Destruction of the Roman Middle Class: An Analogy for America today?
There have been many books written about the decline of the Roman Empire and the factors that made it happen. Gibbon stands out as the first writer to put significant effort toward the subject with his six volume opus first published in 1776. Gibbon characterized the causes of the fall of Rome as follows:
"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long."
Given the contemporary angst about the health of the middle class in the United States, I thought it might be interesting to examine the decline of the middle class in Rome and its contribution to the decline of the empire as a whole.
Like the United States, the Roman political system was stabilized by the development of a large and robust middle class. In the early days of the Republic, there were patricians and plebeians (rich men and common men), with a sharp line dividing them according to family lineage and property ownership. Then, as the Republic grew, a new class called the Knights (Equites) emerged, initially made up of individuals who were wealthy enough to pay for a horse and the supplies needed to serve in the cavalry. Later two factors helped expand this class of Equites. Patricians, who were averse to participating in business ventures because they were perceived a low professions, began to employ knights to run their businesses for them, and this allowed the Knights to become merchants, bankers, insurance men, and investors. As businessmen, the Knights were able to acquire wealth and move up the socio-economic ladder. Their wealth was “new money” in contrast to the “old money” of the patricians. The second factor which helped build the middle class occurred during the reign of Augustus, when the civil service system was greatly expanded by employing more and more appointed officials to independently manage the government infrastructure. These civil servants were known as “publicans”.
With wealth came influence and the Roman middle class grew and prospered over the centuries, acting as the balance point between the three socio-economic classes, but in the latter stages of the empire, the middle class came under such pressure, it nearly ceased to exist, and the vacuum created by its decline was one of the major causes of the collapse of the empire. Why did this happen?
During the third century AD, the combination of funding external wars and internal unrest caused rampant monetary inflation, wiping out the assets of the middle class. Moreover, the occasional efforts to return the empire to its former glory were centered more on rebuilding the army than funding public works projects in the cities, so the latter became degraded into a dilapidated condition. Civil service workers in the cities, once perceived as benefactors because of their wealth, were now pressed by the government to collect higher and higher taxes, which alienated them from the people they had previously governed, and caused them to lose interest in serving. They abandoned their posts and moved away, leaving the extremely wealthy and poor behind, with a vacuum in the middle. With a lack of candidates for civil service positions, the government began to support the concept of hereditary service, passed down from father to son. Perceiving their value to the empire and noting the distance separating them from the capital, these administrators began to defy the central government. The latter responded by passing laws designed to bring their administrators in line, but the end result was administrative paralysis and corruption as low pay forced civil servants to bribe and sell favors to those with the money to pay for them.
In this case, the authorities had tried to impose a regimentation that would create the funding needed to pay the army and support a bureaucratic imperial infrastructure, but what they accomplished was a destruction of the individual loyalty needed to preserve the political system.
As it happens so often in history, a political system is taken to the point of collapse when its leaders become so isolated from the problems of the public and they forfeit the ability to maintain stability in the system. The Roman central government during the period of the third century AD was more interested in ceremony than understanding the needs of the people so the gulf between the two was advanced by a failure to communicate.
To put the impact of changes in the Roman middle class in the right perspective, we have to place it in the proper place among all of the factors that, together, helped to hasten the end of the empire. These include failure of the army and the social catastrophe that disrupted the lives of the Roman people and their ability to survive in the changing political landscape. The army failed because it was not large enough to police the empire. It was not large enough because conscription efforts did not produce enough recruits among a decreasing number of candidates and those who were available were actively trying to avoid service. Ultimately, Rome’s enemies became stronger than she by shear numbers.
Social catastrophe resulted from a lack of sympathy between the army and the people. The people were often terrorized by the military and yet were forced to fund their compensation through high tax rates. Other social factors include the problem of agricultural laborers driven to poverty who were forced to seek protection from whatever source was available. Their benefactors were military officers who negotiated with the government on their behalf or the wealthy landowners who agreed to take them in as tenants or laborers. Many, who were driven to poverty, turned to a life of crime as individuals or members of gangs. All of these problems were ignored by the uber-wealthy who continued to expand their positions without a care for the plight of the common man.
The destruction of the Roman middle class was an important component of larger collapse of the entire social fabric of the empire. Its collapse made the problems of the other classes more apparent. The wealthy class remained to enrich themselves, without any connection to the problems of the common man. The poor became more impoverished and were forced to be dependent on whatever benefactor they could depend on.
Today, in America, we see some of the same elements: a shrinking middle class less able to carry the tax burden of the country, an impoverished poor dependent on government for subsistence, and an arrogant wealth class out of touch with reality and focused on their own world of fantasy. How will these conflicting forces resolve themselves this time?