A Roman history lesson


HV Morton**, in his wonderful book A Traveller in Rome, provides a typically readable and strangely familiar description of the declining empire:

Most extraordinary of all was the wealth and thoughtless gaiety of Rome. A population brought up to sleep in slums and spend the day in marble palaces continued to think of nothing but games and races, and more than one observer noted that Rome was rushing, laughing, to her doom. The immense ruins of Diocletian’s Baths date from this time of inflation and scarcity, and one looks at them trying to reconcile them with reality.

Every expedient was tried by Diocletian to stave off the crash. He froze wages and prices in 301, and created a bureaucracy animated by the spirit of a century of extortion. The tax collector became the terror of the countryside. Men fled their homes rather than meet him and revenged themselves on the stateb becoming brigands. Wealthy landowners, developing a technique of tax evasion, managed to exist on their estates, surrounded by serfs and armed men – a forecast of the Middle Ages – defying and bribing the Treasury…

…In this grim caricature of Plato’s Republic, the only place where a man ceased to be a tax-producing unit, and became a human being with an immortal soul, was the Church…In addition to taxation and state control, Rome never recovered from Constantine’s removal of the capital to the Bosphorus. Great numbers of the wealthy and the notable, as well as the most enterprising of the artisans, followed the Emperor and helped him to found his new city.

Modern historians, philosophers and economists, carrying on the enquiry begun by Gibbon, have attempted to isolate the germ of national decay and to find out why nations once famous for their energy lose heart and decline, while others, hitherto undistinguished, are inspired by enthusiasm. Rostovtzeff mentions the ‘disenchantment’ which afflicts civilization, and the feeling the future is not worth while. ‘Wherever we observe this process’ he says, ‘we note also the psychological change in those classes of society which had been up till then the creators of culture. Their creative power and creative energy dry up; men grow weary and lose interest in creation and cease to value it; they are disenchanted; their effort is no longer an effort towards a creative ideal for the benefit of humanity, their minds are occupied either with material interests, or with ideals unconnected with life on earth and realised elsewhere’. In the western provinces of Rome he says the development of this state of mind – ‘apathy in the rich and discontent in the poor’ – was slow and secret, but when the Empire, after centuries of peace and tranquillity was forced to defend itself, the necessary enthusiasm was lacking. ‘In order to save the Empire the state began to crush and ruin the population, lowering the proud but not raising the humble. Hence arose the social and political conflict of the third century…

A society that has spent beyond its means, much of it by corrupt government, continues to pour effort and money into trivial recreations and obsessions, while crushing the resentful taxpayer in a failing effort to cover its costs. Those who can, either leave or put their energy into tax avoidance. The state loses its interest and its power to deal with serious external threats.

Sound familiar?

The massive Brown-created national debt, the ludicrous unaffordable aircraft carriers, wind farms and fantastically stupid greenery, the at best partial failure to deal with islamic terrorism, a government who seems a little remote and spends more time tinkering with trivia like ‘gay marriage’, rather than dealing with the rising debt. The whole EU, today’s echo of the Holy Roman Empire that eventually emerged from the wreckage of the Roman Empire, is seeped in the same decadence, debt and apathy.


Perhaps it will take a classical scholar to see the big picture and do the necessary. Boris?

**HV Morton is something of an unsung hero of travel writing and reflection these days, despite being a star in his day. The Rome book is one of several on Italy, but all his stuff is good, particularly recommended also is A Stranger In Spain.


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