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From Hutton Webster's, Early European History (1917); edited for this on-line publication, by ELLOPOS
VII. THE LATER EMPIRE: CHRISTIANITY IN THE ROMAN WORLD, 180-395 A.D.
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ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS IN THE THIRD AND FOURTH CENTURIES
THE "FALL" OF ROME
Rome, it has been said, was not built in a day; the rule of Rome was not destroyed in a day. When we speak of the "fall" of Rome, we have in mind, not a violent catastrophe which suddenly plunged the civilized world into ruin, but rather the slow and gradual decay of ancient society throughout the basin of the Mediterranean. This decay set in long before the Germans and the Persians became a serious danger to the empire. It would have continued, doubtless, had there been no Germans and Persians to break through the frontiers and destroy. The truth seems to be that, during the third and fourth centuries of our era, classical civilization, like an overtrained athlete, had grown "stale."
DEPOPULATION DUE TO THE SLAVE SYSTEM
It is not possible to set forth all the forces which century after century had been sapping the strength of the state. The most obvious element of weakness was the want of men to fill the armies and to cultivate the fields. The slave system seems to have been partly responsible for this depopulation. The peasant on his little homestead could not compete with the wealthy noble whose vast estates were worked by gangs of slaves. The artisan could not support himself and his family on the pittance that kept his slave competitor alive. Peasants and artisans gradually drifted into the cities, where the public distributions of grain, wine, and oil assured them of a living with little expense and almost without exertion. In both Italy and the provinces there was a serious decline in the number of free farmers and free workingmen.
Cf. The Ancient Greece * The Ancient Rome
Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) * Western Medieval Europe * Renaissance in Italy