The signs of ruin in the Theodosian Code and Novels

For why has the spring renounced its accustomed charm? Why has the summer, barren of its harvest, deprived the laboring farmer of his hope of a grain harvest? Why has the intemperate ferocity of winter with its piercing cold doomed the fertility of the lands with the disaster of sterility? — Theodosian Novels, title 3, section 8.

In these words the emperor Theodosius II recognised that something was badly wrong in the Roman world.  His remedy, unfortunately, was religious persecution.  As Clyde Pharr, the translator, remarks:

Theodosius II did not, however, give soil exhaustion resulting from the inordinate requirements of the gigantic officialdom and the urban masses as the answer to these rhetorical questions. . . . The Emperors tried remedies more pragmatic than religious exhortations. Farm work was “frozen.” In the early fourth century the agricultural producer was bound to the land, forbidden to leave for the more leisurely and amusing life of the Roman proletarian. The decree which first imposed this restraint is not available. Apparently it was issued by Diocletian, and the principle is referred to in an edict of Constantine in 332.15 Thus was established in Western Europe the institution of rural serfdom, destined to last far longer than the government which originated it.

The shortage of food was reflected not only in labor policy, but also in taxation. In the later Empire no subject was more alive. Wallon sarcastically noted that Rome, “in the early times of the Republic, was chiefly preoccupied with having a numerous and strong population of freemen. Under the Empire she had but one anxiety–taxes.”

There is much of value to be learned from the legal codes of the Roman empire.  The Roman state collapsed, after all.  Today it is fashionable in some circles to deny that there was ever a Dark Age — a view that would have astonished Sidonius Apollinaris.  It is, after all, inconvenient for the selfish to discuss what happened the last time round.


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