Corruption and the Decline of Rome

  • Corruption and the Decline of Rome
    Ramsay MacMullen - Yale University Press, 1988 – 281pp

To Roman moralists the empire was always in decline, ever since some imagined state of republican virtus in the dim past. Small wonder that most modern historians have shunned as hopelessly misleading the whole vague notion of 'moral decline'. But MacMullen, looking steadily into this blind zone and assembling plenty of evidence, has traced a neglected but very influential process in the political and social changes that eventually permitted the dismemberment of the Western empire. This is an important book which will initiate a long debate.

His thesis is that a sea-change occurred in the dominant ethic of government and civil life. The earlier Principate operated not through impersonal administration, but rather through favour, patronage, recognised ties of family, kinship, class, city and guild membership, and so on. This network of mutual obligations was stable and pervasive enough to mesh with government in managing, more or less effectively, the huge empire: that is, providing for basic security, rule of law and the conditions of economic livelihood.

Bribery and abuses always occurred, of course. But by the fourth and fifth centuries they had become the norm: no longer abuses of a system, but an alternative system in itself. The cash nexus overrode all other ties. Everything was bought and sold: public office including army commands and bishoprics, judges' verdicts, tax assessments, access to authority on every level, and particularly the emperor. The traditional web of obligations became a marketplace of power, ruled only by naked self-interest.

Government's operation was permanently, massively distorted. Imperial authority was of course upheld, since it was precisely the source of illicit gain. But its power was dissipated into thousands of private channels in a way that did not happen in the earlier empire. The very officials charged by emperors with investigating corruption would simply use their authority as hugely profitable protection rackets. Military commanders habitually avoided serious fighting, preferring armed extortion from civilians, embezzlement of army supplies, and the lucrative sale of exemptions from irksome duties all down the ranks. After all, they had to recoup the enormous sums they had borrowed to purchase their commands originally.

On the real size of the armies, MacMullen in not just sceptical but outright dismissive of even the 'paper' numbers – about half a million men – derived from the Notitia ("that dream book"). As well as being near-useless, the actual forces were a tiny fraction of this. The great gulf between paper and reality is explained by a century or more of inflated rosters, by legions of dead mens' pay and rations.

What is new in MacMullen's argument is not the existence of this corruption but its sheer scale and long-term global effects. Just how important a cause was this process in bringing things to the deplorable state they had visibly reached by the time of Honorius and Stilicho? How did it interact with other known factors, including attempts to curb it?

There certainly were honest and energetic commanders, prefects and emperors, pace Ammianus, who knew of this debilitating venality only too well. Yet while we hear of plenty of individuals being sacked (and often executed), we rarely hear of whole military units being disbanded and hence deprived of valuable supplies. How much of the military ineffectiveness was due to ghost legions still absorbing resources, and how much to the steady deterioration of the limitanei, the static border militia condemned to neglect and isolation by Constantine's apparently deliberate preference for defence of the throne, over defence of the frontiers?

If we accept the evidence that the total tax demands increased perhaps several-fold even after the already high levels of the Tetrarchy (when they had supported genuinely enlarged armies winning real victories on several frontiers simultaneously) then the later loss of real control must have amounted to virtual paralysis in many areas of the empire.

The official tax assessments were not arbitrary inventions, nor was their collection just random plunder. Legal warrant, however grossly abused, still counted: after all, the purely abstract units of tax liability, iuga and capita, were a commodity that was occasionally auctioned. But how were the assessments made, how many people calculated them, collected them, milked them and disbursed them, at what stages in the fiscal chain? The vastly elaborated fourth-century machinery of taxation and civil bureaucracy, however apparently necessary originally, may itself account for much of the eventual arteriosclerosis of government, even without the decay of the earlier service ethic.

These are just a small sample of the questions prompted by MacMullen. Far from leaving us in any mood of serene melancholy of the sic transit variety, it presents a vivid and frightening picture of how a great state and civilisation, the construction of centuries of painfully acquired political culture, can be cripplingly undermined. Despite its superbly sophisticated system of law, the slow acids of atomised, selfish individualism dissolved larger loyalties and ties on a widening scale until they became, in the manner of the untrammelled market, the rational norm of behaviour, which only the unusually brave and honest could swim against.

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