|Visigoths sack Rome|
This is a continuation of my review and commentary of Joseph A. Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge Press, 1988). Here are the links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 6.
Chapter 4 introduced Tainter's theory of why complex societies--basically, diminished or negative marginal returns on investments for additional layers of complexity erode the society's ability to deal with shocks. In Chapter 5, Tainter applies his theory to three societies (or civilizations): the Western Roman Empire, the classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands of the Yucatan, and the Chaco Canyon society of the American Southwest. My review and comments are going to focus on the Roman Empire for several reasons: (i) it is probably the best known to scholars and the general public; and (ii) the archaeology knowledge of the Maya and Chaco Canyon has changed substantially since Tainter authored his book. For instance, as Tainter acknowledges in his book, the predominant view of the Maya at the time he authored his book was that they were largely peaceful, although that was beginning to change. Today, due to decipherment of their language and additional work, we know that the Maya were very warlike, and that the late period especially so.
Tainter introduces the chapter by summarizing his theory:
The framework developed in the preceding chapter focused on changing cost/benefit ratios for investment in complexity. The shift to increasing complexity, undertaken initially to relieve stress or realize an opportunity, is at first a rational, productive strategy that yields a favorable marginal return . Typically, however, continued stresses, unanticipated challenges, and the costliness of sociopolitical integration combine to lower this marginal return . As the marginal return on complexity declines, complexity as a strategy yields comparatively lower benefits at higher and higher costs. A society that cannot counter this trend, such as through acquisition of an energy subsidy, becomes vulnerable to stress surges that it is too weak or impoverished to meet, and to waning support in its population . With continuation of this trend collapse becomes a matter of mathematical probability, as over time an insurmountable stress surge becomes increasingly likely. Until such a challenge occurs, there maybe a period of economic stagnation, political decline, and territorial shrinkage.
(p. 127). He acknowledges that there is no way to perform a numerical analysis--i.e., actually calculate the marginal return--but hopes to use his theory as a tool to understand the reasons for collapse.
Tainter observes that the Roman Empire was based on territorial expansion which, at least initially, was lucrative and beneficial. He writes:
The policy of expansion was at first highly successful. Not only were the conquered provinces looted of their accumulated surpluses, even their working capital, but permanent tributes, taxes, and land rentals were imposed. The consequences for Rome were bountiful. In 167 B . C . the Romans seized the treasury of the King of Macedonia, a feat that allowed them to eliminate taxation of themselves . After the Kingdom of Pergamon was annexed in 1 30 B.c. the state budget doubled, from 100 million to 200 million sesterces. Pompey raised it further to 340 million sesterces after the conquest of Syria in 63 B . C . Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul acquired so much gold that this metal dropped 36 percent in value (Levy 1967: 62-5) .
With this kind of payoff, Rome's conquests under the Republic were economically self-perpetuating. The initial series of victories, undertaken as a matter of self preservation, began increasingly to provide the economic base for further conquests. By the last two centuries B . C . Rome's victories may have become nearly costless, in an economic sense, as conquered nations footed the bill for further expansion (A.
Jones 1974 : 1 1 4- 1 5).
This process culminated with Octavian's (later Augustus) conquest of Egypt. The booty of Egypt allowed Augustus to distribute money to the plebians of Rome - and even, when necessary, to relieve shortages in the state budget out of his personal fortune (Frank 1940: 7-9, 1 5 ) . Yet the geometric Roman expansion of the Republic ended under the Principate (the emperors from Augustus up to the accession of Diocletian [284 A . D . ] ) (see Fig. 22) . Augustus (27 B .C.-14 A . D . ) terminated the policy of expansion, particularly after losses to the Germans, and concentrated instead on maintaining a stable army and restoring the prosperity that had been ruptured by the civil wars.
(p. 129). In this regard, we see that expansion (and the resultant increase in complexity of the growing government and military) yielded positive marginal returns that were, in fact quiet large.
With the end of geographic expansion there was a corresponding drop in the windfalls of conquest (A. Jones 1974 : 1 24). From Augustus to Diocletian, most emperors were faced with at least some insufficiencies of revenue (Heichelheim 1970:270) . Augustus frequently complained of fiscal shortage, and was often hard put to finance even the modest administration and foreign policy that he established (Gibbon 1776- 88: 140; M. Hammond 1946: 75).But having conquered the richest territories, subsequent conquests were of less value to the Empire.
The emperor Trajan (98- 1 17 A . D . ) embarked on an ambitious - and expensive program of military expansion. While successful in the field, the booty taken from the conquered lands apparently did not even cover the costs of his campaigns. ...
... Trajan's successor, Hadrian ( 1 17-38), dropped the financially untenable policy of expansion, and abandoned the new acquisitions in Mesopotamia and Assyria.
At the same time as the value of new conquests declines, the fixed expenses of the Empire actually increased due to additional complexity and increased need to finance activities aimed at maintaining legitimacy. Tainter notes that the major Imperial costs included pay, rations and fodder for the military; the civil service and other state employees; public works; the postal service; uniforms for military and civil service; education; and the public dole. (p. 129).
Although the dole was not the most significant expense, it was still substantial: in the time of Julian Caesar, there were 320,000 beneficiaries (or nearly 1/3 of the population of Rome). Caesar reduced to 150,000, but in slowly increased so that during the reign of Augustus and Claudius, approximately 200,000 families were one the dole. (p. 132). Later emperors added to commodities given as part of the dole. Septimus Severus (235 A.D.) added oil. (p. 136). In addition:
During some of the darkest times, Aurelian (270-5) felt compelled to increase the expense of the Roman dole, issuing loaves of bread rather than wheat flour, and offering pork, salt, and wine at reduced prices. In the decade before Aurelian, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities had been added to the dole (MacMullen 1916: 45 -6, 93-4, 98; Boak 1 95 5 : 66).
One of the most substantial increases were in military expenditures. During the time of Augustus, the army was comprised of 25 legions with the pay of individual legionnaires set at 225 denarii per year. (p. 133). Under Vespasian, the number of legions were increased to 30. (p. 134). During the period of 193 A.D. to 235 A.D., the annual pay for a legionnaire increased first to 400 denarii per year and eventually to 750 denarii. The number of legions increased to 33 legions. (p. 136). By the time of Diocletian, (70 years later), the size of the army doubled! (p. 141).
The increasing expenditures resulted in a government that was insolvent at times. To address this problem, various emperors engaged in programs of increasing taxes and/or debasing the currency. For instance, between the time of Nero (he began the debasement of the denarius) and Septimus Severus (i.e., 54 A.D. and 211 A.D.), the silver content of the denarious fluctuated, but generally declined from 91.8 percent to 58.3 percent. (p. 135).
The only solution for the government was to raise taxes and debase the currency further . Caracalla had increased army pay at a cost of 70,000,000 denarii per year. To pay for this, as noted, he introduced the Antoninianus, a new coin. It was half the weight of the denarius but tariffed at two denarii. More than 50 years later, after devastating inflation, Aurelian tried the same trick: in the context of reforming the currency he placed a nominal value on coins that was far higher than their actual worth . Prices skyrocketed. Money changers in the east refused to give small change for Imperial coinage. Under Gallienus (260-8) the Antoninianus had less than five percent silver. 'The Empire,' wrote Mattingly of this period, 'had, in all but words, declared itself bankrupt and thrown the burden of its insolvency on its citizens' (1960: 186). By Aurelian's time further debasement was essentially impossible (A . Jones 1964: 16, 26, 1974: 196; Levy 1967: 87; Heichelheim 1 970: 2 14; MacMullen 1976 :108-9, 1 1 2; Mattingly 1960: 186).
Due to the decline in literary and mathematical training during the period of crisis, few data are available on actual inflationary rates between 235 and 284. Good quantitative data again become available with the reign of Diocletian . These data will be discussed when the narrative reaches that point. Some of the effects of the inflation can be perceived, however, even before Diocletian. The main victims, as always, were those on fixed incomes . Unlike current times, though, this included the government and its employees. The Roman government before Diocletian had no real budget, nor any economic policy, as we would know these today. It depended on tax rates that rarely changed. As a result, when crises arose, revenue could not be increased. By the latter part of the third century the currency was so worthless that the State resorted to forced labor and an economy in kind. Tlte earliest example of the former may be Aurelian's conscription of craft associations to build the walls around Rome. By the time of Diocletian the State was so unable to rely on money to meet its needs that it collected its taxes in the form of supplies directly usable by the military and other branches of government, or in bullion to avoid having to accept its own worthless coins (A . Jones 1964: 29-30 1974: 1 37, 197; MacMullen 1976: 125, 1 5 8 , 205 ; Mattingly 1960: 1 86).
(p. 139). "Despite pay increases, inflation sapped the value of military compensation so thoroughly that army units were often forced to seize what they needed from local populations." (p. 140).
Some expenses were supposed to be paid by local elected officials. As revenue decreased, the burden fell on these officials to pay such funds from their own pockets. By the second century A.D., these demands had become so burdensome that the number of candidates fell off. (p. 135). Eventually, to combat this problem, offices were made hereditary. (p. 144). The same problem arose with respect to military conscription, and eventually service in the military became hereditary.
In other words, during the early Empire:
Despite the stagnation of revenue when expansion fell off, and the often heavy rule in the provinces, there were definite benefits to the early Empire. There were foreign and internal peace and security, the borders were maintained, commerce was protected, and public works projects were undertaken (Toutain 1968: 253-9) . The early Empire was relatively prosperous (M . Hammond 1946: 34) even if the State was not able to command the wealth temporarily made available by earlier conquests.
(p. 133). However, by the time of Septimius Severus:
'The expenses of government were steadily increasing out of proportion to any increase in receipts and the State was moving steadily in the direction of bankruptcy' (1960 : 124).
The Empire that emerged under Diocletian and Constantine was administered by a government that was larger, more complex, more highly organized, and that commanded larger and more powerful military forces. It taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and regulated their lives and their occupations . It was a coercive, omnipresent, all-powerful organization that subdued individual interests and levied all resources toward one overarching goal: the survival of the State.
(p. 141). As always, though, the wealthy did okay, but it was the middle class that suffered:
The wealthy, as long as they avoided injudicious political entanglements, generally continued to fare well. Large landowners emerged during the third century in increased numbers in all p arts of the Empire. The middle class in towns, however, was burdened by the cost of civil obligations. After the second century, while portrait busts of Emperors were being turned out in increasing numbers, there were fewer and fewer local inscriptions. Townspeople could no longer afford them. Small peasant proprietors lost their holdings, attaching themselves as tenants to large estates. Commerce dedined, due to the unsafe nature of the countryside and the seas (M. Hammond 1946: 7 5 ; Boak 195 5: 57; Heichelheim 1970: 297).
What is interesting to me, based on my readings on demographic decline historically and today, are the following observations:
The population of the Empire, under the effects of ravaging of the countryside by both foreign and friendly forces, rampant inflation, and changing leadership, cannot have recovered from the plague outbreak of 165/166 to 1 80. The catastrophes of 235-84 fell on a declining population, which suffered further when the plague returned from 250 to 270 A . D . The agricultural population of a province so essential as Gaul declined, either killed or captured by barbarians, or having deserted fields to join the bands of brigands . Town populations fell before and during the crisis, due to plague, pillage by armies engaged in civil wars or by barbarians, and the declining rural population (Rostovtzeff 1926 : 424; Boak 1955: 19, 26, 38-9, 55-6, 1 1 3 ; MacMullen 1 976: 1 8 , 183).
The increases in military strength and civil administration had to be supported by a depleted population . After the plagues of the second and third centuries, and consequent depopulation, conditions favorable to population reestablishment never didemerge in the fourth and fifth centuries (Russell 1 95 8 : 140; McNeill 1 976: 1 1 6). After Diocletian there was relative peace in the West for over a century, and in the Asiatic provinces until the beginning of the seventh century. Nevertheless, economic factors created by the establishment of the Dominate did not favor population recovery. This point will be discussed further below.
The consequence for the Empire was a decline in personnel for agriculture, industry, the military, and the civil service. Agriculture and industry accordingly declined. Agricultural labor became so scarce that landowners, to avoid conscription of their own laborers, bribed vagabonds to enlist instead. In Gaul, shortages of agricultural labor continued until the collapse, so that the victorious barbarians were able to appropriate land with minimal impact on the local population. Many barbarians were enlisted in the military, indeed in the later Empire barbarian colonies were planted within the depopulated lands under Roman rule. Height requirements for military recruits were lowered. By the late fourth century in the West even slaves were sometimes enlisted. In 3 1 5 Constantine ordered assistance for poor and orphaned children in an attempt to reverse the demographic trend (Boak 1 95 5 : 42, 97-8 , 1 1 3- 14; A. Jones 1 964: 149, 1 5 8-9, 1041-3, 1974: 87; MacMullen 1 976: 1 82-3).
This decline in population and in the supply of essential labor does much to explain the social and economic policies of Diocletian and Constantine . Conscription, which had been practiced before, was instituted as a regular practice by Diocletian. He levied guilds to supply the armies and the Imperium. Gradually families came to be frozen into essential occupations. In 313 Constantine required that soldiers' sons be likewise. A hereditary soldiery emerged, with predictable problems. From 3 1 9 to 398 at least 22 laws were issued dealing with the sons of soldiers who sought to evade military service.
From the early fourth century on sons of civil servants were made to enter their fathers' offices . The same was required of workers in government factories, as well as many private sector occupations. Indeed, the distinction between the public and private sectors blurred, as the State directed persons into occupations and levied their output. By the time of Diocletian city offices, which were such a financial burden on their holders, had become hereditary . Since the very wealthy had by this time largely fled the towns to establish country villas, or obtained exemptions, this burden fell on the middle income segment.
Perhaps most important to the economy of the Empire was the tying of agricultural labor to the soil. First mentioned in an announcement of Constantine's in 332, this had the effect of establishing a system of serfdom in which tenants were bound to large estates. The colonate, as it is known, was a boon to large landowners during a time of agricultural labor shortages. Colonates continuously tried to escape unsatisfactory conditions, to the army, the church, the civil service, the professions, and other proprietors (Boak 1 95 5 : 49, 95, 97, 102-3; A. Jones 1 964: 6 1 5 , 1042, 1974: 16, 1 8 , 87-8, 299; Levy 1967: 98; MacMullen 1976: 1 59, 172 , 180, 185).
A major problem, in addition to the rate of the levy, was the rigidity of Diocletian's tax system. It was not designed to accommodate variations in the quality of land or fluctuations in yield . This was a flat tax levied on the land and on the number of residents . The government required that the land tax be paid whether a parcel was cultivated or not. Where possible, abandoned lands were sold or granted to new owners with a tax rebate, but if this failed, they were assigned compulsorily to other landowners, to all local landowners, or to municipalities for payment of taxes . Population figures for the poll tax remained as originally calculated, regardless of how population actually changed. Villages were held corporately liable for these taxes on their members, and one village could even be held liable for another. The rate of taxation was generally not progressive, so it rested more heavily on the poor and on those with large families . When wealthy influentials got their land under-assessed, the extra share was distributed among the remainder . And the State always had a back-up on taxes due, extending obligations to widows or children, even to dowries.
The tax burden was such that peasant proprietors could accumulate no reserves, so if barbarians raided, or drought or locusts diminished the crop, they either borrowed or starved. Eventually their lands passed to creditors, to whom they became tenants. As tenants they paid 1/2 of their crops in rent, while proprietors owed 1/3 in taxes. Whatever crops were brought in had to be sold for taxes, even if it meant starvation for the farmer. Under conditions of famine it was the farmers, amazingly enough, who were the first to suffer, often flocking to cities that held stores of grain.
It is little wonder that the peasant population failed to recover. The collection of taxes and rents was so unvarying that, however poor the crop, the amount due was seized even if the cultivators were left without enough. People couldn't meet taxes and so were jailed, sold their children into slavery, or abandoned their homes and fields. Circumstances were highly unfavorable for the formation of large families.
Under these conditions the cultivation of marginal land became unprofitable, as too frequently it would not yield enough for taxes and a surplus. Hence, lands came to be progressively deserted. Faced with taxes, a small holder might abandon his land to work for a neighbor, who in turn would be glad of the extra agricultural labor. A patronage system developed wherein powerful local land-holders extended protection over peasants against the government's demands. The government legislated unsuccessfully against this source of lost revenue.
(p. 146). In other words, the Republic had transformed into an Empire which, because of its needs for increasing taxes, created the feudal system of the dark ages.
Of interest to Tainter's theory is that as the financial system became more untenable, revolts and rebellions on larger scales occurred, with some regions being provided quasi-independence. Peasants and other land-holders fled their lands to avoid taxation. The Empire became so unmanageable that it was split into two sections (the Western and Eastern Empires), each headed by an "Emperor" and assisted by a "Caesar". That is, it slowly began to disintegrate. As Tainter notes, by the time of the formal end of the Western Empire (476 A.D.), most of the provinces had been lost years before. (p. 148).
The cost of saving the Empire was extremely high for a non-industrial population. And as in the third century, payment of this cost yielded no increase in benefits . Yet what happened during the fourth and fifth centuries was more than simply a further decline in the marginal return. The Empire was by this time sustaining itself by the consumption of its capital resources : producing lands and peasant population.Continued investment in empire was creating not only a drop in marginal output, but also a drop in actual output. Where under the Principate the strategy had been to tax the future to pay for the present, the Dominate paid for the present by undermining the future's ability to pay taxes. The Empire emerged from the third century crisis, but at a cost that weakened its ability to meet future crises. At least in the West, a downward spiral ensued: reduced finances weakened military defense, while military disasters in turn meant further loss of producing lands and population . Collapse was in the end inevitable, as indeed it had always been.
Serious stress surges, in the form of barbarian incursions, began to affect the Empire in the mid second century A . D . , and increasingly thereafter. Unable to bear the cost of meeting these challenges out of yearly productivity, the emperors adopted a strategy of artificially inflating the value of their yearly budgets by debasing the currency. This shifted the cost of current crises to future taxpayers. Such a strategy
assumes that the future will experience no equivalent crisis . When this assumption proved grossly in error, the existence of the Empire was imperiled.
A series of escalating crises from the third through the fifth centuries, both internal and external, proved increasingly detrimental to the welfare of the State. The costs of meeting these crises fell on a decimated support population. By debasing the currency, increasing taxes , and imposing stringent regulations on the lives of individuals, the Empire was, for a time, able to survive. It did so, however, by vastly increasing its own costliness, and in so doing decreased the marginal return it could offer its population. These costs drained the Empire's peasantry so thoroughly that population could not recover from outbreaks of plague, producing lands were abandoned, and the ability of the State to support itself deteriorated. As a result, the barbarian incursions of the late fourth and fifth centuries were increasingly successful and devastating.
The burden and costliness of the Empire not only increased over time, but the benefits it afforded its members declined. As crops were confiscated for taxation and peasant's children sold into slavery, lands were increasingly ravaged by barbarians who could not be halted with the Empire's resources. The advantage of empire declined so precipitously that many peasants were apathetic about the dissolution of Roman rule, while some actively joined the invaders. In being unable to maintain an acceptable return on investment in complexity, the Roman Empire lost both its legitimacy and its survivability.
The Germanic kingdoms that succeeded Roman rule in the West were more successful at resisting invasions, and did so at lower levels of size, complexity, permanent military apparatus, and costliness. ....
There are obviously many basic parallels between Rome and modern Europe, and even the United States. Starting with Europe, it is clear that the rise of various European powers was based on the conquest of new territories (colonies) and the mercantile system of dealing with those colonies. Although Spain succumbed before the other European Empires, declining revenues and the shocks of WWI and WWII overcame the remaining European Empires. However, even shedding the overseas empires did not reduce complexities as the various European nations devoted an increasingly large amount of money toward activities to bolster legitimacy (e.g., welfare and social services) while increasing the burden of taxation on key industries (going so far as to seize--or nationalize--certain industries). All of this came with a larger bureaucracy and higher tax burdens. Although the European Common Market began as an attempt to reduce complexity (at least as to trade), the resulting European Union has introduced significantly greater complexity with little or no real benefit.
The United States enjoyed growth through a combination of territorial acquisition (primarily limited to North America) and rapid population growth (mostly through immigration) that allowed the United States to achieve dominance in agriculture and industrialization. However, various shocks--the Civil War, the financial crises of the late 19th Century, WWI, the Depression, WWII and the Cold War--increased complexity and the quest for tax expenditures. Through the early 1960's, the increase in complexity was arguably outweighed by the benefits. However, the "war on poverty," the "war on drugs," acting as a world policeman, and addressing other social issues have vastly increased the expense of the federal and state governments with little recognizable benefit. I hope to return to this topic in more detail in later posts.