Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ancient Rome: The political and social crisis

Reposted: Just in case you missed it

Book: The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs (1948)
Author: Henri Daniel-Rops

Points from this excerpt:
• Centralization: demise of local authority
• State financial crisis
• Tyranny or autocracy
• Feminism and the shortage of real men
• Multiculturalism
• Depopulation
• Sexual revolution


Recently I have been posting excerpts from books by good Catholic historians whose insights are rarely considered nowadays. Hilaire Belloc, Christopher Dawson, Alexis de Tocqueville and Henri Daniel-Rops are some of my favorite. If we can learn from the causes of growth and decline in previous civilizations, perhaps the restoration of America’s greatness is still a possibility. Indeed, history bears witness that the main force of cultural birth and renewal comes from the Catholic Church.

By the time Christianity had been legalized in 313 A.D., the Roman Empire’s decline had long since started. Because the Catholic Church was suppressed for nearly three hundred years she was hardly in a position to save the public institutions of ancient Rome.

This is why the religious liberty of the Catholic Church is so important in America. If Catholics can recover the confidence that their spiritual ancestors possessed, the confidence needed to successfully carry out their mission, then America has fighting chance to retain her greatness. To put it bluntly, Europe appears to be a lost cause with its impending demographic collapse and decades of abandoning its Christian roots, but there is still hope for America.

Enter Henri Daniel-Rops on Ancient Rome:The political and social crisis:

The circumstances which the political crisis revealed in brutal fashion existed in every field of human activity. Though the word decadence cannot be applied to the Empire of the first two centuries A.D., its use begins to be justified by the third. All those cracks which the solid structure of the Imperium already possessed in the heyday of its splendor were now growing wider and deeper. Infection had triumphed over many parts of an organism which reacted more and more ineffectually against the forces of destruction…

[The] social crisis was fundamentally linked with the evolution of the State’s very principles. This evolution was a disastrous one. The Roman citizen, in fact, no longer existed. In 212 Caracalla [Roman emperor from 198-217 A.D.] had extended the right of citizenship to all free men living in urban communities or on land they owned, whatever their origin or place of residence within the Empire. What impelled the emperor to make such a splendid present in an epoch of disturbance and wretchedness? The inscription of a man’s name on the civic lists meant that it was inscribed also upon the register of new taxes! Did these raw new citizens at once acquire the traditions and virtues of ancient Rome? Increasingly, whatever classification might be used, there were no longer any citizens, only subjects, bound to obey a growing autocracy.

If the citizen was in decline the municipality was equally so. The municipal regime which had been the keystone of the early Empire, enabling immense structure to retain all of its flexibility, was showing signs of weakening. The local authorities, confronted with an increasingly serious financial situation, shirked their responsibilities. Municipal councilors could no longer be found, and it was necessary to go so far as to nominate men to the office, at the same time holding them as sureties for the fiscal collections! The almost federal system of the Golden Age was gradually replaced by centralization and bureaucracy, the typical evils of declining regimes. Only one solution could be found to the problem of supervising the cities: they were given imperial administrators. The reign of bureaucrats began. From about the year 200 decree after decree appeared, exempting the officials and the tenants of the emperor’s estates from all duties and taxes. The more time went by, the more the State intervened in all sectors of activity; the more precarious its authority became, the more it claimed the right to impose that authority everywhere…

And although during the first two centuries A.D. the Empire progressed farther and farther along the road towards centralization and state control, the Roman world did not yet know the defects inherent in these methods of government, defects of which it was subsequently to have most painful experience: incoherency of purpose and inertia, waste and ineffectualness.

Inscriptions dating from the first emperor’s reign have been found at several places in Asia Minor. On them we can read sentences like this one: "Providence sent us Augustus, as a Savior, to put an end to war and to regulate all of our affairs; the day of his birth marked the beginning of Good News for the whole world…"

The entire moral atmosphere of this epoch was permeated by a new style of feminism, which had been brought from the East by the Syrian princesses of Septimius Serverus’ [Roman emperor] family: women filled the roles of men because the men were wanting…

But there was something even worse than this landslide of society towards moral inertia; or, to put it more accurately, a second phenomenon existed alongside it, deriving from the same causes, and especially from the excessive enrichment of all sections of the population. Roman society was attacked in its most vital spot, at the source which sustains all societies; the structure of the family was shaken to its roots, and the birth-rate began to fall. The mother of the Gracchi had borne twelve children; and the beginning of the second century A.D. parents who had as many as three were to be praised as quite exceptional.

Men shirked marriage and its obligations: had not the orbitas, the bachelor, all the advantages the principal being to assure the rich man of a permanently faithful following of expectant heirs? And, after all, he was depriving himself of nothing, since slavery provided him with bed companions who were more docile than any legal wife, and who, moreover, could be exchanged whenever he wanted. Abortion and the ‘exposing’ of the new-born babies...acquiring terrifying proportions: in Trajan’s reign one inscription gives the precise information that, of 181 new-born infants, 179 were legitimate, and that the latter figure included only 35 girls. This proves how lightly people disposed of their daughters and their bastards. As for divorce, it became so common place that no one attempted to provide reasonable justification for it any more: the simple desire for change sufficed.

The substitution of the State edict for the individual conscience is always a sure sign of decadence, in every country and in every age. A nation is indeed sick at heart if in order to live decently and to produce children it needs a series of subsidies and rules to enable it to do so…It was no longer for the emperor and his jurists to attempt to restore the healthy foundations of Roman society. Nothing less than a radical change in the very bases of morality itself, and in its effects upon the individual’s mind, would now suffice [Here, Daniel-Rops was referring to the sanctity of the soul].

Was there any attempt to halt this moral disintegration? States have always shown themselves completely incapable of restoring their moral foundations once they have allowed them to weaken. The Roman rulers were far from being unaware of the peril, but their good intentions were absurdly useless, in view of the strength of the forces which were driving their society on to ruin. Augustus’s example is cogent evidence of this. He promulgated countless laws with the loftiest of moral intentions, in an effort to fight the twin scourges of adultery and divorce…


1. Ralph Martin Novak, author of Christianity and the Roman Empire, provides a sobering statistic of third century Rome which serves as a warning to our U.S. government.He said,

"It is estimated that whereas at the start of the third century A.D. the Roman emperors employed only about 300 to 350 full-time individuals in administering the Empire, by 300 A.D. this number had grown to some 30,000 or 35,000 people [italics added]. The expense of this vastly increased administrative and military structure was an enormous burden on the people of the Empire, and the burden only grew more oppressive over the course of the fourth century A.D....Rome's efforts to collect the taxes necessary to pay for defense and administration exacerbated the already deep social and economic divisions within the Roman empire."