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Greeks, Romans, Jews & Others

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.1 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 ancient historians.

Something vital for the “life” of all accounts of the past is put down snubbingly as “schoolboy”—only all readers insist on getting it, and in fact the author, having distanced himself from it in theory, can indulge in it in practice. MacMullen has seventeen graphs that illustrate the phenomenon of decline: a striking one, for instance, shows the number of writers whose works have survived from successive half-century periods. Of these seventeen graphs no fewer than eleven come in the first fourteen pages. Later on in the book, the nature of which is rather misleadingly suggested by such an opening, we do indeed find an account of the crucial battle of Hadrianople in 378 and even of what followed it (“From Hadrianople, the victorious Goths, soon joined by other barbarian immigrant groups, turned to further pillage. They were quite unopposed. Indeed, a contemporary speaks of them moving over the land ‘like dancers rather than as if on campaign”’; and so on), and of such people as the wicked Count Romanus (“From Milan, a certain Palladius, tribune and notary, set off in 367 for Carthage,” etc.).

The connoisseur may see a resemblance to the procedure of Professor Cunliffe. He begins his book by saluting “a school of ancient historians concerned with the ancient economy, who approach their study not anecdotally, as was the tradition in the past, but in terms of model-building,” and his first chapter is austerely abstract—“Individual communities throughout the hinterland are linked directly to the gateway community by a linear or dendritic market network which need not be circumscribed by political boundaries.” But as soon as we come to facts, on the first page of his second chapter, the anecdotal is shamelessly back in our midst: after a seven-year drought the people of the island of Thera consulted the Delphic oracle for advice and were told to found a colony in Libya.

Herodotus gives details of what happened: “The expedition sailed to Libya but did not know what to do next, so returned to Thera: but the Therans stoned them as they were putting in and would not allow them to land, telling them to sail back again. So under compulsion they sailed back and established a settlement on an island off Libya, called Platea.”

Later, we are told, the settlers moved to the better site of Cyrene. The story is of particular interest as an example of society’s response when population level approaches or exceeds the holding capacity of the land.

Other anecdotes and vignettes follow, and why not? Ancient historians seem to be ashamed to be seen considering certain sorts of question, or even certain sorts of evidence. If they are, it is not a virtue; and the present vogue for renouncing what one does, as one does it, recalls all too vividly a maiden lady of the old style, who kept a box of chocolates, or even a bottle of gin, under the table, and assured her visitors that she wouldn’t dream of touching such wicked stuff. Enough of these ritual pieties! Let what we write speak for itself.

MacMullen rightly emphasizes that there was no such thing as “the” decline of the empire. Things took very different courses in different places and at different times. Most of the west suffered disastrous barbarian invasions in the middle of the third century, from which it is perhaps surprising that the western empire recovered at all; but across the Channel there seems to have been no third century crisis in Britain, nor does it seem to have affected Egypt. Spain and Britain suffered a sharp decline before the end of the fourth century, but the African provinces flourished well into the fifth. And so on.

Having established this, MacMullen goes on to the theme of corruption. Like other early states, Rome had always had few paid officials, and had relied, to keep the whole system going, on the sense of duty, the noblesse oblige, and above all the competitiveness, of the upper class, both in Rome and in the cities of the Empire. That upper class worked very much by personal contacts, marriage and kinship alliances, inherited friendships; it is the situation familiar in many parts of the world until this day. It had always been difficult to apply the restraints of the law with any success to powerful men—well born, well connected, rich—who went beyond the norm in greed or violence or ambition.

A mass of skillfully deployed evidence shows us the way things had always been, with some vivid vignettes of oppressive and corrupt behavior. Army officers took bribes from the enemy and padded their rolls of men with the names of the dead; the living soldiers bought long leaves—years at a time—from their commanders; those who were still in the ranks, unpaid and unprovided through venality higher up in the system, bullied civilians and practiced the rake-off and the shakedown. (MacMullen is good on the slang terms and euphemisms, in Greek and Latin, for these practices.) Justice was notoriously at the mercy of influence and of money. The rich managed to get themselves exempted from the obligation to pay tax, passing it on gleefully to the poorer members of the upper class, with the result that that class became smaller and smaller, and consisted of a few plutocrats ruining their social equals and oppressing their dependents. Meanwhile the provincial governors could fix the rate of taxes at their pleasure, disregarding the attempted supervision of Rome.

This is all stirring to read and an excellent account of the workings of such a society. Where MacMullen goes beyond his predecessors is in regarding the prevalence of corruption as a key factor in Rome’s decline; often he writes as if he were presenting it as “the” cause, although he never quite says so. In the old days Rome was able to field invincible armies and to defeat and destroy barbarian hordes, but after AD 320 it was able to do so no longer. Its armies were reluctant to take the field, unprepared, reliant on the barbarian units within their own ranks for the fighting spirit which won battles. Why was that? What had brought a conquering people to this pass? MacMullen is right to see this as a crucially important question. He answers it by bringing out the effects throughout the system of each person in a position of power using it for his own enrichment, regardless of the common good: a process which he provocatively calls the “privatization of power.” Armies were smaller than they should have been, worse armed than they should have been, less willing to fight; they were increasingly based not on the frontier but in the cities, where it was cheaper to provision them, and where they could support themselves by squeezing the locals. Such armies repeatedly proved unwilling to fight, and when they did fight it was but feebly. When Alaric, in his march on Rome, was told that the Romans were massing to fight him, he commented, “The thicker the grass, the easier it is to mow.”

Of course the point has not gone unnoticed. Gibbon remarked on the “enervated soldiers” of the period and gave weighty judgment: “Their pusillanimous indolence may be considered as the immediate cause of the downfall of the Empire.” The gentle Erasmus, by contrast, blamed it all on the bloodthirstiness of the soldiers and the military despotism which they imposed on Rome, a verdict which perhaps says more about him than about its subject. MacMullen’s point is well taken. The Roman armies of the fourth century were clearly not what they used to be, and the sack of Rome, the loss of the western provinces, and the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms would all not have happened if they had been.

We may remark in passing that another interesting question raised by Rome’s fall is this: Was it a bad thing that it fell? Do we wish, should we wish, that the Mediterranean world, from Northumberland to the Persian Gulf, were still ruled by a Roman emperor? Like most of those who write on this subject, MacMullen seems to go on the unstated premise that we should prefer it. There was a vogue among Germans, and even some Victorian Englishmen, for saying that the barbarian invaders were much better than late Romans (more moral, taller, blonder) and their destruction of the western empire was a good thing; that seems to have blown over, and the whole question is eminently unanswerable, but something within us—less the schoolboy this time, perhaps, than the undergraduate—can derive pleasure and even instruction from considering it. The ancestors of the Greeks and Romans themselves were, in the beginning, northern invaders who forced their way south to the sea, the sun, and the lands of the olive and the vine.

  1. 1

    Der Fall Roms (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1984).

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