The Beginning of the Fall of the Roman Republic

The Wife was perusing a textbook entitled World History by Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler (2008, Prentice Hall), when she came across this piece about Rome, in a chapter called From Republic to Empire (p.157):

Conquests and control of busy trade routes brought incredible riches into Rome. Generals, officials and traders amassed fortune from loot, taxes and commerce. A new class of wealthy Romans emerged. They built lavish mansions and filled them with luxuries imported from the east. Wealthy families bought up huge estates, called latifundia. as the Romans conquered more and more lands, they forced people captured in war to work as slaves on the latifundia.

The widespread use of slave labor hurt small farmers, who were unable to produce food as cheaply as the latifundia could. The farmers’ problems were compounded when huge quantities of grain pouring in from the conquered lands drove down grain prices. Many farmers fell into debt and had to sell their land.

In despair, landless farmers flocked to Rome and other cities looking for jobs. There, they joined an already restless class of unemployed people. As the gap between rich and poor widened, angry mobs began to riot. In addition, the new wealth led to increased corruption. Greed and self-interest replaced virtues such as simplicity, hard work and duty, which had been so prized in the time of the early republic.

Thus endeth the reading.

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5 thoughts on “The Beginning of the Fall of the Roman Republic

  1. What a wonderfully simple way to put it!

    There’s lots of clutter in the “Why Rome started to fall” discussion, but so much ties back right here.

    For example, consider the devaluation of the denarius. Yes, it created inflation and an unsustainable currency. But part of that was the expansion of this ultra-rich class. The goods they possessed were highly over valued relative to silver, the base of Roman currency. Thus, to support the size of their perceived wealth they had to multiply the number of coins in circulation.

    Another is the depauperation of resources, such as water, and the subsequent need to support fiscally irresponsible wars of conquest, such as Britain. Britain had lead, which was necessary for building the inverted siphons that were essential to moving water long distances. But, once again, it was the waste of the wealthy of the resources.

    Neat quote.

  2. Ehhh… what I’ve read of Roman history indicates that the story was considerably more complex, and that the decline took several centuries to occur. This may have been an element in Rome’s decline, but it seems much more that the Empire severely overextended itself, in my read.

  3. Uthaclena is right that the collapse and decline of the Roman Empire happened over centuries, but I think the point is that today we’ve hit the fast-forward button. ‘Empires’ have been rising and falling with ever increasing speed. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, they will soon be going from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization.

    For me, the one sign of imminent collapse is when a society becomes so rich that it relies on others to provide its luxuries and essentials, whether that be food, fuel or clothing. Once a nation cannot provide these for itself, or at least through exchange trade (rather than simply buying them), then all is about to be lost!

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