Corruption and the Decline of Rome
by Ramsay MacMullen
Yale University Press, 319 pp., $25.00
Greeks, Romans and Barbarians: Spheres of Interaction
by Barry Cunliffe
Methuen/Routledge, 243 pp., $25.00
The Jews in the Greek Age
by Elias J. Bickerman
Harvard University Press, 338 pp., $30.00
Why did the Roman Empire fall? Alexander Demandt has published a book of 695 pages on the different explanations that have been offered over the centuries. A work enlivened with a good deal of dry humor, it concludes with a straight-faced listing of 210 causes alleged by one scholar or another. In it the reader finds, cheek by jowl, “asceticism” and “hedonism,” “centralization” and “decentralization,” “Christianity” and “polytheism,” “communism” and “aristocracy,” “professional army” and “indiscipline of the army,” “superstition” and “rationalism,” “urbanization” and “decline of the cities.” There is no agreement on the question when the fall began, or even whether it took place at all: “The Western Empire continues to this day,” wrote Sir Isaac Newton, and at various times Germans, Frenchmen, and Catholics have all asserted the unbroken continuity of Rome with the empire of Charlemagne, or with the First Reich, or with the papacy.
If we grant that the Roman Empire fell, what was the crucial date? Many people have chosen the sack of Rome in AD 410, but others prefer the deposition of the last emperor in AD 476, while arguments have been made for AD 300 and the reign of Constantine, or AD 180 and the reign of Commodus (Gibbon), or the victory of Augustus in 31 BC (Spengler), or the war with Hannibal in the third century BC (Toynbee). Alfred Rosenberg, the theoretician of Nazi racialism, carried his doctrine to a high point of pedantry by claiming that “the first step toward chaos” was taken when the originally separate orders of patricians and plebeians were allowed to intermarry, by a law passed in 445 BC—a date long before Rome possessed an empire at all.
Clearly these are not questions that can be, in the ordinary sense, settled. Most writing about the fall of Rome has had a strong thread of intended relevance to the writers’ own concerns and their anxieties about their own time, and there can be no general agreement on the significance of their findings. Richard Nixon said of Greece and Rome, “When the great civilizations of the past became prosperous, when they lost the will to go on living and making progress, they fell victims to decadence which in the long run destroys a culture.” It is no surprise that he went on to say, “The United States is now entering this phase.”
Professor Ramsay MacMullen, of Yale University, has written a study in what he calls “historical sociology.” Like many publications nowadays on ancient history, this one opens with a statement of the writer’s values. Historical sociology is “necessary for the understanding of the schoolboy part of history: that is, battles and political parties and who-did-what-to-whom…. The schoolboy in all of us would insist on battles and plotting and personalities in every description of the past, to give it life.” That reads strangely, and would surprise that notorious schoolboy V.I. Lenin (“Who whom?”), except that it so closely resembles other statements of faith made nowadays by …