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Civilized life lies in doing well what has been done before. Doing the expected is the highest value—and the second highest is like it: receiving the appropriate admiration of one’s peers for doing it.


The End of the World

How Rome Fell—and Why

On the last, cold day of December in the dying year we count as 406, the river Rhine froze solid, providing the natural bridge that hundreds of thousands of hungry men, women, and children had been waiting for. They were the barbari—to the Romans an undistinguished, matted mass of Others, not terrifying, just troublemakers, annoyances, things one would rather not have to deal with—non-Romans. To themselves they were, presumably, something more, but as the illiterate leave few records, we can only surmise their opinion of themselves.

Neither the weary, disciplined Roman soldiers, ranked along the west bank, nor the anxious, helter-skelter tribes amassing on the east bank could have been giving much thought to their place in history. But this moment of slack, this relative calm before the pandemonium to follow, gives us the chance to study the actors on both sides of this river and to look backward on what has been and forward to what will be.

Ascending heavenward like the Roman eagle, we can view the Rhine, widest river in Europe, rising out of Lake Constance in the northern Alps, bending and bowing north, then northwest, till after 820 miles of travel it reaches the coast of continental Europe and empties into the North Sea just opposite the Thames estuary. Returning to our Alpine heights, we can spot another river, rising from a smaller lake just north of Constance and coursing east for more than twice the length of the Rhine till it spends itself in the Black Sea. This is the Danube, Europe’s longest river (after the Volga). To the north and east of these two Alpine rivers live the barbarians. To the south and west lies Romania, in its time the vastest and most powerful empire in human history.

The omnipotence and immensity of this empire—embracing, as it did, “the whole of the civilized world”—are not the qualities that would strike us were we to soar above the Mediterranean on that fateful day. What we would discern is the very opposite of power—fragility, specifically geographic fragility. “We live around a sea,” the perspicacious Socrates had reminded his listeners, “like frogs around a pond.” For all the splendor of Roman standard, the power of Roman boot, and the extent of Roman road, the entire empire hugs the Mediterranean like a child’s village of sand, waiting to be swept into the sea. From fruitful Gaul and Britain in the north to the fertile Nile Valley in the south, from the rocky Iberian shore in the west to the parched coasts of Asia Minor, all provinces of the empire turn toward the great sea, toward Medi-Terra-nea—the Sea of Middle Earth. And as they turn to the center of their world, they turn their back on all that lies behind them, beyond the Roman wall. They turn their back on the barbarians.

That Rome should ever fall was unthinkable to Romans: its foundations were unassailable, sturdily sunk in a storied past and steadily built on for eleven centuries and more. There was, of course, the prophecy. Someone, usually someone in his cups, could always be counted on to bring up that old saw: the Prophecy of the Twelve Eagles, each eagle representing a century, leaving us with—stubby fingers counting out the decades in a puddle of wine—only seventy years remaining! Give or take a decade! Predictable laughter at the silliness of the whole idea. But in seventy years exactly, the empire would be gone.

Eternal Rome, eleven centuries old, hardly foresaw its doom. But theories about its fall are very old indeed. Two dozen years after this Roman-barbarian encounter along the Rhine, Augustine of Hippo, second city of Roman Africa, will be lying on his deathbed, listening to the clamor of another wave of barbarians as they attack the walls of his city. He has barely finished the final pages of his great defense of Christianity—The City of God—written to contradict the Roman pagans who discerned behind the barbarian assaults the old gods of Rome, angry at being forsaken by Christian converts. (No, insists Augustine eloquently, it is not Christianity but vice-encumbered paganism that is bringing the empire down.) Nine centuries later, as impressive feats of Roman engineering and sculpture are being dug up all over Italy at the dawn of the Renaissance, the question of what became of the cultural giants who built these things will be on everyone’s lips. Petrarch, the Tuscan poet and scholar who is rightly remembered as the father of Renaissance humanism, rediscovers the concept of a “fall,” which, following Augustine’s lead, he blames on the empire’s internal faults. Machiavelli, writing a century and a half later in a less spiritual, more cynical time, will blame the barbarians.

When the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in 1776, it raised far more lively interest in London than the news from the troublesome colonies in North America. “The decline of Rome,” wrote Gibbon, “was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” Such a perception fit well with the cool and rational temper of the time. But as the more conventional English gentlemen of the late eighteenth century continued to turn the pages of Mr. Gibbon’s discourse, their blood began to boil. “As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion,” he continued, “we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity.”

Shock was registered and rebuttals issued, and Mr. Gibbon hastened to defend himself in his Vindication. But, in truth, his theory was no novelty, being scarcely distinguishable from the pagan theory Augustine had taken up the cudgels against more than thirteen centuries earlier. Nor was it devoid of merit. Still, it is helpful to know a little of Gibbon’s own history: at sixteen, an intense convert to Catholicism, packed off to Switzerland by his outraged father, where he was reconverted to Protestantism (this time, of the Calvinist variety) and, almost simultaneously, to the uncompromising skepticism of Voltaire, whom he met. The permanent effect on the mature man of so many—and contradictory—youthful passions may easily be guessed.

These earlier interpreters—first the pagan critics of Christianity, then Augustine, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Gibbon—have defined the limits of all later interpretation: Rome fell because of inner weakness, either social or spiritual; or Rome fell because of outer pressure—the barbarian hordes. What we can say with confidence is that Rome fell gradually and that Romans for many decades scarcely noticed what was happening.

Clues to the character of the Roman blindness are present in the scene along the frozen Rhine. The legionnaires on the Roman bank know that they have the upper hand, and that they always will have. Even though some are only half-civilized recruits recently settled on this side of the river, they are now Romans, inheritors of nearly twelve centuries of civilization, husbandry, agriculture, viniculture, horticulture, cuisine, arts, literature, philosophy, law, politics, martial prowess—and all the “gear and tackle and trim” that goes with these pursuits. The world has never known anything as deep, as lasting, or as extensive as Pax Romana, the peace and predictability of Roman civilization. Inspecting the Roman soldiers now, we note the quiet authority of their presence, the polish of their person, the appropriateness of their stance—they are spiffy. More than this, there is an esthetic to each gesture and accoutrement. All details have been considered—ad unguent, as they would say, to the fingertip, as a sculptor tests the smoothness and perfection of his finished marble. Their hair is cut with a thought to the shape of the head, they are clean-shaven to show off the resoluteness of the jawline, their dress—from their impregnable but shapely breastplates to their easy-movement skirts—is designed with the form and movement of the body in mind, and their hard physiques recall the proportions of Greek statuary. Even the food in the mess is prepared to be not only savory to the taste but attractive to the eye. Just now the architriclinus—the chef—is beginning to prepare the carrots: he slices each piece lengthwise, then lengthwise again, to achieve slender, elongated triangles.

We look out across the river to the barbarian hosts, who in the slanting, gray light of winter mass like figures in a nightmare. Their hair (both of head and face) is uncut, vilely dressed with oil, braided into abhorrent shapes. Their bodies are distorted by ornament and discolored by paint. Some of the men are huge and muscular to the point of deformity, their legs wrapped comically in the garments called braccae—breeches. There is no discipline among them: they bellow at each other and race about in chaos. They are dirty, and they stink. A crone in a filthy blanket stirs a cauldron, slicing roots and bits of rancid meat into the concoction from time to time. She slices a carrot crosswise up its shaft, so that the circular pieces she cuts off float like foolish yellow eyes on the surface of her brew.

This unequal portrait of the two forces would not only have been the Roman view: it could almost have been the German view as well (for the milling hosts are of Germanic origin, as are all the intruders of this period). To the Romans, the German tribes were riffraff; to the Germans, the Roman side of the river was the place to be. The nearest we can come to understanding this divide may be the southern border of the United States. There the spit-and-polish troops are immigration police; the hordes, the Mexicans, Haitians, and other dispossessed peoples seeking illegal entry. The barbarian migration was not perceived as a threat by Romans, simply because it was a migration—a year-in, year-out, raggle-taggle migration—and not an organized, armed assault. It had, in fact, been going on for centuries. The Gauls had been the first barbarian invaders, hundreds of years before, and now Gaul lay at peace. The verses of its poets and the products of its vineyards were twin fountains of Roman inspiration. The Gauls had become more Roman than the Romans themselves. Why could not the same thing happen to these Vandals, Alans, and Sueves, now working themselves to a fever pitch on the far side of the river?

When, at last, the hapless Germans make their charge across the bridge of ice, it is head-on, without forethought or strategy. With preposterous courage they teem across the Rhine in convulsive waves, their principal weapon their own desperation. We get a sense of their numbers, as well as their desperation, in a single casualty count: the Vandals alone are thought to have lost twenty thousand men (not counting women and children) at the crossing. Despite their discipline, the Romans cannot hold back the Germanic sea.

From one perspective, at least, the Romans were overwhelmed by numbers—not just in this encounter but during centuries of migrations across the porous borders of the empire. Sometimes the barbarians came in waves, though seldom as big as this one. More often they came in trickles: as craftsmen who sought honest employment, as warriors who enlisted with the Roman legions, as tribal chieftains who paid for land, as marauders who burned and looted and sometimes raped and murdered.

What set them on the move was agriculture, which they had learned from their Roman neighbors. As the barbarian societies to the north of the empire turned from the nomadic ways of the hunter to the settled ways of the farmer, a seasonally predictable store of grain caused the inevitable population explosion. For all too obvious reasons, farmers live longer lives and see far more of their young reach adulthood than do hunters, whose precarious lives—and those of their progeny—are lived like an ecological high-wire act played without a net. For farmers, the safety net is the grain supply—more food than they need right now. This ancient form of money in the bank has served from time immemorial as the basis for long life, long-term planning, and all the arts of civilization.

But the complete formula is as invariable as it is archaic: economic success in the form of a store of grain triggers a population explosion, which quickly triggers the need to acquire new land to feed new mouths. Eleven centuries prior to the encounter on the Rhine, an insignificant band of Latin-speaking farmers “had but recently settled down to fixed agriculture and solved the problem of rapidly growing numbers by embarking upon a career of conquest that ultimately eventuated in the Roman empire,” remarks the contemporary historian William McNeill. “Considered in this light, the Roman state in the West was destroyed by the same forces that had created it.”

McNeill thus takes the sensible, need-based route of Machiavelli. But, as the classical historians have shown us, there are other lights in which to consider this enormous transformation. Why was the border guard so thin? Did the Romans not notice—at some point—that their way of life was changing forever? Did they not think to do something about it besides bow to the inevitable? What were they thinking about? In order to answer these questions and gain a fuller picture of Roman society, we turn to a typical Roman who helped to build the world of late antiquity.

The barbarian onslaught across the frozen Rhine occurred in the first decade of the fifth century. Let us step back a bit—into the fourth century—and meet a man whose style of life can show us some of the yawning absences in Roman society, absences that would lead directly to the calamities of the fifth century. He is Ausonius the poet, and he kept an impressively large, exquisitely maintained country estate in Bordeaux in the province of Gaul and, after his father’s death, another equally impressive estate in Aquitaine. Born just one hundred years before the German migration over the Rhine, he was raised not by his mother, of whom he doesn’t seem to have had especially fond memories, but by two battle-axes, a grandmother and an aunt, both named Aemilia.

In his Parentalia, which might best be translated Obsequies for the Forebears, he extols their virtues. Of Grandmother Aemilia, he recalls:

et non deliciis ignoscere prompta pudendis
ad perpendiculum seque suosque habuit.

To questionable pleasures she gave no quarter,
but held both herself and her household rigidly upright.

The other Aemilia seems to have been rather large:

Aemilia, in cunis Hilari cognomen adepta,
quod laeta et pueri comis ad effigiem,
reddebas verum non dissimulanter ephebum.
Aemilia, nicknamed Lusty in your cradle,
because you were as much fun as a boy—
and, without trying, you always looked like a lad.

The rhetorical progression we are meant to notice here takes us through three stages of growth in three lines of poetry: infant (in cunis); boy (pueri); and adolescent (ephebum). Aemilia, though strapping, never grows quite as big as a man. Something, however, does keep growing in Aemilia.

Aunt Aemilia gets higher marks than Grandmother Aemilia, even if she must often have been severe toward the child Ausonius, who as a man designates her virgo devota—resolutely virginal—so resolute, in fact, that

feminei sexus odium tibi semper et inde
crevit devotae virginitatis amor.

hatred of the female sex forever grew within you
and from that sprang your love of consecrated maidenhood.

Though I am having some fun with this poetry, Ausonius is not. I am translating ambiguous lines to strengthen their ambiguity. Ausonius has surrounded these lines with conventional sentiments, no more fresh or interesting than what we might expect from a modern sympathy card. This, for instance, is how he ends the poem on his grandmother:

haec me praereptum cunis et ab ubere matris
blanda sub austeris inbuit inperiis.
tranquillos aviae cineres praestate, quieti
aeternum manes, si pia verba loquor.

By such kindnesses did she rear me—ripped from cradle and mother’s breast—but under the guise of stern commands.
Let my grandmother’s ashes rest in peace,
ever silent shades, if I say the proper prayers.

Ausonius’s friends might have been expected to notice that this is faint praise—but only because his praise indirectly draws attention to himself. Ah, dear Ausonius, they would have been expected to sigh, those women were hard on him, yet he remains so good, so loyal, fulfilling all the rites—pia verba, literally, faithful words—as is expected of him.

Ausonius’s poetry is full of pia verba; except for the occasional, only half-intentional epiphanies (as in the poems about the Aemilias), there is little else. There are endless sequences about forebears, about former teachers, about daily life, about classical subjects (the heroes of the Trojan War, the Twelve Caesars), endless word games, and endless imitations of Virgil. He has one hot poem, “Cento Nuptualis,” hot enough to be left untranslated in the Loeb Ausonius, where it has titillated as many generations of aging Latinists as it has frustrated generations of schoolboys—a clinical, cynical description of a bride’s deflowering on her wedding night. Yet even here he is deliberately unoriginal: every phrase is taken from the poems of Virgil. Thus does he mean to avoid censure by appealing to the ultimate literary authority and to win admiration by a dazzling display of his knowledge of Virgil. But, apart from these hommages, there is almost never a memorable phrase, just high-class jingles, written to formula. His letters, also endless, are no better: there is seldom any necessary information to be communicated, insights are scarce, and genuine emotion is almost entirely absent. Though his effete contemporaries compared Ausonius to Virgil and Cicero, practically all others have found themselves in agreement with the robust opinion of Gibbon: “The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.”

How could a grown man have spent so much time so foolishly? Well, it’s what everyone else was doing. This is a static world. Civilized life, like the cultivation of Ausonius’s magnificent Bordeaux vineyards, lies in doing well what has been done before. Doing the expected is the highest value—and the second highest is like it: receiving the appropriate admiration of one’s peers for doing it.

Though Ausonius is a Christian convert, as his “Oratio” shows, his Christianity is a cloak to be donned and removed, as needed. It was, no doubt, what everyone else was doing. His real worldview glimmers through all his work—a sort of agnostic paganism that enables him to evoke the silent shades of the pagan underworld without ever giving the reader the sense that he believes in any world but this one. In Ausonius—and all the other “best people” of the age, so like one another it is difficult to tell them apart—we see the flaw in Gibbon’s analysis of Rome’s fall. The vigorous gods of Rome were not eclipsed by some effeminate eastern fantasy religion. Fecund Venus and bloody Mars did not vacate the field to the pathetic, pacifist Christ. Rather, the life of the old religion had already drained away; and by the time Christianity came to the attention of the Roman gentry, the gods were shadows of their formerly lively selves—marginal, quieti manes, rustling through a dimly viewed eternity. It is no accident that when we today think of the Danube and the Rhine, the two rivers that divided the civilized world from the world of the northern barbarians, what come to mind are not the ghostly gods of Rome but the vigorous gods of the German tribes.

Ausonius made his career as a grammaticus, a professor of Latin, at Bordeaux, which then boasted one of the empire’s great universities. His fame as a teacher reached even to the imperial court, and after thirty years in academe he was summoned to the Golden Palace in Milan (for the royal family no long resided at Rome) to become tutor to Gratian, son of Valentinian, emperor of the west. When in 368 Gratian was ordered to accompany his father on an anti-German campaign, Ausonius went along as a sort of poet laureate to the expedition, rising suitably to the occasion with his usual bland results—though this is also the period of the barracks humor of the “Cento Nuptualis,” written, so Ausonius informs us, at the suggestion of the emperor himself. As one of his spoils of war, Ausonius won the services of a German slave girl, whose charms he sang in his Bissula sequence:

Delicium, blanditiae, Iudus, amor, voluptas,
barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas.
Barbarian! but you, kid, are ahead of all the Latin girls.

It begins to sound like real poetry—with each noun alluding to the mounting tension of the poet’s arousal till at the moment of orgasm barbara is moaned. But then you realize he’s just aping Catullus.

In 375, the boy Gratian reached the throne, sharing it with his brother Valentinian II on the death of their father; and it is at this point that Ausonius’s star enters its empyrean: he becomes quaestor sacri palatii, a sort of chief of staff to the emperors. In the same year, his aged father, pushing ninety, is named to the honorary post of prefect of Illyricum; in the next, his son is made proconsul of Africa. More honors tumble forth—for father, for son, for son-in-law, for nephew—and then in 379 Ausonius is named consul, the highest position any Roman (apart from the royal family) can attain.

In the old days of republican Rome, the consuls—there were two of them, so each could keep the other honest, elected for a term of one year to thus prevent dictatorship—had been the executive pinnacle of Roman government. But in the decisive sea battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian had defeated his fellow consul Mark Antony, who had soiled republican virtue by lolling with Cleopatra in Egypt. Nobly seizing the imperial power, Octavian became Augustus Caesar, the first emperor— and the consulships were henceforth transformed into honorary positions, vestigial reminders of republican virtue, and utterly ornamental.

The consulships were not the only ornamental offices in Roman society: the Eternal City was filled with the comings and goings of impotent men—senators, magistrates, bustling administrators of all kinds—performing meaningless duties. Augustus, while seizing all power, had wisely left in place all the republican trappings. The empty show that resulted only emphasized the more the importance of how things were done—since no one wished to advert to the vanity of what was being done. During the four centuries that elapsed from the time of Augustus to the time of Ausonius, the life of the capital turned ever more insubstantial and brittle, so that some ceremony or other, meticulously executed, could become the apogee of a man’s life. In Ausonius’s case the ceremony took the form of a convoluted oration, his Gratiarum Actio, or Act of Thanksgiving, given at the end of his consular year, in which he proffered incredibly elaborate and interminable thanks to the divine emperor’s august presence.

The divine emperor’s power rested, above all, in his office of imperator, commander in chief, the office whose importance had been so greatly expanded during the political upheavals of Augustus’s day. But almost as important as his military power was his power to tax. “And it came to pass in those days,” wrote Luke in the most famous passage on Roman taxation in all of literature, “that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” Thus is Jesus’s birth set in the reign of the first emperor—“toto orbe in pace composito” (“all the world being at peace”), as a chronicler of the fifth century would soon describe it. But the peace of all the world—all the world worth thinking about, that is—came at a stiff price: the constant, and increasingly unequal, exactions of the emperor’s tax men.

We know, again from the Gospels, the hatred of the Jews of the first century for the Roman tax collectors. By the time of Ausonius that hatred was universal. But now I must ask a great concession of my readers: to pity the poor tax man, whose life was far more miserable than the lives of those who suffered his exactions. The tax man, or curialis, was born that way: Can you imagine the dawning horror on realizing that you were born into a class of worms who were expected to spend their entire adult life spans collecting taxes from their immediate neighbors—and that there was no way out?

But this was only the beginning of the horror. Whatever the curiales were unable to collect they had to make good out of their own resources! Who were these wretches, and how were they assigned their doom? Since tax collection was patently beneath the dignity of the Ausonian class of great landowners, the task of collection fell to the next level down, to the small landowners, the squireens who had amassed just enough land to hold their heads up in polite society. Originally viewed as the first rung on the ladder of social betterment, the office of curialis had become by the age of Ausonius a cruel trap from which there was little chance of escape.

Of course, they tried to escape, especially during this period, as the tax base shrank and gold—the coin many taxes had to be paid in—rose in value against silver by about one percent a year. For a time, the wealthiest curiales succeeded in bribing their way onto the lists of senators, for the Senate was the cream of Roman society and the ancient, if ineffectual, symbol of its past republican glory—and senators paid no taxes. Others bribed their way out of their curial rank and into other ranks of the bureaucratic honeycomb, such as the enormous Palatine service. Some won commissions in the army; others sought refuge in priestly consecration. At the lowest end, curiales exchanged their birthrights to become members of a college of laborers, such as the grain importers and those engaged in river traffic. The most desperate—and as the century drew to its close these were becoming an ever larger plurality—borrowed from the only available lender, the lord of the local manor, whose class connections, as we can imply from the case of Ausonius, effectively exempted him from taxation. The lord was always happy to oblige: not only did he gain new relief from any shadow of taxation (for his debtor was both his tax assessor and his tax collector); in the end, after the curialis inevitably defaulted, his pleasant little farm would be added to the lord’s expanding network of estates. Thus did the tax man often find himself a skilled but land-poor laborer, usually working for the local lord. Sometimes, the pitiable man and his family would sink so low as to become serfs on the land that once was theirs.

But the emperor had no intention of standing idly by while his tax collectors disappeared. He soon closed off all means of escape by legislating that curiales could not travel or sell their property without permission. Those in the Palatine service and the army were ordered back to their native stations. They could still become senators—providing they passed through all the grades of curialis and, on reaching the highest, principalis, remained in it for fifteen years. If anyone skipped a grade, he was—like a piece on a board game—to be returned to his starting point.

By the fifth century, in the years before the complete collapse of Roman government, the imperial approach to taxation had produced a caste as hopeless as any in history. Their rapacious exactions, taken wherever and whenever they could, were the direct result of their desperation about their own increasingly unpayable tax bills. As these nerved-up outcasts commenced to prey on whoever was weaker than they, the rich became even richer. The great landowners ate up the little ones, the tax base shrank still further, and the middle classes, never encouraged by the Roman state, began to disappear from the face of the earth. Nor would they return till the appearance of the Italian mercantile families of the high Middle Ages.

In the flight of the curiales, indeed, we hear the first faint notes of the medieval polity. As they, increasingly, swelled the ranks of the great lord’s tenants, they were creating the fiefdoms of medieval Europe, complete with titled family, skilled artisans (or freemen), and serfs bound to the land. As the Germanic tribes poured over Gaul and Spain, and at last across the Italian peninsula, they settled down and took up farming like their Romanized neighbors. Their chiefs, too, became great lords of a kind, extending protection in return for labor and produce. To a fugitive tax collector, as to many another Roman on the run, the estate of a German chief could look considerably more attractive than that of his Roman counterpart. The German would welcome the fugitive’s language, his connections, and his many civilized skills with rough enthusiasm—and the German would never have heard the word curialis. Thus did the great estates, gradually becoming laws unto themselves in a time of spreading civil chaos, grow slowly into the little kingdoms of the age of Charlemagne.

We should not think of the emperors as active persecutors of the poor curiales. (They actually thought of themselves as protecting them—and all Roman citizens—from the cruel vagaries of life beyond the Roman orbis. And, after all, what blessedness could be greater than the honor of Roman citizenship? An imperial edict of this period even tries to shame the recusant curiales by reminding them of their noble rank, of “the splendor of their birth.”) Rather, the bureaucratic and social establishments of Rome had become so top-heavy and entrenched that effective reform was no longer possible. Class was insulated from class. We cannot imagine Ausonius, for instance, giving a thought to the sufferings of any but his own. The passio curialis, had it ever crossed his mind, would only have prompted another clever little poem for his friends to chuckle at. In Ausonius we encounter the complete extinction of Res Publica, the Public Thing—social concern. In all his extant corpus, there is but one appearance by a person not of Ausonius’s class—Bissula, the German slave girl with the funny name, who is there only to prop up Ausonius’s manhood.

The emperor’s worst headache was the army itself. Starved for taxes, he was unable to maintain a force that could withstand the ever-strengthening barbarian onslaughts. But since the time of Constantine, new emperors had come from the army—or at least been approved by the army—so that the existence of the army was a veiled threat to every reigning emperor. The army had made emperors and pulled them from their throne—and one was hard put to recall an emperor who had lasted more than a few years or had died in his bed. In 383 the army in Britain mutinied and, under the leadership of Maximus, crossed to the continent and began to occupy Gaulish cities. Young Gratian was assassinated at Lyons and his brother driven from Italy. Ausonius’s career was over. By the time order was restored under a new emperor—Theodosius in 388—Ausonius was too old for public life.

Though it is difficult to imagine the Pax Romana lasting as long as it did without the increasing militarization of the Imperium Romanum, the Romans themselves were never happy about their army. It suggested dictatorship, rather than those good old republican values, and they preferred to avert their eyes, keeping themselves carefully ignorant of the army’s essential contribution to their well-being. With the moral decay of republican resolve, the army became more and more a reserve of non-Romans, half-Romanized barbarian mercenaries and servants sent in the stead of freemen who couldn’t be bothered. In the last days of the empire, men commonly mutilated themselves to escape service, though such a crime was—in theory—punishable by torture and death. Military levies, sent to the great estates, met such resistance that influential landowners were allowed to send money, instead of men, to the army. In 409, faced with an increasingly undefended frontier, the emperor announced the impossible: henceforth, slaves would be permitted, even encouraged, to enlist, and for their service they would receive a bounty and their freedom. By this point, it was sometimes difficult to tell the Romans from the barbarians—at least along the frontier.

There are, no doubt, lessons here for the contemporary reader. The changing character of the native population, brought about through unremarked pressures on porous borders; the creation of an increasingly unwieldy and rigid bureaucracy, whose own survival becomes its overriding goal; the despising of the military and the avoidance of its service by established families, while its offices present unprecedented opportunity for marginal men to whom its ranks had once been closed; the lip service paid to values long dead; the pretense that we still are what we once were; the increasing concentrations of the populace into richer and poorer by way of a corrupt tax system, and the desperation that inevitably follows; the aggrandizement of executive power at the expense of the legislature; ineffectual legislation promulgated with great show; the moral vocation of the man at the top to maintain order at all costs, while growing blind to the cruel dilemmas of ordinary life—these are all themes with which our world is familiar, nor are they the God-given property of any party or political point of view, even though we often act as if they were. At least, the emperor could not heap his economic burdens on posterity by creating long-term public debt, for floating capital had not yet been conceptualized. The only kinds of wealth worth speaking of were the fruits of the earth.

Though it is easy for us to perceive the wild instability of the Roman Imperium in its final days, it was not easy for the Romans. Rome, the Eternal City, had been untouchable since the Celts of Gaul had sacked it by surprise in 390 B.C. In the ensuing eight centuries Rome built itself into the world’s only superpower, unassailable save for the occasional war on a distant border. The Gauls had long since become civilized Romans, and Rome offered the same Romanization to anyone who wanted it—sometimes, as with the Jews, whether they wanted it or not. Normally, though, everyone was dying to be Roman. As Theodoric, the homely king of the Ostrogoths, was fond of saying: “An able Goth wants to be like a Roman; only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth.”

The citizens of the City of Rome, therefore, could not believe it when toward the end of the first decade of the fifth century, they woke to find Alaric, king of the Visigoths, and all his forces parked at their gates. He might as well have been the king of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, or any other of the inconsequential outlanders that civilized people have looked down their noses at throughout history. It was preposterous. They dispatched a pair of envoys to conduct the tiresome negotiation and send him away. The envoys began with empty threats: any attack on Rome was doomed, for it would be met by invincible strength and innumerable ranks of warriors. Alaric was a sharp man, and in his rough fashion a just one. He also had a sense of humor.

“The thicker the grass, the more easily scythed,” he replied evenly.

The envoys quickly recognized that their man was no fool. All right, then, what was the price of his departure? Alaric told them: his men would sweep through the city, taking all gold, all silver, and everything of value that could be moved. They would also round up and cart off every barbarian slave.

But, protested the hysterical envoys, what will that leave us?

Alaric paused. “Your lives.”

In that pause, Roman security died and a new world was conceived.



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