Ancient History & Civilisation


The Fall of the Roman Empire


1.  Debating the decline of the Roman Empire

2.  Taxation and diminishing state revenues

3.  The loss of military capacity

4.  Demographic regression and plague in late antiquity

5.  The afterlife of ancient Rome

The spine of this book has been a narrative tracing the history of the Roman state, the Roman Empire, from 284, the accession of the emperor Diocletian, to the fall of Alexandria to the Arabs and the death of the emperor Heraclius in 641. At the beginning of this period Diocletian, during a twenty-year reign, much of it shared with his colleagues in the tetrarchy, introduced major changes to administrative structures and transformed state ideology to the extent that it is justifiable to think of the emperors from the beginning of the fourth century as being masters of a “new empire.”1 The end of the period is marked by an even more significant break, the moment when Constantinople, the new Rome, lost control of Egypt, its most important overseas territory and the main source of its food supply and of its tax revenue. By this date the Roman state had also relinquished control of the Near East to the Arabs, and the Asia Minor provinces had been rendered a virtual wilderness by the protracted wars with the Sassanians. The empire did not collapse entirely, but now consisted only of an impoverished Asia Minor, north of the Taurus mountains, the Aegean basin, and the eastern extremity of the Balkan peninsula.

Much of later Roman history has been a story not of one but of two empires. The Diocletianic tetrarchy created a geographically decentralized state ruled by two Augusti, with subordinate Caesars, based in strategically important capital cities. Soon after Diocletian's abdication in 305 the system broke down, and over the next sixty years the empire was dominated variously by one (Constantine, Julian), two (Constantine and Licinius) or three (Constantius, Constans, Constantine II) rulers, according to events and circumstances. From the accession of Valentinian and Valens in 364, the empire was again divided between east and west, and each half was ruled as a separate and independent entity.2 The eastern and western empires were morphological clones of one another, with identical military and administrative structures, similar taxation procedures, and a shared legal framework, whose notional unity is exemplified in the Theodosian Code, which was an amalgam of imperial decisions drawn from case law in both eastern and western provinces. The contradiction between empires which were unified in theory but quite distinct in practice is well illustrated by Priscus' account of the episode in AD 449 when the embassy from Constantinople to Attila, representing Theodosius II, encountered by chance a corresponding embassy to the Hunnic leader from the court of Valentinian III:

Here we met with some of the western Romans, who had also come on an embassy to Attila – the count Romulus, Promotus governor of Noricum, and Romanus a military captain. (Priscus Fr. 11.2; Blockley p. 262)

Each imperial embassy was fully independent of the other and had quite separate political objectives. Nevertheless all Roman legislation of this period was issued on the explicit authority of the two rulers, whose names duly appeared as the authors of every legal decision, thus creating an appearance of imperial unity. Through the fifth century it was always a major objective of the court at Constantinople to maintain and support the security and integrity of the western empire. Troops were sent from the East to support Honorius after the fall of Rome to Alaric in 410, to install Valentinian III as emperor in 425 in the face of the usurpation of John, to support the western empire's unsuccessful attempts to prevent the African provinces from falling under Vandal control in 435 and 441, and to help in the defense of Italy against Attila in 452. Above all, the emperor Leo dispatched the largest naval expedition of late Roman history to Carthage in 468 in a doomed attempt to destroy the Vandal kingdom and thus secure the western empire from ultimate collapse.3

This summary description envisages the Roman Empire as a huge transnational state, controlled by a monarch (or twin rulers for the split empire), who exploited a common ideology of rulership. Relying on the military traditions which had brought Rome to world power in the first century BC, the empire dominated neighbors and rivals by the systematic and effective deployment of military resources and threats of force. This military capacity in turn depended on an administrative capacity to raise taxes from the subject provinces. This way of describing the Roman state is not exhaustive or comprehensive. It passes over many of the cultural consequences of empire, such as its impact on religious developments, in particular the transformation of Christianity itself into an imperial religion, the spread and function of the classical languages Latin and Greek, the creation of an intellectual heritage derived from classical literature and art, and lifestyles reflecting the norms of behavior established in Graeco-Roman cities, for which we can use the shorthand description civilization.

The Roman Empire collapsed as a major political presence in the west by the end of the fifth century, and was a much weakened presence in the east by the mid-seventh century. The question of the decline and fall of Rome as a political and military power, which had been unfashionable in mainstream research on the Roman Empire for much of the period that followed the publication of A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, in 1964, has re-emerged in recent scholarship. W. Liebeschuetz, The Decline and Fall of the Roman City (2001), preponderantly examines an enormous dossier of evidence relating to the east up to the seventh century, while Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire. A New History of Rome and the Barbarians (2005), and Brian Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), deal with the consequence of the barbarian invasions of the western empire in the fifth century. The proposition that Rome's power declined in late antiquity is also the principal conclusion of David Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay (2004), summed up in the assertion that “the Roman State passed from hegemonic power to regional power in the course of the third and fourth centuries.”4 The studies of Heather and Ward-Perkins have been characterized as constituting a “counter-reformation” in the study of late antiquity,5 a reaction to the new historical approach initiated by Peter Brown and his followers. On the other hand scholars who have championed the approach to late antiquity as a period of innovation and creativity, one which generated vital new religious and cultural developments, have expressed regret that to study the late Roman world as a paradigm of imperial decline seems dispiritingly old-fashioned. Such an approach focuses attention mainly or exclusively on a limited number of central functions which constitute a narrow view of what the empire stood for. “An opportunity to offer a new survey of the later Roman Empire is also an opportunity to imagine how a new history might be written.”6

Preparing a revised edition of this book is not a moment to undertake an entirely new survey, but it is important to record that further revisionism is not only under way, but has firmly taken shape in work on the largest scale. Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages (2005)), has a strong claim to be the most significant new contribution to our understanding of the period, perhaps indeed the most important work on later antiquity to appear since A. H. M. Jones' great survey. Wickham himself has also written a large-scale history up to the year 1000, The Inheritance of Rome (2009). Another valuable panoramic study is P. Sarris, Empires of Faith (2011). Remarkably, the last two titles belong to series devoted to the history of Europe. Neither adheres geographically to European boundaries, either as defined in antiquity or today. The Inheritance of Rome devotes more than a quarter of its pages, and Empires of Faith more than three of its nine chapters to the “empires of the East.” Framing the Early Middle Ages is based on an exhaustive analysis of ten regions, three of which – Syria and Palestine, Egypt, and the Byzantine heartland – were all firmly non-European parts of the eastern Roman Empire. These studies adopt a broadly transitional approach to the period, fixated not on the decline of Rome but on the evolution of the economic structures, institutions, and cultural ideas of the later Roman Empire into those of the early Middle Ages or of early Islamic society. Thus much of the major impetus of contemporary work has reinforced the concept which first obtained wide currency with the publication of Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne, that the history of northwest Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East is only fully intelligible when it is approached as a unity.7 This is also a central tenet of most modern studies of late antiquity, which avoid being confined to the notional geographical boundaries of the Roman and Sassanian empires, or the world of the early Islamic caliphate.

This fresh work on the transition to the Middle Ages also relativizes, although it does not seek to deny the importance of the collapse of Roman imperial power. Wickham's work in particular diverts attention away from political history and the direct impact of empire to other underlying features of early medieval societies: “the form of the state (in particular its financing), the aristocracy (in particular its wealth), the peasantry and the structures of rural society, urban society and the economy, and networks of exchange.” This highly materialist approach can be conceived of almost as an archaeological excavation into the layers of social and economic organization that underpinned late Roman and post-Roman society, and it places the heaviest emphasis on questions relating to taxation, land-tenure and ownership, productivity, distribution of wealth, manufacture, and trade. It provides an opportunity for further reflection on the issues of Rome's decline, fall, and transformation, or, put in other terms, of the end of antiquity and the coming of a post-Roman era both in Europe and in the Near East.8

Taxation and Diminishing State Revenue

Taxation is at the heart of the distinction that Wickham, notably in his magnum opus, but also in earlier work,9 has drawn between strong and weak states in the late and post-Roman period. He places the Roman Empire and the successor eastern empires of Byzantium and the Abbasids into the first, and the western successor kingdoms of the Franks, the Visigoths, and the Lombards into the second category. Wickham argues that the essential political and economic distinction between the two types of state lay in the means at their disposal to raise revenue and the consequent methods of military funding. Sustainable imperial power depended on taxation, that is, the ability of the ruler, employing a professional bureaucracy, to demand and receive revenue in cash or kind from his subjects on a regular and recurring basis. The greatest challenges of running a state or an empire's finances through a tax system were to maintain the required levels of organization and record keeping, and to secure the population's compliance with state tax demands. As is evident in contemporary Europe, one of the important distinctions between economically strong and economically weak nations is between those with relatively secure and stable tax revenues, and those with a fragile tax base.

In the early medieval world the major theoretical alternative to taxation was for a ruler to use land as a tool to secure his political and economic viability. Rulers either drew wealth and income from land that they owned and controlled directly, or they could make gifts of land to others, by definition the aristocracy, and rely on them for military and political support. The tax system is relatively impersonal and institutionalized; the land system depends on the personal loyalty of the aristocratic landowners dependent on the ruler.10

The late Roman taxation system was more thorough and systematic than any that preceded it (see pp. 181–5). Agriculture and animal husbandry provided the state with most of its revenue, either in cash or in kind. Individual tax liability was based on the procedure known as iugatio capitatio, a combination of the land and poll tax, which was computed according to units of land, classified according to land usage (iuga) and the numbers of persons living on it (capita). The system depended on maintaining a census of the population and the cultivated land (including lists of farm animals), and keeping the registers up to date. This, at least in theory, was carried out on a fifteen-year cycle, the indiction cycle.

An elaborate bureaucracy combined with continuity of government was indispensable for taxing cultivators and their land in this way. Registers needed to be reasonably accurate and up to date for the system to work at all, and this was labor-intensive work which demanded high literacy and numeracy skills. As landowners and tenants alike were naturally reluctant tax-payers, the state also had to be able to enforce its demands, using both legal means and on occasion outright force. It is also evident that tax collection, which had to be devolved down to innumerable agents at a local level, was wide open to corruption, whenever powerful local officials chose to enrich themselves at the expense of tax-paying tenants, the state, or both together. Corruption is in fact too simple a concept to describe the phenomenon whereby powerful intermediaries, usually large landowners with a background in military or state service, usurped the role of officials in collecting and transferring revenues to the state.11

Peter Heather and Brian Ward-Perkins, in their accounts of the collapse of the western empire, highlight the breakdown or interruption of taxation as a major factor in the decline of Roman power.12 By the mid-fifth century barbarian invaders controlled much of Gaul, Spain, and Africa and thus drastically reduced the amount of taxable land under Roman control. Of course this increased the pressure on the remaining Roman enclaves, as was made clear by Salvian's On the Governance of God, written in the 440s, a Christian writer's attempt to explain the empire's setbacks in the face of the barbarian invasions. He makes the central point about the reduction of territory with exemplary clarity:

To conclude, the Spanish provinces know whereof I speak, for they have nothing left them but their name; the provinces of Africa know it, whose very existence is at an end; the lands of Gaul know it, for they are devastated, yet not by all their officials, and so they still draw the scanty breath of life in a few far corners, since the integrity of a few has supported for a time those whom the rapine of the many has impoverished. (Salvian, de gub. Dei 4.4, trans. Sanford)

The remaining landowners, pressed ever harder by the state, offloaded as much as possible of their tax obligations onto their tenants:

Now when the Roman commonwealth, already extinct or at least drawing its last breath in that one corner where it still seems to retain some life, is dying, strangled by the cords of taxation as if by the hands of brigands, still a great number of wealthy men are found the burden of whose taxes is borne by the poor; that is, very many rich men are found whose taxes are murdering the poor…Think a minute: the remedies recently given to some cities – what have they done but make all the rich immune and heap up the taxes of the wretched? To free the rich from their old dues they have added new burdens to those of the poor; they have enriched the wealthy by taking away their slightest obligations and afflicted the poor by multiplying their very heavy payments. The rich have thus become wealthier by the decrease of the burdens that they bore easily, while the poor are dying of the increase in taxes that they already found too great for endurance. (Salvian, de gub. Dei 4.6, trans. Sanford)

However, the evidence of Salvian and other contemporary sources only illustrates the particular difficulties that the western empire had in maintaining its tax base in the early fifth century, largely caused by a loss of territory to the barbarians. As long as taxation in principle was the mainstay of the Roman state economy, the lesson that was drawn by the post-Roman kingdoms of the west was to maintain the tax systems that were in place before the conquests. The Vandals stepped into the shoes of the Roman landowning class that they had expelled from Africa and used, at least haphazardly, the existing state infrastructure, including the public transport system (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 3.16.12).13 However, when the Romans recovered Africa for the empire in AD 533, they re-entered a province where revenue collection had been lax, and Justinian's rigorous imposition of the old land tax caused high levels of resistance and resentment:

Since it was no longer possible to find out the revenues of the districts of Libya set down in order in the registers, as the Romans had recorded them in former times, inasmuch as Geiseric had upset and destroyed everything in the beginning, Tryphon and Eustratios were sent by the emperor, in order to assess the taxes for the Libyans each according to his proportion. But these men seemed to the Libyans neither moderate nor endurable. (Procopius, Bell. Vand. IV.8.25, trans. Dewing)

Much of the resistance that spread over a generation following Justinian's reconquest of Africa took the form of a major tax revolt.

The Visigoths in Gaul until their kingdom was conquered by the Franks in AD 507, and later in Spain until the end of the seventh century, also maintained forms of land and poll tax on the late Roman model. This was also evidently Ostrogothic practice in Italy until the Justinianic reconquest, for, as Cassiodorus' Variae demonstrate, Theoderic and his successors employed the full apparatus of late Roman administration to run the kingdom on their behalf, and taxed the existing Roman population, although the Gothic settlers remained immune. Among the major barbarian kingdoms of the West only the Franks, who had not been part of the first wave of conquest in the early fifth century and were least exposed to Roman influence, effectively abandoned taxation as a significant source of state revenue before the end of the sixth century.14 In fact by AD 450 there were few major Roman landowners in Frankish territory between the Loire and the Rhine, and in contrast to the Mediterranean areas a greater proportion of potentially taxable land was directly occupied by the Franks themselves, who would not have been liable to Roman land tax. Thus there was much less reason for Merovingian than for Visigothic or Ostrogothic rulers to maintain a method of raising tax revenue in the Roman fashion, with its attendant bureaucracy.

Just as Rome's ability to retain control of its tax base faltered in the west during the first half of the fifth century, there are clear indications of similar problems, although for different reasons, a century later in the east. Peter Sarris has argued persuasively that the growth in power of large estate-owners was at the root of a pervasive fiscal crisis in the eastern empire of the fifth and early sixth centuries. The dominant elite in the eastern provinces, above all in the richest province, Egypt, comprised a new aristocracy of high-flying state servants, members of the Constantinopolitan senate, who had been enriched by imperial office holding. They owned much of the land and took over powers that had formerly been exercised by city councils. Crucially, they assumed responsibility for collecting taxes from their tenants, and were able to use their position and connections to ensure that much less of this revenue reached the state treasury than hitherto (pp. 377–9). Tax income suffered accordingly. It is true that the emperor Anastasius acquired a reputation for good financial management and for amassing a treasury surplus at the beginning of the sixth century, but this had come at the cost of neglecting military expenditure. More importantly, the favorable judgment of Anastasius' financial management reflects the viewpoint of the senatorial class, which was powerful enough to retain control of its landed wealth and pay lower taxes. Justin, and especially Justinian after he took sole power in 527, attempted to recover a higher level of imperial revenue. Over the next fifteen years a torrent of legislation, especially the Novellae concerned with provincial government, was aimed at curbing the powers of great landowners, staunching corruption, and increasing tax revenue.15 These attacks on the interests of the wealthy landowning class were naturally unpopular with many senators, and their resentment goes far to explaining the contemptuous critique of Justinian that Procopius articulated in his Secret History, which consistently defends or represents the viewpoint of the conservative senatorial class.

Justinian's attempts to increase treasury income were necessary in view of high state expenditure on warfare and building projects. However, state finances were at full stretch to pay the costs of Justinian's belligerent foreign policy, and on top of this they encountered a shock that no legislation could overcome, the demographic catastrophe caused by the bubonic plague. Whatever its longer term demographic consequences, contemporary sources suggest that up to a third of the population may have perished in the period 542–545, and many administrative procedures, including tax collection, will have been brought to a virtual standstill.16 The gains that legislation had achieved for the treasury in the first part of Justinian's reign were set into reverse, and the decline can be followed for the rest of the sixth century.17 Rome's diminishing ability to levy tax in Asia Minor between the late fourth and the late sixth century provides a telling illustration of this decline. Two sources of information provide detailed views of social and economic conditions in the Anatolian countryside at these periods, the letters of Basil the great bishop of Cappadocian Caesareia in the 360s and 370s, and the Life of Theodore of Sykeon, relating to Galatia between c.550 and 613. Basil's letters reveal that the predominantly rural province of Cappadocia was crawling with tax collectors, including members of the curial class of Caesareia, and tax assessors. A large proportion of his correspondence consists of appeals addressed to high officials both in the province and in Constantinople to secure remittance or alleviation from the state's tax demands, which are referred to in one letter as a “many-headed hydra” (Basil, ep. 285). Collecting the land and poll tax in the eastern empire during the reign of Valens was an imperial priority, rigorously conducted.18 By the later sixth century tax collectors, whether working directly for the state or as agents of major landowners, had almost entirely disappeared from the landscape. The long Life of Theodore contains only a single reference to tax collection, the activities of a citizen of Ancyra who was charged with collecting government revenue from the inhabitants of the saint's home village, Sykeon. The villagers took refuge in Theodore's monastery to avoid this unwelcome attention.19 It is evident that the state's ability to collect taxes in the eastern empire had been drastically reduced.

In the chaos of the early seventh century, under Phocas and Heraclius, it will have been even harder to maintain levels of taxation. Both Asia Minor and the Near East were overrun by invading Sassanian armies, and Egypt itself was under Sassanian control from 616 to 629. While the cities of Asia Minor for the most part were comprehensively devastated, those in Syria largely survived, but their revenue was diverted to the Sassanians.20 In order to pay the troops during his military counter-offensive, Heraclius was forced to turn confiscated Church silver into bullion (see pp. 457–8). Rome had by now altogether lost its capacity to tax provincial landowners.

The inability to derive tax income from its provinces was thus as much a weakness of the eastern Roman Empire in the final century before the rise of Islam, as it had been in the fifth century west. Revenue was insufficient to maintain even small armies in the field; major mutinies and military defections are a notable feature in the historical narratives of Justinian's and later wars. State bankruptcy was a sure symptom of acute Roman decline.

Nevertheless, as in the west, post-Roman authorities were eager to inherit the Roman taxation system after the collapse of the eastern empire and adapt it to their own requirements. The test case is Egypt and is illustrated by the archive of administrative letters of the early eighth century from the small town of Aphrodito, written in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek, which were exchanged between Qurra, the Muslim governor of Egypt, and the local pagarch, Basilios. These above all concern the rigorous exaction of tax exactly according to the late Roman pattern: poll tax, land tax both in cash and in produce (mainly grain), and the expenses of public officials.21 Although Egypt was the wealthiest potential source of tax income in the parts of the Roman Empire controlled by the Arabs, it was not unique. The papyrus finds from the town of Nessana in the Negev, which span two centuries from around 500 to 700, fall revealingly into three groups. The first, dating before the Arab conquests, includes documents relating to marriage, divorce, property sales, contracts, loans, debts, and small-scale commercial transactions mostly among a small military community at the settlement. These are followed by a cluster of documentation from the early seventh century dealing with the affairs of a monastery of St Sergius and various church officials. The majority of documents from the third group, dating to the end of the seventh century when the area was under Muslim rule, consist in demands or receipts for taxes, including the land and poll tax, or requisitioning of transport services.22In Palestine, as in Egypt, the Arabs not only inherited the Roman modes of taxation but enforced them more stringently than before. The general rule that taxation applied to the existing subject population, not to the incoming conquerors, is observable in the former eastern as in the western empire. Although eventually the system of taxation based on land registers eventually gave way in the west, ultimately leading to the emergence of the feudal system, no such evolution is evident in the east. Looking much further ahead it is clear the iugum, the notional land unit which was the basic building block on which assessments of late Roman taxation were based, continued to be used in Asia Minor during the Byzantine Empire and under their successors, the Ottomans (under whose regime it was known as the çift, the term for a yoke of oxen), up to the modern period.

Fiscal collapse can be identified as one of the proximate causes of the fall of the western, and of the implosion of the eastern empire. However, Roman taxation procedures did not perish when Rome surrendered territorial control to its enemies, but were inherited by successor states of all types. They fell out of use in the early medieval West at varying rates, partly resulting from the inability of successor kingdoms to maintain the necessary bureaucracy, and partly from the depletion of the taxable population. In general terms population levels throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East certainly dropped sharply after the mid-sixth century (see pp. 479–91). Even so, where the resident populations still retained title to the land, it made sense for the incomers to try to operate Roman-style taxation. On the other hand when the conquerors took direct control of the land, and themselves enjoyed tax immunity, taxation as an institution lapsed.

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