When considering the fall of the Roman empire through the Social lens it can be instructive to compare the earliest and latest phases of ancient Rome; digging into the changing definition of Roman society in the two periods. For the sake of argument, lets imagine drawing comparisons between Cincinnatus (around 450BC) and Aetius (around 450AD), separated by 900 years, both of them great generals who saved Rome from unthinkable threats. The difference(s) can give us strong clues as to where to look for reasons of the collapse and fall of the Roman empire, and indeed to consider how they may apply to the development of our modern societies.
The changing definition of what it was to be a Roman citizen:
We start by noting that the word “society” is actually of Latin origin from the words “societas” and “socius” meaning friend or ally and indicating a bond and interaction between individuals who have a degree of interdependence. It is also relatively evident that what constitutes a society can change as that society’s manner of organization and subsistence changes. Ie the relationships between individuals in a nomadic tribe can be very different to those of an industrial economy. Jung might add that the two societies have a different collective unconscious with different contents in their archetypes…. (Perhaps one day we can write an essay about Roman archetypes…)
Who were the Romans? What was the definition of a Roman citizen? And hence what was the changing definition of Roman society? It is worth dwelling on the early period of Rome for a moment, when Rome had kings and considering the history of the ancient Roman army which at that point in time was made up of soldier-citizens.
In the early days of Rome, to be a Roman citizen was equivalent to being a Roman soldier, which was a very different situation to the end of the Roman empire where the army was a professional one, separate from civilians and split between a territorial army and a frontier army. From a social-political perspective we can therefore imagine that in the early days of Rome the king had little choice but to form an alliance with the people (or more prominent families, represented by their voting class, curiae) and indeed with their nearest neighbours such as the Etruscans, whilst towards the end of the Western empire the socio-political sphere was increasingly detached from the imperial ruling and military spheres, and with far more complex dynamics.
What it meant to be a Roman Citizen
The diagrams below give a simplistic view of what might have defined a Roman citizen in the early days of Rome (say 450BC) and during the period of decline of the Roman empire (say 450AD, 900 years later). We propose that the definition was initially a relatively simple one, whilst towards the end it was rather more complex; so complex that it induced irreparable splits in society. A divided society is certainly not a good basis for a strong nation.
In the first diagram we see an individual who is at once a soldier and a citizen. In the second diagram we show a number of dichotomies which caused division in later Roman society. We might argue that the Rich-Poor dichotomy always existed although the difference between rich and poor citizens increased through time. Perhaps the real shift in this aspect is that in the earlier days of Rome means were found of releasing the pressure:
Once the republic and its political balances gave way to centralised imperial power the need to keep the (poor) masses appeased coupled with the huge number of slaves intermingled in the population was a cause for continuous concern for the emperors and ruling elite. This need showed through in a number of ways. We give two examples:
- In one early episode the poor plebeians actually abandoned Rome and left the rich Patricians to themselves: they were “begged” to return and given increased rights and privileges in law-making.
- During the social wars there was strife but a political balance (of sorts) was found. The Gracchi brothers remained the symbol of such a movement – they were murdered by the Patricians, but they did introduce reforms which Caesar eventually implemented to a degree.
- innovation and mechanization wasn’t particularly fostered because of the impact it could have on labour: a modern proverb would be “idle hands are the devil’s tools”! Emperor Vespasian is particularly remembered for having taken such a view of the dangers involved in labour saving technologies.
- Bread and Circus: Roman satirists like Juvenal and Martial spoke of “panem et circenses” as a means of keeping the poor classes quiet and happy. Social security is a fine thing but can get very expensive and cause huge distortions in the Roman economy. The bread and circus strategy worked well for some 300 years but what was to happen when the money ran dry and the other dichotomies became more pronounced?
The shifting meaning of “Romanitas”
The population might have revolted, yet by that time it was either hard to rebel, difficult to get a unitary definition of what the population really stood for, or indeed what the definition of Roman society really was. There was an identity crisis and when pressure really built up the only escape route left to the poorer “Roman” individual was an increasing interest in Roman mystical religions like Mithraism. Christianity ultimately won the day but implied a break with many of the original values of being a Roman.
The term Romanitas is now frequently used to denote the collection of social, cultural, political and moral values of a Roman citizen. It is particularly interesting to note how the term only really appeared in the 3rd Century AD when a “to be or not to be” debate was open.
The image to the left is a simplified representation of a Roman (male) citizen in early Rome, say 500BC for convenience. The image to the right is an equivalent representation of a “Roman” 1000 years later, around the time of the fall of Rome, say around 500AD. Notice the numerous dichotomies which have developed, making it increasingly difficult for individuals to find a cohesive unity as an integrated society.That is not to say that one model is “better” than the other – perhaps they are to be considered “equivalent” in that they are extremes – of social integration versus personal freedom. The likely answer lies in the Latin proverb “in medio stat virtus” – virtue lies in the middle.
(some of this thinking could be easily compared to some modern situations…..)