We can also gain some insight into the causes of the fall of the Roman empire by comparison with other historical periods. For example we might see some interesting parallelisms with Victorian society and the British empire where a number of ready similarities can be easily seen:
- an empire initially founded on militaristic geographic expansion,
- use of slave labour (for a time),
- with a defined social structure which divided nobility from plebeians,
- society based on the importance of God and the family
- a unitary military tradition,
- where women could had an important role and yet didn’t quite have the standing of men
- Advanced banking/loaning/coinage based on a gold standard
- Mercantile economy
- Both empires developed a curious affection for bucolic poetry of epic inspiration – Harold Innis might have described this as an effort to foster the arts whilst repressing negative press.
Clearly there were also differences, for example:
- The British empire was Christian whilst the Roman empire was pagan
- The attitude of the British nobility, whilst elitist, was less prone to what the French defined as “derogeance” ie the tendency of nobility to lose prestige by being involved in commerce. Roman nobility had a definite tendency to invest their capital in large agricultural estates and disdain industry and commerce.
The above, simplistic comparison suggests we might look at one remarkable difference which changed our modern world: the industrial revolution which in terms of the subjects of the British empire brought considerable changes in terms of the use of slave labour, the growth of the middle class and so on. Greater wealth could be created without the need for further militaristic expansion and at the same time enabling the growth of a large middle class. The elimination of slave labour created an increased number of consumers and a number of monopolies were broken enabling free competition (competition was evident in the Roman economy also, as industry was taken by Gaul or North Africa in areas such as pottery manufacture).
The industrial revolution also allowed a significant shift in transport costs (introduction of rail and faster shipping). In spite of the roman roads, Ancient Roman transport by land was slow and relatively expensive, transport by ship was far more convenient.
The above considerations should be contrasted with the extremely different timeframes involved between what we consider the Roman empire and what was the British empire, although the latter could perhaps be extended to a broader interpretation including the hegemony of the anglo-saxon western culture including countries beyond Britain itself such as the United States, Australia, the Commonwealth etc.
The complexity of the subject matter requires us to leave further analysis to a later date but the take-away from this very brief look is that, at least at first sight, the Roman empire seems to have reached a level of progress and culture close to that of pre-industrial Britain yet failing to make that significant transformational change which enabled further economic growth coupled with relatively peaceful social transformation – Britain was one of the only countries not to be affected by a revolution in the 18th century. Might these two factors bear relationship and might we therefore say that the failure to transform the economy through industrialisation left ancient Rome open to social revolution?
These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:
link to: society after the fall of the roman empire