Friday, October 22, 2010

Introducting: Story IV, The Decline and Dissolution of Classical Civilization, From Commodus to the Execution of Boethius

Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180 AD was the last of the "Five Good Emperors", a succession of highly competent and fortunate Roman rulers that began with Nerva in 96 AD.  After Aurelius, and beginning with his son Commodus, Rome began its long, permanent decline.  Here is Ludwig von Mises on the fall of the Roman Empire:
The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society's economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses--the villae--the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord's estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social [p. 769] division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.
The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government's interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who "relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit." [4] The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities' supply of agricultural products.
The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Fuhrer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.1
Along with the classical civilization's economic dissolution came its cultural dissolution.  The primitive economy of the Dark Ages could not support scholars and artists.  Greek culture had pervaded Roman civilization, because Roman intellectuals learned Greek.  So, almost none of the Greek classics had been translated into Latin before Rome's fall.  And while many of the barbarians who supplanted the Roman elite learned Latin, they did not learn Greek.  So the untranslated Greek classics were eventually lost to the west.  The Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius foresaw this fate, and tried to avert it by embarking on a project to translate the complete works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin.  He only managed to get through the Timaeus of Plato and Aristotle's works on logic before being executed in 524 AD by Theodoric, the barbarian ruler of Italy.

1Human Action, Chapter 30, Section 2

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