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thousand years, at length extinguished the Roman empire. Gibbon tells us this expressly :-" The theory of war,” says he,“ was not more familiar to the camps of Cæsar and Trajan than to those of Justinian and Maurice. The science of tactics, the order, evolutions, stratagems of antiquity, were transcribed and studied in the books of the Greeks and Romans. Their magazines were plentifully stored with arms -in the construction and use of ships, engines, and fortifications, the barbarians admired the ingenuity of a people whom they had often vanquished in the field. But the solitude or degeneracy of the provinces could no longer supply a race of men to handle the weapons, to guard those walls, to navigate those ships, and to reduce the theory of war to bold and successful practice. Neither honour, nor patriotism, nor generous superstition, could animate the lifeless bodies of slaves and strangers, who had succeeded to the honour of the legions.” *
What, then, were the causes of decay which proved fatal at length to this immense and enduring dominion ? Philosophers in all ages have pondered on the causes ; but those bitherto assigned do not seem adequate to explain the phenomenon. Not that the causes of weakness are baseless or imaginary ; on the contrary, many of them were most real and substantial sources of evil. But what renders them inadequate to explain the fall of Rome is, that they had all existed, and were in full operation, at the time when the commonwealth and empire were at their highest point of elevation, and centuries before either exhibited any symptoms of lasting decay. For example, the ancient historians, from Sallust downwards, are loud in their denunciation of the corruption of public morals, and the selfish vices of the patrician classes of society, as being the chief source of the decay which was going forward ; while the growth of the republic had been mainly owing to the extraordinary virtue
of a small number of individuals. But the very circumstance of these complaints having been made by
Gibbon, vol. iv. chap. 46, p. 295. Milman's Edition. + "Mihi multum legenti multum audienti quæ populus Romanus domi militiæque præclara facinora fecissent, forte lubuit attendere quæ res maxime tanta negotia sustinuit. At mihi multa agitanti constabat, paucorum civium egregiam virtutem cuncta patravisse : eoque factum ut divitias paupertas, multitudinem paucitas, superaret."--SALLUST, Bell. Cat., 32.
Sallust in the time of Augustus, and the fact of the empire of the West having existed for four hundred, that of the East for fourteen hundred years afterwards, affords decisive evidence that this cause cannot be considered as having been mainly instrumental in producing their fall. How is the unexampled grandeur and prosperity of the empire under Nero, Adrian, Trajan, and the two Antonines, whose united reigns extended over eighty years, to be explained, if the seeds of ruin two centuries before had been sown in the vices and corruption of the rich patricians? In truth, so far was general luxury or corruption from being the cause of the ruin of the empire, the cause of its fall was just the reverse. It was the excessive poverty of its central provinces, and their inability to pay the taxes, which was the undoubted cause of the catastrophe. The nobles and patricians often were luxurious, but they were not a thousandth part of the nation. The people was miserably poor, and got more indigent daily, in the later stages of its decay.
Modern writers, to whom the philosophy of history for the first time in the annals of mankind has become known, and who were aware of the important influence of general causes on social prosperity, independent of the agency of individual men, hare assigned a different set of causes more nearly approaching the truth. Montesquieu says, the decay of the Roman empire was the natural consequence of its extension. This sounds well, and looks like an aphorism : but if the matter be considered with attention, it will be found that it is vox et præterea nihil. Those who, with so much complacency, rest in the belief that the fall of the Roman empire was the natural result of its extension, forget that its greatest prosperity was coexistent with that very extension. It is impossible to hold that the decay of the empire was the consequence of its magnitude, when the glorious era of the Antonines, during which it numbered a hundred and twenty millions of inhabitants under its rule, and embraced nearly the whole known habitable globe within its dominion, immediately succeeded its greatest extension by the victories, unhappily to us so little known, of Trajan.
More recent writers, seeing that Montesquieu's aphorism was a vague proposition which meant nothing, have gone a step further, and approached much nearer to the real explanation of the phenomenon. Guizot, Sismondi, and Michelet have concurred in assigning as the real cause of the decay of the Roman empire, the prevalence of slavery among its working population, and the great and increasing weight of taxes to support the imperial government. There can be no doubt that these were most powerful causes of weakness—perhaps, in truth, the immediate and ostensible causes of its ruin. Certainly they stand prominently forth from the facts recorded by contemporary annalists, as the immediate and visible causes of the decline of the empire. The history of these melancholy periods is full of eternal complaints, that men could not be got to fill the legions, nor taxes to replenish the treasury ; that the army had to be recruited from the semi-barbarous tribes on the frontier ; and that vast tracts of fertile land in the heart of the empire had relapsed into a state of nature, or were devoted only to pasturage, from the impossibility of finding cultivators who either would till the land, or could afford to pay the taxes with which it was charged. Doubtless the large proportion -at least a half, perhaps nearly two-thirds—of the people who were slaves, must have weakened the elements of strength in the empire ; and the enormous weight of the direct taxes, 80 grievously felt and loudly complained of,* must have paralysed, to a very great degree, both the industry of the people and the resources of government. But a very
little consideration must be sufficient to show, that these were not the real sources of the decline of the empire ; or rather, that if they had not been aided in their operation by other causes, which truly undermined its strength, it might have been great and flourishing to this hour, and that they appeared as the main sources of decay when other causes had really dried
up the sources of its strength. Slavery, it must be recollected, was universal in antiquity, and is so over two-thirds of the human race at this hour. Much as we may feel its evils and deprecate its severities, we ourselves, till within these three centuries, were entirely fed by serfs; and a few years only have elapsed since the
They were as high as £9 sterling-in the time of Constantine, a sum probably equal to £20 of our money. But the freemen were the higher classes alone, and it is probable a similar class, both in France and England, pay at least as much at this time.--See Gibbon, iii. 88.
whole of our colonial produce was raised by slave labour. America and Russia—the two most rising states in existence
-are, the former in part, the latter wholly, maintained by slaves. It was an army in a great measure composed of men originally serfs which repelled Napoleon's invasion, survived the horrors of the Moscow campaign, and carried the Russian standards to Paris, Erivan, and Adrianople. Alexander the Great conquered Asia with an army of freemen wholly fed by slaves. Athens, in the palmy days of her prosperity, had only 21,000 freemen, and 400,000 slaves. Rome itself, in its great and glorious periods, when it vanquished Hannibal, conquered Gaul
, subdued the East—in the days of Scipio, Cæsar, and Trajan
-was to the full as dependent on slave labour as it was in those of its decrepitude under Honorius or Justinian. Cato was a great dealer in slaves; the Sabine farm was tilled by the arms of rural serfs; Cincinnatus and Regulus worked their little freeholds entirely by means of that unhappy class
. Rome was brought to the verge of destruction, nearer ruin than it had been by the arms of the Carthaginians, by the insurrection of the slaves shortly after the third Punic contest, so well known under the appellation of the Servile war. It is perfectly ridiculous, therefore, to assign as a cause of the destruction of Rome, a circumstance in the social condition of its people which coexisted with their greatest prosperity
, which has prevailed in all the most renowned nations of the earth in a certain stage of their progress, and is to be found, in our own times, in states the most powerful, and the most likely to attain vast and long-continued dominion.
Equally futile is it to point to the weight of the taxes as the main cause of the long decline and final overthrow of Rome. Taxes no doubt are an evil ; and if they become excessive, and are levied in a direct form, they may come in the end to ruin industry, and weaken all the public resources to such an extent as to render a nation incapable of defending itself. But a very little consideration must be sufficient to show that it was not, in the case of Rome, the increase of the taxes taken as a whole, but the decline in the resources of those who paid them, which rendered them so oppressive. If, indeed, the national establishments of the Roman empire had gone on increasing as it advanced
in years, and grew in extent and the necessity of increasing them, until at length their charges became excessive and crushing to industry, the theory would have been borne out by the fact, and afforded perhaps satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon. But the fact was just the reverse. The military establishment of the Roman empire was so much contracted as it advanced in years, that whereas it amounted to 450,000 men in the days of Augustus, or more probably to 675,000, in those of Justinian it had sunk, as already noticed, to 150,000.* So far were the forces of Rome from being excessive in the later stages of the empire, or disproportioned to an empire still, after all its losses, holding so large and fair a portion of the earth under its dominion, that on the other hand they were miserably small; and the disasters it underwent were mainly owing to the government of the Cæsars never being able to equip an adequate army to repel the attacks of the barbarians. The force with which Belisarius reconquered Africa and recovered Italy never mustered seventeen thousand men; and the greater part of his successes were achieved by six thousand legionary followers. It was not the weight of the national establishments, therefore, but the diminished resources of those who were to pay them, which really occasioned the destruction of the empire.
There are two other facts of vital importance in considering the real causes of the gradual decay and ultimate ruin of the dominion of the legions.
The first of these is, that the extent of the decay was, in the latter stages of Rome, very unequal in the different provinces of the empire ; and that while the central provinces, and those in the neighbourhood of the metropolis, were in the most wretched state of decrepitude, the remote districts were in the highest state of affluence and prosperity. This important fact is abundantly proved by unquestionable authority, and it sheds a flood of light on the real causes of the ruin which ultimately overtook them all.
The state of agriculture in the Italian plains under the Cæsars, is thus set forth by Gibbon. Even before their
GIBBON, c. i. and c. xxxii. Agathias states the military establishment in its best days at 675,000, which is much more likely its real amount. Agathias, v. p. 157, Paris edition.