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!

  1. [1]A correspondent has kindly pointed out an example in Sir John Glubb, The Fate of Empires, online here.
  2. [2]J.W. Ermatinger, The Decline and Fall of the Roman empire, Greenwood, 2004, 60.
  3. [3]Vetranio, who managed to concert the surrender of himself and his army to Constantius II and survive, is a rare exception.

21 thoughts on “Did moral decay destroy the ancient world?

  1. Four contrary thoughts, two technical, two on the general theme:
    1) The conflation of divorce with adultery is largely un-Roman. I don’t know whether that’s significant, but it does make me suspicious.
    2) It’s not clear why divorce (any more than maternal death, common in those days), should reduce paternal responsibility to children. That can and does exist no matter what the state of a more abstract institution of the “family,” especially in a society which (unlike our own) does not tend to see children as their mothers’ property.
    3) Free divorce goes back to the earliest days of overseas expansion, centuries before the imperial peak. Hard to make it the cause of decline. “Of course collapse does not happen at once” is not really an argument.
    4) Similarly, Roman moralists were complaining of moral decline as far back as we can tell. Even if they were “right” about that, it seems odd to make that phenomenon a cause of political disintegration centuries later.

  2. Not merely a little later: five centuries later. Which is rather a lot.

    But is it merely that, before that point, a serious external military threat did not exist, sufficient to bring about the collapse unless vigorously resisted? A rotten old tree may stand forever, without moving, until the wind begins to blow.

  3. I think the better question is whether ‘immorality’ was the cause of the decline of the Roman Empire or a consequence. In other words, let’s suppose that traditional Roman values were challenged by exposure to foreign gods and religions. It might be better to assume at the very zenith of the culture (i.e. their triumph over all other rivals) the seeds for its decline were already planted.

    With respect to Christianity then, the accusation of the late third century Emperors that this religion was ‘causing’ the decay of society was similarly misguided. It was a consequence, not the cause. The cause of the decline was really rooted in the very cosmopolitanism which in the early years of the Empire was a sign of cultural ascendance.

    In the end, nothing is meant to last forever and corruption and decay are a natural part of the cycle of life.

  4. Any theory about why the (western) Roman empire collapsed in the fifth century has to be able to explain why the eastern Roman empire continued for centuries. In the 1960’s, A. H. M. Jones proposed that the east had a better tax structure – the west was dominated by large landowners who could escape taxation by various means. I don’t know how many historians still hold this theory today, but Jones did see the problem clearly. I don’t know whether anyone’s ever done a comparative study to try to show that the Latin west was less moral than the Greek east.

  5. A Roman wife who could be divorced and made to leave the household, and who then would have no authority over her kids or family, was basically a temp. She’d often be gone in a year or two, so why put much into it when she’d be back with her father soon? If she did try, it was a gamble against society, death, etc.

    A Roman matron who could not be divorced was a permanent hire as an executive. She had every incentive to put all her work and heart into her new husband’s household, because she knew she’d be there for life. Her household would in many ways be created and sustained by her; she was the Juno of that family.

    You don’t want to be too romantic about this, of course; but it’s silly to expect much virtuous work out of someone who is given no expectation of permanence or power. A temp mother subject to her husband and her father’s whims — that isn’t too healthy for the psychological development of her kids, or for making them feel respectful of women, or (if female) proud and happy to be a woman. It also teaches them not to invest themselves in marriage or family.

    And if you can’t trust yourself to have a permanent home in your own paternal family (which was run by the paterfamilias and already had anxieties from that, but which formerly had had the matron as a counterweight to the paterfamilias), and you also can’t trust yourself to have a permanent marriage and a permanent family you build, obviously the only thing left to love and build upon is self-interest.

  6. I think this would involve presuming that moral decay alone was responsible for the collapse. There were many other factors. Geography probably comes into it too; it’s easier to walk over the frozen Rhine than to get past the Dardanelles.

  7. I was thinking of the plight of the easily discarded wife as described by Juvenal in the 6th satire:

    “Why does Sartorius burn with love for Bibula?” If you shake out the truth, it is the face that he loves, not the woman. Let three wrinkles make their appearance; let her skin become dry and flabby; let her teeth turn black, and her eyes lose their lustre: then will his freedman give her the order, “Pack up your traps and be off! you’ve become a nuisance; you are for ever blowing your nose; be off, and quick about it! There’s another wife coming who will not sniffle.” But till that day comes, the lady rules the roost, asking her husband for shepherds and Canusian sheep, and elms for her Falernian vines. But that’s a mere nothing: she asks for all his slave-boys, in town and country; everything that her neighbour possesses, and that she does not possess, must be bought.

    Give up all hope of peace so long as your mother-in-law is alive. It is she that teaches her daughter to revel in stripping and despoiling her husband; it is she that teaches her to reply to a seducer’s love-letters in no plain and honest fashion; she eludes or bribes your guards; it is she that calls in Archigenes when your daughter has nothing the matter with her, and tosses off the heavy blankets; the lover meanwhile is in secret and silent hiding, trembling with impatience and expectation. Do you really expect the mother to teach her daughter honest ways—-ways different from her own? Nay, the vile old woman finds a profit in bringing up her daughter to be vile.

    The faults described by Juvenal come down to lack of security of marriage.

  8. Of course we may ask: was this picture the same in the eastern empire? It’s anachronistic to presume a common culture across east and west, and even from city to city. How secure did Greek wives feel? Did this change over time? How was the divorce rate affected by the new fashion for Christianity in the 4th century?

    I wonder how we could measure all this. I sense a thesis in all this.

  9. The fall of the Roman Empire is the West has been called “question of questions”. The comments by Pero Tafur that the people of Constantinople were in deep in sin in the 15th century sound utterly bizarre considering that it is repeatedly pointed out today in Greece that there were something like 10 to 20 times as many monks in the monasteries inside the walls than defenders fighting the Turks up in the walls during the siege of 1453. Now the Eastern Empire was more urban and developed than the West and did have a stronger tax base. This was important considering that something like 80% of state expenses went to the armed forces. There was an interesting paper a read something like 2 or 3 years ago, I think in the Journal of Late Antiquity, that said that Odoacer who after all had grown up inside the Empire did not so much bring the fall of Rome, he was no different than previous holders of the throne or kingmakers. What was original about him was that he declared “I am barbarian and not Roman”. It interesting to see during the time of military anarchy of the 3rd century that while the East does manage to keep itself in one piece with the exception of queen Zenobia of Palmyra’s rule, the West repeatedly breaks of into chunks such as the Gallic state that are eventually reincorporated. I think that in the East where the idea of the state long existed and was welcome there was a will among the people to keep the state and thus the “federated barbarians” eventually became nothing more than hereditary military units. On the other hand in the West the idea of the state was far more recent and there was less respect for the idea of state, thus the “federated barbarians” actually became the new state and the Empire was reduced to a formality.

  10. @AndrewRiggsby, some interesting points there.

    You say that “The conflation of divorce with adultery is largely un-Roman”. I’d be interested to hear more on this. How so?

    The point about paternal responsibility: probably so; but I’m wondering what we use for evidence.

  11. @Ikokki, thanks for your thoughts on this, and for bringing a Greek perspective. But surely there is a simple answer: the good people were in the monasteries and the rest were out there, sinning, cheating, eating fish and filling in false tax returns. 🙂 (That was a joke).

    I think the financial basis is important. But again this is one of the other factors.

  12. How nice to find someone who takes the idea of decadence seriously. I remember being told by a fashionable academic at Oxford, when I was writing my D Phil thesis on the Church of the East, that there was no such thing as ‘decline’ (I had mentioned the ‘decline’ of the Church of the East in the fifteenth century, in the wake of the murderous passage of Timur Leng and his barbaric hordes. I thought then, and I still think now, that that was one of the most stupid observations I had ever heard. (The academic in question was not Sebastian Brock, needless to say.) I was very pleased to see that Robin Lane Fox discussed luxury and attendant moral decay seriously in his recent masterpiece ‘The Classical World’. Of course organisations decline, depending on a number of factors, poor leadership being one of the most important. You only have to work in an office for a few years to see that.

  13. I’ve worked for a few organisations that are in decline myself. The characteristics are always the same; the lack of focus, the selfcentred management unconcerned with anything but the next few months, the multiplication of non-jobs interfering with getting the job done.

    The decay in national character caused by a focus on convenience rather than the community as a whole is also a factor.

  14. I agree with this author that moral decay lead to the fall of Rome. Also Public health, political corruption, unemployment, inflation, urban (city) decay, inferior technology, and military spending lead to her ultimate fall. But most of all, it fell because it was just too big.

  15. I am trying to find a quotation about the decline of a society or civilisation which attributes it to
    taking more notice of the views of actors, celebrities and charlatans (or something along those lines). Was it Juvenal or Plato or someone else? Can anyone help?

  16. Hi John,

    I wasn’t aware of that quote. I did a little digging and still could not find it. However, yesterday I was attempting to locate the context of a completely different quote and was able to find it by using https://archive.org/ and checking the box to ‘Search full text of books.’ Maybe that could help?

  17. Robert
    Many thanks, I will check it out.
    Also have a learned friend doing some research at the Atheneum where a book exists in which club members can ask for help to track down all sorts of arcane topics.

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