The Roman Empire was administered by Big Government. It was a vast machine that awed less organized and less disciplined nations. But it developed alarming weaknesses we need to be warned of today.
“Long before the invasions by barbarians the reign of Honorius (A.D. 395-423), the fabric of Roman society and administration was honeycombed by moral and economic vices, which made the belief in the eternity of Rome a vain delusion” (Samuel Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, p. 277).
Rome possibly could have fallen several times in its history. But the leadership of strong men, despite other personal vices or shortcomings, delayed the breakdown of the Empire by the institution of strong administrative reforms.
Following on the heels of Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar more perfectly welded together the unity of the Empire – saving it from the corruption and civil war of the later Republic. Diocletian and Constantine delayed the “end” again by certain reforms in administration and economics in the late third and early fourth centuries. Theodosius and a few other emperors tried desperately to put a stop to rampant corruption and injustices toward the end of the fourth century. But in spite of such leaders, the end of the Western Empire finally came.
One man could not take the place of national spirit and unity! A few struggling and concerned men at the top couldn’t alter the course of a largely apathetic and morally decadent populace which combined disastrously with the politically corrupt maladministration of underlings.
After the death of Theodosius, the decay of the Roman Empire in the West was rapidly accelerated. Following emperors were appreciably weaker and incompetent. They became the puppets of scheming advisers, administrators, and military commanders, the latter being largely of barbarian stock.
Administrative problems for the Empire gradually intensified through the years. As the Empire grew, Roman administration demanded better collection of taxes and improved distribution of services, especially to the military. A gigantic bureaucracy developed. The imperial civil service, instituted first by Augustus, was greatly enlarged by Diocletian to service the reorganized administration and the greatly enlarged military.
But, true to form, with this rapid expansion of civil service, came a downgrading in the quality of the administrators. The central government could no longer exercise sufficient discrimination in appointments or keep a close check on the conduct of civil service appointees. By the days of Constantine, administrative corruption was rampant.
“It is clear from Constantine’s legislation that he was shocked by the corruption and extortion which prevailed among provincial governors, but he was evidently unable to restore respectable standards of probity” (A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, p. 1054).
And, like today, “red tape” didn’t help. “Excessive centralization involved an immense volume of cleric labor and slowed up the processes of government. Nor did it achieve its object of checking corruption” (ibid., pp. 1056-1067).
A study of the Roman law code reveals the great effort of several emperors to control abuse and injustices rampant in the later Empire.
The paradox is clear. The very institution of law after law is evidence that order was breaking down. Legislation was legion: laws to put down fraud; protect the weak, the slave, the debtor, the poor free man from the rich, the laborer against his superior, the father from the ingratitude of his children; laws against corrupt political practices.
“The last and deepest impression which the inquirer will carry with him, as he rises from a study of the Theodosian Code (issued A.D. 438), is that fraud and greed are everywhere triumphant, that the rich are growing richer and more powerful while the poor are becoming poorer and more helpless, and that the imperial government, inspired with the best intentions, has lost all control of the vast machine” (Dill, op. cit., p. 229). But it wasn’t just the bureaucracy which was often criminal. The whole society was infected with the same corrupted spirit!
“Everyone stole. In the army, the clerks stole the pay; the navicularii (commercial tradesmen) charged with the service of the annona (crop supply), stole from the corn; they themselves were exploited by those set over the ports. The recruiters accepted for conscripts the refuse of the coloni. The postal administration exploited travelers. Public servants took bribes for judicial audiences” (Ferdinand Lot, The End of the Ancient Word and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, p. 176).
Many forms of extortion became general practice and caused no great excitement. Civil servants increased their salaries by tips or fees. Soon, however, the difference between the tips and bribes became unclear. But, often, it was the only way to get things done.
And, too often, like today, the justice for the rich and the poor was quite different.
“The high courts of justice were so clogged with appeals, the delays so interminable and the fees so high, that the victims of injustice in the lower courts were denied redress unless they had very long purses” (Jones, op. cit., p. 1057).
The crisis resulting from the administrative abuses elaborated by Diocletian and Constantine were a tragedy in the truest sense. There was “a humiliating paralysis of administration; in which determined effort to remedy social evils, which the best intentions of the central power were, generation after generation, mocked and defeated alike by irresistible laws of human nature, and by hopeless perfidy and corruption in the servants of government” (Dill, op. cit., p. 281).
Need we mention the shame of Watergate, where lies, cover-up and illegal political activity dragged this nation through one of its greatest traumas and left the populace disenchanted with any leadership for a long time to come? And, how about the atrocities of “Fast and Furious,” and the debacle in Benghazi?
Today, leaders in government, high and low, face an impasse. Despite all of their well-intentioned attempts to alleviate severe problems – social, economic and political, things only become worse! They are met by opposing factions and forces at every turn. Many of the more capable men are just throwing up their hands and quitting! In a recent poll, nearly 80% of those polled believe Congress is doing a lousy job and the country is heading in the wrong direction. And so it was in Rome.
Ferdinand Lot, historian, says of the overall condition of later Roman administration: “In spite of all, the State failed in its role of protector. It was ill served and betrayed by its own agents. This aristocracy was disloyal in its service to the government, while cowering before it. It secretly thwarted it, not so much from hatred, as from a spirit of opposition and from selfishness. The ruling class lost all spontaneity and initiative, and in its case also, character fell very low. The Empire had become too vast, too cunning and too complicated a mechanism” (op. cit., p. 185).
Roman bureaucracy, trying to tackle the vast problems in every area, couldn’t keep track of what was being done. The difficulties increased in complexity and numbers. Result? The Empire was forced to increase the numbers of individual administrators which limited each one’s authority and cut effective communication between each division. One governmental unit was not sure what another one was doing. This further complicated the problems of governing.
In the same years in which the barbarians were actively harrying the Roman provinces, mutual assistance and concord between the Eastern and Western divisions of the Empire was urgently needed. Unfortunately, the reins of government were in the hands of men who for different reasons, were unpopular and in all their political actions were influenced chiefly by the consideration of their own fortunes (J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, p. 126).
Thus hampered by ineffective administration, coupled with continual struggles of usurpers for the throne, Rome succumbed to the barbarians within and without the Empire, who took advantage of Roman political turmoil and weakness and piecemeal, sliced off sections of the Empire.
In like manner, the political trends in America are endangering the strength of the nation! Today’s swollen bureaucracy at federal levels alone approaches three million individuals (not including the military!), hundreds of thousands of buildings, mountains of paper. Nobody really is sure who is doing what. There are hundreds of departments, boards, and advisory committees administering countless programs and projects, often overlapping and in conflict with each other.
In addition the federal government has increasingly become involved in functions usually relegated to states or urban administration.
This also was a growing problem in the Empire. Why? Because cities vied with one another in local patriotism, public munificence, public health and order. Lavish and spendthrift expenditures on pageants, public distributions and buildings occurred. Many cities went over their heads in debt.
In order to control this, the emperors increasingly had to interfere in city and provincial administration. The results? Central authority was called upon to interfere on account of deplorable effects of municipal administration, while municipal life was disturbed, and atrophied by constant interference from above” (The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. I, p. 554).
Today the situation is similar – only municipal and state governments are often asking the federal government to step-in and rescue them from their out-of-control problems. But often they rebel at the conditions which the federal government wants to impose.
Today, there is a growing consciousness of a credibility gap between what politicians and administrators say and what they actually do! And today, government, large and small, is held in ever lowering esteem by growing numbers. But government is not always to blame for this situation. The moral character of many individuals is so poor that they have lost respect for any constituted authority, no matter what officials do.
In ancient Rome, it was government officials who provided the “bread and circuses” to keep unruly mobs quiet or to win public acclaim. Today, political office often goes to the man who can offer the biggest promises to the most, whether he can deliver them or not. (the modern version of “bread and circuses”) Every political election hears the cry of “better roads,” “better education,” “more jobs” from the politician’s platform. Few deliver.
And yet, while government seems more distant than ever from the individual, more and more individuals look to big government to do even more for them! Ultimately a welfare state cannot sustain itself. When the takers outnumber the givers, and the government can no longer sustain their welfare programs, riots and turmoil follow. So it was in Rome, and so it will be here! Will we ever learn?
Watch for Part 8 coming soon!