Bread and Circuses
Ask most Americans why Rome declined and they’ll say “Decadence. It was all those orgies and free sex,” although the average Roman probably went to about as many orgies as you do. Most are blissfully unaware that one of the principal causes Edward Gibbon gave for the decline of Rome was the rise of Christianity - not the pragmatic and technological monasticism of the West but the mystical variety in the East. And he’s far from the last writer to note that an upsurge of cultism paralleled the decline of Rome.
I recently posted a note on the fact that it does conservatives no credit that they named one of their leading think tanks after the Roman censor,Cato the Elder. I quoted remarks by H.G. Wells in his Outline of History. What Wells has to say about the demise of Roman liberty is worth quoting at length, because it’s frighteningly familiar to us today.
We must note here, in a brief section, a change in the military system of Rome, after the Second Punic War, that was of enormous importance in her later development. Up to that period the Roman armies had been levies of free citizens. Fighting power and voting power were closely connected; the public assembly by centuries followed the paraphernalia of a military mobilization, and marched headed by the Equestrian centuries, to the Campus Martius. …. They fought extraordinarily well, but at the back of their minds was an anxious desire to go back to their farms. For prolonged operations, such as the siege of Veii, the Romans reinforced and relieved their troops in relays….
The necessity for subjugating Spain after the Second Punic War involved a need for armies of a different type. Spain was too far off for periodic reliefs, and the war demanded a more thorough training than was possible with these on and off soldiers. Accordingly men were enlisted for longer terms and paid. So the paid soldier first appeared in Roman affairs. And to pay was added booty. Cato distributed silver treasure among his command in Spain; and it is also on record that he attacked Scipio Africanus for distributing booty among his troops in Sicily. The introduction of military pay led on to a professional army, and this, a century later, to the disarmament of the ordinary Roman citizen, who was now drifting in an impoverished state into Rome and the larger towns. The great wars had been won, the foundations of the empire had been well and truly laid by the embattled farmers of Rome before 200 B.C. In the process the embattled farmers of Rome had already largely disappeared. The change that began after the Second Punic War was completed, towards the close of the century in the reorganization of the army by Marius, as we will tell in its place. After his time we shall begin to write of “the army”, and then of “the legions”, and we shall find we are dealing with a new kind of army altogether, no longer held together in the solidarity of a common citizenship. As that tie fails, the legions discover another in esprit de corps, in their common difference from and their common interest against the general community. They begin to develop a warmer interest in their personal leaders, who secure them pay and plunder. Before the Punic Wars it was the tendency of ambitious men in Rome to court the plebeians; after that time they began to court the legions.
Because of its policy of treating Spain as a source of slaves and taxes, the Romans had three centuries of nearly uninterrupted guerrilla war in Spain. So they needed a permanent army. Conscripted soldiers often found their farms confiscated for debt while serving in the Army. Since there was no real system for paying an army properly, Roman soldiers began looking to their generals for sustenance. The legions’ loyalties were to their generals, not to Rome.
There can be no, doubt that all Italy, all the empire was festering with discomfort, anxiety, and discontent in the century after the destruction of Carthage; a few men were growing very rich, and the majority of people found themselves entangled in an inexplicable net of uncertain prices, jumpy markets, and debts; but yet there was no way at all of stating and clearing up the general dissatisfaction. There is no record of a single attempt to make the popular assembly a straightforward and workable public organ. Beneath the superficial appearances of public affairs struggled a mute giant of public opinion and public will, who sometimes made some great political effort a rush to vote or such like, and sometimes broke into actual violence. So long as there was no actual violence, the Senate and the financiers kept on in their own disastrous way. Only when they were badly frightened would governing cliques or parties desist from some nefarious policy and heed the common good. The real method of popular expression in Italy in those days was not the comitia tributa, but the strike and insurrection, the righteous and necessary methods of all cheated or suppressed peoples. We have seen in our own days in Great Britain a decline in the prestige of parliamentary government and a drift towards unconstitutional methods on the part of the masses through exactly the same cause, through the incurable disposition of politicians to gerrymander the electoral machine until the community is driven to explosion.
Up until now, Rome had been lurching erratically toward real progress toward equality. Now it all began to unravel, as wealth and political power re-concentrated in the hands of the elite.
In this curiously interesting century of Roman history we find man after man asking, “What has happened to Rome?” Various answers are made: a decline in religion, a decline from the virtues of the Roman forefathers, Greek “intellectual poison”, and the like. We who can look at the problem with a large perspective, can see that what had happened to Rome was “money:” the new freedoms and chances and opportunities that money opened out. Money floated the Romans off the firm ground, everyone was getting hold of money, the majority by the simple expedient of running into debt; [emphasis mine] the eastward expansion of the empire was very largely a hunt for treasure in strong rooms and temples to keep pace with the hunger of the new need. The Equestrian order, in particular, became the money power. Everyone was developing property. Farmers were giving up corn and cattle, borrowing money, buying slaves, and starting the more intensive cultivation of oil and wine. Money was young in human experience and wild, nobody had it under control. It fluctuated greatly. It was now abundant and now scarce. Men made sly and crude schemes to corner it, to hoard it, to send up prices by releasing hoarded metals. A small body of very shrewd men was growing immensely rich. Many patricians were growing poor and irritated and unscrupulous. Among the middle sort of peoples there was much hope, much adventure, and much more disappointment. The growing mass of the expropriated was permeated by that vague, baffled, and hopeless sense of being inexplicably bested, which is the preparatory condition for all great revolutionary movements.
Like a baby born with AIDS, the Roman Empire was infected before birth with what eventually killed it.