Why Did Ancient Civilisation Collapse?
In Chapter XXX of his Human Action, Ludwig von Mises says this about the collapse of ancient civilisation:
Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.
…The Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labour and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centres, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilisation…. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.
What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval….
…[I]n the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralysed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organisation. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves.
I would be most reluctant to cross swords with von Mises on economics. I also note his awareness that the barbarian invasions were at best secondary causes of what happened in the Western Provinces of the Empire. What I dispute is his claim that “socialism,” or economic intervention, had a substantial role in this.
We can reject the Polanyi/Finley claim that market behaviour is a modern and transitory development, and that ancient economies were so fundamentally different that they cannot be subjected to economic analysis in our own terms. Human nature is the same in all times and places, and only the objects of superficial desire are different. There were product and factor markets in the Ancient World, and these can be analysed with the same tools as we bring to market behaviour in our own world.
This being said, the Ancient World was institutionally different from ours. We have, during the past four hundred years, grown used to living with centralised, bureaucratic states, able to impose their will for all reasonable and many unreasonable purposes. The Roman State was able to collect enough taxes to pay an army to defend its frontiers most of the time. For all other purposes, it was vastly less competent than the English or French States of the seventeenth century. Its early effort to suppress Christianity was a miserable failure. Its late efforts to suppress Christian heresy were barely less miserable. Its civil courts had no means to compel the attendance of witnesses, and little to enforce their judgments. Its criminal courts were powerless to prosecute offenders who had any degree of local support.
The Empire was an agglomeration of communities which were illiterate to an extent unknown in Western Europe since about 1450. Even most officers in the bureaucracy were at best semi-literate. There was no printing press. Writing materials were very expensive – one sheet of papyrus cost about £100 in today’s money. Cheaper materials were still expensive and were of little use for other than ephemeral use. Central control was usually notional, and the more effective Emperors – Hadrian, Diocletian, et al – were those who spent much of their time touring the Empire to supervise in person.
The economic legislation of the Emperors was largely unenforceable. Some effort was made to enforce the Edict of Maximum Prices. But this appears to have been sporadic, and it lasted only between 301 and 305, when Diocletian abdicated. The Edict’s main effect was to leave a listing of relative prices for economic historians to study 1,500 years later.
As for inflation, it can be doubted how far outside the cities a monetary economy existed. This is not to doubt whether the laws of supply and demand operated, only whether most transactions were not by barter at more or less customary ratios of exchange. This being so, the debasement of the silver coinage would have had less disruptive effect than the silver inflation in Europe of the sixteenth century. Also, the gold coinage was stabilised over a hundred years before the Western military collapse of the fifth century. And the military crisis of the late third century was overcome while the inflation continued.
Nor is there any evidence that people left the cities in large numbers for the countryside. The truth seems to be that the Roman Empire was afflicted, from the middle of the second century, by a series of epidemic plagues, possibly brought on by global cooling, that sent populations into a decline that continued until about the eighth century. The cities shrank not because their inhabitants left them, but because they died. So far as they were enforced, the Imperial responses to population decline made things worse, but were not the ultimate cause of decline. Where population decline was less severe, there was no economic decline. Whenever the decline went into temporary reverse – as it may have in the fifth century in the East – economic activity recovered.
Von Mises is right that the barbarian invasions were not catastrophic floods that destroyed everything in their path. They were incursions by small bands. What made them irreversible was that they took place in the West into a demographic vacuum that would have existed regardless of what laws the Emperors made.
And it is the aftermath of this collapse that forms the background to my series of twelve novels set in the Byzantine Empire….
Further Reading: Did Christianity Bring about the Fall of the Roman Empire?
© 2017, richardblake.
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