Part 2: Why did Rome fall and what were the warning signs? How can we learn from that?
See Part 1 here: We discussed a good commentary in Notes on Liberty AND the old Gibbons hypothesis. What can we learn from the fall of Rome (at least the West)?
Notes on Liberty pointed out that Rome was a slave economy. And that the Roman society and culture was one in which large landowners – farmers (or those who rented to or owned farms) who looked down both on those who worked with their hands AND those who were merchants.
Gibbons, of course, blamed failure on moral decay, insane taxes and spending, military bloating, and the deterioration of public society.
But there are other important warning signs and conditions in the SPQR and its civilization in Western Europe and Northwestern Africa.
First, the Roman government itself was not just effected by the problems. It caused many of those. It WAS a massive, increasing, and eventually intolerable burden on the economy. Gibbons is right, but didn’t fully explore this horrid governmental impact on the economy and society.
The Roman government’s actions prevented, to large degree, the economy from responding effectively to the changed situations. While perpetuating these two major problems: the massive use of slaves and the cultural norm that promoted land ownership and occupations that didn’t get their hands dirty, and denigrated those who did work with their hands, and bought and sold (and produced) valuable items and materials.
A second factor may be a surprising one: religion. (No, I am not pushing Gibbon’s old, populist/religious establishment view that Roman immorality was the root cause of its stumble and fall. Read on.)
Although Rome’s moral and political deterioration weakened their civilization, the major religious cause may have been something entirely different. Why? Because one of the most important factors in Roman success – economic, social, and military – was due to the Hebrew people. Or as we normally refer to them, the Jews.
First (but not most important), remember that the Greek and Roman pagan religions were NOT directly tied to morality. The Greco-Roman pantheon did not demand morality of their worshippers. But the Jews’ religion, and their God, DID demand strict moral standards. Even if not universally practiced. The Jews and their Law of Moses provided a strong, contrasting example of how to organize society and how to behave. And that example was even more evident with Jesus of Nazareth sending out His followers with the Great Commission.
But that example was not the only important – and perhaps not even the most important – contribution of the Judeans to the Empire. There are at least two parts: commerce and industry, and military affairs.
Today, due to the politically-correct teaching of history in both public AND religious schools and churches, we do not understand the key role of Jews in the Roman Empire, and areas to the East: Mesopotamia and Persia and Arabia. This developed, ironically, with the conquest of Judah and Jerusalem by the neo-Chaldean (Babylonian) Empire led by Nebuchadnezzar. (I know this is incredibly ancient history: bear with me.)
Many of the Judeans were taken to captivity in Mesopotamia, (modern Iraq, parts of Syria, and Turkey) (as had been the Israelis of the Northern Kingdom, decades earlier). Others fled outside Babylon’s control – particularly to Egypt but elsewhere.
But unlike those earlier people in forced resettlement, the Judeans did NOT assimilate and get absorbed. Rather, to a degree, they CONQUERED. Not militarily, but economically and politically. From which they spread (or were spread) into Media and Persia (modern Iran), into what became Asia Minor (Turkey), and Egypt. In all of these locations, the Judeans quickly became important in society, their economy, and even government. Even before Rome got involved in the Levant (and the wars between the dynasties of Alexander’s successors), Jewish merchants were involved in trade across and outside the Empire.
We don’t know exactly when there was a large presence of Jews in Greece, Macedonia, Italia and Rome itself, and even Tartarus (Iberia). But it was well before Roman troops and government made it to Canaan (Palestine was a name far, far in the future.)
When Pompey finally occupied and annexed Judea as a client kingdom, that importance grew.
Few people realize that Jews, especially from the communities of the Babylonian diaspora, were a significant group in the Roman legions – not just auxiliaries. Roman involvement is Egypt accelerated this process, both on the economic and military side of things. It was NOT merely to appease a small conquered nation’s population that Rome recognized Judaism as a legal religion, and granted special recognition and privileges. The Jews were essential to the Empire, from Augustus on.
Jews have been documented as being well-represented (far above their percentage of the population) in the senior ranks of the Roman military. Paul of Tarsus was far from the only Jew to hold, by birth, Roman citizenship.
However, the Judeans were very important economically. First, in trade both on land and on the sea. It was Jews that often were the brokers, the merchants obtaining the goods that were then shipped to Rome (and the rest of the Empire). Including not just the grain from Africa (today’s Tunisia) and Egypt but products from outside the Empire: Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and especially Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and likely China.
And there is evidence that Jews were also important in manufacturing: Judaism did not have the poor opinion of working with your hands that Rome (and Greece) did: it was considered essential that religious leaders (rabbis) also had a secular profession – and usually manual.
And the Jews were also consumers. Their penchant for annual pilgrimages back to Jerusalem aided their trade and industry, but also pumped a lot of money into the Roman economy. (But that is a topic for a later time, in detail.)
But it all came to grief. As we’ll discuss in Part 3.