by Martin Masse*
and the Decline of the Roman Empire** (Print Version)
Le Québécois Libre, June
15, 2010, No 279.
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
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.
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.
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)
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
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
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
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.
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.
is publisher of QL. ** This article was first published
in QL no 62 – May 13, 2000. It was translated by