The Fall of Rome
This is an excerpt of this book
Rome fell, to be sure. It just didn’t fall when it was supposed to. All the reference books say it fell in A.D. 476. But Romans didn’t know this, and kept the empire going for another two centuries or so.
Why have we been taught to believe it ended in A.D. 476? Because one day, about three hundred years ago, historians decided it would be easier for students if world history were divided into three periods: Ancient, Medival, and Modern. And they figured that 476–the year of Rome’s last emperor–was a nice date to use in marking the end of an epoch. But the selection of 476 was arbitrary.
Why did Rome fall? Was it because Christianity weakened the bonds that had held it together? Was it because people became corrupt? Was it because it just got too big? Was it because of the barbarian attacks? Was it because they had started using lead pots and got lead poisoning? (Yes, even this argument had been advanced) Or was it simply that empires always fall and somebody decided this was as good a time as any?
The correct answer is, of course, that none of these answers is correct. There wasn’t any single cause.
An underestimated factor may have been that they made too many stupid mistakes. Take Hadrians Wall, built in England at the time of Emperor Hadrian. A prudent government, concerned with the defense of the wall, would have installed a moat around the outside. But what did the Romans do? They built moats on both sides of the wall, at a cost, it is said, of a million days’ labor.
Why did they build the inside moat? Historians have forwarded fancy explanations, one being that an inside moat was a convenience for customs officials. But the chief conclusion, I think, is that the Romans did it because of stupidity, a conclusion they themselves seem to have reached a short time later when they decided to fill the inside moat.
That the collapse of the Roman Empire was a calamity is true. Seeing all the bad that came of it–the sacking of Rome, the destruction of art, the withering of great cities, the deterioration of the system of roads, the ruin of the Mediterranean trade, and the loss of European unity–it’s difficult to imagine any good came of it. But some good did result. The break up of the empire led to the abolition of slavery in Europe. Of course, this, in turn, led to the birth of serfdom. But the slaves were better off as serfs than as slaves.
Incidently, did you ever wonder why historians always refer to the sacking of Rome as “the sacking of Rome”? Nobody says Watts was sacked or Los Angeles was sacked, but Rome, it was sacked.
Who sacked it? Everybody thinks it was the barbarians alone who sacked Rome. But they got a lot of help from the slaves. In fact, the slaves probably did more damage to Rome than the barbarians did.
The sacking of Rome, in any case, is overated. It wasn’t the catastrophic event it’s been made out to be. You know when ancient Rome was really destroyed? It was during a wild building boom in the Renaissance.
It was like Vietnam. To save the place they had to destroy it. Take St. Peter’s basilica. This great edifice, “the oldest, largest, most sacred building in all of Christendom,” survived 1200 years. Then the Renaissance came along, and it was leveled.
Why? Americans will be delighted to hear this: it was because the Romans wanted something new. They were so proud of old Rome they wanted to hurry as fast as they could and rebuild it.
Whole sections of the city were demolished, sections that had survived the barbarian raids, the revolt of the slaves, numerous wars, and all manner of other calamities. It came about this way. Say you were building a brand new courthouse, and you wanted to put in a couple of columns, nice marble ones like the kind they used to use in the good old days. Where would you go to get them? Why, you’d take them from some old building somewhere.
Michelangelo and some others complained about the practice, but nobody listened.
What they did with Rome’s old statues, incidently, is even more appalling. They used them to make lime! Ever wonder what happened to the thousands upon thousands of marble statues made in ancient times? In the Renaissance they burned loads of them to make lime to make plaster. They could have quarried new marble to make plaster, of course. But this was easier.
You mustn’t think that it was just the Renaissance Romans who burned statuary to make plaster, though. Romans continued to do it later as well. One horrified archaeologist, in 1883, reported seeing old Roman statuary being burned to make plaster in a kiln near the atrium of Vesta. Eight of the statues, he observed, were “nearly perfect”.
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