Why do we insist on reading history backwards?

The idea that the fall of Rome ushered in the “dark ages” appears to have been very popular at the time Gibbon wrote between 1780 and 1794. So was the idea that the decline came from an increase in “corruption.”

The story that Gibbon tells—and the one that seems to be repeated everywhere from fantasy novels to casual conversations on Fox News—is one very akin to a quote often attributed to to Voltaire: “History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”

The idea was that Rome, like many other societies, expanded and had both political and military success so long as it held to a set of “virtues” that included things like marital fidelity, restraint from gluttony, and (of course) sexual modesty among women. As long as Rome was populated by a collection of tough old guys in rough homespun, attended by their supportive spouses as they split their time between being yeoman farmers and military tacticians, all was well. But the moment someone put on a fancy robe, started getting too interested in art, and forgot their “Roman virtues,” the slide was greased for that inevitable fall. 

To add a racial element (because there has to be a racial element), a lot of this was associated with Roman leaders getting too cozy with ideas that came out of the Middle East. These “oriental” ideas were what softened them up as they lounged around on couches thinking of their next assignation and pondering things like poems. The way a lot of this has come down to us is the pervasive idea that in ye olden days, when men were men, women knew their place, and everyone worked 25 hours a day, [Insert Nation Here] was great.

For Gibbon, this also meant that a big part of Rome’s decline was that it turned away from the faith of its pagan fathers and took up with that suspiciously Jewish upstart: Christianity. Somehow, that part of his theory of the empire’s decline never became popular with later western scholars.

However, it’s not surprising that Gibbon, writing from within a European empire, should treat the end of such an empire as a bad thing. It’s a bit more distressing at how much of that attitude, the fondness for Rome and Roman virtues, got folded into the U.S.

When it comes to the Roman empire—particularly the Western Roman Empire that existed between 27 BCE (ish) and around 476 CE (ish)—what we’ve inherited is the idea of Rome as the beacon of civilization holding out in a sea of barbarians until it finally gets driven to its knees, fractured, and destroyed through a combination of internal and external forces. Once Rome falls, the world—or at least Europe—plunges into 1,000 years of ignorance and cruelty until a couple of guys get into a door-decorating competition and the Renaissance is born.

But after listening to Duncan’s podcast and indulging in a little reading, it’s hard not to see that idea of history as upside down.

Rome wasn’t the exemplar of some lost age. It certainly wasn’t holding back the seas of barbarism. Instead, the Western Roman Empire was a stumbling block to human progress that persisted for centuries. Its final destruction shouldn’t be mourned. It should be celebrated.

Classical Rome, even before it got around to dropping all pretext and turning “Augustus” into a title to be fought over with bribes, knives, and armies, was an expansionist military regime heavily dependent on slave labor and ruled over by the inheritors of a rigid class system that literally tagged the most aristocratic families as descendants of gods. (Julius Caesar claimed Venus as one of his ancestors.) Elections turned on a mixture of bribery and brute force, issues were settled by who could purchase the bigger mob, and the easiest way to deal with political opponents was simply to assassinate them before they could assassinate you. Then drag their bodies through the streets for good measure.

About the only thing to admire about Rome at any stage—other than a staggering skill at pouring concrete and building roads—was a kind of perverse cultural plagiarism. Romans were absolutely open to diversity when it came to stealing ideas from anywhere: Religions from the Middle East. Philosophy and science from the Greeks. Weapons from the Gauls. Military tactics wherever they could find them. Then they would put a ribbon around it all and congratulate themselves for how very, very Roman they were—often while going out to commit cultural and literal genocide against people whose ideas they had deftly absorbed.

However, what’s most obvious about Roman history is that the Dark Ages started while the Western Empire was still firmly in place. All you have to do is listen to the stories. There is a bright zone—a period from about 100 BCE to 70 CE—when the stories all come in incredible technicolor, with astounding detail, and with very firm dates. We don’t know Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Philopator and Gaius Octavius and Pompey Magnus so well just because their stories are racy and they’ve been featured on TV and film thousands of times. It’s kind of the opposite. The reason that these people get to strut on HBO and Netflix, not to mention in Shakespeare, is expressly because their stories are written down so thoroughly and by so many sources. 

Long before the imperial diadem gets shipped off to Constantinople in 476 CE, those stage lights have completely burned out. There are long stretches in there when we barely know the name of the emperor, much less any list of accomplishments. We don’t know the dates for major battles. We don’t know the governors of provinces. We make presumptions about where armies went and why, but honestly … we don’t know. 

Historians know more about people who lived in Egypt 4,000 years ago than they do about some stretches of history during the Roman Empire. As far as dark ages go, that’s pretty darned dark. What’s more, they know at least as much about the century that comes after that handoff than the one that comes before. 

It’s not so much that what followed the Romans was a dark age in which everything was, in Lawrence of Arabia terms, “greedy, barbarous, and cruel,” it’s that in the already greedy, barbarous, and cruel age of Rome, there were a few fitful points of light in which people took good notes. (Hey there, Marcus Aurelius, I read your book.) The best thing that Rome did was smear around many of the ideas it poached, but the cost of what’s been passed off as “bringing civilization” was the absolute destruction of multiple civilizations. 

There weren’t “five good emperors.” There weren’t any good emperors. There were emperors who were more effective at spreading the death, destruction, and enslavement that was Rome, and there were some who were more interested in how many people, animals, and things they could drag into their bedchamber at the same time, but the best of them still engaged in needless war for self glory and persecuted whatever religious or racial faction made the most convenient scapegoat at the time.

It was a mess that had to die before the area dominated by that empire, and the nations dependent on trade with that empire, could move on. Good riddance.

As to why the empire eventually died, that seems simple enough: It died over tax issues.

People like to blame invasions from Germanic tribes, or the Huns, or … whatever. But the truth is simple enough. In 211 CE, the Roman Empire had about 450,000 men under arms spread across 33 legions and a number of smaller units. The cost of running that army was about 4% of the empire’s GDP. The United States currently employs about 480,000 in its military, and over the last 50 years military costs have averaged about 4.4% of the nation’s GDP. A pretty fair comparison.

Only Rome funded its government principally through two systems: pillaging enemies and high taxes on the poor and middle class. After the reign of Trajan ended in 117 CE, that pillaging part pretty much dried up. So Rome replaced it with crushingly high taxes on the poor and middle class; a poor and middle class that had to compete with an essentially untaxed wealthy class that employed armies of slaves.

And it wasn’t enough. Over the next two centuries, the size and the quality of the army declined steeply. Most of the troops were no longer Romans but former “barbarians,” many of whom served in the military as part of a deal for Rome to either leave their relatives alone in their homeland or accept those relatives within the Roman borders. Where Rome had once fielded multiple armies with well-trained forces of 50,000 or more equipped with high quality weapons, the forces that showed up to fight the major battles of the later period were often less than a tenth of that, and many of them wore uniforms and carried weapons that were poor at best.

Rome couldn’t afford the money it would take to pay for military domination over people who hated it because it never managed to consistently tax the rich. Sure, when dynasties turned over, there was an opportunity for a little mass bloodletting and theft to restock the coffers (hey, Augustus did it, so why not?), but for the most part the wealthy were left to accumulate more and more—more land, more slaves, more wealth of all kinds—unmolested by taxes or other obligations to the state.

Theoretically, the wealthy did have to pay taxes, but that was treated with even less seriousness than the rate that Amazon supposedly pays on its profits. Because increasingly shaky emperors needed those wealthy folks on their side, and not out there bribing either crowds or the nearest legion to turn against the emperor, paying those taxes was generally treated as a joke. To underline that idea, every few years the emperors would announce that all outstanding debts were forgiven. Every time they did, the equivalent of trillions in taxes owed to the state disappeared. 

Emperors were scared of their own legions, because those legions were easily bribed into putting someone else in the seat. They were scared of the wealthy, because those wealthy were capable of of bribing the legions. So every year, the empire promised to pay soldiers more, handed out more free passes to the wealthy, and exacted a higher and higher toll on the poor and shrinking middle class that was already having to compete against the literal slave wages that were funding their competition. Which meant that the empire often didn’t have the funds it promised to pay the soldiers, much less anything else.

Gee. Why didn’t that work out? The miracle—and tragedy—of Rome is that it didn’t fall apart sooner.

There were still plenty of extremely wealthy Romans around when the Roman Empire fell. Even in places as distant as Britain, there were wealthy enclaves of Romans who went on importing their wine and olive oil, hiding behind their own walls, guarded by their own private security forces, for generations after the last legions pulled out. Gated communities are not a new phenomenon. Similar things happened in what’s now France and all across Italy.

(There was also a force that continued to occupy one of the forts along Hadrian’s wall, passing down weapons and increasingly tattered uniforms, marching around under the banner of the legions, for a century after the Romans left. We know almost nothing about them, but if you’ve ever wanted a topic for a historical novel, there you go.)

Did the end of the Roman Empire bring an age of enlightenment? Nope. But the assumption that there was some kind of enlightenment before that end, and that the empire itself is something to be admired … that’s a problem.

Gibbon’s work is as far in our past as the peak of the Roman Empire was from its final, sputtering finale. But we’re still living with that idea that civilizations rise and fall over some set of imagined “virtues” that are more aligned with the straightjacketed mind of a 18th century Englishman (a man whose entire romantic life was confined to sighing after the daughter of a pastor who forbid their association).

And we’re still acting like the fall of slave-holding, militaristic, brutal empires is something to be mourned. That’s not just bad history, that’s bad present.



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