To what extent were economic factors to blame for the deterioration of the Roman Empire in the Third Century A.D?

by Julian Fenner

fall of rome
to what extent were economic factors to blame for the deterioration of the roman empire in the third century a.d? 3

For centuries, historians have tried to understand the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, in particular the causes of the third century crisis. The fact that opinions are so numerous reflects the complexity of the issue and the opinions themselves often tend to reflect the time in which they were written. For example, enlightenment intellectuals such as Voltaire and Gibbon were obsessed with political reasons and the effect of the rise of Christianity. Machiavelli spoke of the barbarian invasions as being central and Paulo Paruta felt that the relations between the Senate and the people were largely to blame. Other factors which have been put forward as crucial include, climate change, the decline in military spirit, disease (plague, malaria), depopulation, racial ‘pollution’ and immorality. In the face of such an array of disparate theories one must strive to be discerning. In other words one must try to find out which are unimportant or of little importance, which ones are merely symptoms and which are the really significant factors. The central argument of this essay is the idea that perhaps one of the most important causes of Rome’s decline was structural economic weakness inherent within the empire long before the third century AD. These weaknesses include things like the inherent problems of a slave-economy, decentralisation of industry/agriculture, and the long-term non-sustainability and ‘top-heaviness’ of the Empire. However, this is not to suggest that there were not other important factors at play other than economic ones. Things like the increasing ‘barbarization’ of the military and the political classes, intellectual and ‘spiritual’ decline and the increasing pressure on Rome’s borders could also be cited as important. The decline of Rome should be seen as part of a complex process without a single, concise explanation. The decline of Rome was the result of a complex process of interwoven weaknesses, defects and contingencies.

If we look at documents from the third century there is little mention of the decline of Rome. However, part of the reason for it seeming this way is that the idea of the ‘decline of the Roman empire’ is really a metaphor we now use to convey a general impression and not a precise reality. The Roman Empire was composed of a complex set of relationships, of governmental administration, institutions and groups etc. Therefore it is perhaps easier to talk of change or deterioration rather than a very definite thing like ‘decline’. Many of the sources seem to convey a vague sense of deterioration hanging over Rome as early as the first century AD. It was Seneca who proclaimed at this time that the onset of Imperial Rome meant the death of the empire. This negative attitude became more widespread in literature from the time of Hadrian onward. Apart from Suetonius’ Biographies of the Emperors, the Metamorphoses of Apuleius and the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, Latin Literature seemed to become overwhelmed by apathy. This may seem strange to some people, especially those who believe in Gibbon’s ‘golden-age of the Antonines’. In his famous work ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ he states that the period in the history of the world when the human race was most happy and prosperous was the time between the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus (98-180 AD). Superficially this may seem to be the case. A vast area around the Mediterranean was now linked economically, politically and culturally. There was prosperity, peace and security throughout the empire and things could seem to some be running smoothly. The end of this apparently good period was marked by the onset of civil wars lasting from 180 to 285 AD. Of twenty-seven emperors or would be emperors, all but two met violent deaths. Meanwhile, the Persians raided Antioch in the East and in Europe the barbarians broke through the frontiers. Huge areas of countryside were devastated. The middle-classes were increasingly squeezed out of existence and many farmers and labourers were transformed into serfs. When in 285 AD Diocletian pulled the empire together again, there was little left of the prosperity of the Pax Romana. What seems clear is the causes of the decline must have been evolving during Gibbon’s period of happiness and prosperity. Many of the most serious weaknesses developing during this time were of an economic nature and one can trace back the roots of some of these fundamental structural economic weaknesses to the Republic and before.

The early expansion of Rome in Italy was as much the product of hard work as it was of aggression and domination. Roman advances were strengthened by the settlement of farmers on confiscated territory and a prudent treatment of conquered neighbours minimised the difficulties and dangers. Occasionally, subject communities were admitted to Roman citizenship. The strength of this agriculturally based system was tested severely in wars with the invading Gauls, with Carthage and with Pyrrhus. The wealth of the Republic was built up on the sweat of the provinces, the loot from wars and the suffering and exploitation of slaves. Like Greece, Rome had inherited a low level of technical skill and achievements were only possible because of the huge amounts of labour and exploitation involved. The Romans seemed to lack any modern notions of returns and productivity. They seemed to lack the ability to improve methods of production, find superior sources of energy and improve transport/communications. As we will see later on this low level of technique would have bad consequences for industry and therefore the empire.

After the second Punic war many new economic transformations began. During this time, many of the best agricultural lands in Italy were devastated. Many wealthy opportunists had profited during the war and were no longer inclined to finance small farmers. There were new possibilities for business of a less insecure and therefore more tempting nature. Contact with Carthage had opened the eyes of many greedy Romans to the profitability of scientifically managed large-scale agriculture. This combined with a new abundance of cheap land and slaves initiated two new economic developments. Men with money started to buy these huge areas of land, formed large estates, and set about working them for profit with the new cheap and plentiful supply of slave labour. Connected to this was the increasing tendency of small cultivating owners to choose not to resume their interrupted occupation or to even be driven to abandon their holdings. The only hope of halting this economic development lay in the political sphere but power was steadily passing into the hands of the very men who profited from this new system.

None of the changes in this period favoured the return of the small farmer to the land. The battle of Pydna (168 BC) placed the Mediterranean world at the feet of Rome and many new prospects opened up. As provinces were gained and the empire continued to expand, its sphere of influence increased dramatically along with the availability of opportunities. During the next century there was a huge movement of Roman’s abroad all eager to exploit these opportunities. Some made money quickly by gleaning the profits to be made by the squeezing of Rome’s subjects. Others went for more long-term options and settled in the provinces, making large amounts of money in commercial and financial enterprises. With the power of Rome behind them, many felt they could exploit these opportunities with little need for moderation. Roman emigrants gradually obtained valuable lands in the provinces and thus we see a further development of the large provincial estates that became so important later on. This outflow of emigrant Romans was greatly facilitated by the large amount of moneylenders present at the time and this was made all the more easy by the favour of Roman officials who would guarantee borrowers against bad debts.

The growing number of provincial taxes brought into being a large class of investors whose speculations tended to generate substantial returns. This ever-expanding and highly important class known as the Knights (equites) had little care for the rapidly disappearing peasantry. Initially their main activity was to squeeze concessions from the Senate thereby meaning that for a time popular leaders were able to engage their support against the ruling nobility. However, selfish interests gradually became the guiding force and they joined with the senatorial nobles to form a party of property. In light of this it is hardly surprising that efforts to restore free peasants to Italian land were a failure. The main area of commerce in the latter days of the Republic was the slave trade and therefore Roman financiers were deeply interested in this. Any attempts to reform the system were normally met with hostility.

One can now see how the system of slaves and great estates continued into the days of the empire. It paid well in the Provinces where one could obtain large areas of land relatively cheaply and where environmental circumstances where often favourable. However, after the Roman peace significantly diminished the supply of slaves, the system became a problem. During the imperial period we see a significant development of the tenancy system. In earlier times the landlord clearly had the upper hand and the tenant was merely a humble dependant forever fearful that he would thrown off his holding. However, evidence shows us that later on, the landlord was often the anxious party and would often suffer substantial losses and in the second century AD, the landlords were often as badly off as their tenants. The growing problem in the new economic climate became how to balance the interests of both parties and therefore keep the agricultural system running. A strict system of rules came about in an attempt to regulate conflicting interests. Enforcing them was problematic however, due to the corruption of imperial agents. It was often very difficult to catch these officials and when they were caught their successor often yielded to the same temptations thus the problem did not rectify itself. Amidst the problems and general chaos of the third century it is hardly surprising that this system totally failed to meet its objectives. The system fell into such disarray that that by 284 A.D, the condition of the small tenant farmer had generally become one of semi-servile dependence. His legal freedom became very limited and his economic position increasingly depended on the preservation of a holding often blighted by encroachments. If he left his land he would probably starve but if he stayed then he effectively be a serf. Legal changes later on made it the case that to be a colonus was to be attached to a specific plot of ground with which he himself was transferable. This change, however rational it may have been under the circumstances really only confirmed what a mess Rome had made of its economy and all this did was to effectively consummate agricultural stagnation by law.

The slave-based economy seemingly worked well but only as long as there was a large supply of slaves. The slavery institution declined significantly as a result of the “Augustan Peace”. Although Gibbon sees the decline in war and piracy in this so-called “golden-age” as an entirely positive thing for the empire he does not see the other side of the story which is that these two activities were the main source of slaves. The days of the great Delian Slave market were over and there was now a severely diminished workforce. Growing humanitarian sentiments within the empire also facilitated this problem as many of the remaining slaves were freed. The fundamental basis of ancient economic activity was significantly undermined but the system of exploitation was too well established now for it to be abolished. Perhaps if the institution of slavery had been challenged much earlier on then things would have been different but unfortunately even the most enlightened philosophers of the Republic seemed to support it. For example, Aristotle stated that “from the hour of birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule”. There remained no choice after the collapse of the slave market other than to try to compensate for this loss. What we see here is the increasing exploitation of free men by a highly exploitative ruling class. This group was really an aristocratic clique whose wealth was derived primarily from the land so it was very much in their interest to maintain their own superiority at the expense of what was beneficial to the empire. They were against any form of economic improvement which threatened their power and so their actions tended to maintain senatorial authority but at the huge price of economic retardation. In the absence of a slave class which they could exploit, they increasingly tightened the screw on the lower classes so that their legal, political and constitutional privileges could be diminished. In this way they would have little power to defend themselves against exploitation. This whittling away of the rights of the poor took place mainly during the ‘good’ Antonine period and by the Severan period the poor had virtually no rights whatsoever. Citizenship therefore came to mean almost nothing for the vast majority and therefore the onset of universal citizenship was really a fairly unremarkable development. The fact that it came about only reflects the financial problems of the empire (discussed later) and the need to increase tax revenue. Finley states that in this period we see “a cumulative depression in the status of the lower classes among the free citizens”. What we essentially see here is a switch from slave production to serf production. From this development, Rostovtzeff sees a major cause for the upheavals and rebellions of the third century. He sees the upheavals of the third century as “a deliberate and class conscious attack by the exploited peasantry, using as its spearhead the large army which was mainly recruited from its ranks”. This argument is problematic however, as there is much evidence to suggest that peasants were generally scared of the soldiers and would therefore not see them as their representatives. Even so, this argument does not ignore the fact that the massive exploitation by the urban propertied class of the poorer members of society (for example the rural population, retail traders, artisans) and their indifference towards working for the public good had bad effects. The problem of slavery and exploitation was really one of the root problems of Roman society. The empire was built upon the labour of the exploited but they were the very people who could not benefit from their work. This division of society ensured that the masses of the empire never tasted the fruits of their labour. The two major problems which this lead to were that people lacked the incentive to master their work and they also had little consuming power so there was a shallow internal market as a result.

The need to create new markets was one of the factors that lead to the continued drive for expansion. The lack of good communications lead to industry increasingly moving out to the peripheries to be closer to their markets. The growing need to find fresh supplies of slaves was also a factor that contributed to the shifting of industry to the peripheral areas such as Gaul where was a better supply. Backward areas such as these therefore gained what Rome had lost, a surrounding area inhabited by peasants. This process of decentralisation was also linked to the lack of technology within the Empire. In modern industry the effective use of technology reduces overheads significantly but there was not really a tendency to do this in the Roman Empire. Increasing slave concentrations did not reduce the overheads and therefore there was no incentive to carry on developing old centres as it was more profitable to move to new areas under this system. The lack of effective transport also hindered these attempts to expand markets. Even the best forms of transport were unsuitable for the high circulation of consumer goods. This was another factor leading to the need for industry to be close to its markets and therefore it further undermined the core in favour of the periphery. The ineffectiveness of transport also lead to an inefficient distribution of goods often creating gluts in one area and shortages in another. The insecurity of the credit system also impelled industry outwards towards its markets. It was very costly to raise capital for a trading venture because of the potential risks involved. There was no equivalent of the joint-stock company with limited liability to ensure some degree of responsibility for financial ventures. Further problems were created by the primitive nature of the ancient banking system which saw little development of the system of a central bank with branch establishments and in some cases a backwards movement towards a system of independent local banks.

Under Trajan the empire reached it furthest extension but because of the weaknesses within the empire, its resources were pushed to breaking point. The empire found itself in a catch-22 situation in which there no solution to the problem. On the one hand there was the ever growing need to expand and on the other the ever diminishing capacity to carry it through. If the empire continued to expand it would have been disastrous but if it stopped then there would still be the problem of the lack of a deep internal market. The expansion of the empire only brought greater extension, not greater depth. This was not a progressive forward-looking policy, it was an essentially blind process When Hadrian came to power he stopped this policy of relentless expansionism but by this time it was too late. Although this was the most sensible course of action, the economic situation was such that the problem could not be solved. The best Hadrian could do was slow down the inevitable economic decline. If Julius Caesar was able to carry out the expansions which Trajan carried out one a half centuries before when the resources of the empire may have been strong enough to support such a policy then perhaps it would have been a different story. The relentless expansionism also carried with it another danger. This centrifugal movement of the Roman economy often overflowed into the Barbarian world thus exposing them to the vices and virtues of civilisation. This would have made the barbarians envious and desirous of the riches and luxuries which such civilisation afforded and would therefore have help to foster the desire to invade. (barbarian invasions discussed later on)

All the tendencies mentioned did not operate at once or to the same extent but over a period of years they resulted in a clear movement of industry outwards from the old centres of the empire. Over the whole empire there was a slow reversion to small-scale, hand to mouth craftsmanship whose production was focussed on the immediate vicinity. Progress in areas like Roman Germany and Gaul was cancelled out by the decay of Italy. By the second century A.D. there were clear signs that Italy was fast losing its once predominant position. There were increasing signs of depopulation and large shrinkages in the export of both agricultural and industrial products. It seemed that industry was fast losing its confidence and therefore increasingly sought the protection of forms of production nearer to the basic needs of mankind. From the time of Augustus onwards this type of “domain” economy was taking over from the old system based on slavery and the ‘free market’. We see here a dramatic drop in almost every branch of agricultural technique yet despite this huge numbers were drawn towards the countryside as conditions within the towns deteriorated. This movement of industry from the towns reduced the effective areas open to trade thereby contributing to a general economic breakdown. As the estates became more and more self-sufficient, it increasingly detracted from the classical economic system, as there were less and less customers for the goods that circulated on the old markets. The large domain therefore contributed significantly to the restriction of trade and the speeding up of the process of decentralisation. By the late third century we can see that this rise of the estate was a real sign of Rome’s serious economic decline. In this period the Talmud directs its readers to keep a third of their money invested in the estate, a third in cash, and a third in commerce and industry. What this advice shows us is the extent to which the economy had become dysfunctional. Alongside this growth of the large estates was the shrinkage of the towns and a decline in the quality and extent of ancient civilisation. The cities began to wither away and urbanisation slowed down as the empire became more and more based around a decentralised structure. Politically the implications of decentralisation were very damaging as it lead to situation of widespread political autarky among the peripheries and therefore, political decomposition thus weakening the political centre. It meant that Rome gradually ceased to be Rome. Being spread out to the borders of a vast empire enfeebled it and Italy therefore surrendered its pride of place to the provinces and the peripheries.

Hadrian may have temporarily halted the economic crisis that Trajan’s policy was rapidly creating but beneath the surface problems persisted. This manifested itself within the currency in particular. With the strain of foreign demand and the steady movement of currency eastward as a result of the adverse trade balance evasive action was taken. Nero took the move to contaminate the denairus and to reduce coins by clipping. The weight and quality of the denairus fell constantly until the time of Commodus when inflation was reaching cataclysmic proportions. In his reign the silver denairus sank to one third of its former value, and wholly ceased to circulate outside the Empire. The aureus became so unreliable that by 200 A.D. it had ceased to be accepted abroad without testing for weight and quality. The story of the third century was one of worsening inflation and the minting of bad money. The situation became so bad that many people fell back on the natural economy of bartering thus further perpetuating the economic problems.

Despite the considerable contraction of the population and resources this was not accompanied by a corresponding reduction in the price of imperial administration. The maintenance costs of the empire were huge and continued to expand all the time. Taxes had to be collected, frontiers defended; the empire had to be policed and the imperial post had to maintained. The upholding of the Roman standard of culture meant huge amounts had to be spent to provide an adequate supply of the amenities that were considered essential to the full life or a Roman citizen. There was the cost of building, repairing and maintaining the numerous temples, public baths, municipal buildings, gymnasia, town halls, wrestling schools, market places, triumphal columns and amphitheatres (the list goes on). Civic sacrifices, religious processions, feasts and the games also drained huge amounts from the financial reserves of the empire. The cost of the dole weakened the empire’s finances. Originally this was passed out once a month but under Marcus Aurelius there was a daily distribution of pork, oil and bread to the proletariat. The alimenta (farming subsidies), put in place by Nerva also cost the empire dearly. The adverse balance of trade which grew at this time proved to be very costly. In the time of Nero, Seneca estimated that it cost Rome five million dollars a year to import its luxuries from the east. Another area in which Rome spent huge amounts of money was the army. An important implication of the Roman peace was that the army changed its economic role. Whereas previously it had been an important source of plunder it was now mainly used as a peaceful garrison force. The army became an economic liability, as there were more than 400,000 mouths to feed and nothing for them to do. Of course, even in peace the army was essential to the security of the empire but the cost of it more than doubled between 96 and 180 AD. The empire was over-spending by epic proportions yet the economic structure meant that nothing could be done to counter-act this.

Another very important cause of the financial problems came during the reign of Marcus Aurelius when there was a sudden explosion of calamities afflicting the empire. Since the beginning of the principate there had been virtually no problems with the exception of the civil war (68-9 A.D.) and a few other minor revolts. During the reign of Aurelius things suddenly went badly wrong. The Parthian war erupted and proved to be extremely expensive and to make matters worse the army also brought back the plague. There was a rise of problems on several of the frontiers especially from the Germanic tribes. From 160-71 A.D there were many frontier breaches along the Danube as well as other invasions from different tribes (for example, the attack on Buetica by Moorish rebels in 171 A.D.). There were a number of revolts in this period including a very serious one in Egypt (early 170’s). All of these problems put enormous financial pressure on the empire. The evidence supporting this is clearly shown by the fact that Aurelius and Commodus reduced the surplus left by Antoninus Pius in 161 A.D. of HS 2,700,000,000 to HS 1,000,000 in 193. One of the consequences of the financial crisis was to put a massive amount of pressure on the bourgeoisie. Evidence shows us that during the 160s there was a huge rise in the financial pressure imposed on the curial class. This was met with a growing reluctance to help ease the growing economic burden. There are many examples of people in this period being forced to carry out public works for example. Normally people would often volunteer to donate to the public (euergetism) but the fact that people were being increasingly forced to help shows the direness of the situation. Under the Severan Dynasty, this “compulsion” was applied even more stringently to the curial classes and we see another significant drop in the practice of euergetism. By the third century the burden was so heavy that it began to consume the capital resources of the empire. However, this increase in taxation did not increase production, in fact increases in tax seemed to coincide with a decrease in manpower and production.

From the second century onwards, the question of how to fund the empire became absolutely fundamental due to widespread economic contraction. The problem of indebtedness was so common that it was seriously hindering economic enterprise. In 118 A.D. Hadrian agreed to wipe off a bad debt to the treasury which amounted to the equivalent of £7 million and also reduced many sums which were outstanding for rent. However, when the citizens of the empire could not afford to pay at all then simply reducing debts was not a long-term answer. It got to the stage when tax-payers simply had to pay what was demanded of them meaning that the State would necessarily have to become strengthened. Here we see the growth of bureaucracy and a parallel development of what we today would call the “police-state”. During the republic, the money for Rome’s expansion came largely from the plunder of foreign war. However during the pax romana we see a very sad state of affairs emerging whereby the only means of keeping the empire funded was through legalised extortion. By the time of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161), the Roman bureaucracy was as all embracing as that of modern times. This tendency sowed the seeds for the tyranny of the third century. The historian ‘Trever’ says of the situation… “the relentless system of taxation, requisition, and compulsory labour was administered by an army of military bureaucrats… Everywhere. were the ubiquitous personal agents of the emperors to spy out the remotest case of attempted strikes evasion of taxes”. Under Hadrian we also see the development of a system of secret police and informers. This system functioned in much the same way as the Gestapo and kept going until its was changed by Diocletian. The fact that an emperor as enlightened as Hadrian introduced this system speaks volumes about the state of the empire at this stage and the inevitability of the system coming about.

The over-consumption and pampering of the Roman citizens during the imperial period also created other problems. It has often been suggested that the increasingly materialistic and greedy lifestyles that many Romans lead began to affect them ‘spiritually’ and intellectually. A sense of futility seemed to be permeating society. The Roman ‘spirit’ which had conquered the world was becoming increasingly lethargic. During the “pax romana” it seemed that peace, comfort and security took priority above political freedom and trying to solve the problems which were blighting their civilisation. Many historians mention the change in racial stock as a reason for this. Others say that plague and malaria were also possible causes. One suspects that the real reason was the ‘disease of materialism’ or the ‘affluent society’. We need not look solely to Rome for this tendency, it is happening in the west today. The price that western society seems to be paying for the considerable wealth and comfort of most of its inhabitants is a corresponding rise in apathy, complacency and unreflective consumerism/indulgence. The modern industrialised west seems to share several of the characteristics which predominated during the “golden era” of the Roman Empire. The growing sense of negativity exists now and then, as does the obsession with violence (blood-sports in Rome, Hollywood films and video games now), sex, and indulgences. Another interesting parallel is the growth of oriental religions which appeared in Rome in an attempt to fill the spiritual vacuum and the growth of new-ageism now. The increasing popularity of mystical religions is also a sign of the influence which the lower classes were increasingly having on the upper classes and therefore represented a sort of “barbarisation” of culture. This represents a prominent feature in the Roman world which was the gradual absorption of the higher classes by the lower classes and a subsequent levelling down of standards.

The Roman Empire was riddled with economic problems whose causes are to be found long before the third century. However, there were other serious problems developing during the empire which were independent of economic factors. Problems with the army and the rise in military and political anarchy which ensued were very serious. These problems stemmed largely from Hadrian who was guilty of decentralising, immobilizing and ‘foreignizing’ the army. Hadrian also began the policy of filling up the army with provincials from the area to be defended and allowing the Germans to settle in the Danubian provinces as long as they served in the auxiliary troops when called upon. The fact that Hadrian was driven to such measures is a sign of the serious manpower shortage that was developing in this period. This manpower shortage can be linked in turn to the retreat of many people to rural areas and therefore at least in part to economic factors. By the time of Marcus Aurelius the army was composed either of ignorant countrymen from the most backwards parts of the empire or foreigners. This divorce between the ‘barbasized’ army and ‘soft’ civilians had very grave consequences. In spirit and in culture, many of these new soldiers were uncivilised peasants with little, if any, respect for the people they were supposed to protect. The apathetic Romans had sown the seeds for political and military disaster and they eventually reaped the results. In 191 AD Commodus was assassinated and a man named Pertinax was made leader. He promised large gifts to the legions and praetorians (they dominated Rome from a camp near the city) but when he tried to enforce discipline he in turn was murdered. The throne was sold to Julius Julianus for the equivalent of $1,200 per soldier. However, the legions responded by putting forward three other candidates. This lead to three years of civil war culminating in the brutal Septimius Severus coming to power. He was a draconian but proficient leader and ruled for twenty years having the good luck to die in bed. However, by this time the army knew its own power and it became common-place for the army to dictate who would be on the throne. During the twenty-four years after the death of Severus, four caesars ruled and each was assassinated. In 235 AD the rot was well and truly setting when the legions raised the first barbarian to the purple, Maximinus. Maximinus was a Thracian peasant of mixed Gothic and Alan descent whose career began as a common soldier. Maximinus never even visited Rome and his three years of rule were a reign of terror. The fifty years after his death saw twenty six caesars with only one dying peacefully in bed. Almost all of them were originally the nominees and then the victims of the soldiers.

By the time the Persians and Barbarians invaded, the Roman world was in a state of disarray and all that was required from them was a gentle push. During the seemingly happy world of Gibbon’s day, Rome was sleepwalking into a catastrophe. The invasions of the third century were not so much a cause of Rome’s decline as a result of its significant economic and political weakness by this stage. The Germans burst across the barrier of the Rhine and the Danube. In 257 A.D. the Goths overran Dacia, crossed the Danube, and penetrated into Greece. In 269 the Heruli and the Goths, in their biggest invasion, crossed the Danube with their families, 320,000 strong, and sailed with 2,000 ships into the Mediterranean. The Marcomanni had already penetrated Italy as far as Ravenna. A couple of years later the Alamanni got as far as Milan. In 256 and 258, the franks and the allied tribes swept across the Rhine and wreaked havoc on the whole country as far as Tarragonna in Spain. Meanwhile further west, the Saxons were sailing against Britain. As if all this wasn’t enough to be concerned with, the Romans suffered a second devastating plague in 252 A.D, which proceeded to devastate the Roman world for fifteen years. Alexandria lost two-thirds of its population and at its peak Rome lost five thousand each day. During the invasions there is evidence to suggest that due to the exploitation and mal-treatment of many of the Roman citizens, the invasions and disintegration of the empire was often met with indifference. The attitude of the lower classes towards the Barbarians was by no means always one of fear and hostility. They were often met with feelings of relief and the desire to co-operate especially amongst the poorer men who were unendurably burdened by taxation. Evidence shows us examples of people deserting to the barbarians or of appealing for help from them. Even at the beginning of second century we hear of deserters to Decabolus the Dacian chief and Dio speaks on several occasions of deserters to the Quadi and Marcomanni during the second and third centuries A.D. Some of the numbers mentioned are so strikingly huge that there must have been civilian defectors as well as military defectors. The fact that so many people wished to rebel against their own empire speaks volumes about the state of the empire even before the third century.

Economic weaknesses and their social repercussions were largely to blame for the decline which Rome went through during the third century. Due to the nature of economic development during the Republic and the ramifications thereof, Rome developed an economy riddled with weaknesses and problems. These inherent economic weaknesses began to manifest themselves during Gibbon’s golden-age. The system of small estates developed during the Republic gave way to the system of the great imperial private estates. The growth of the large estate was a catalyst to the general decline of Rome as a symptom. By the third century the great era of the industrial city-state was over. During the second century we see the reversion from an industrial life based on the wide use of coinage to more primitive conditions of payments. As the empire grew it needed a state system of credits able to support the intricate and highly organised commercial life of the empire we see a retrogression of this sort of system if anything. The decline of the slave-market lead to a system whereby the free peasantry increasingly became the work-tool of the state and the landowners also became a work-tool bound to the place where they were needed. The social structure resulting from this sort of economic system also had the bad effect of creating a very restricted internal market. The empire seemed prosperous and successful but it was essentially thriving on borrowed time. The artificial supports provided by expansionism helped to conceal these problems but at the price of eating up huge amounts of money and further reinforcing the problems of limited demand, technical inadequacy and decentralisation. The costs of running the empire continued to increase exponentially along with a corresponding decrease in productivity and the ability of many to pay. From this we see the rise bureaucracy and therefore further pressure on the Roman citizens (the middle classes in particular). The increasing materialism of the Romans also seemed to contribute to a general weakening of the Roman ‘spirit’. The empire had dug itself into a hole from which it could not escape and went into terminal decline. The barbarisation of the military beginning under Hadrian and the disastrous political effects of this were also very important. It was the legions that had repressed the Republic and it was the legions once again who violated the “majesty of the purple”. The civil wars which were the result of this along with its political, economic and social problems affected the empire to such an extent that it could no longer defend itself effectively against its enemies. By the fourth century such damage had been inflicted that the Roman world was never the same again and eventually went into terminal decline.


  • 1. “The Roman Economy” A.H.M Jones
  • 2. ”The Later Roman Empire 284-602” A.H.M Jones
  • 3. “Pax Romana” Petit
  • 4. “Decline of the Roman Empire in the West” F W Walbank
  • 5. “The Roman Empire” Colin Wells
  • 6. “Frontiers of the Roman Empire” C.R. Whittaker
  • 7. “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” E. Gibbon
  • 8. “Finance, Coinage and Money from the Severans to Constantine” M Crawford
  • 9. “The Ancient Economy” Finley
  • 10. “The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World” G.E.M de Ste Croix
  • 11. “Money and Government in the Roman Empire” R.P Duncan-Jones
  • 12. “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire” K Hopkins
  • 13. “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire” Rostovtzeff
  • 14. “The third century crisis in the Roman Empire” A.R Birley

Julian Fenner. University of Manchester (UK)