Monday, June 18, 2012

The most important law Western Civilization hadn't heard about.

It's popular to think that what felled the Roman empire was a massive influx of barbarians, who battered and raped their way through the empire until it finally gave up the ghost.  But this wouldn't be an entirely accurate reason why the empire eventually crumbled.  True, the invasion of the Attila the Hun greatly wounded  an ailing empire, and Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor, thus ending the western line officially, but the fact is that the empire was already breathing its death rattle at this point.  Civilizations and nations don't usually end suddenly, especialy nations as large and powerful as Rome. They usually limp along long after a mortal blow has been struck. In truth, after the crisis of the 3rd century, the empire was already terminal.  It continued on, but it was no longer the entity that it once was. When Emperor Diocletian established the Tetrarchy, it was an effort to try and make the empire more manageable, essentially splitting them up into separate entities (Imagine the US being split up into seperate administrative districts of Pacifica, New England, Dominion, Midwest, and Texas). The Roman empire had ceased to exist as a single entity, it was now an organization of seperate but cooperative empires, nominally it was one empire, but in practice many.  The Roman empire was dead, only the still breathing corpse remained; it simply took a final push from outsiders to do her in.

I say this because Rome throughout history had been beset, bested by, and occasionally sacked by barbaric tribes, such as the celts and gauls, and earlier in their history by the Etruscans and Samnites.  Each time the eternal city came back from defeat and soldiered on, eventually reigning victorious and subjugating their attackers.  However, what had changed in the millenia was that Rome was no longer a vibrant society; an age old scourge that had beset societies throughout the ages consumed it from within; much like a cancer attacking a persons immune system or termites eating away at a wooden pillar. This cancer was bureaucracy.  The empire had always been large, had always had to deal with an occasional uprising, had always been beset by the very problems that appeared to eventually fell it, but the empires ability to deal with these problems effectively and quickly had changed, not the problems themselves.

Where once defense of a region was left to the proconsul/propraetor (governor) of the province and the legionaries (Roman citizen soldiers) and auxiliaries (Non-citizen residents of the empire looking to obtain citizenship) under his command, occasionally with some help from Rome herself in the event of a major crisis.  Over the centuries a large bureaucratic organization had sprung up hamstringing the governors ability to govern, and stealing away resources from more productive endeavour.

This bureaucracy had been implemented by the first emperors themselves, to help them assist governance of the empire, and had gradually been expanded as emperors attempted to avoid any extremely popular governor or general from laying claim to the imperial seat.  Over the centuries successive coups and civil wars lead the emperor to believe that he needed to exert more direct authority over the empire rather than less (though some Emperors such as Hadrian bucked that trend).  Now this is all conjecture, as all hypothesises of what caused Rome to fall are, but I use this example to state my case.

In 212 AD the emperor Caracalla issued an edict that fundamentally changed the empire. The edict was the Constitutio Antoniniana, which declared every freeborn person residing in the empire a Roman citizen with all the rights and responsibilities that it contained.  This was a momentous occasion that one, symbolizes how bureaucratic the empire had become, and two, fundamentally changed its social system, and three, laid the seeds for the crises that would beset the empire in the next two centuries.

The reason Caracalla passed the new law was simple, he wished to increase the taxable base of his empire.  The Roman empire was very complex and its taxation system equally so, but to summarize it: outside of a census tax and polling tax, each administered by a puppet king or provincial governor, non-Roman citizens were exempt from direct taxation by the empire, i.e Roman tax collectors representing the city of Rome and not the provincial governors who then passed the tax on after collection some of the revenue for their administrations.  Roman citizens were subject to direct taxes from the Empire, but were spared the census tax and polling tax.
By passing the law, and making every person in the empire a citizen, he further strengthened an already large bureaucracy. But more importantly, it was why he did so, it was because the tax was to feed the behemoth itself.  The bureaucracy had grown so large that the empire was having difficulty funding it with the revenue sources it had at its disposal.  The emperor issued this edict, hoping that this move would solve the frequent funding problems that beset the empire during this time; I should also note that currency debasement was going on cocurrently as well.  However, this short term solution had dire long term ramifications.

Firstly, it grew the very bureaucracy that was slowly killing the empire.  This bureaucracy had gradually, over the centuries, shifted power of action away from the governors of the provinces and more towards the emperor, making the empire as a whole much more vulnerable to incompetence or corruption of the emperor and his aids.  Corruption gradually became a widespread problem that left the organization that ran the empire unable to do its very job.

Secondly the edict continued the empires economic stagnation. Adding addition tax burdens to an ever strained productive middle class straing them even further, and as the middle class goes so goes society.  When the middle class thrives and is productive society grows. When the middle class is squeezed and disappears a society stagnates.  This edict created an additional massive tax burden, which the emperor made even more burdensome by raising the tax rates on the populace, and coupled with an ever debasing currency, made them unable to pay their dues to the state. This began the process of fuedalization of society because as the ability of the common man to pay his debts decreased the likelihood of seeking a wealthy benefactor rose.  By the end of the empire the poor plebians had pledge themselves to the wealthy land owners, who had the power and ability to persuade or outright ignore imperial tax edicts, becoming serfs on land that they once had owned and worked for themselves.

Thirdly the new universal citizenship that every person in the empire enjoyed had a major unforeseen consequence on Romes military ability.  The legions of Rome had always been the elite force of the military, not the backbone that we imagine them to be simpy because of numbers.  Open to citizens of the empire only, it was a lucrative prospect despite the lengthy mandatory service of 25 years. The average lifespan of a legionnaire was greater than that of an average citizen.  The pay was very good, and to top it off, retiring legionaries received generous grants of lands in the outer territories. The empire created colonies where retired legionaries would settle, which helped maintain peace and stability in the region, and more importantly for the legionnaire, created an area where they were members of the wealthy landed class.  But as I stated, the legion wasn't the backbone of the miliary.  Though the legions were numerous there were far too few of them to patrol all of the empire alone.  That was the purpose of the auxiliary, which also served a societal reason for existing along with a military purpose.

During the principate and up to the middle of the 3rd century the auxiliary made up 3/5 of the Roman military forces.  The pack mules and specialized soldiers of the military; a good analogy would be to think of the legions as construction engineers and the auxiliaries as the field crews.  But most importantly, the auxiliary was comprised of non-citizens of the empire, and the auxiliary units were often stationed away from homeland of the soldiers who had enlisted.  This helped prevent rebellions, by removing the armed subjects from their native lands, and increased integration amongst the auxiliaries into Roman societs as the reward for 25 years of auxiliary service was citizenship in the empire.

It may be difficult to understand how lucrative a prospect this was, but citizens enjoyed special economic rights and privilages over other subjects.  A person could become rich and successful merely as a subjuct, but it was far easier to become rich when one was a citizen. Citizenship could be awarded by the emperor to upstanding subjects or foreigners who greatly helped the empire, but the most common way to earn it was through military service.  As I have mentioned before, the Romans were brutally effective in subjugating a population with an iron fist.  On the flip side, they created many opportunities for the excellent or ambitious peregrini (foreigners under Roman control) to become standing members of society.  Citizenship in the empire opened doors, it allowed for free travel throughout the empire, and the possibility to hold positions of power. The ability to travel freely was especially a big deal.  This is still true today, as I know individuals that have acquired American citizenship simply because it offers greater ability to travel into other countries.  However, the Constitutio Antoniniana removed a major incentive for members of the empire to enlist into the auxiliary and from it a major source of military manpower.

This immediately created a man shortage problem.  The legions alone were not enough to patrol the boundaries of the frontier lands, maintain peace in the inner empire, and build and maintain the vast roadworks that facilitated trade.  This self inflicted crisis forced later emperors to seek out barbarian auxiliaries, though a better word would be mercenaries.  Essentially the empire had put itself in a position where it was unable to raise its own army, it had to pay for protection.

And this is where it all comes together. The edict removed any real reason for non-citizens to sacrifice for the empire, since everyone was a citizen now, why would they join the auxiliaries?  Men still joined the legions, but the legions were expensive to maintain relative to the auxiliary units, further straining the empire that was already spending every coin it had on its massive bureaucracy.

And as the bureaucracy grew, so did the corruption that comes with large organizations that answer to few individuals.  It siphoned resources from the middle class, and actively forced out those who showed great ability for fear of losing their little fiefdoms.  In the end those with ability, or simply the resources, stuck to their own fortunes and ignored the empire, carving out little fiefdoms of their own.  When the west finally fell in 476 AD, the empire had long been dead, the usurping Germanic leader simply decided he did not want to play along with the farce any more.

This is something we ourselves need to think about. Massive influx of migrants, economic troubles, even incompetent leaders are all survivable.  Rome had its fair share over the millenia but survived them all. It was only when the bureaucracy became so large that it cannibalized everything productive and valuable that the empire finally succumbed.  That is the threat that America faces today.  We have dozens of agencies and and departments that need not exist each one vying for money and influence, and each one looking out for its own interest.

 It will not be the migrants, nor economic troubles, nor even a foreign power that will lay us low.  It will be the very departments and programs that we create to help us rule our nation because the day is coming when we cannot even pretend to pay for our government as it exists now. And when that day comes, if we haven't fundamentally altered how the nation thinks, then we will see our own Constitutio Antoninana moment.


  1. Great post, you probably have already read this one, but just in case (it may be of interest):

    Along the lines of the welfare state bureacracy aspect of why Rome fell: a "magical thinking" characteristic that's built into the majority of people in society is the idea that unpleasantness can be eliminated altogether. If PersonA decides to spend their food budget on gadgets and junkfood, nevertheless we can't just let them go hungry, we can eliminate that through the right programs. But the unpleasantness can't be eliminated, just transferred to an innocent party (the taxpayer who now has to deal with the loss of wealth, freedom and time) and magnified by injustice (the creation of bureaucracies complete with Inquisitors to root out economic sin; the ultimate society-wide crash caused by entitlements – so now instead of one person going hungry, everyone does). The only one who can eliminate the evil is PersonA, by not making the mistake in the first place – and the only way for that to happen (unpleasant as it may be) is for PersonA to be the one that risks going hungry.

    1. Absolutely right. Far too individuals think about the unintended consequences of any given action and your analogy helps illustrate why the US is in such dire fiscal straights. That's one thing that I most often notice about progressives. They genuinely want to help those who need help, however, they cannot seem to get over their emotions to realize that there are some individuals out there that are in trouble because they chose to be in trouble. In modern society it really, either takes a catastrophic event such as a major mental illness, or a series of very poor choices to end up starving and on the streets. Thanks for the link,

    2. Thanks for the reply. Don’t be so sure about the "progressives genuinely want to help those who need help" – some well meaning souls do, but anyone that's going political rather than private charity has other reasons. I speak as a former strong leftist.

      In case of interest, here are some other blog posts you may find interesting (the comments at the Sept 8th anon post are me, as is the one at conan):

      (the latter is about how the Inquisition and other nastiness of the Middle Ages-early modern era actually came from Europe's interaction with Islam)

      The greatest evil in the world comes from trying to eliminate evil – if it wasn't there before, one creates ("manifests"?) the evil that one is trying to eliminate. Left economics are supposed to create equal prosperity for all (eliminate the "evils" of poverty and inequality) yet result in a nomenklatura (its good to be an Obama bundler), ruined economy with the majority on various versions of the dole, and ultimately being a renter/wage-slave in a country owned by foreign business – or the insanity of forcibly eliminating the incompetents/"wreckers" who detract from the objective (see Mao, Pol-Pot etc). The Left's utopian project is in many ways similar to the "let's eliminate evil" project of the various witchunts, Inquisitions etc – it creates and empowers the very types of evil it was supposed to eliminate.

  2. Hey, good read man, but I had a question reading this that seems like an inconsistency. You said that being in the army was a good deal, and that it was elite, being given pay and land.

    But wouldnt as a collapse occurs the military would seem like a better deal to more people would it not? I ask because this is like America where you can either get a shit job, or join the military. But instead of the military being elite, out society just falls apart.

    1. Thanks EK and good observation,

      I think I have a good response:

      It depends on the kind of collapse. I think the current decline of America is more analogous to the decline of Republican Rome. During the decline of the Republic the army was a very good deal for the growing masses of unlanded and unemployed Romans. A normal wage, food, medical care and longer life expectancy than their average Roman. We need to also remember that during the Republican period there was no real equal to the Romans. Sure there was the Parthians but other than that the Celts, Iberians and other barbarians were no match for the legions. The only time large amounts of Republican troops were killed when their leaders made incredibly stupid decissions, like Crassus against the Parthians, or if they were fighting their own.

      Contrast this with the later years of the Republic and the situation was very different. I don't necessarily think the barbarians were any more organized or ferocious but the likelihood of dying in combat was much higher. After the Julian-Claudian dynasty, with a period of peace during the 5 good Emperors, infighting between the Roman elite was common place. It wasn't uncommon for a newly crowned emperor to have to fight his own generals, and the generals armies, to solidify his rule. This meant that rather than fighting an unorganized mob of barbarians you were fighting your fellow soldier and when facing the Roman legion the losing side was usually slaughtered.

      Knowing this why would a peregrinus want to serve in the legions when the likelihood that he would have to fight another legion was high? We also have to consider the fact that the auxiliaries were never quite as well equiped as the legions or as well trained. To make an analogy: How many reservist Battalions would want to go against a combat experienced Marine Battalion? Bravado aside, I think the answer would be none. The prospect of Roman citizenship was alluring enough for non-Romans to risk it, but once they had it, well unless they really needed the coin, why risk your life fighting in the Roman's wars?

  3. Interesting read. I have been struggling with this for a while myself and trying to learn from history. Clearly America is in the decline, but despite being educated myself my economic prospects are pretty damn dismal. The military is an option, but how can I justify the fact that I would be 'defending' something corrupt and past its life?

    1. There is always the hope that America could recover since nothing is ever written in stone. Admittedly recovery doesn't look likely. I have known a few soldiers who serve to defend their nation and have told me that this also means from the government if it ever came down to it.


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Seattle resident whose real name is Kevin Daniels. This blog covers the following topics, libertarian philosophy, realpolitik, western culture, history and the pursuit of truth from the perspective of a libertarian traditionalist.