Monday, May 16, 2022

Guest Post: Summary of a Recently Published Book about the Fall of the Roman Empire.


 Dr. Michael Arnheim Sometime Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge

                                        Barrister at Law

My latest published book, number 23 to be precise, offers a completely new take on Roman history, and indeed on history as a whole:  Why Rome Fell: Decline and Fall, or Drift and Change?  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2022.)

The book focuses on three vital social measures, which are largely ignored by most other historians, namely power structure, social ethos, and religious toleration. The power structure is the gauge of who has the whip-hand in a society, which correlates to some extent with social mobility, liberty and equality.  The evidence of societies over three millennia reveals that there have only ever been two pure forms of government: monarchy and oligarchy (the latter, if hereditary, morphing into aristocracy.)  This is based on my own original analysis of the power structure of a number of different societies, a concept completely unknown to practically all other historians. It is explained in Chapter 6 of the book, complete with case studies of societies ranging from Classical Greece to Modern France.  This is completely different from and independent of all previous classifications, including those of Plato, Aristotle and Polybius, and all modern classifications, including the one-note “oligarchy” theories of Mosca, Pareto, Michels and (surprisingly) Sir Ronald Syme.  (The only analysis that is at all similar to mine is Machiavelli’s.  See pages 292ff of my book).  The long sweep of Roman history constitutes a valuable resource for analysis, combining as it does both forms of government.  It is a fallacy to think, for example, that the Roman Republic (509-44 BCE) was ever anything other than an oligarchy, or that democracy has ever existed in reality at any time or in any place.   However, as far as social ethos is concerned (another concept alien to most historians), this was aristocratic throughout, regardless of the form of government. 

The picture that emerges is very different from the conventional one, and even more different from that purveyed by the currently fashionable “Late Antiquity” tendency.  According to my analysis, the most crucial turning point was not 476, when the last Western emperor was deposed, nor 395, when the Empire finally split into two, nor even Diocletian’s accession in 284, but the Edict of Thessalonica of 380 making Nicene Christianity the sole exclusive religion of the Roman world, which ended over 800 years of religious toleration and ushered in more than 1500 years of religious intolerance and persecution.

Mary Tudor

Power structure

While touring his Eastern provinces, we are told, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138) curtly brushed aside an insistent suppliant with the excuse that he had no time to hear her petition. But the woman concerned was not to be quite so easily deterred.  “Then don’t be king!” came her retort.  Stung by this rebuke, Hadrian relented.  (Cassius Dio 69.6)   Similar anecdotes are related of other rulers, including Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, and Demetrius, a later king of Macedon.  And Hadrian’s predecessor and adoptive father, Trajan (r. 98-117), is said to have interrupted his journey to war in order to comfort a widow whose son had been killed in battle.  It was on the basis of this considerate act that Dante admitted Trajan into Paradise---the first pagan to be accorded this honor. (Dante, Paradiso XX 43-48, 106-117.)

Is there any truth in any of these anecdotes?  Quite likely.  They all reflect a view of monarchy as creating a bond between the ruler and his subjects---and especially his humblest subjects.  Hence the rebuffed petitioner’s cry, “Then don’t be king!” ---implying that it is the duty of a true king or emperor to be responsive to the needs of the lowliest of his subjects. 

This is a model of government that may be labelled popular monarchy or even populist monarchy, where there is a bond between the ruler and the masses against the aristocracy.  The flip side of this model is oligarchy or aristocracy, where power is in the hands of an elite minority, who tend to be viscerally afraid of the rise to monarchy of a strong popular leader as a possible threat to their monopoly of power.

The Roman Republic (509-44 BCE) is a prime example of oligarchic government. The whole Republican constitution was geared to preventing any one individual from becoming too prominent. Hence the two consuls as joint and equal heads of state holding office for only one year. Hence the shared office-holding of the lower magistracies as well.  And hence too the annual elections to these offices. The appointment of a dictator was the one exception to this pattern, but it was resorted to only at times of extreme national crisis, and restricted to a tenure of six months---that is, until it became the avenue for ambitious generals to subvert the oligarchy.

In accepting the title dictator perpetuo, (“dictator in perpetuity”) in 44 BCE, Julius Caesar effectively brought the Republic to an end by unabashedly replacing the oligarchy with himself as sole ruler for life. In so doing he also unintentionally spurred an aristocratic conspiracy to cut short his life tenure on the Ides of March just a few weeks later.

Julius Caesar

The lesson was not lost on Caesar’s heir, Augustus, who emerged victorious after two civil wars. He established a lasting monarchy based on popular support inherited from Caesar while placating the eclipsed aristocracy with a show of participation in his administration.  Gibbon remarked on: “The indissoluble union and easy obedience that pervaded the government of Augustus and the Antonines.” (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776, Ch 51) This exemplar of strong popular monarchy lasted, with a few hiccups, for well nigh three centuries.

With the accession of Diocletian in 284 the careful finesse of the Augustan “Principate” was cast aside in favor of a crude military regime dubbed by modern historians the “Dominate,” which successfully tackled the crisis that had beset the empire, complete with a ham-fisted draconian price edict. which (among about a thousand products) set the maximum price for a lion (not exactly a household commodity) at 150,000 denarii.

Between 306 and 324 Constantine’s dominion was purely in the West, the stronghold of the senatorial aristocracy, who had been ousted by Diocletian from the carefully modulated role that they had played as provincial governors for three hundred years.  To win their support, Constantine brought this highly influential and extremely wealthy class back into government in the West, where their importance grew until the dissolution of the Western Empire.  And aristocratic influence actually continued well into the Middle Ages, especially in what is now France.

From 324, when Constantine added the East to his dominions, his attention shifted to his new capital, Constantinople.  In the Eastern half of the empire, which split from the West in 395, as what is now known as the Byzantine Empire, the “Dominate” supposedly continued in force for another thousand years, until what was left of it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.  Lacking the popular support of the Augustan Principate and the counterweight of aristocratic ballast, the apparently all-powerful Byzantine emperors in practice shared their power with overweening eunuch chamberlains and a potent Church. 

Social mobility

Under the Augustan settlement more and more conquered provincials were granted the highly prized Roman citizenship, until in 212 the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free adult men in the Empire. As Romanization spread, so did access to high office, notably senatorial rank.  And, from Trajan (r. 98-117) onward practically every emperor was of provincial stock.  In sociological terms, during the Principate the elites were well and truly open.  The Later Roman Empire saw an inflation of titles, which is often mistaken for class “fusion” and social mobility, but in their western bastion the senatorial aristocracy kept themselves separate and aloof from the lesser breeds with whom they sometimes shared titulature.   

Social Ethos

While the Roman Empire was a monarchy of one kind or another from its inception under Augustus, its social ethos remained unremittingly aristocratic, based on a fundamental belief in the inequality of human beings. This persists to this day, even while purportedly eclipsed by the egalitarian ideals of the eighteenth century “Enlightenment.”.  Even the French Revolution drew a distinction between “active citizens” and “passive citizens”, granting the right to vote to only about 4.3 million adult male Frenchmen out of a total p0pulation of around 29 million.

Religious Toleration

While power structure and social ethos are ignored by most other historians, religious toleration is now generally recognized as a desirable goal---but is completely misunderstood as far as ancient history is concerned by adherents of the currently fashionable “Late Antiquity” tendency. "Correct religion was the glory of the Empire,” opines Peter Brown, the founder of this “school”: “It had to be imposed in a manner that reflected the overwhelming dignity of the imperial power." (Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. XIII, 1997, p. 644.) This bald assertion combines four disquieting assumptions: (i) That there is such a thing as one single "correct religion." (ii) The identification of Nicene Christianity as that "correct religion." (iii) That the dominance of this "correct religion" glorified or exalted the Later Roman Empire in some way. And (iv) That this "correct religion" not only could be forced upon the citizenry but "had to be imposed."    

The rose-colored spectacles through which the persecutions of the state-imposed dominant Christian Church are here viewed at the same time distort the picture of what went before: over 800 years of religious toleration, and even freedom of religion. While the Roman state religion was polytheistic “paganism,” innumerable foreign cults and religions flourished largely without let or hindrance. These included Christianity, whose claims to have suffered persecution before winning imperial favor have lately been proved essentially baseless. (See Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, New York: HarperCollins, 2013.)

Why was dominant Christianity intolerant not only of other religions but also of all “heretical” deviations from the one “correct” orthodoxy, while pagan Rome was a haven of religious freedom?  It is because, while Christianity was (and is) a creed religion, Roman “paganism” was a communal religion.  

By its very nature, a creed religion stands or falls by the “truth” of a creed, or set of beliefs, which are held out as the unique key to “salvation.”  Rejection of this creed, or the slightest deviation from it, results in persecution, or worse. 

Christianity was really the earliest creed religion.  In the ancient world communal religions were the norm.  Your membership of a particular nation, state or society carried with it automatic membership of that society's religion. The Roman "pagan" religion was of this type. There was no separate religious identity. Beliefs did not play a big part in communal religions.  It was assumed and accepted that every society had its own religion, and, as a result, conversion was practically unknown.  Religious toleration was therefore the norm. And in a cosmopolitan melting-pot like Rome, adherence to several different religions or cults was not uncommon.

Antinous of Delphi

In view of the sensitivity of religion as a subject of discussion, it may be worthwhile to summarize some of the most important points about Christianity to be found in the book:

(a)    Christianity is a creed religion, meaning that it stands or falls on the basis of the truth of a creed, or set of beliefs.

(b)    Every Christian denomination, sect or grouping has its own creed, the slightest deviation from which is regarded as “heresy”.

(c)      Groups like the Donatists in Africa and Monophysites in Egypt, branded as “heretics” and persecuted by the established Church and the imperial government had no reason to be loyal to the Roman or Byzantine state, and actually supported enemies of the state. (See pages 5-6, 265, 341).

(d)     Christianity was a divisive factor, and to that extent contributed to the fall of the Western Empire.   

(e)    However, and even more importantly, the dominance of Christianity was a factor of continuity from the Later Roman Empire to the present day. By contrast with the 800 years of religious toleration and indeed of freedom of worship prior to Christian dominance, the intolerance and persecution of non-Christian religions and “heresy” initiated by Christian dominance (formalized in 380) continued in the Christian world for more than 1500 years. (See Chapters 4 and 5 of the book).

Christianity's rise to dominance through imperial favor in the fourth century ushered in over 1500 years of religious persecution, religious wars, and burnings at the stake. If Christian countries are more tolerant today than they were even a century ago, it is not because Christianity itself has changed, but because of the secularisation of western society.


The Roman Republic, a textbook example of oligarchy lasting almost 500 years (509 -44 BCE), was succeeded by the Augustan Principate, three centuries of true monarchy with popular support and an acquiescent aristocracy (27 BCE-284 CE). 

Diocletian’s ostentatiously autocratic “Dominate,” which, though, after a short spell in the West (284-305), lasted a thousand years in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire (324-1453), was inherently unstable, lacking both popular and aristocratic backing and, as the “Byzantine Empire” after 395, fell ignominiously under the control of eunuchs and patriarchs.  

Meanwhile, in the West, thanks to Constantine, the senatorial aristocracy recouped the position in the state that they had lost in 284, and indeed built upon it by combining their wealth and local landholding in the same areas that they governed as imperial appointees.  Local aristocratic power in the western provinces was something of a centrifugal force, which goes some way to explaining why there was so little resistance to the “barbarian” incursions. Coupled with the feverish climate of religious persecution orchestrated by the imperial government, this resulted in a fractured society of divided loyalties, and ultimately to fragmentation of the Western empire into a patchwork of “barbarian” kingdoms---yet with an aristocratic ethos surviving intact.