Did moral decay destroy the ancient world?

The idea, that the Roman state declined, and ultimately collapsed, in part, because of the moral decay of the Romans themselves, is a commonplace of older literature.[1]

On the other hand many modern writers scoff at the very idea.  A Google books search will easily find examples such as this.[2]  Blogger Gary Carson at Ancient World Review has posted this blog-post and this along the same lines, and I thought that I would add a few musings on the subject here.

The question is a sensitive one.  To discuss it is, implicitly, to discuss our own society and its values or lack of them.  It can quickly turn into a political rather than a historical question, and draw responses which are more defensive-dismissive rather than useful: such as the claim that Rome never fell at all!

Such claims need not be taken seriously.  But why did the Roman world collapse?

The Roman world developed a whole series of institutional problems, which contributed to its final collapse.  Undoubtedly the most important of these was the lack of political legitimacy.  All the emperors were usurpers.  Any successful general could attempt the throne.  This meant, when the empire was fighting for its life, that, although the defeat of a Roman army was a disaster, the victory of the same army was almost as bad.  For the troops, eager for money in the shape of accession donatives, would acclaim the victorious general as emperor, willing or not.  The luckless or ambitious man would then be obliged to stop fighting the barbarians, and try to seize power, or else forfeit his life.[3]  A state that cannot win its wars has no future.

Yet the moral failure of the Romans has been a constant theme since antiquity.  Were they all wrong?

The decay of morals and the ruin of Roman society thereby is a complaint of ancient moralists such as Juvenal.  They are not primarily concerned with fornication, which the ownership of female slaves made endemic in that world.  They condemn adultery and divorce in strong terms.

The intersection between private morality, or its failure, and the structural integrity of the state (or lack of it) must be the family.  That women need families in order to raise their children is obvious; the children of those women who do not form part of a family have a much reduced chance of survival.  To form such units of mutual dependency and obligation and to preserve them is probably an evolutionary necessity.

Those who belong to families have something to lose, and so are disinclined to revolution.  The obligations between families extend, perhaps, to create a general basis for society.  By contrast the bachelor is a parasite on society, who might do anything, having little to lose and no-one to be responsible to.  On this view, if the nation is the body, then the family is the cell.  He who wishes to create a revolution will find the family an obstacle.  I am told that the Bolsheviks did indeed encourage “free love” for this purpose, as part of their strategy of gaining power.

These remarks are probably generally applicable.  But early Roman society was peculiarly centred on the family unit.  The state was ruled by the “Fathers” in the senate.  The father of the family — paterfamilias— was the unique source of property and authority in his sphere.  Indeed the Romans, like other Latin cities, had a state official known as the Pater Patrorum, who could conclude treaties with other cities; a notional “father” for the whole state.

This family unit was not the modern nuclear family.  Important men would have clients, who were attached to their family and in turn gave them importance.  Slaves themselves belonged to the family, which, as Pliny the Younger remarked, gave them a “kind of country” to belong to.

To such a family-centred society, divorce was anathema.  It arrived, nevertheless, and spread.  Similarly adultery, as destroying the integrity of the family, was a very serious business.

We all know the complaints of the moralists of the decay of the Roman family in the late Republic as divorce became commonplace.  More telling, in a way, is Cicero’s remark on his dead young daughter Tullia, “She was married to young men” (plural) “of distinction”.

The effect of easy divorce, itself often a product of adultery, and so of low personal morality, was to dissolve the fundamental building block of Roman society.  At that point, obligations also dissolve.  It is every man for himself.  Office is valued, not as a means to serve society, which includes one’s own family, but rather as a means to gain money.  Thus we reach the comical situation described by Juvenal, where wealthy magistrates appear as “clients” at some rich man’s morning levee, to claim a daily handout, regardless of the indignity to their office and the state!

Of course collapse does not happen at once.  But the rot is there.  Why sacrifice yourself, when you are accustomed to indulging yourself?  It is only by hard work and self-denial and deferred satisfaction that most people can achieve everything.  But why worry?  Eat, drink and be merry! … while it lasts.  Such hedonism is, in the end, profoundly depressing.

In the fourth century Christianity became fashionable.  This, one would expect, would improve the morals of the Romans.  But it may be questioned whether it did.  Orosius, I believe, tells us that the incoming barbarians are far superior to the Romans in that they are not adulterous.

Throughout late Roman society, we see a world devoid of fibre.  Each man is on his own.  The world exists; but nobody really feels that they belong to it.  In this respect, the rise of ascetism, of “renouncing the world”, may even have made the situation worse.

When Alaric and his Goths camped outside Rome, I am told, any of the great magnates whose estates surrounded the city could have paid the ransom demanded.  But none of them did.  The Roman government, safe in Ravenna, could have paid it.  An early Roman senate would have refused to pay, and armed the people to fight.  The late Roman establishment simply didn’t care enough to act at all.  And why?  Because their character and moral outlook had rotted in the long years of peace and plenty?  Certainly men have, until recent years, thought so.

It seems a strange claim, when we consider it, that it can make no difference to anything, how men behave in the matter that is central to the lives of most people: their marriage and what leads up to it.  It is surely far more likely that those taught to treat such obligations as unimportant are likely to treat every other obligation equally lightly.  As was once remarked, “those who encourage permissiveness in the bedroom are then shocked to find permissiveness in the boardroom.”

But whether all this really helped to destroy the Roman world needs rather more precision and analysis than I can give it!