Sam Holstein

Rome Did Not Fall Because of Decadence

Rome Did Not Fall Because of Decadence

Back when I was a Republican, something I heard pretty often was the phrase “Rome fell because of decadence.” There were variations, of course, like “Rome fell because her people became sinful” and “Rome fell because her bureaucrats became corrupt.” The general theme of the argument is that Rome became big, powerful, and wealthy, and the wealth and power drove Roman leaders and citizens alike to more selfish, pleasure-driven, and generally sinful lifestyles, which then quickly corrupted the Roman empire and collapsed them from within. In the end, the only thing that could destroy the great Roman empire was their own corruption from within.

There are more than a few things wrong with this summary.

Problem #1: Rome Was a Successful Pagan Empire for Many Centuries

The “Rome fell because she was decadent” argument is most often made by evangelical Christians who are arguing that straying from Christian values leads to the collapse of civilizations. Their understanding of Roman history is that Rome was a Christian empire that got too big, became corrupt, and fell because of its corruption.

This betrays a patent lack of understanding of Roman history. For centuries upon centuries, Rome was a pagan empire. They consulted the gods via readings of everything from the appearance of entrails to chicken behavior, approved of a wide variety of sexual behavior outside of marriage, and openly erected many, many marble statues of gods and goddesses. Roman officials halted trade, changed the course of battle, or event forwent battle altogether based on warnings from oracles. If ever there was a time Rome was sinful and decadent, it was this period of their history.

Far from impeding their ability to function as an empire, their polytheistic pagan ways were crucial to their ability to administer conquered territories.  When they annexed new lands, they added the gods of the region to their existing pantheon, explicitly accepting the religion of the locals.

One way that Rome promoted stability among diverse peoples was by supporting their religious heritage, building temples to local deities that framed their theology within the hierarchy of Roman religion. Inscriptions throughout the Empire record the side-by-side worship of local and Roman deities, including dedications made by Romans to local gods. By the height of the Empire, numerous cults of pseudo-foreign gods (Roman reinventions of foreign gods) were cultivated at Rome and in the provinces, among them cults of CybeleIsisEpona, and of solar gods such as Mithras and Sol Invictus, found as far north as Roman Britain. Because Romans had never been obligated to cultivate one god or one cult only, religious tolerance was not an issue in the sense that it is for competing monotheistic systems.
— Wikipedia, Roman Empire

The Roman Empire had a policy of leaving the governance of annexed lands mostly to themselves. They stationed occupying troops and administrators to manage the territories, but it was a mostly hands-off system. Part of the reason they were able to make this hands-off system work was that religious tolerance eased tension with the local people.

It would be an oversimplification to say Rome was better as a pagan empire than as a Christian empire, but it is eminently clear that being a pagan empire did not impede the Roman empire’s success.

Problem #2: Rome’s Conversion to Christianity Caused Problems

When Rome did become Christian in the 300’s, it did not improve the functioning of the empire for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the shifting of the major religion of any empire, regardless of religion, will cause some chaos. There will be the persecution of the adherents of the up-and-coming religion, as was the case in Rome from 54 AD to 312 AD.¹ Persecution was first sporadic, then common, as Christianity took hold to the shock and horror of the pagan upper classes.

Then, of course, even after the new religion is “accepted,” there is a difficult period of adaptation to the new religion, as there was in Rome in the following century. The most severe persecution of Christians happened from 308 AD to 311 AD, but in 312 AD, the first Roman emperor to become Christian converted, and Christianity suddenly became the accepted religion and paganism the outcast.

Successors of Constantine banned pagan animal sacrifices, then closed down pagan temples, then reopened the temples and allowed sacrifices again. As Christianity grew in popularity, there were fewer and fewer pagans to attend the temples, and more and more Christians were willing to sack and burn the temples for idolatry. By the early 400’s, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire, and pagans faced civil and criminal charges for their faith.

In addition to the deaths caused by religious persecution of both Christians and pagans, the empire-wide conversion caused special stress to the Roman empire because of its senatorial system. Constantine converted in 312 AD, but the aristocratic class of Romans (the class that produced senators) remained pagan for several decades longer. This created a rift between the emperor and the senators that caused a great number of administrative problems.

Problem #3: Roman Christianity Was Not Like Modern Christianity

Both groups of people are called Christian, but Roman Christians from the time of Constantine don’t have a ton in common with modern-day Christians. Modern Catholics and Protestants have more in common than ancient Christians do with modern Christians.

A lot of that has to do with the passage of time. Protestantism didn’t even come to exist until the 16th century after both the western and eastern Roman empires fell. Catholic doctrine changed a lot over the centuries, as well.

The best example I have is of a theological debate going on in the time of Emperor Justinian. It was between the orthodoxy and the monophysites. Don’t know who the monophysites are? That’s because they stopped existing centuries ago. The orthodoxy held that Jesus was both a man and God, as modern Christians do, but monophysites held that Jesus was only God and not a man — that even though he took the shape of a man, he was not human — or at least, not the kind of human you or I am.

This theological debate, which seems bizarre and academic to most modern Christians, mattered deeply to Christians in Justinian’s time. The orthodoxy in the center of the empire was pitted against the monophysites in Egypt and Syria. It even struck at the heart of the empire, between the orthodox Justinian and his monophysite wife Theodora. Justinian managed to maneuver a compromise between the religious authorities, but a cultural schism was created between Rome and Constantinople that lasted hundreds of years.

Countless differences like these separate ancient and modern Christians. People back then called themselves Christians and people today call themselves Christians, but no doubt both groups of people would find the other alien.

It makes no sense to claim that Rome’s fall was connected to a loss of Christian values when modern Christian values didn’t even exist back then.

Problem #4: Rome Had Big Problems That Had Nothing to Do With Religion

In the third century, in addition to persecuting Christians and dealing with massive civil strife, Rome was having a climate change crisis.

Until that point in Roman history, Northern Africa was not the desert we know today. It was lush, green, and fertile. It was often referred to as “The Breadbasket of Rome” because, as the name implies, a heckin’ lot of food was grown there. Rome depended on this food to feed its upper classes, standing army, and other civil servants.

But due to an unlucky series of volcanic eruptions, the early third century marked the beginning of what historians call “The Late Antique Little Ice Age,” a period of colder temperatures lasting roughly 150 years. Colder, drier temperatures mean less food for standing armies and less food for civilians, which means a less prosperous and pleased empire.

As if religious conversion and climate change weren’t enough, climate change paved the way for plague.

For all its advances, Roman life expectancy was still only to the mid-twenties, mostly because many children died from diseases. Ever-expanding shipping routes and globalization, such as it was, only made the problem of disease worse. The cooler period allowed these diseases — malaria, smallpox, and the bubonic plague, to name a few — to flourish.

Roman history is colorful and complicated. If anyone claims to be able to tell you The Reason Rome Fell, you can be sure they’re a hack, because serious historians shy away from making sweeping conclusions about why Rome fell due to the complexity involved.

But of all the intricate and multivariate reasons Rome eventually fell, no historians seriously put forward “decadence” or “overindulgence” as a reason for Rome’s collapse. Climate change, religious difficulty, military overspending, military failure, administrative collapse, plague, famine, and many other things contributed to the fall of the empire, but “decadence” is not one of them.