Today We Learn About: The Roman Empire

All things must end, and the Roman Empire was no exception. The Roman Empire did survive in the form of the Byzantine Empire, then the Holy Roman Empire, but the glory days of Rome, the days of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius came to an end in 406. One of the theories Cahill puts forth in the beginning of his book How the Irish Saved Civilization is that the Empire fell so slowly that not even those who were living in it noticed, nor did many of them probably admit it when it did happen. Although we can certainly say that when the tribes of Europe continually invaded Rome that the Empire was dead, it was dying much before this. The theory that all empires must end and that Rome slowly fell out of power seems the most plausible. Cahill speaks of the evasion and harm of taxes, the collapse of the army, and the beginning of illiteracy being the slow murderers of the great Roman Empire.

Apparently evading taxes has always been a problem. But at the end of the Empire, not paying ones taxes was financially devastating to the tax collector. The system Rome had set up was not conducive to long-term employment or to even getting the tax money to the Roman treasury. Unfortunately, the way the system was set up one was born into being a tax collector and it was a hard thing to get out of it before bankruptcy. If someone did not pay their taxes to the tax collector, the tax collector had to make up the missing taxes from his own estate. Perhaps it was set up this way to give the tax collectors more incentive to get the taxes from the people, but it only served to remove the middle class from Roman society, a class that was never encouraged by the state according to Cahill. At this point there were very rich landowners and very poor land workers. The men who had previously been tax collectors and a part of the middle class had to give up their land to the tax-exempt lords and become serfs on the land they had once owned. Since all the land that could be taxed was going to wealthy men who did not have to pay taxes, it is easy to see that the Roman State was not getting money to continue to develop as a society, nor to pay soldiers to defend their land and conquer other lands.

Although the emperors did not have enough money to support an army, they felt they needed one, it was a tradition, and it was where emperors came from. Being so desperate for money the emperors accepted large sums of money in the place of landowners themselves serving. Now being hungry for men, the state allowed slaves to serve in the military, a thing previously unheard of. The lack of control the emperors had over their citizens immediately shows how the empire was declining. In the glory days of the empire a man would never send money in place of a body to the army. Besides the fact that the penalty for not serving was death, it was just not something one did. The people put their faith and property and livelihoods in the hands of the emperor and expected it to be well taken care of. In the fourth century AD the citizens had lost the respect that used to be shown to emperors. Now it was more about taking care of themselves and seeing to their affairs themselves because the state could not be trusted to do it. So the army got slaves instead of men who had a choice. One can also assume in this circumstance the emperors did not have enough money to train the soldiers as well as they once had been. Untrained and poorly trained armies never won any wars, and as Cahill and history show the barbarians were able to overcome the sad Roman army, joining themselves into the Roman State.

Cahill puts forth an interesting theory about the barbarians wanting to be a part of Rome because it was better than what they were used to, more splendid. And they did become a part of it. They were slowly assimilating themselves into Roman society before their armies invaded the city. And of course with new people comes new customs, even if that new people coveted the lifestyle of the old people. These new people, the Vandals, Visigoths, Gauls, Angles, and other European tribes were not as into reading and writing as the preceding Romans were. Cahill tells the sad truth that after a while in the post-Roman world only churchmen were literate because no one else cared to learn. This new world, unconcerned with the writings of the past, had no respect for books and parchments, so had no inclination to save them. So different from the Romans before them who loved literature, orations, philosophy and so much else. Now to the point of Cahill’s book, no one cared but the Irish. Without the Irish, these barbarian tribes would have let the knowledge of the Classical world disappear and would not have even noticed. But far off on a cloudy, wet island there were newly Catholic monks who wrote everything down they could, preserving for the future the history that is so dear to us now.

With the corrupt tax system bankrupting the state and the emperors not respected enough to join the army for, Old Rome was doomed. But the conquerors of that region having such a disregard for literature and history really signaled the end of the Roman Empire. Perhaps it could have survived, in a less glorious form, if the values that had shaped the Roman world had survived in the new tribes. But they did not, and so we are left with the fragments and shadows of the past that the Irish were able to copy down, or those that were miraculously spared to be rediscovered in the modern era.

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