These days, every time I go to the market or want to buy something it seems that the prices are up. Or, the product is “debased” (smaller item for the same price). The knee-jerk reaction, for me anyway, is to somewhat become miffed and blast the government inwardly, as if governments can really make things better economically. This line of reasoning brought me to this excellent video. Who knew that economists can actually make sense sometimes?
“The U.S. government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern universities has concluded.”
The effort is well worth it, as the book helps us understand how the power structures of societies change over time in ways that may be largely invisible to those living through the changes.
The Inheritance of Rome focuses on the lasting influence of Rome’s centralized social and political structures even as centralized economic power and trade routes dissolved.
This legacy of centralized power and loyalty to a central authority manifested 324 years after the end of the Western Roman Empire circa 476 A.D. in Charlemagne, who united much of western Europe as the head of the Holy Roman Empire. (Recall that the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire endured another 1,000 years until 1453 A.D.)
But thereafter, the social and political strands tying far-flung villages and fiefdoms to a central authority frayed and were replaced by a decentralized feudalism in which peasants were largely stripped of the right to own land and became the chattel of independent nobles.
In this disintegrative phase, the central authority invested in the monarchy of kings and queens was weak to non-existent.
In the long sweep of history, it took several hundred years beyond 1000 A.D. for a central authority to re-assert itself in the form of monarchy, and several hundred additional years for the rights of commoners to be established.
Indeed, it can be argued that it was not until the 1600s and 1700s–and only in the northern European strongholds of commoners’ rights, The Netherlands and England–that the rights of ownership and political influence enjoyed by commoners in the Roman Empire were matched.
It can even be argued that the rights of Roman citizenship granted to every resident of the late Empire were only matched in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The rights of commoners were slowly chipped away by civil authorities and transferred to the feudal nobility. As the book explains, these rights included limited self-rule within village councils and ownership of land. These rights were extinguished by feudalism.
The connections between these civil society/legal freedoms (of self-rule and ownership of land/capital), the Protestant Reformation and the birth of modern Capitalism are explained by historian Fernand Braudel’s masterful 3-volume history Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, a series I have long recommended:
The self-reinforcing dynamics of religious, civil and economic freedoms are key to understanding the transition from feudalism/monarchy to the world systems of today, in which some form of self-rule or political influence and economic freedom are expected of every civil authority.
Let’s fast-forward to today and ask what relevance these histories have in the present era.
There are two points worth discussing. One is the acceleration of change; what took 300 years now takes 30, or perhaps less.
The second is the slow erosion of commoners’ self-rule and ownership of meaningful, productive capital.
This gradual, almost imperceptible erosion is what I call neofeudalism, a process of transferring political and economic power from commoners to a new Financial Aristocracy/Nobility.
If we examine the “wealth” of the middle class/working class (however you define them, the defining characteristic of both is the reliance on labor for income, as opposed to living off the income earned by capital), we find the primary capital asset is the family home, which as I have explained many times, is unproductive–in essence, a form of consumption rather than a source of income.
Ultimately, all pensions, public and private, are controlled by central authorities, even though “ownership” is nominally held by commoners. (Ask middle class Venezuelans what their pensions are worth once central authorities debauch the nation’s currency.)
In a globalized, financialized economy, the only capital worth owning is mobile capital, capital that can be shifted by a keystroke to avoid devaluation or earn a higher return.
Housing and pensions are “stranded capital,” forms of capital that are not mobile unless they are liquidated before crises or expropriations occur.
I am also struck by the ever-rising barriers to starting or even operating small businesses, a core form of capital, as enterprises generate income and (potentially) capital gains.
The capital and managerial expertise required to launch and grow a legal enterprise is extraordinarily high, which is at least partly why a nation of self-employed farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, and traders is now a nation of employees of government and large corporations.
What sort of capital can be acquired by the average commoner now? Enough to match the wealth and political power of financial Nobility? This is the source of our fascination with tech millionaires and billionaires: a few commoners have leveraged technology to join the Nobility.
Summary: “The U.S. government does not represent the interests of the majority of the country’s citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and powerful, a new study from Princeton and Northwestern universities has concluded.”
Neofeudalism is not a re-run of feudalism. It’s a new and improved, state-corporate version of indentured servitude. The process of devolving from central political power to feudalism required the erosion of peasants’ rights to own productive assets, which in an agrarian economy meant ownership of land.
Ownership of land was replaced with various obligations to the local feudal lord or monastery– free labor for time periods ranging from a few days to months; a share of one’s grain harvest, and so on.
The other key dynamic of feudalism was the removal of the peasantry from the public sphere. In the pre-feudal era (for example, the reign of Charlemagne), peasants could still attend public councils and make their voices heard, and there was a rough system of justice in which peasants could petition authorities for redress.
From the capitalist perspective, feudalism restricted serfs’ access to cash markets where they could sell their labor or harvests. The key feature of capitalism isn’t just markets– it’s unrestricted ownership of productive assets–land, tools, workshops, and the social capital of skills, networks, trading associations, guilds, etc.
Our system is Neofeudal because the non-elites have no real voice in the public sphere, and ownership of productive capital is indirectly suppressed by the state-corporate duopoly.
Our society has a legal structure of self-rule and ownership of capital, but in reality, it is a Neofeudal Oligarchy.
is a scholar specialising in New Testament studies, Early Christian literature and the Jewish and Hellenistic context of Early Christianity. He is professor emeritus in the faculty of theology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and is the author of many books, including Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity (2014).
March 14, 2019
In Greco-Roman culture, the well-to-do weren’t expected to support and help the poor. The Greek and Latin verbs for ‘doing good, being beneficent’ never have ‘the poor’ as their object, nor do they mean ‘almsgiving’. The Greek word philanthrôpia doesn’t have the sense of our modern philanthropy. One is philanthrôpos towards one’s own people, family, and guests – not towards the poor. And eleêmosynê (from which ‘alms’ is derived), in the sense of showing pity or mercy for someone else, never has the poor as its primary object. Ancient Greek moralists didn’t admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor. And while generosity was praised as a virtue, the poor were never singled out as its object; it was always directed to humans in general, provided that they deserved it.
When Greeks did speak about the joy of giving to others, it has nothing to do with altruism, but only with the desired effects of giving: namely honour, prestige, fame, status. Honour is the driving motive behind Greek beneficence, and for that reason the Greek word philotimia (literally, ‘the love of honour’) could develop the meaning of ‘generosity, beneficence’, not directed towards the poor but to fellow humans in general, especially those from whom one could reasonably expect a gift in return. These were the ‘worthy ones’ because they acknowledged and respected the principle of reciprocity (quid pro quo), one of the pillars of ancient social life, which was simply stated by the poet Hesiod around 700 BCE: ‘Give to him who gives, but do not give to him who does not give (in return).’ Even though some ancient moralists occasionally said that in the best form of beneficence one does not expect anything in return from the beneficiary, the pervasive view was that a donor should be reimbursed one way or another, preferably with a gift greater than the donor himself had given.
Religion was not much help to the poor: they simply weren’t the favourites of the gods. There was a Zeus Xenios (for strangers) and a Zeus Hiketêsios (for supplicants), but there was no Zeus Ptôchios (for the poor), nor any other god with an epithet indicating concern for the needy. It was rather the rich who were seen as the favourites of the divine world, their wealth being the visible proof of that favour. The poor could not pray for help from the gods because they were poor, for their poverty was a disadvantage in their contact with the gods. This was the implication of the common belief that the poor were morally inferior to the rich. They were often regarded as more readily inclined to do evil; for that reason, their poverty was commonly seen as their own fault. No wonder that they were not seen as people deserving help, and that no organised charity developed in Ancient Greece or Rome. In such societies, giving alms to the poor could not be seen as a virtue, as care for them was often regarded as a mere waste of resources.
The distributions of corn to the population by city states or emperors in times of need cannot pass for organised charity because the corn was given to all citizens in equal measure (not only to the poor). The poor didn’t get more than the rich, and even the poorest class of society was never singled out for especially favourable treatment. All this applies to the Ancient Romans no less than to the Greeks. When a Roman is generous towards others, it is not because they are poor but because he expects to get something in return, and because it confers honour and status upon him. Beneficia are for fellow citizens, not for the poor.
Since the beneficiary was usually expected to give something in return, the benefaction could become a burden. ‘There are some who even hate their benefactors,’ said Menander the playwright. But the idea of reciprocity was deeply ingrained in ancient society, and giving remained one of the chief ways of acquiring status within the social or political group. Neither Ancient Greek nor Roman shrank from admitting that striving after honour was the decisive motive for generosity. The Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote that ‘most people are generous in their gifts not so much by natural inclination as by the lure of honour’. And Pliny the Younger pithily agreed: ‘Honour must be the consequence’ of generosity.
While care for the poor, let alone organised charity, was a non-item in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is a central concern in the Jewish Bible. Caring for the poor is seen as a major duty and virtue not only in the Torah of Moses, but also in the Prophets and other biblical writings. Most significantly, God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy. They are his favourites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous.
That is not to say that we will find a positive evaluation of poverty here – the poor are ‘righteous’ only insofar as they are the innocent victims of injustice, and poverty does not automatically translate into piety, but it does seem to make one closer to God. In a courtroom, an Ancient Greek could invoke his opponent’s poverty in order to cast a dubious light on his character – this strategy was not available to a biblical Israelite.
The Torah urges Israel to be generous towards the poor in their midst. The prophets warn repeatedly against oppressing the poor and the needy. A ‘day acceptable to the Lord’ is the day on which the people share their bread with the hungry, bring the poor into their house, and clothe the naked. In the book of Job, the protagonist’s efforts to help the poor are emphasised as laudable. The poor were to be allowed to harvest the borders or corners of the fields and vineyards, and the sabbatical year was instituted in order that the poor might eat. The biblical adage ‘Open your hand to the poor’ encapsulates the Jewish Bible’s approach to charity.
‘When you have wealth, stretch out your hand to the poor’
In spite of the fact that there is much concern for the poor in the Bible, there still is no organised charity. Of course, some of the Torah’s commandments are in a sense collective measures, but it is still left to the individual whether or not to carry them out, since there is no central organisation to oversee its implementation.
The post-biblical Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a Jewish wisdom poem of 230 hexameters written in Greek, exemplify this private (as opposed to communal or organised) concern for the poor. In the opening section, the author wrote: ‘Do not oppress a poor man unjustly, do not judge him by his appearance,’ a sentiment repeated further on: ‘Give a labourer his pay, do not oppress a poor man.’ Then it says: ‘Give to a beggar at once and do not tell him to come tomorrow. Fill your hand and give alms to the needy.’ And again some lines further on: ‘When you have wealth, stretch out your hand to the poor. From what God has given you provide for those in need.
Every great civilization throughout human history has eventually collapsed, and if we want to have any hope of escaping the same fate, we need to be willing to learn some lessons from the past. Because many of the same factors that caused the collapse of previous civilizations are weighing very heavily on the United States of America today. According to the BBC, the average lifespan of a great civilization is 336 years from beginning to end. But that doesn’t mean that America will make it that long. Our nation is currently 242 years old, and there are signs of advanced social decay all around us. If we remain on the road that we are currently on, there are many that believe that complete and utter collapse is not too far away.
Societies of the past and present are just complex systems composed of people and technology. The theory of “normal accidents” suggests that complex technological systems regularly give way to failure. So collapse may be a normal phenomenon for civilisations, regardless of their size and stage.
We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix.
It is not easy to keep an extremely complex society running, and there have been so many factors that have played a role in collapsing previous civilizations. War, natural disasters, environmental shifts, social degradation, economic problems and disease are just a few examples.
Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.
Even if America wasn’t deteriorating in so many other areas, would our nation eventually collapse under the weight of our own bureaucracy as well? We have the biggest government in the history of the world, and when you total up all levels of government we literally have millions of laws, rules and regulations governing our lives today. It is a horrible system, and it is definitely not what our founders intended. To me, it makes sense that someday it could ultimately collapse as people simply stop believing in it.
In order for a civilization to function smoothly, there must be something that bonds it together. When the United States was originally established, we were united by a common set of values, but that is no longer true.
Today, America is more divided than it has been in my entire lifetime, and one of the biggest reasons is because there is no agreement about what our values should be.
We now have the unique advantage of being able to learn from the wreckages of societies past, but instead of doing so and freeing mankind from government, many who are enslaved continue to push for shorter chains, more violence, control, domination, and theft by the ruling class – not just of themselves, but of all others too. Collapse is imminent in our opinion, as those in control will not willingly give up their stranglehold over the tax cattle slaves.
Unfortunately, many in our society want us to go in the exact opposite direction.
As a result, the fabric of our society is literally coming apart at the seams, and this is something that Jim Quinn commented on in one of his recent articles…
Our society is now infinitely more materialistic, narcissistic, and greedy than it was in the 1950s. Moral degeneration has reached new lows, unthinkable during the relatively innocent 1950s. But the common theme is human failings, foibles, and fallacies. Whatever a culture values you get more of. Our culture values achievement, wealth and power, at any cost.
Rather than make up our own minds about what we like, what we wear, where we eat, or what entertainment we enjoy, we need to be influenced into our decisions by famous people who are famous for being famous. These “influencers” generate their influential power through the number of social media followers they have accumulated by posting pictures of themselves in their underwear, leaked sex tapes, nude selfies, or generally being attractive.
Most of them are low IQ mouth breathers who can’t do basic math or write a comprehensible paragraph. But those 36DD breasts and pouty lips classify them as a grade A influencer. I can’t decide whether these narcissistic icons are more pathetic or the feeble-minded wretches who are actually influenced by these vacuous bimbos. Moral degeneration of society seems to have reached a new low.
We truly are becoming a real-life version of “Idiocracy”, and it is getting worse with each passing day.
But I can think of no better example of the decline of our society than Jussie Smollett.
Here is a guy that seemingly had everything. He was on a hit show, he had lots of money and he had hordes of devoted fans that loved him.
But he threw it all away because he believed that he was entitled to more, and he was willing to do anything to get it.
Apparently he was not happy that he was making just $65,000 an episode, and so he created one of the most despicable hoaxes in American history in a desperate attempt to get his salary raised.
Piers Morgan has described him as “the most hideous, reprehensible, disgusting, snivelling little liar in America”, and I think that is about right.
But you know what?
He represents the true state of our society better than anyone else that I know. Just like Smollett, we continue to insist that we are “the good guys”, but in reality our nation has become a cesspool of just about every sort of evil that you can possibly imagine.
If we will change our ways and return to the values that the first Americans embraced, we could turn things around.
But if we continue doing the things that we are currently doing, collapse is inevitable.
Periodically, I’ll encounter someone who has read one of my essays and has decided not to pursue them further, stating, “You’re one of those ‘End of the world’ guys. I can’t be bothered reading the writings of someone who thinks we’re all doomed. I have a more positive outlook than that.”
In actual fact, I agree entirely with his latter two comments. I can’t be bothered reading the thoughts of a writer who says we’re all doomed, either. I, too, have a more positive outlook than that.
My one discrepancy with such comments is that I don’t by any means think that the present state of events will lead to the end of the world, as he assumes.
But then, neither am I naïve enough to think that if I just hope for the best, the powers that be will cease to be parasitical and predatory out of sympathy for me. They will not.
For any serious student of history, one of the great realizations that occurs at some point is that governments are inherently controlling by nature. The more control they have, the more they desire and the more they pursue. After all, governments actually produce nothing. They exist solely upon what they can extract from the people they rule over. Therefore, their personal success is not measured by how well they serve their people, it’s measured by how much they can extract from the people.
And so, it’s a given that all governments will pursue ever-greater levels of power over their minions up to and including the point of total dominance.
It should be said that, on rare occasions, a people will rise up and create a governmental system in which the rights of the individual are paramount. This was true in the creation of the Athenian Republic and the American Constitution, and even the British Magna Carta.
However, these events are quite rare in history and, worse, as soon as they take place, those who gain power do their best to diminish the newly-gained freedoms.
Such freedoms can almost never be destroyed quickly, but, over time and “by slow operations,” as Thomas Jefferson was fond of saying, governments can be counted on to eventually destroy all freedoms.
We’re passing through a period in history in which the process of removing freedoms is nearing completion in many of the world’s foremost jurisdictions. The EU and US, in particular, are leading the way in this effort.
Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that some predict “the end of the world.” But, they couldn’t be more incorrect.
Surely, in 1789, the more productive people of France may have felt that the developing French Revolution would culminate in Armageddon. Similarly, in 1917, those who created prosperity in Russia may well have wanted to throw up their hands as the Bolsheviks seized power from the Romanovs.
Whenever a deterioration in rule is underway, as it is once again now, the observer has three choices:
Declare the End of the World
There are many people, worldwide, but particularly in the centres of the present deterioration – the EU and US – who feel that, since the situation in their home country is nearing collapse, the entire world must also be falling apart. This is not only a very myopic viewpoint, it’s also quite inaccurate. At any point in civilization in the past 2000 years or more, there have always been empires that were collapsing due to intolerable governmental dominance and there have always concurrently been alternative jurisdictions where the level of freedom was greater. In ancient Rome, when Diocletian devalued the currency, raised taxes, increased warfare and set price controls, those people who actually created the economy on a daily basis found themselves in the same boat as Europeans and Americans are finding themselves in, in the 21st century.
It may have seemed like the end of the world, but it was not. Enough producers left Rome and started over again in other locations. Those other locations eventually thrived as a result of the influx of productive people, while Rome atrophied.
US Declares War On “Troika Of Tyranny”, Pushing Them…
The US is going to extend its “combat operations” – the sanctions war aimed at reshaping the world – to Latin America.
This is less dreary than the above approach, but it is nevertheless just as fruitless. It is, in fact, the most common of reactions – to just “hope for the best.”
It’s tempting to imagine that maybe the government will realize that they’re the only ones benefiting from the destruction of freedom and prosperity and they’ll feel bad and reverse the process. But this clearly will not happen.
It’s also tempting to imagine that maybe it won’t get a whole lot worse and that life, although not all that good at present, might remain tolerable. Again, this is wishful thinking and the odds of it playing out in a positive way are slim indeed.
Accept the Truth, But Do Something About It
This, of course, is the hard one. Begin by recognizing the truth. If that truth is not palatable, study the situation carefully and, when a reasonably clear understanding has been reached, create an alternative.
When governments enter the final decline stage, an alternative is not always easy to accept. It’s a bit like having a tooth pulled. You want to put it off, but the pain will only get worse if you delay. And so, you trundle off to the dentist unhappily, but, a few weeks after the extraction, you find yourself asking, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”
To be sure, those who investigate and analyze the present socio-economic-political deterioration do indeed espouse a great deal of gloom, but this should not be confused with doom.
In actual fact, the whole point of shining a light into the gloom is to avoid having it end in doom.
It should be said here that remaining in a country that is tumbling downhill socially, economically and politically is also not the end of the world. It is, however, true that the end result will not exactly be a happy one. If history repeats once again, it’s likely to be quite a miserable one.
Those who undertake the study of the present deterioration must, admittedly, address some pretty depressing eventualities and it would be far easier to just curl up on the sofa with a six-pack and watch the game, but the fact remains: unless the coming problems are investigated and an alternative found, those who sit on the sofa will become the victims of their own lethargy.
Sadly, we live in a period in history in which some of the nations that once held the greatest promise for the world are well on their way to becoming the most tyrannical. If by recognizing that fact, we can pursue better alternatives elsewhere on the globe, as people have done in previous eras; we may actually find that the field of daisies in the image above is still very much in existence, it’s just a bit further afield than it was in years gone by.
Health Editor’s Note: Here are some thoughts/reasons of historians about what might have caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. I have thrown a few of mine in also. Perhaps not much different than what could be happening to America, as we speak/write…..Carol
Many historians have given reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, which could be separated into two time frames since the Eastern part of the Empire lasted far beyond the Western. In comparing and contrasting six of these historians it is apparent that there is no consensus about why the Empire collapsed. There were certainly both internal and external factors, which brought about the demise or did not prevent the decline of this great empire.
Russian historian, Michael Rostovtseff, feels that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was caused by the engulfment of the educated classes by the uneducated masses and the subsequent barbarization or simplification of Roman political, social, economic, and intellectual life. (Kagan, 5) He also gives importance to the attacks by external enemies and constant civil war within the Roman Empire. (Kagan, 30) He describes the use of the army to terrorize the Roman population and the fact that constant internal strife allowed the enemies of Rome to attack its empire, weakened the ability to resist these attacks, and forced the emperors to use terror and compulsion to maintain internal order.
The policy of the subjection of the population to an administration based on compulsion and terror, creation of a new aristocracy from the members of the army, production of a slave state with autocratic monarchy led minority ruling groups, commanding an army filled with mercenaries, and compulsory military seemed to be the easiest way to keep the Roman Empire functioning. (Kagan, 20) These tactics did not save the empire as the emperor became totally dependent upon the military and therefore the military was able to remove any emperor who threatened their status. The soldiers seemed to have “mass psychosis” that forced them to fight other Romans and emperors that they had previously supported.
The Roman army, which has previously been composed of Roman citizens, eventually was made up of war-like tribes gathered from beyond Rome’s frontiers. The emperors bribed the armies but eventually lost control of and became slave to their own armies as the armies used the emperor to get what they wanted. Rostovtseff states that the leading classes of the Empire could not accept hereditary succession based on divine imperial power because this concept of principate to monarchy threatened their idea of freedom. When the army was still Roman the idea of principate was central, but as it became barbarized it became more amenable to a monarchy.
Rostovtseff says the political struggle between hereditary monarchy and emperors with their supporting armies and the upper classes ended but the struggle revisited in the form of army versus educated classed for leadership of the state. (Kagan, 31) The army fought the aristocracy and removed all power from the privileged classes. The army also came from the bourgeoisie and was separate from the civilized (aristocratic) life of the Empire. The humiliores class formed the majority of the population but were subjects of the landlords or the states and were separated from the privileged classes whom they supported with their work, taxes, and rents. Understandably the humiliores developed feelings of envy and hatred towards the upper classes. The friction between the city and the county led to the social revolution of the third century. The armies started to look upon the cities of the Empire as their enemies. (Kagan, 37) Cities lost their social and political influences as the armies sided with the peasants.
Rostovtseff gives the crisis in the third century social rather than political connotations as the bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy and the middle class disappeared as it became more oppressed. The bourgeoisie and peasants both gained nothing and the depression of the Roman spirit allowed the Diocletian stabilization that in the end did nothing to improve conditions. (Kagan, 39)
F.W. Walbank blames low technology and the use of slavery to compensate for the lack of technology as the cause for the decline. (Kagan, 4) Slaves, who did the work, did not receive the benefit afforded to the freeman. Without hope of benefit or improvement in condition the slave did not strive to improve the way he did work. Greek culture had separated the things of the hand and of the mind. (Kagan, 42) In De Officiis I; Cicero describes labor jobs as being vulgar while those done by the educated as being honorable.
Technological advances were unnecessary since slave labor was cheap and plentiful. From an economic standpoint the masses that produced could not become consumers. Only the wealthy could purchase and the expansion of the Roman Empire did not target the peasant and the middle classes for consumption and the ability to profit from selling to these classes was lost. Industrialization did not develop because there was no mass consumption. In the end Rome was placated with old processes rather than choosing to develop technology. As the Empire expanded to new territories this process of using slave labor repeated itself. Trade became localized and international areas were ignored, as there was a reversal to small scale, hand-to-mouth craftsmanship. (Kagan, 47) This process would have had an effect of implosion rather than expansion as economic units became smaller and localized.
Gradually industry moved from large cities to the country estates and villages as agrarian interests were renewed, but the country was not up to the task since it had been long neglected for urban development. The estates then retarded the areas open to trade as they became self-sufficient and drew importance of trade away from the cities.
G.E.M. de Ste. Croix blames the fall of the Roman Empire on the fact that the wealthy had unlimited political and economic power and goes so far as to compare them to vampire bats as they sucked the wealth (life) out of the Empire. He quotes portions of the Second Novel (issued 11 March 458) to show how the imposition and collection of taxes caused distress to the Roman Empire. “On the remission of arrears…by stressing the woes of the provincials, whose fortunes are said to be enfeebled and worn down…by exaction of various forms of regular tribute….” (Kagan, 60)
The upper class exploited the lower classes by often deferring taxes for themselves. Those who carried out orders to collect taxes were often of the upper classes. A Novel of Emperor Romanus II, 959-963, states “We must beware lest we send upon the unfortunate poor the calamity of law officers, more merciless than famine itself.” (Kagan, 63)
De Ste. Croix describes a class struggle where “the Roman political system…facilitated a most intense and ultimately destructive economic exploitation of the great mass of the people, whether slave or free, and it made radical reform impossible.” (Kagan, 64) The propertied classes drained the wealth from the Empire and monopolized the political power and used this position to sequester the wealth of the Empire for themselves. He also quotes Peter Brown’s book, The World of Late Antiquity and this quote describes what de Ste. Croix has described as wealth going only to the wealthy. Brown’s words, “Altogether, the prosperity of the Mediterranean world seems to have drained from the top” shows that senatorial aristocracy had become richer as time went by.
The peasants became responsible for maintaining the Empire. The burden of maintaining the imperial military and bureaucratic machine, and the church, in addition to a leisure class consisting mainly of absentee landowners, fell primarily upon the peasantry, who formed the bulk of the population…” (Kagan, 65) De Ste. Croix states that these social and economic pressures disturbed the peasants and would have been a factor in why they may have not resisted the barbarian invaders because their present oppression was equally as harmful.
In comparing Rostovtseff’s, Walbank and de Ste. Croix’s reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, there is a common thread of social reasons that contributed to the eventual demise of the Empire. Walbank gives first blame to lack of technology with its economic ramifications and the social problems of the subsequent use of slave labor this lack of technology supported. Rostovtseff suggests that the masses overtook the educated in the critical areas of intellectual, economic, social and political life and the empire became decivilized. Constant internal strife allowed forces outside the Empire easier access. Civil strife between country and city broke down a united front against the invaders.
The economy became stagnant, as the slave force could not buy the products they produced. Trade became localized and the economy lost the ability to tap outside capital resources.
De Ste. Croix gives much importance to economic deterioration as the upper classes sucked the money out of the Empire by taxing the masses for the benefit of the few at the top. No money was used to maintain the infrastructure of the Empire. He also states that the internal economic pressures made it easier for outside forces to move in since what they might offer could not be seen as any worse than the existing oppression the Roman masses were experiencing. Walbank gives internal sources as the cause while Rostovtseff feels the external forces were able to take good advantage of internal civil strife.
A.M.H. Jones blames the barbarian attacks on the Western half of the Empire as the cause of the fall. He points out that a corrupt bureaucracy, who took much from the people, caused external weaknesses in both the East and West. In the East the government enforced a class system, which alienated the cities from the country. Land was no longer cultivated in the East or West. Although Jones does not specifically state that Christianity had a play in the decline, he does quote Gibbon who says, “Christianity sapped the morale of the empire, deadened its intellectual life and by its embittered controversies undermined its unity.” Kagan, 18)
Jones also points to heavy taxation to support the military and the processes used to collect those taxes was a definite cause of the decline. The economic decline resulted from supporting the non-productive members of Roman society on the collective backs of the peasants, who gradually decreased in numbers. His final point is that the escalating pressure of the barbarians on the weaker half of the Empire caused the collapse.
Peter Brown believes the decline was caused by exposure to the non-Mediterranean world, which created changes. “What to do with a stranger in one’s midst—with men excluded in a traditionally aristocratic society, with thoughts denied expression by a traditional culture, with needs not articulated in conventional religion, with the utter foreigner from across the frontier.” (Kagan, 147) Large taxation on land that was not fertile drove people away from agriculture. (Kagan, 165) He mentions the wars and high taxation on society as factors in the decline. Costs to maintain civilizations not located on the water were high and much of the territory of the Empire stretched hundreds of miles away from the shores of the Mediterranean.
Arther Farrill believes the Roman army became barbarized as it lost tactical superiority. He thinks at some point Rome chose a fact in policy, which led to its fall. By 410 Rome had practically stopped producing her own soldiers and those they did produce were no longer taught “close-order” formations. Also, by this time the Western Empire could no longer send military power to its boundaries. This of course meant that most outlying territories, such as England and Africa, would be lost. Farrill also states that the shrinkage of the imperial frontiers from 310 to 440 was directly the result of military conquests by barbarian forces. (Kagan, 150) He points directly to the use of barbarian troops by Stilicha as a political problem, which was what caused his downfall in 408. (Kagan, 141) Farrill’s final thought was that the close formation skills were no longer efficiently used and this ineffectiveness allowed the barbarians to defeat the once proud and efficient Roman legions.
Jones blames the fall on the decline in the Roman economy that was supporting, through heavy taxation, non-contributing member of society and the military to the detriment of the peasant class who shouldered the burden of producing the income for the Empire. He focuses on internal weaknesses as the causation but also lays some blame to the external pressures of barbarian attacks on the weaker Western Empire.
Brown blames the vast geographical nature of the empire as its nemesis. The cost of maintaining and feeding cities that were located inland was high and drained the coffers. The Mediterranean world was always on the verge of starvation. (Kagan, 149) The exposure of the non-Mediterranean world decreased the effectiveness of Roman rule as foreign influences diluted Roman ways.
Agreeing with Jones, Farrill believes that the decline was caused by barbarization of the army. The lack of training in traditional legion tactics decreased Rome’s chances of resisting attacks from the outside. He states that by 476 the massive army of the West was gone and that this was the cause of collapse of Roman government in the West. (Kagan, 168)
The Rostovtseff, Walbank, and de Ste. Croix group try to define the problems associated with the fall of Rome. These problems were high taxation, high cost of keeping the military, civil wars, uneducated masses overtaking educated elite, low technology which increased use of slaves, lack of industrialization, isolated trade, the draining of the wealth by the upper classes, and the fact that barbarian invaders would have seemed no worse than the “vampires” who lived within Roman boarders.
The Jones, Brown, and Ferrill group give more culpability to outside influences of barbarized army, expense of maintaining vast borders, and changes brought to the Roman Empire. The aristocracy who ruled and ran the Empire did so successfully using conformity until they neglected to include the peasantry of the conquered territories. The exposure to the peasantry and breakdown of previous conformity altered Roman culture enough that the infrastructure of the Empire was weakened.
Historians often disagree with each other as to why and when the Roman Empire went into decline and fell. Some note is taken that perhaps the Empire did not fall at all since the Eastern part of the Empire continued to function as the Byzantine Empire. As a side note, none of these six historians mention famine and diseases that much have plagued the ancient world. In reality, any decline in this once powerful empire probably was caused by all the reasons these historians have found including introduction of Christianity and perhaps more reasons than we will ever know.
Carol graduated from Riverside White Cross School of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio and received her diploma as a registered nurse. She attended Bowling Green State University where she received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Literature. She attended the University of Toledo, College of Nursing, and received a Master’s of Nursing Science Degree as an Educator.
She has traveled extensively, is a photographer, and writes on medical issues. Carol has three children RJ, Katherine, and Stephen – two daughters-in-law; Suzy and Katie – two granddaughters; Isabella Marianna and Zoe Olivia – and one grandson, Alexander Paul. She also shares her life with husband Gordon Duff, many cats, two rescue pups, and two guinea pigs.
For thousands of years, the men of a tiny Sardinian town have transformed into monsters-and no one knows why
No one dares to speak as smoke from a massive bonfire billows and twirls into a thick haze in the remote mountain town of Mamoiada. Flaming logs crack open, echoing through central Sardinia‘s rugged massifs and twisting valleys, shooting sparks toward a solemn mass of spectators. We’re huddled together on a piercingly cold January night, bracing for something wild in the darkness that’s lurching ever closer.
I peer through the smoke, searching for any signs of life beyond the glow of the blaze when I see several mothers suddenly pull their children in close. Just then, Ruggero Mameli, a lifelong Mamoiada resident who had invited me to come witness this event, whispers, “They’re coming.”
Within seconds, a distant rattling sound shakes the night awake, building slowly with each heavy step until it erupts into a deafening clatter. The sea of spectators parts, I see them, and a chill runs up my spine. Twelve menacing figures in jet-black masks with jutting, ghoulish features and dark sheepskin tunics are inching toward me, weighed down by up to 65 pounds of cowbells strapped to their backs. Their hunched frames slowly drag forward in two rows, eyeing the crowd as they heave themselves into a series of synchronized convulsions that cause the sheep bones inside their copper bells to clang in a thunderous chorus.
“These are not men,” Mameli tells me, as the creatures approach the bonfire. “They’re mamuthones.”
No one knows what the name “mamuthones” means or when this ancient ritual started, but some believe it dates back thousands of years to Sardinia’s earliest Bronze Age settlers.
According to Mameli, every year on January 17, a group of men in this sleepy mountain town awake from their slumber and transform into masked, monstrous mamuthones and lithe, rope-wielding issohadores. From the late afternoon deep into the night, the two groups slowly parade around some 40 bonfires roaring throughout the streets of Mamoiada in a delicate dance: The black-masked mamuthones symbolize the darkness, grunting and stomping as they burst into violent pseudo seizures; while the white-masked issohadores (“rope-carriers”) are the light, leading the beasts from flame to flame while launching their wiry reed sohas into the crowd to lasso young women in an ode to fertility. The creatures reappear on Carnival Sunday and Fat Tuesday before then hibernating until the following winter.
“We feel their presence all year long, and when we speak of them, it is always hushed,” says Mameli, who has been hand-carving grimacing and pain-stricken masks out of wild pear, walnut, and chestnut trees for the mamuthones for more than 35 years, since he was 12. “On il continente [mainland Italy], the Carnival is light-hearted, but here it is full of suffering and mystery. It’s a part of us. I can’t explain it.”
No one really can. Some scholars believe the mamuthones and issohadores date back some 3,000 years to the island’s mysterious Bronze Age Nuragic civilization and represent a banishment of the dark winter and welcoming of spring. Roman invaders considered the anthropomorphic beasts a form of sacrilegious animal worship that threatened the Christianity they tried to spread. When their repeated attempts to subdue the region failed, they dubbed the area Barbagia after the “barbarian-like” practices of its inhabitants-a name that has stuck and includes much of the island’s rural interior. Remarkably, the Barbagia communities near Mamoiada were among the last in modern-day Italy to convert to Christianity, continuing to worship wood and stone until the seventh century.
In fact, away from the island’s cosmopolitan capital, Cagliari – where I lived for two years – and the puttering yachts of the Costa Smeralda, Sardinia’s craggy interior has historically been one of the most isolated and impenetrable pockets in the Mediterranean. Residents here still speak Sardo, the closest living form of Latin; veiled grandmothers and bands of nomadic shepherds gaze warily at outsiders; and residents fiercely proclaim that Sardinia isn’t Italy. This is a hard, uncompromising place-a fact that is announced loud and clear upon entering the village, where the welcome sign in Sardo is left pristine, while that in Italian is ripped through by bullet holes.
The mamuthones are led by light-footed, lasso-carrying issohadores who attempt to lead the ghoulish figures out of town in a sort of pagan exorcism.
Today, the most accepted theory is that the mamuthones represent evil beings from the underworld, while the issohadores are believed to have captured these threatening spirits and are driving them out of town in a sort of pagan exorcism. In a post-Christian Barbagia, the ritual has received a Catholic gloss and now starts outside Mamoiada’s parish church on the feast day of Sant’Antonio Abate, the protector of animals and fire who is believed to have stolen a spark from the underworld to bring light and warmth to the living. Not only is participation in this archaic rite tolerated by the church, it’s encouraged: The wood that villagers collect to burn in the bonfires is blessed by the parish priest, the men who transform into monsters and convulse by firelight are well-respected members of the community who show up to Sunday mass, and this cult – Catholic syncretism has fused into a holy matrimony.
But the scene I’m witnessing is raw, primal, and trance-like. Twelve mamuthones in two even rows representing each lunar cycle stagger forward in unison, their wooly bodies pulled to the ground by the weight of the bells. They shuffle and rattle, first to the left, then to the right, as eight herders in red tunics guard the creatures, jumping around lightly in contrast and launching their reed lassos around squealing women in the crowd as an omen of rebirth and renewal, not just for their families, but also for their fields and flocks. When the issohadore setting the pace in the front of the pack raises his hand to the beasts and lowers it, they obediently shudder three times, as if expelling some evil deep within them, before returning to their hunched, hypnotic state.
Each night on January 17 and during the day on Carnival Sunday and Fat Tuesday, the men in Mamoiada transform into monstrous mamuthones.
We follow this otherworldly spectacle from fire to fire well into the night. When the procession finally encircles a flaming pyre on the outskirts of the village, the parade suddenly stops. The mamuthones double over in exhaustion, several falling to their knees and gasping for air. They slowly remove their masks, returning to their earthly bodies and once again becoming shepherds, shopkeepers, and men.
The mass around me bursts into applause and this once-solemn spectacle quickly shifts into an all-night celebration.
The mamuthones are each weighed down by up to 65 pounds of cowbells, strapped tightly across their ribcages and hanging down their backs. The bells’ clappers are made from the thigh and neck bones of sheep.
The mamuthones are each weighed down by up to 65 pounds of cowbells, strapped tightly across their ribcages and hanging down their backs. The bells’ clappers are made from the thigh and neck bones of sheep.
As the winds whip through the mountains, Mamoiada’s faithful welcome us into their dimly lit kitchens, brewing hazelnut coffee, serving sandwiches made with wild boar, and opening their homes to guests in a tradition known as cortes apertas (“open houses”). Next come the fried ox testicles, followed by the pours and pours of homemade grappa. Just when everything is starting to blur, I spot Mameli, who I had lost in the commotion.
“Follow me,” he says, leading me from Mamoiada’s squat homes through a series of doorways into the stone courtyard of the Associazione Culturale Atzeni. The association is one of two groups committed to keeping Mamoiada’s ancient rite alive, selecting and training more than 200 men and boys to take part in the sacred custom, only a few of whom will ever perform.
“You have to be strong and willing to sacrifice and suffer,” says Pino Ladu, the group’s president, pointing toward two aspiring mamuthones struggling to unbuckle a harness of bells strapped so tightly around a man’s back that he is nearly collapsing. “This thing has existed since the dawn of time. But only some of us ever become it.”
Comment: While it may be an amalgamation of traditions, one does wonder what it’s original meaning may have been:
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