“THE two greatest problems in history,” says a brilliant scholar of our time, are “how to account for the rise of Rome, and how to account for her fall.” We may come nearer to understanding them if we remember that the fall of Rome, like her rise, had not one cause but many, and was not an event but a process spread over 300 years. Some nations have not lasted as long as Rome fell. A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars. Christian writers were keenly appreciative of this decay. Tertullian, about 200, heralded with pleasure the ipsa clausula saeculi – literally the fin de siecle or end of an era- as probably a prelude to the destruction of the pagan world. Cyprian, towards 250, answering the charge that Christians were the source of the Empire’s misfortunes, attributed these to natural causes:

You must know that the world has grown old, and does not remain in its former vigor. It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the sun’s warmth are both diminishing; the metals are nearly exhausted; the husbandman is failing in the fields.

Barbarian inroads, and centuries of mining the richer veins, had doubtless lowered Rome’s supply of the precious metals. In central and southern Italy deforestation, erosion, and the neglect of irrigation canals by a diminishing peasantry and a disordered government had left Italy poorer than before. The cause, however, was no inherent exhaustion of the soil, no change in climate, but the negligence and sterility of harassed and discouraged men.