BMCR 2024.06.26

Why Rome fell: decline and fall, or drift and change?

Michael Arnheim, Why Rome fell: decline and fall, or drift and change? Hoboken: Wiley Blackwell, 2022. Pp. 496. ISBN 9781119691372



The volume opens with a third-person biographical account of the author’s education, scholarly contributions in several fields of inquiry, and the core heuristic or interpretive lens which he brings to the question asked in the book’s title. This bifocal lens distinguishes between credal and communal religions. The former, like Christianity and Islam, are “based on a set of beliefs … taken to be ‘the truth.’ Anyone who does not accept this creed is a ‘heretic,’ a ‘pagan,’ or an ‘unbeliever,’ and is punished accordingly” (p. x). The latter kind of religion, including the Roman “state religion,” is “by definition tolerant,” in that it assumes the “automatic membership” of all residents in a community. Arnheim thus suggests at the beginning of his study that the “dominance of Christianity in the later Roman Empire marked a sea-change in Roman and world history—the substitution of religious intolerance and persecution for toleration and freedom of worship” (p. x). In political terms, Arnheim also pursues another binary, in which “regardless of appearances, all societies, past and present alike, belong to only one of two models of government: rule by an elite minority (oligarchy, morphing to aristocracy) on the one hand, or, on the other, rule by a single individual, or monarchy (whether the ruler is designated as king, president, dictator, or anything else)” (p. xi). With this sharp (or is it blunt?) diagnostic tool in hand—bifurcating two possible kinds of religious and political systems—the author seeks to discover “why Rome fell,” as viewed from the perspective of later liberal political values in the West, specifically those which promote religious freedom, “social mobility, liberty and equality” for all individuals within a larger polity (p. xi). This reviewer admits at the outset to some fear of oversimplification, anachronism, or “presentism” in the ensuing analysis, but was pleasantly surprised that many of these worries were unfounded. In fact, the seeming simplicity of the author’s stark distinctions yields an admirable clarity in his exposition. Arnheim is a good teacher. But whether he succeeds in answering the question he poses in his title is less clear, unless we understand “fall” as “rise,” that is, the emergence of religious orthodoxy as a tool of late antique and early medieval statecraft adapted from Roman precedents.

In both religious and political terms, Arnheim sees the emperor Constantine as a transformative figure, comparable to the first emperor Augustus three centuries earlier, not only as an “agent of change,” but also as the architect of a new world order, even as the western half of the empire lurched erratically into the “barbarian” successor states of the centuries that followed the emperor’s death in 337. Politically, Constantine found a “formula” by which the “monarchical” rule of the emperor could be delegated to agents drawn from the ranks of the old senatorial aristocracy, but refreshed and made effectual by the infusion of new men from social ranks below, upwardly mobile officers of talent who could be rewarded with honors and emoluments to secure their loyal service and facilitate their entry into a new, more diverse cadre of professional administrators. In Arnheim’s dualistic terms, this new order combined monarchical rule with a more open and serviceable “oligarchy” of privileged executors who could become honorary members of an established aristocracy which they did not supplant but joined in approximate social dignity. This more generous model of political recruitment was an important “adjustment” in Constantine’s governance of the more distant western provinces from his new capital in Constantinople, while in the eastern half of the empire, Arnheim observes, the top-down “Dominate” model of imperial rule, established by Diocletian by the end of the third century CE, still continued apace for over a millennium until the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 (p. 417). Until then, the Roman empire in the east, for all its subsequent challenges, neither declined nor fell in terms of its core religious and political framework, whereas in the West, none of the terms sometimes used to describe the post-Roman world during the fifth and sixth centuries strictly apply—neither “decline and fall” exactly, nor even “drift and change” quite cover the variety of individual adaptations attempted among the various successor kingdoms. In any case, Arnheim is more interested in tracing continuities rather than disjunctions with the late antique model of governance established by Constantine. Rule by an emperor from Constantinople may have ended in the West by the end of the sixth century, but many of the successor states emulated Constantine’s model of top-down monarchical authority through elevated delegates, bolstered, as in his own rule, with a ramped-up enforcement of religious discipline overseen by both secular and clerical authorities. These nouveaux royal oligarchies in the West were similarly drawn from multiple human resources: heirs of the old senatorial aristocracy and provincial landed elites, learned and ambitious clerics of distinction, and of course battle-hardened military leaders—staunch thegns of the crown—who were rewarded for their loyalty, service and success. In short, Arnheim concludes: “The aristocratic ethos of the Roman West survived the collapse of the Western Empire. But what about the aristocrats who carried on that tradition? Were they descendants of the old Roman senatorial aristocracy? Or were they ‘barbarian’ aristocrats? Probably a mixture of the two” (p. 432).

With regard to religion, Constantine’s “pro-Christian policy,” developed over his lifetime in several stages until his death-bed baptism, was a personal journey that had far-reaching political effects. Arnheim rejects the argument

that Constantine picked Christianity because of its dominant position numerically in the Roman world … On the contrary, it was Constantine’s favor that catapulted Christianity from being very much a minority religion … Nicene Christianity became the single official religion of the Roman Empire by the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, which condemned the adherents of all other variants of Christianity as ‘foolish madmen,’ branded them as ‘heretics,’ and threatened them with persecution [Codex Theodosianus 16.1.2] …, a threat that was far from idle. Persecution of pagans and Jews was no less real (p. 421).

Arnheim views this hardening of Constantine’s religious agenda to be deeply unfortunate for the ages that followed: “What Constantine achieved by picking Christianity was to replace a thousand-year ethos of religious toleration or even religious freedom with one of religious intolerance and persecution. Constantine did not make Christianity intolerant [Arnheim’s emphasis]: that feature was inherent in Christianity by virtue of its being a ‘creed religion’” (p. 421).

This reviewer is a scholar of late antique and early medieval vernacular languages and literatures, so I will leave it to others to decide whether and to what extent the religious systems of the earlier ancient world were quite as tolerant, free, and open to individual conscience and belief as Arnheim avers. He is right to stress, however, that religious orthodoxy or heterodoxy soon became the shibboleth by which individuals or groups signaled the kind and degree of their political loyalties and affiliations in virtually all successor states, east and west. Arnheim’s own rather tolerant view of top-down political governance by an autocratic “monarch” through the agency of serviceable elites does not extend to the religious conformity by which those same monarchs and their clerical proxies sought to impose a common religious ethos on the emerging polities, cultivating a much tighter linkage between the political inclusiveness of the new national kingdoms and an exclusive doctrinal belief system. This linkage is a phenomenon that can be observed in both the eastern empire and the western heirs of the Roman imperium. For instance, even the once tolerant Theoderic the Ostrogoth, “Arian” king of Italy from 493-526, became increasingly less so during the course of his reign as sectarian loyalties began to take on what he perceived to be subversive political dimensions after 519. His efforts to help end the Acacian Schism between the eastern and western churches may have been his biggest mistake, since some of his Roman subjects now found a renewed credal affinity with their eastern brethren that portended, so the king feared, political reunification as well.

So, it is not clear to this reviewer that Constantine can be blamed for accepting the “creedalism” of Christianity or for paving the way for its potent congener Islam. Creed religions become exclusive and hostile to other faiths not because they have creeds per se, but because those creeds and membership in their congregations offer personal solace, spiritual uplift, and a satisfying social identity to their adherents who may have come to feel that they are either insiders or outsiders in a dominant political regime. Sectarian belief is a key statement of social affinity and, thus, for better or worse, inseparable from the power structures in which it emerges and often contests. Top-down political authoritarianism, especially as enabled by clerical elites, tends to breed sectarian reaction, resistance or rivalry, especially among those groups who already feel marginalized, subordinated or disenfranchised in the communal order. One could easily argue against the author that the Roman “state religion,” the supernatural buttress of Roman political authority, itself helped to foster the multiple messianic, apocalyptic, and philosophical movements that sprouted among various groups and persons of all social classes, those who felt alienated, insignificant or powerless in the vast imperial regime. Writing of an earlier period, Arthur Adkins noted that with the emergence of great empires, the individual, “from feeling himself a member of a group small enough for his contributions to its activities to be noticeable, came to feel himself alone, face to face with powerful forces over which he had no control” (From the Many to the One [Cornell UP, 1970], p. xv). Perhaps it was the one-size-fits-all inclusiveness of the Roman state religion that provoked sectarian religious movements that offered a more personal, transcendent and “freely chosen” meaning to life for people who felt impotent or negligible in the all-encompassing empire that so dominated their lives.

In fact, especially in the early medieval successor states in the West, the imposition of an exclusive official orthodoxy itself became a preferred technique of inclusive political ethnogenesis and national state formation, the very means by which a more communitarian ethos could be cultivated among populations of diverse tribal origins, social classes and prior political loyalties and experience. Religious orthodoxy became the ideological glue of incipient nationhood, just as submission to the imperial state religion had once signaled acquiescence to an inexorable Roman rule. Roman government may have turned a blind eye to many local cults and religious practices, but cannot really, as the author suggests, be sugar-coated as a supremely “tolerant” regime in any area where it felt its interests threatened. We may recall the famous words of the ghost of Anchises to his son in Book 6 of the Aeneid: “Remember Roman, these are your skills, to rule people with power, . . . to enforce peace and conformity, to spare the suppliant and crush the proud” (6.851–53). The putative religious toleration and communitarian ethos of the Roman empire was one forged in blood and iron.

Arnheim’s thesis is thus a useful one both to contemplate and qualify. Constantine’s mixed model of government—monarchy administered by upwardly mobile elites of diverse origins bound together by religious conformity—was emulated in the West by barbarian kings, both Arian and Catholic, many of whom liked to see themselves as continuators of Roman “best practices” in government and religion. Why Rome “fell” in this analysis becomes something of a moot point. Much did indeed change, as the author acknowledges, but plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Arnheim stresses the continuities in governing praxis and religious discipline after Constantine’s success, a formula that endured for another millennium in the eastern empire, but also soon resurfaced in several of the western successor states as well. Rather than saluting these new communitarian “micro-Christendoms,” as does Peter Brown in The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Oxford, 2003), Arnheim deplores their long-term impact upon religious toleration in the West—an ideal whose time was yet to come (or come again) many centuries into the future and, unfortunately, even then, often honored in the breach.