Historians have struggled with the question of why the seemingly invincible empire of Rome first began to decline than collapsed following the conquest of Italy by the Goths since as long as there has been academic debate: from Vegetius to Goldsworthy. Most contemporary historians would agree with the latter who said that “weakening central authority, social and economic problems and, most of all, the continuing grind of civil wars eroded the political capacity to maintain the army”[i] which was so essential in repelling the increasingly sophisticated enemies of the empire. Once the army was incapable of repelling the external invaders, Goldsworthy among others claim, the empire was conquered by virtue of superior military strength. This naive judgment while initially satisfying our pragmatic contemporary frame of reference fails to consider the psychology of the typical late empire Roman and what implications it had for the health of the state and the fulfillment of duty. In truth it was not economic or political duress which were the cause of the empire’s decline but rather were symptoms of a much more fundamental crisis brought about by Christianity, an ideology which would supplant the traditional Stoic-Roman conception of self-sacrificing civic duty to the Republic. It was the degeneration of Roman morality and virtue which brought about the end of the Roman Empire and the inflation, corruption, political instability and economic weakness witnessed before the collapse were nothing but smoke concealing a raging fire.
While the adoption of Christianity sounded the death knell for the ultimate fate of the Empire it had been in decline for two centuries prior to Constantine’s famous decree. In the early history of the Republic the Roman citizen valued virtue and selfless duty to the republic before all else. The people of Rome venerated the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who unflinchingly abandoned his farm and family to repel the Gauls as the ideal role model[ii] and found the incorruptible and austere Cato the Younger who dared to resist the tyranny of Gaius Julius for sake of upholding his duty to the republic as a living example of the embodiment of their national pride, so inspiring his compatriots to virtue and integrity[iii]. Both men embodied the Stoic virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and courage and were interpreted by Livy and Plutarch respectively as being ideal Romans: men who heroically served the community of the republic with no compromise and held loyalty not to individuals or to gods but the idea of what Rome could become, who laid down their lives in dutiful service, with no complaints. Polybian Roman soldiers fielded their own equipment and received no pay[iv], offering their service to war not for a reward but for love of the country and its people.
The Marian Reforms did away with army as described by Polybius by 107 BCE and replaced it with a professional system in which the soldiers were paid and provided equipment. Instead of a citizens militia levied in times of crisis the Roman army transformed into that of a standing force comprised of career soldiers on 20 year terms whose wealth became dependant on the fortunes of the campaign. The reforms of Marius planted the seeds of the moral corruption which would culminate with disastrous consequences by the 4th century CE as soldiers now shifted their loyalties to the individual generals leading the legions rather than the lawful command of the Senate. This shift in allegiance, from the law and the legislators of the community to the whims of generals would make possible the creation of the empire and the rise to power by men such as Sulla and Caesar, and later during imperial times following the collapse of the adoptive chain of the Five Good Emperors signal the so-called “Crisis of the Third Century” in which the charade of rule-by-law was abandoned in the stead of military infighting. The degeneration of Roman virtue from voluntary dutiful service for the sake of service to a society of mercenaries is not unlike the current social situation in the United States today and this cycle may afflict all Republics. This new ethic is most clearly illustrated in terms of the military but also must have been reflective in daily interpersonal interactions, leading the Roman people to increasingly delegate the operations of state and defense to professionals whose loyalty was capricious at best and which could and did shift at the drop of a sesterce. This degeneration of civic virtue was only compounded by a new corruptively divisive force which finally abolished it altogether: Christianity.
Christianity offered a new perspective on the Roman world by redefining the good of life[v]. The Roman citizen became more concerned with securing salvation in the afterlife rather than securing the borders from barbarian invasions and by the 4th century CE the vast majority of the army was composed not by Latins or Greeks but by Germans and other “barbarians” who still clung to their martial pagan roots[vi]. While the Roman citizens sat idly by and offered prayers to rescue them from an increasingly dire situation the Goth foederati “in a condition of almost perpetual turbulence and revolt[vii],” demanded increased pay that the shrinking imperial coffers simply could not accommodate, finally unseating the last feeble emperor in 476. Christianity inspired the Roman citizen to neglect the realm of the worldly and extinguished the flame of civic duty which had driven the Romans to against all odds defeat Pyrrhus and Hannibal; the Roman people abandoned the public life and surrendered the security of its borders to foreigners and professionals whose only loyalty was to the highest bidder. Rather than aspiring to create an ideal world created by man, made possible by a labor of blood and sacrifice the Roman citizen instead strived to be given an ideal world in death. The Roman citizen withdrew to faith rather than reason and to passive virtues rather than active ones. Instead of offering themselves in service to the army the citizenry remained at ease in their luxury, remaining weak-willed and bound to dogma and lives of complacency in the face of social collapse. This apathy and indifference toward corporeal matters is what, compounded with the materialism of Marius, lead to critically undermine the Roman state.
[i] The Complete Roman Army (2003) p. 214 Adrian Goldsworthy
[ii] Livy, Book 3, sect 14, Project Gutenberg
[iii] The Parallel Lives (1919), p. 257 Plutarch
[iv] Roman Warfare (1999) Adrian Goldsworthy
[v] http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gibbon-fall.html Medieval Sourcebook:
Edward Gibbon: General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West
[vi] Luttwak The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, p. 188
[vii] Grant, A History of Rome, p. 344