This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the thirteenth of twenty-six short reflections.
Edward Gibbon begins his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in 1776) by singing the praises of the Empire at its height (bolding added by me):
In the second century of the Christian Era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government. During a happy period of more than fourscore years, the public administration was conducted by the virtue and abilities of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the two Antonines. It is the design of this, and of the two succeeding chapters, to describe the prosperous condition of their empire; and afterwards, from the death of Marcus Antoninus, to deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall; a revolution which will ever be remembered, and is still felt by the nations of the earth.
As the bolding suggests, Gibbon saw the second century CE as a golden age – prosperous, well managed, a model for the future government of the United States with a separation between the legislative body of the Senate and the executive power of the Emperors, a gentle but powerful set of laws, and free travel from the north of Brittania to Upper Egypt, a freedom from piracy on the Mediterranean Sea, over a fair and civilized land. And, as the video from Monty Python from yesterday’s post pointed out, they did not do badly building aqueducts, urban sanitation, roads, and irrigation, and bringing medicine, education, wine, public baths, safety, order, and peace.
Of course, the video is less a claim to definitive Roman history than a parody of left-wing radicals in the UK who disparage the benefits of democracy and the market economy; these were the sorts of people they met while at university in the UK and advocated for Trotsky and Mao.
Back to Gibbon. He was a brilliant historian, an 18th century Thucydides, who did extensive research and set the standard for historiography for another century or two. However, he was a creature of his times – the Enlightenment and the era of the rise of the British Empire. As a child of the landed gentry, he was a part of the upper 5% of the population of Great Britain, and as a backbench Member of Parliament he naturally identified with the ruling classes in the Roman era. He was raised on the untranslated writings of the Greek and Latin authors, and believed that the Roman Empire was the height of civilization from which Europe fell precipitously into the Dark Ages, giving way to barbarians and superstition, and from which the world had only recovered in his time. And he blamed Christianity.
Despite a conversion to Catholicism in his adolescence, and a return to some form of reformed faith a year and a half later, Gibbon was most influences by the Philosophes of pre-Revolutionary France. He came to believe that, after Constantine, the Christian faith diverted Imperial funds into large basilicas and unproductive clergy and monastics, funds that should have been used for defense and economic investment. Christian values seemed to be contrary to the proud, virile values of the Roman Republic and Empire, and so the question was not so much why Rome fell, but why it lasted so long, until 1453, in that vestige of Byzantium. While still influential, his views have been much challenged. The quality of his prose, on the other hand, is still brilliant, and influenced another upper-class historian-politician, Winston S. Churchill.
I suspect that if Gibbon had actually lived in the Roman Empire he might have had a different view. Julius Caesar, like most of the conquering generals of Rome, was responsible for the death of perhaps a million Gauls during his conquest of what is now France. Despite being a patrician, he was essentially bankrupt when he became governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and he built his wealth off of the capture and sale of hundreds of thousands of slaves. The elite of the Empire, some 1.5% of the population, owned half of all the slaves, and roughly half were working in agriculture and the other half in towns and cities; perhaps up to 40% of the population were enslaved. Slaves were considered non-persons, the property of their owners, and there was nothing extraordinary in the use and abuse of slaves for sexual gratification.
Perhaps 25% of the total population of the Empire were citizens, but up until the 3rd Century CE the vast majority of them were on the Italian peninsula. Citizenship suggests to us the right to vote, but the system of the Roman Republic was rigged in favour of the aristocracy, and one had to be physically present in Rome on voting day in order to be counted, anyway. And, of course, half the citizenry, being female, were disenfranchised anyway. After Caesar even the aristocracy lost their political rights, as the emperors were quite literally dictators.
The subject peoples of the Empire did not care for Roman rule, as is evident from frequent rebellions by in Italy, Gaul, Britannia, Egypt, Mauretania, Africa (the province, not the continent), and, of course, Judea. Even when a province became inured to Roman domination they Empire was plagued with the reality that the Romans never quite figured out how to handle the succession of emperors. Thus, Roman history seems to be a never-ending series of civil wars or military revolts, with a dizzying turnstile of short reigns or pretenders, and large parts of the Empire separating for decades and generations before being reunited.
Then there are the taxes. Among the most hated persons in the gospels are the tax collectors. Tax collection was farmed out to subcontractors, and they had a “mark-up” on what was to be collected, so that they might enrich themselves. The taxes required bore little relation to the ability of the province to produce, and so in some places the economy became depressed and the land, quite literally, suffered. Thus, it appears that Galilee in the time of Jesus was in an economic crisis as many families failed to pay their taxes, lost their land, and became unrooted brigands in order to survive.
Life expectancy in the Roman Empire appears to have been low in comparison with other pre-industrial societies. Mortality was especially high in the early years, and the Romans also practiced infanticide and exposure. It has been argued that
Mortality on this scale: (1) discourages investment in human capital, hindering productivity growth (adolescent mortality rates in Rome were two-thirds higher than in early modern Britain); (2) creates large numbers of dependent widows and orphans; and (3) hinders long-term economic planning.
Medical care in Roman society was very much “every man for himself”. Rodney Stark suggests that one of the reasons Christianity grew was that Christians, being enjoined to care for each other and to visit the sick, had, even with the minimal medical care available at the time, a somewhat higher survival rate than their non-Christian neighbours. This growth was compounded by the non-Christian neighbours seeing that more Christians survived plagues and ordinary diseases. This, combined with the Christian prohibition against infanticide and exposure, meant that over its first three centuries, the Christian population grew as a proportion of the population, despite recurrent persecution by the Empire.
We are, of course, impressed by the engineering feats of the Romans. Their buildings, such as the Pantheon in Rome, are astonishing achievements. Some of the aqueducts are still in use, if only as bridges. The roads, built mainly for the movement of armies, contributed to the unity and economic growth of the Empire. Appropriating Greek culture they preserved the classics of Greek history, literature, and drama, as well as philosophy. As a basic substrate of elite medieval European culture, the Romans were held up as the ideal throughout the Renaissance and up into the 20th century.
But I suspect that if any one of us were in the place of our ancestors in the time of John the Divine, circa 69 CE (or 90 CE), we would generally find that life was nasty, brutish, and short. There is a good chance we would have been slaves, used and abused by our owners, and even if free, then without any rights as a citizen, and literally taxed to death. John the Divine experienced exile and persecution, and saw Rome as a tool of Satan, not benefiting its peoples by overbearing in its dominion. He could not imagine any natural alternative to this reiteration of hated Babylon, and so looked towards the intervention of God in the person of Jesus Christ returning as the Son of Man to judge the world.
So, is this justice? Is this something to which we in the 21st century can subscribe? That’s for tomorrow.