Juan de la Corte – Battle Scene

It is this year AD 476, which is com­monly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire, a cus­tom which seems to over­look the fact that the east­ern part of it sur­vived for anoth­er thou­sand years. But one could take any of the neigh­bour­ing dec­ades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mis­take to see Roman and Bar­bar­i­ans as either/or, when in real­ity the cul­tures mingled; in the words of Chris Wick­ham, “Crisis and Con­tinu­ity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The per­haps most sig­ni­fic­ant change was the end of the cent­ral­iz­a­tion of polit­ics, eco­nomy and cul­ture that the great empire had provided; par­tic­u­lar­ism set in.

The end of polit­ic­al unity was not a trivi­al shift; the whole struc­ture of polit­ics had to change as a res­ult. The rul­ing classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diver­ging fast. The East was mov­ing away from the West, too.
It was becom­ing much more Greek in its offi­cial cul­ture, for a start. Leo I was the first emper­or to legis­late in Greek; under a cen­tury later, Justini­an (527−565) may have been the last emper­or to speak Lat­in as a first lan­guage. But it is above all in the West that we find a grow­ing pro­vin­cial­iz­a­tion in the late fifth cen­tury, both a con­sequence and a cause of the break­down of cent­ral gov­ern­ment. …
Build­ing became far less ambi­tious, artis­an­al pro­duc­tion became less pro­fes­sion­al­ized, exchange became more loc­al­ized. The fisc­al sys­tem, the judi­cial sys­tem, and the dens­ity of Roman admin­is­trat­ive activ­ity in gen­er­al, all began to sim­pli­fy as well. (44)

Mosaic of Justinianus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)
Mosa­ic of Justini­anus I in the Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna)

The decis­ive chal­lenge, and indeed the most “tax­ing” mat­ter, for any com­munity that would endeav­our to fol­low the Roman example, was how to pay for a stand­ing army, which had been the instru­ment of Rome’s expan­sion and main­ten­ance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farm­er was expec­ted to per­form mil­it­ary ser­vice if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or bey­ond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imper­i­al decline and the decrease in polit­ic­al sta­bil­ity six hun­dred years later res­ul­ted in a cor­res­pond­ing shrink­ing of man­u­fac­ture and com­merce, which, at length, des­troyed the Imper­i­al tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emper­or Justini­an I in the East embarked on his Imper­i­al recon­quista (which depleted his treas­ury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.

Theodoric the Great, by Fabrizio Castello (1560-1617)
Theodor­ic the Great, by Fab­riz­io Cas­tello (1560−1617)

Begin­ning in the fifth cen­tury, there was a steady trend away from sup­port­ing armies by pub­lic tax­a­tion and towards sup­port­ing them by the rents deriv­ing from private landown­ing, which was essen­tially the product of this desire for land of con­quer­ing elites. In 476, accord­ing to Pro­copi­us, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be giv­en lands, and got it by sup­port­ing Odo­va­car. Pro­copi­us may well have exag­ger­ated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy cer­tainly still used tax­a­tion to pay the army, at least in part, prob­ably more than any oth­er post-Roman polity did by the early sixth cen­tury.
Over­all, how­ever, the shift to land was per­man­ent. After the end of Ostrogoth­ic Italy, there are no ref­er­ences in the West to army pay, except rations for gar­ris­ons, until the Arabs rein­tro­duced it in Spain from the mid-eight cen­tury onwards; in the oth­er west­ern king­doms, only occa­sion­al mer­cen­ary detach­ments were paid … .

The major post-Roman king­doms still taxed, into the sev­enth cen­tury. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, anoth­er import­ant item, was only sup­plied from Italy after 439, and lost pop­u­la­tion fast, as we have seen. The cent­ral and loc­al admin­is­tra­tion of the post-Roman states was per­haps paid for longer, but in most of them the admin­is­tra­tion quickly became smal­ler and cheap­er. Tax still made kings rich, and their gen­er­os­ity increased the attract­ive power of roy­al courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.

Tax is always unpop­u­lar, and takes work to exact; if it is not essen­tial, this work tends to be neg­lected. It is thus not sur­pris­ing that there are increas­ing signs that it was not assidu­ously col­lec­ted. In ex-Van­dal Africa after 534, the Roman re-con­quer­ors had to reor­gan­ize the tax admin­is­tra­tion to make it effect­ive again, to great loc­al unpop­ular­ity; in Frank­ish Gaul in the 580s, assess­ment registers were no longer being sys­tem­at­ic­ally updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those nor­mal under the empire.
Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landown­ing was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)

Germanic Kingdoms of the West
Ger­man­ic King­doms of the West

The dif­fer­en­ti­ated Roman struc­tures of admin­is­tra­tion and com­mand could no longer be main­tained. For cen­tur­ies Rome had con­tin­ued to grow by her arms while provid­ing reas­on­able secur­ity and the gen­er­al advant­age of being a province of the Imper­i­um Roman­um was explained once to a Gaul by a lieu­ten­ant of Emper­or Ves­pasi­an, around AD 70, and pre­served by Tacit­us:

The pro­tec­tion of the [Roman] repub­lic has delivered Gaul from intern­al dis­cord and for­eign inva­sions. By the loss of nation­al inde­pend­ence, you have acquired the name and priv­ileges of Roman cit­izens. You enjoy, in com­mon with ourselves, the per­man­ent bene­fits of civil gov­ern­ment; and your remote situ­ation is less exposed to the acci­dent­al mis­chief of tyranny. Instead of exer­cising the rights of con­quest, we have been con­ten­ted to impose such trib­utes as are requis­ite for your own pre­ser­va­tion. Peace can­not be secured without armies; and armies must be sup­por­ted at the expense of the people. It is for your sake, not for ours, that we guard the bar­ri­er of the Rhine against the fero­cious Ger­mans, who have so often attemp­ted, and who will always desire, to exchange the solitude of their woods and mor­asses for the wealth and fer­til­ity of Gaul.
The fall of Rome would be fatal to the provinces; and you would be bur­ied in the ruins of that mighty fab­ric which has been raised by the valour and wis­dom of eight hun­dred years. Your ima­gin­ary free­dom would be insul­ted and oppressed by a sav­age mas­ter; and the expul­sion of the Romans would be suc­ceeded by the etern­al hos­til­it­ies of the Bar­bar­i­an con­quer­ors
.” (46)

The tax base that had provided for the main­ten­ance of the legions was evap­or­at­ing, and con­sequently no large stand­ing armies could be main­tained for the next thou­sand years.
The unthink­able had happened: Rome had fallen, at least in the West, 1229 years after her myth­ic­al cre­ation by Romu­lus, and for the moment no organ­ized power would defend the west­ern parts of the European con­tin­ent from the inscrut­able advances of Bar­bar­i­an intruders. Yet nature abhors a vacu­um, at least in polit­ics, and before long the com­pet­i­tion for the inher­it­ance of Rome was in full pro­gress. It centred on the former provinces of Gaul and even­tu­ally led to the “Middle Ages”, which were char­ac­ter­ized by a sud­den fall and only very slow rein­tro­duc­tion of sys­tems based on cent­ral­ized admin­is­tra­tion.
Prin­cip­ally what happened is that the centre broke away – the north-west­ern Ger­man­ic states and the Byz­antine Empire were to become the pil­lars of European power, while impov­er­ished Italy lost its polit­ic­al import­ance. A side effect of this change was that the “Pax Romana”, which had held most of the cit­izenry harm­less from war for a few cen­tur­ies – unless they lived in bor­der sec­tions – dis­ap­peared and was fol­lowed by more than a mil­len­ni­um of slaughter.

As far as Italy was con­cerned, three cen­tur­ies of civil, reli­gious and sec­u­lar wars had maimed and mutil­ated the land of Vir­gil, Pliny and Seneca, and Edward Gibbon’s gloomy descrip­tion of the con­di­tion of the etern­al town and former cap­it­al of the world around AD 700 hints at the state of much of the con­tin­ent:

Amidst the arms of the Lom­bards and under the des­pot­ism of the Greek [i.e. Byz­an­ti­um], we again inquire into the fate of Rome, which had reached, about the close of the sixth cen­tury, the low­est peri­od of her depres­sion. By the remov­al of the seat of the empire and the suc­cess­ive loss of the provinces, the sources of pub­lic and private opu­lence were exhausted: the lofty tree under whose shade the nations of the earth had reposed was deprived of its leaves and branches, and the sap­less trunk was left to with­er on the ground. The min­is­ters of com­mand and the mes­sen­gers of vic­tory no longer met on the Appi­an or Flamini­an Way; and the hos­tile approach of the Lom­bards was often felt and con­tinu­ally feared.
The inhab­it­ants of a potent and peace­ful cap­it­al who vis­it without an anxious thought the garden of the adja­cent coun­try will faintly pic­ture in their fancy the dis­tress of the Romans: they shut or opened their gates with a trem­bling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lam­ent­a­tions of their brethren, who were coupled togeth­er like dogs and dragged away into dis­tant slavery bey­ond the sea and the moun­tains. … Curi­os­ity and ambi­tion no longer attrac­ted the nations to the cap­it­al of the world: but if chance or neces­sity dir­ec­ted the steps of a wan­der­ing stranger, he con­tem­plated with hor­ror the vacancy and solitude of the city, and might be temp­ted to ask: Where is the sen­ate, and where are the people?


(43) (44) (45) Chris Wick­ham, “The Inher­it­ance of Rome”, Vik­ing Books 2009 ISBN 978−0−670−02098−0, pp. 76, 90 – 95, 102 – 103

(46) Edward Gib­bon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, Mod­ern Lib­rary 2003 – 5, ISBN 0−345−47884−3 , p. 776 (659); First Page Num­ber: Mass Mar­ket Edi­tion 2005; Second Page Num­ber: 4th Edi­tion 2003 – 4

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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