2016 September 04 Sunday
Why Did Rome Fall? Not Enough Taxes? Too Many People?

Some historians argue that taxing by the Roman Empire was good for economic growth. Their reasoning is unsound, which is a sign of the academy's leftward shift. But the economic critique of that reasoning offered by Mark Koyama at GMU seems incomplete.

I read this sort of piece now through the lens of Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War. Reading Turchin makes me wonder about two causes of Rome's decline:

  • Elite over-production.
  • General populace hitting the Malthusian ceiling.

If an elite gets too big then too many members of that elite are competing to get at the tax revenue and positions of power. The central government does not get as much money because the local rulers keep a bigger slice. Corruption rises. The competition within elites gets more brutal.

An even bigger problem is the Malthusian Trap and what happens when general population growth causes the population to exceed the carrying capacity of the land. If a farm field is producing twice as much as farmers need to survive for a year then there is a lot available to skim off for the Roman legions and administrators in cities. But suppose for centuries population grows in peaceful conditions. Eventually the farms can no longer grow enough food for the people who live on them, let alone for the elites Poof goes the surplus.

Turchin argues that many areas went through repeated cycles of prosperity followed by excess populations leading to breakdown, war, population loss. Populations would shrink far enough that recovery could begin. The cycle repeated. He used 14th and 15th century France as an example of this repeating cycle. I'm leaving out a lot of detail. Read the full book and it will change the way you look at history.

But the decline of the Roman Empire has lots of other potential explanations. For example, Ibn Khaldun's assabiyah (or asabiya if you prefer): the will to engage in collective action. Did the Roman Legions cease to be motivated to fight for the empire? Did the empire's elite lose a sense of common interest and common identity? Were they just too many generations removed from the Republic?

Update: On Twitter Mark Koyama suggests to me that the problem for Rome wasn't over-population because the Antonine Plague of 165180 AD slashed the Roman Empire's population. He doesn't think there was a larger population by 350-400. But I am skeptical of our ability to know that. It is not just a question of how many lived in Rome itself. How many lived in Gaul? Egypt? Roman Hispania? If we could go back and watch, say, the rate of flow of grains from Egypt and olive oil from Hispania every decade we could know. Or if we could measure Gaul's population in each decade we could know. This seems beyond our ability to know. I really want a time machine that would just let us watch without intervening.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2016 September 04 06:28 PM 

Jim said at September 5, 2016 2:13 PM:

Joseph Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Cultures" has an extensive discussion of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. One tax dynamic that he mentions is that a given area was supposed to produce so much in the way of taxes which was allocated to landowners on the basis of the amount of acreage they had under cultivation. This allocation was without regard to differences in the productivity of farmland. So landowners had an incentive to take the more marginal farmland out of cultivation because the cost of cultivating it could be greater than the taxes allocated to it. But since the total tax expected remained the same this resulted in the remaining land having to bear higher taxes. This led to a spiral of decline in which as the amount of land under cultivation declined the resulting increase in the tax burden on the remaining land prompted landowners to abandon the cultivation of yet more land.

According to Tainter the archaeological evidence indicates that the acreage of land under cultivation in the Western Roman Empire at the end was less than 20% of what it had been at the beginning of the Christian era.

Seth W. said at September 5, 2016 2:33 PM:

Exactly. Politicians are parasites and if parasites exeed a critical mass the body of society starts to get sick. The problem today is that we the working society have an overpopulation of elite parasites who do nothing but live off the budget and lobbying, which is nothing but bribing.

tanabear said at September 5, 2016 3:09 PM:

The decline and fall of the Roman Republic is what mattered, not the Empire. The Empire was just this huge monstrosity that was erected to preserve and extend the culture and civilization of the Republic for as long as possible.

'From the accession of Augustus to the death of Theodosius the Great, the Roman Empire, in spite of its greatness, presents a general character of impotence and sterility. Its institutions, its government, its philosophy, its literature, indeed everything connected with it, bears this sad impress; even the minds of its most illustrious citizens were confined to a circle of antiquated ideas, and wasted in vain regrets for the virtues and glories of the Republic."
Francois Guizot.

The more immediate cause for the fall of the Roman Empire had to do with Emperor Valens letting in a horde of Gothic barbarians in 376 AD. The Gothic hordes of the late Roman Empire used their weapons to plunder the wealth of Rome. The modern day barbarians use their votes to plunder the wealth of America.

p.s. Under the Republic Rome was a people, under the Empire Rome was a population.

Jim said at September 5, 2016 6:59 PM:

tanabear - There was hardly anything "Roman" about the Western Roman Empire in it's last stages. By then the "Roman" army was mostly composed of Visigoths and other barbarians. Even the generals were mostly latinized Germans. Real power was exercised, not by the official Emperor, but by barbarian chieftains and the generals of the "Roman" army which itself differed very little from just another barbarian horde.

jb said at September 6, 2016 10:15 AM:

Rome didn't merely "decline" it had its ass handed to it by various mostly German tribes. The empire near the end had a population of about 70 million people but could only raise and pay for a military of about 750,000 (estimates vary), not much more than 1% mobilization. In contrast some of the German tribes they were facing could raise as much as 30-40% of their population to fight, basically every physically able swinging dick capable of lifting a sword or ax. This explains why tribes with a population in the low hundreds of thousands were able to defy the mighty Roman empire. At the end nobody was willing to die for multicultural, multiracial Rome and its centralized bureaucracy, they left the Empire to its mercenaries. It's too bad for Rome that they didn't have a population of white Americans in their empire, white Americans would have been glad to die for Rome even as the Empire was selling their people into slavery and death back home.

Seth W. said at September 6, 2016 2:31 PM:

Romans also became sick with lead poisoning.

Lot said at September 10, 2016 4:27 PM:

Romans did not have elite overproduction. The elite birthrate was below replacement, but the population of elites was augmented by the meritocratic rise of pleb families. The elites also killed each other in high numbers.

The main reason for the decline and fall of the empire was endless civil wars, which were devastating to the economy and population. Early in Roman history civil wars (like the Social War) were often famous because they were infrequent. But once the Empire started, Caeser fought the Senate, Augustus and Antony fought the Senate, and then Augustus and Antony fought each other. Other than the "Good Emperor" period, when Rome reached its height, there was a civil war almost every decade, often several.

Lot said at September 10, 2016 4:35 PM:

Here's an article about one of the worst periods of Roman civil war:


49 years of basically non-stop multi-front civil wars.

The Constantine dynasty that came after was more successful, but they murdered and fought with one another too pretty often.

kenneth t. kendrick said at September 15, 2016 7:35 PM:

don't forget that Krakatoa erupted in 564 A.D.It's effect was felt all over the world .the Chinese speak of five grain failure.In rome there was crop failure and then the outbreak of plague.Millions died.

another fred said at September 16, 2016 5:57 AM:

Rome was tottering long before it fell.

I think they just ran out of low-hanging fruit. The glory of Rome was based on conquest and the looting of accumulated wealth produced by generations that preceded it. That static accumulated wealth could be recycled in the economy for many years creating the illusion of a viable system but entropy prevails over human effort and eventually the wealth became too dissipated to drive the system.

Look around and you see the same happening today with the "redistribution" of wealth in the US. This started with the New Deal and accelerated with the Great Society.

To those who argue that "wealth" is concentrated more today I would argue that the "wealth" you see is a result of the nature of a credit-fueled economy and government. We have switched from a goods producing economy to a credit producing economy and those most adept at using and manipulating credit are prospering. The ballooning ratio of debt to GDP, and the decline of the goods producing segment of GDP says the "wealth" we are creating is illusory. The 1% know this which is why they are converting a significant portion of their "wealth" to ranches in Montana and private island getaways.

Soylent_Green said at January 18, 2017 4:40 PM:

Good article. Here is an Interesting list for your review. 210 reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. I remember discussing this in college.


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