. His The Twelve Caesars is even rather kind toward the tyrants of the early Empire. But in The Fall of the Roman Empire(1), one gets the impression that he could not gloss over the inevitable conclusion: it is the tyranny of the imperial state, and especially oppressive taxation, that was primarily responsible for the fall of the Empire. This provides an analytical perspective that is not very far removed from what one would expect from an explicitly libertarian author.

          The anti-statist tone is on display right from the table of contents, where we find chapter titles such as: "The Poor against the State"; "The Rich against the State"; "The Middle Class against the State"; "The People against the Bureaucrats"; "The People against the Emperor"; "The State against Free Belief"; etc. Evidently, government was responsible for many of the ills of this world! After an overview of the main events of the time and a description of the army's problems, Grant gets right to the heart of the matter in this chapter opening: "The principal reason why the civil population would not maintain the army and fill its ranks was the massive burden of taxation demanded for this purpose―a gigantic imposition which alienated the poor from the states forever, in a disunity of fatal proportions." (p. 51)

          The emperors of this period tried, one after the other, to raise the funds needed to pay the soldiers―mostly made up of barbarians integrated into the Empire, since the long-established Roman population hardly participated in military service anymore. Ultimately, ruinous taxation became omnipresent:

          As for Theodosius I, his laws show a passionate desire to increase the influx of revenue by every possible means. 'No man,' he pronounced in 383, 'shall possess any property that is tax exempt.' And he set out by a whole spate of regulations to enforce this principle, with ever-increasing harshness.

          He did so at the cost of unprecedentedly ruthless methods. The employment of such methods for the collection of taxes was no novelty. It had been practised for more than a hundred years past. The third century AD, crammed with critical foreign and civil wars, had witnessed an almost total breakdown of the political structure and of national defence. This was a crisis from which the Empire was only rescued by fantastic military efforts. But the price of maintaining the recovery had been huge, permanent increase in taxation, and an intensification of all the numerous totalitarian kinds of pressure needed to rake its proceeds into the treasury. (p. 53)

          But it wasn't just the taxes, since "the payment of these huge taxes was only part of the contribution a citizen had to make to the state. There was also widespread requisitioning of his personal services. For example, he was compelled to provide wood and coal, especially for the use of state arsenals and mints; to boil lime; to supply expert labour of various kinds, if he possessed the qualifications; and to help maintain roads, bridges and buildings." (p. 55) And as we can well imagine, "there was also a terrifying amount of corruption involved in applying all these compulsions. The fraudulent oppressiveness of the bureaucrats showed itself particularly in the collection of taxes." (p. 56)

"This book deserves to be read by anyone interested in learning about the great currents of History and in drawing lessons to apply today. Of its genre, it is also one of the best books for the libertarian reader interested in Antiquity."

          Labour was lacking, not only when it came to finding bodies to serve as pin cushions for javelins, but also for farming the land and ensuring production in small industries. Elevated taxes led peasants to abandon fields that were not sufficiently productive. Selling one's own children into slavery to pay off one's debts became a widespread practice. Mobility and the freedom to travel were one of the advantages of having a single power controlling the entire Mediterranean basin, but this advantage had by then disappeared due to the requirements of taxation. Indeed, Diocletian ordered all of the inhabitants of rural regions to remain where they were registered in order to simplify tax collection. The result? "The consequence was that thousands of men despaired of making an honest living at all, and went underground to form travelling gangs of robbers and bandits." (p. 65)

Administrative centralization

          Greco-Roman civilization, like all great civilizations, developed first and foremost in the cities. The division of labour and commercial exchanges required for economic prosperity, not to mention social and cultural innovations, can only take place in an urban context. The cities of the Mediterranean basin remained relatively independent even in the Hellenistic kingdoms that followed Alexander's conquests, and even in the early days of the Roman Empire. But as of the 3rd century, emperors began confiscating city revenues, reducing their independence, annexing their territories, and centralizing administration. Stripped of the means required to maintain their infrastructures, cities entered a period of economic decline from which they would only emerge a thousand years later in Europe, beginning in the north of Italy and in Flanders.

          The urban middle class gradually disappeared, as well as the local leaders of the city-states who were responsible for the greatness of earlier ages:

          The functions of the city councillors were very different from what they had been at earlier epochs. At a time when the growing loss of their cities' autonomy had caused their actual municipal duties to become minimal, they instead found themselves virtually transformed into agents of the central authorities. For far and away their most important duty nowadays was to carry out work for the government, and, above all, to collect its revenues. It was incumbent upon councillors, and their sons when their turn came, to induce their fellow-citizens to disgorge the money taxes demanded by the state, as well as the required levies in kind: foodstuffs, clothing and the like. Moreover, the councillors were even required to assist in the management of imperial mines and estates and to help call up recruits for the army. (p. 82-83)

          Faced with this steadily deteriorating situation, the government reacted the only way it knew how: with repression. The state's tyranny expanded, leaders lost their footing, and the spiral of decadence deepened with every attempt to end it. In passages like this one, we can see what happens as any regime comes to an end, in any era:

          The outcome of this wildly uncontrollable proliferation of dishonest bureaucracy was shocking. Administration was paralysed. Remedies, if applied at all, proved ludicrously ineffective. Ten years after the death of Valentinian I, public criticism of these defects had become so loud that the authorities, in an absurd act of self-defence, pronounced it an act of sacrilege even to discuss the merits of anyone chosen by an Emperor to serve him. For the government was all too clearly aware of the bureaucrats' corruption, as well as of their power. It sought to combat such practices by frequent and strident edicts, regulations and warnings. Successive rulers threatened their officials with fines, banishment and torture and even death. In 450 Valentinian III specifically denounced tax collectors and a wide range of other financial officials. Then Majorian, too, assailed them in menacing and even insulting terms. But all this was clearly not of the slightest avail.

          Nor did the principal administrative remedy to which Emperors resorted prove any more helpful. This was ever intenser centralization, which not only slashed personal freedom still further but harnessed the government with increasing responsibilities which it was quite unable to carry. (p. 92).

When the Empire becomes a military camp

          In a few chapters in the final part of this short book―just 235 pages long―Grant focuses on other social, psychological, or religious causes that may have aggravated or accelerated the fall of the Empire. Still, the central pillar of his argument is excessive statism. An Austrian school economist would no doubt have elaborated upon the analysis of the devastating effects of the manipulation of the money supply on the economy, or upon other aspects of the dreadful imperial administration. But libertarian historians are not found on every street corner, and this volume is above all else intended to serve as an overview of this historical period for the general public, not as an academic analysis.

          This book deserves to be read by anyone interested in learning about the major currents of History and in drawing lessons to apply today. Of its genre, it is also one of the best books for the libertarian reader interested in Greco-Roman Antiquity, who usually has to contend with authors who are either explicitly socialist or who clearly understand nothing about economics. The following three paragraphs, from the opening of the chapter entitled "The People against the Bureaucrats", do an admirable job, all by themselves, of illustrating the classical liberal perspective on this crucial period of the history of our civilization:

          So throughout the last two centuries of the Roman world there was a fearful and ever-increasing loss of personal freedom for all, except the very rich and powerful. Ever since the arch-regimenter Diocletian declared that 'uncontrolled activity is an invention of the godless,' each of the leading rulers in turn hammered the nails in more fiercely. The Roman Empire had become a prison: or a military camp in a perpetual state of siege, where each man was assigned a place he must not desert. And his descendants must not desert it either.

          And so the whole of the population was in conflict with the government: there was disunity, or rather a whole series of disunities, on a colossal scale. The authorities desired and enforced the very greatest degree of regimentation that it was possible to obtain―even if this meant servitude for almost everybody―since this seemed the only way to raise the money needed to save the Empire.

          And yet the result was just the opposite to what was intended. Paradoxically, this regimentation did not halt the disintegration of the Roman world, but accelerated its destructive progress. The individual spirit of initiative that alone could have kept the commonwealth alive was stifled and stamped out by the widespread deprivation of personal freedom, which thus became one of the most potent reasons for Rome's collapse. (p. 89)

          In short, this is a book whose relevance is beyond question.


* This article was first published in French in QL no 62 May 13, 2000. It was translated by Bradley Doucet.
1. The book was first published in 1976, and then again in a revised edition in 1990. Several editions exist from different publishers. The version used here is the 1997 Phoenix Giant paperback edition.