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Lessons from Rome; Moral Decay and Corruption

What Our Current Historians Neglect to Tell You

The fall of the Roman Empire is one of the most written about subjects in western civilisation. It has been said that there are more then 220 different theories formulated on why the Roman Empire fell, but throughout the centuries no consensus has emerged about what was or were the leading causes of this terrible downfall. In the past, contemporary, or later Western historians, spoke about the influences of Moral Decay on this decline, the issue of declining virtue amongst Roman men and leaders. Historians today reject this theory. They will claim semi “scientific” explanations which imply lead poisoning or environmental degradation might be the main cause of this catastrophic event. This is somewhat to be expected. Historians will not dare to deviate from something they cannot prove by archaeology. 

Recently I read an interesting quote on the theory of Moral Decay within Rome: “To discuss it is, implicitly, to discuss our own society and its values or lack of them. It can quickly become a political instead of historical question.” While I was not at all surprised by a member of our intellectual elite trivialising the consequences of Moral Decay, it also struck me as a statement that requires a response. Because learning from and discussing Moral Decay in this context is inherently a political question, and this is a good thing. We should learn from history so we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. We need to study the depravity, corruption, decadence and lack of virtue of the Roman Empire to ensure we do not fall in the same traps. This article isn’t about analysis of the trace amount of lead left in Roman skeletons. It is about what some conservative historians and contemporary writers knew about what probably caused institutional rot within the Empire.

The Corruption of Wealth and Money

Initially, during the Roman Republic, the upper classes would tend to pay their fair share of taxes and would offer their services to the military. During the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, when 50,000 Romans would perish, the senate lost nearly one third of it’s members. The upper class of Rome clearly paid to their country in blood and gold. During late antiquity however, the Roman Elite would use their connections to ensure they would be taxed less, next to that the mandated military experience to go into office was required less of them or not at all. While during the Republic the 1% was generally 20 times more richer than the average Roman, this changed during Imperial times where a senator was on average 100 times wealthier than his Republican historical counterparts. 

The problem about the Roman system was, that while initially during the Republic there still were small landholders, this changed during the Empire where the small landholders had been squeezed out by the ultra rich who held vast tracts of lands. Not only did the rich get richer during this time, the people in the middle got pushed more and more into poverty. Those at the top did not bother with this since low taxes and power for them was assured and secured. The Roman nobleman as a virtuous citizen who would bleed or pay for his country was a memory of the past. The Roman Elitist Nobleman, as a man out for himself and one who saw “serving” Rome as an financial opportunity instead of a duty was the leader of the future.

The Roman economy, initially being constantly strengthened and enriched by the looting and occupying of new lands came into trouble when there were no new conquests to be made. To fill the gap created by dwindling revenues and ever growing expenditures the Empire started inflating it’s currency. While initially in 210 AD, a Roman denarius was worth 50% less silver than what it once had been. 60 years later, this percentage dropped even further to just 5% silver. This enormous inflation nearly rendered the Roman denarius useless, soldiers refused to be paid by it, and some tax collectors refused to accept it. Around 300 AD the Roman Empire “fixed” this problem by simply not collecting denarius as tax, but by making taxes payable in wine, oil, clothes, meat and wheat. Since this was vastly more complex than taxing people in an amount of coins, the bureaucracy needed to expand as well. This naturally led to additional growing costs for the Empire in a time where new costs were not at all welcome to the Imperial treasury. 

The Corruption of Entertainment 

When one thinks of Rome, or the Roman Empire it’s hard to not think about the Colosseum. It’s an epic feat of classical architecture, a stadium which could hold at least 50,000 spectators. But the Colosseum also a has symbolical value, it is the symbol of a society focused more and more on shallow entertainment instead of the reality of life. The Colosseum is also the symbol of an Elite that knows how to keep the people distracted from more important things. The Roman ultra rich would generally pay for the games organised in these arenas, and the people would be admitted for free. Around 100 AD the Roman satirical poet Juvenal tells us what he thinks about these games organised by the rich:

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the people have abdicated our duties; for the people who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things; bread and circuses” 

The criticism Juvenal makes here of his fellow citizens of Rome is the following: Juvenal noticed that his people where no longer interested in their historical birthright, they no longer had a taste for heroism. They were only interested in Bread and Games to distract them from anything that might be unpleasant. The handing out of free bread and the organising of elaborate games bought the elites the favour of the people. To give one a sense of how much this escalated, during the Imperial era there were more then 135 days of games, festivals and horse races every year. Just imagine, a society and empire clearly in decline still dedicating 135 days to parties and festivals, combined with an Elite which would not only encourage this kind of behaviour, but actively try to finance this, all in pursuit of individual power.

The Corruption of the Borders

Around 117 AD Rome covered 5,000,000 km2 of land. With this came immensely stretched borders which were costly to protect. During 100 and 500 AD the Vandals, Saxons, Franks, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Angles and the Huns all decided to cross the border into Roman lands. In our current enlightened age we call people who come to steal, plunder, profit, kill and rape, “refugees”. The Romans called these people Barbarians and actually tried to stop them by force. Only after not being able to stop the barbarians at the borders, the Empire came up with a new concept, the admitting of these hostile barbarian groups to the empire. This was done by splitting them up, giving them land and status within a region of the empire. The Roman elites were to benefit. This concept of border appeasement provided cheap labour via a system of unfree workers for the landowners and recruits for the army. Vegitius, a Roman military writer would in 400 AD claim that the admitting of barbarians into the ranks of the empire had decreased the overall state of preparedness of the army. He also said it exasperated the dangerous trend of troops being more loyal to their local commander than to Rome itself. The initial Roman plan was that if enough true “Roman” forces would keep these new Barbarians surrounded, then it was assured they would be assimilated in Roman culture in one or two generations. When one looks at how the Western Empire eventually dissolved in new kingdoms among tribal lines and how these tribes reacted to this policy of appeasement, this policy can be considered an utter failure. This particular story also teaches us that weakness at the borders, disguised as benevolence towards those who attack you, is a deadly cocktail for every society.

Conclusion

Although Moral Decay, corruption and distractions can not be found in the ground, one wonders if that is a valid reason for them to be ignored as serious signs that a society is collapsing. After reading much about the fall of the Roman Empire, I see many parallels with our current situation in the EU. We too have an Elite class which wants to enrich themselves and their friends at our expense. They too use inflation as a tool to keep us poor. We too have an Elite class who control the organs of entertainment and uses this to steer us into the right direction, and we too struggle with barbarians at our borders who are not to be stopped and who have to be appeased. But oh well, a new sportsball match is on in a huge round arena, better focus on that and be happy than to worry too much and try doing something about it. 

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