Caesar, Depopulation and Crisis: A Secular historian’s insight
30 B.C. – 96 A.D.
In his 1944 book, Caesar and Christ, Will Durant, a secular historian, addresses much of the same themes the Catholic historians featured on Sky View have as it pertains to the Roman Empire, its decline and the eerie similarities it bears with 21st century America. Depopulation, small families, sexual promiscuity, abortion, infanticide, taxes, bureaucracy and birth control are just some of the topics treated in the excerpts below.
Rome: Old and Tired
A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has been destroyed from within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes her consuming wars…Cyprian [Saint, Bishop and Church Father], towards 250, answering the charge that Christians were the source of the Empires misfortunes, attributed these to natural causes:
“You must know that the world had grown old, and does not remain in its former vigor. It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the sun’s warmth are both diminishing; the metals are nearly exhausted; the husbandman is failing in the fields.”
Signs of Depopulation:
Biological factors were more fundamental. A series decline of population appears in the West after Hadrian. It has been questioned, but the mass of importation of barbarians into the Empire by Aurelius, Valentinian, Aurelian, Probus, and Constantine [Roman emperors] leaves little room for doubt. Aurelius, to replenish his army, enrolled slaves, gladiators, policeman, criminals; either the crisis was greater, or the free population less, than before…
A law of Septimius Severus [a Roman emperor in 200 A.D.] speaks of a penuria hominum- a shortage of men. In Greece the depopulation had been going on for centuries. In Alexandria, which had boasted of its numbers, Bishop Dionysius calculated that the population had in his time (250 A.D.) been halved. He mourned to “see the human race diminishing and constantly wasting away.” Only the barbarians and the Orientals were increasing, outside of the Empire and within.
The Cause of Depopulation:
What had caused this fall in population? Above all, family limitation. Practiced first the educated classes, it had now seeped down to a proletariat named for its fertility; by 100 A.D. it had reached the agricultural classes, as shown by the use of imperial alimenta to encourage rural parentage; by the third century it had overrun the western provinces, and was lowering man power in Gaul [modern day France]. Though branded as a crime, infanticide flourished as poverty grew. Sexual excesses may have reduced human fertility; the avoidance or deferment of marriage had a like effect, and the making of eunuchs increased…Moral decay contributed to the dissolution….Moral and aesthetic standards were lowered by the magnetism of the mass; and sex ran riot in freedom while political liberty decayed.
The condition that Augustus had failed to check- bachelorhood, childlessness, abortion, and infanticide among the older stocks, manumission and comparative fertility among the new –had transformed the racial character, the moral temper, even the physiognomy, of the Roman people.
Social Pressure of Childlessness:
Once the Romans had been precipitated into parentage by the impetus of sex, and lured to it by anxiety for the post-mortem care of their graves; now the upper and middle classes had learned to separate sex from parentage, and were skeptical about the afterworld. Once the rearing of children had been an obligation to honor the State, enforced by public opinion; now it seemed absurd to demand more births in a city crowded to the point of redolence. On the contrary, wealthy bachelors and childless husbands continued to be courted by sycophants longing for legacies.
“Nothing,” said Juvenal, “will endear you to your friends as a barren wife.” “Crotona,” says a character in Petronius, “has only two classes of inhabitants- flatterers and flattered; and the sole crime there is to bring up children to inherit your money. It is like a battlefield at rest: nothing but corpses and the crows that pick them.” Seneca had consoled a mother who had lost her only child by reminding her how popular she would now be; for “with us childlessness gives more power than it takes away.”
The Gracchi had been a family of twelve children; probably not five families of such abundance could be found in Bero’s age in patrician or equestrian Rome. Marriage, which had once been a lifelong economic union, was now among a hundred thousand Romans a passing adventure of no great spiritual significance, a loose contract for the mutual provision of physiological conveniences or political aid. To escape the testatory disabilities of the unmarried some women took eunuchs as contraceptive husbands; some entered into sham wedlock with poor men on the understanding that the wife need bear no children and might have as many lovers as she pleased.
Contraception and Abortion:
Contraception was practiced in both its mechanical and chemical forms. If these methods failed there were many ways of procuring abortion. Philosophers and the law condemned it, but the finest families practiced it. “Poor women,” said Juvenal, “endure the perils of childbirth, and all the troubles of nursing…but how often does a gilded bed harbor a pregnant woman? So great is the skill, so powerful the drugs, of the abortionist!” Nevertheless, he tells the husband, “rejoice; give her the potion…for were she to bear the child you might find yourself the father of an Ethiopian.”
Consequent Rise of Christianity:
[T]he growth of Christianity was more an effect than a cause of Rome’s decay. The break up of the old religion had begun long before Christ…the ethical influence of Christianity upon Roman life was largely a wholesome one. It was because Rome was already dying that Christianity grew so rapidly. Men lost faith in the State not because Christianity held them aloof, but because the State defended wealth against poverty, fought to capture slaves, taxed toil to support luxury, and failed to protect its people from famine, pestilence, invasion, and destitution; forgivably they turned from Caesar preaching war to Christ preaching peace, from incredible brutality to unprecedented charity, from a life without hope or dignity to a faith that consoled their poverty and honored their humanity.