23 September 2015

World Civilization, Day Twenty-Three

Disease and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire

What were the long-term effects of the spread of disease along the silk roads?

The silk roads facilitated trade on a scale never before seen in the classical world. It brought products to markets that had never had access to such exotic goods. Unfortunately, it also brought access to biological agents to which these markets had never been exposed, and without natural antibodies and modern hygienic practices to protect the population, epidemic diseases spread largely unchecked, contributing to a significant decline in the population. In some places, as much as one quarter to one third of the population was killed. Some survivors abandoned cities and villages in hopes of getting away from the diseases, sometimes unwittingly spreading them further.

Declining populations led to declining trade, as there were fewer merchants, fewer consumers and fewer producers. Agricultural surpluses declined, as fewer workers were available to cultivate the formerly productive grounds. A decline in the food supply further weakened an already reeling population, as survivors needed extra food to regain their strength, only to find shortages, and occasionally famine. Societies turned inward, fearing interaction with other cultures, not knowing from where or why the plagues had come. Superstitious pantheists blamed angry, unappeased gods or evil spirits. Christians called them the judgment of God upon a wicked world, though some, like St. Cyprian of Carthage declared them a blessing, releasing Christians from the toil of mortal life into heavenly bliss.

Of course, modern man understands most disease-causing bacteria and viruses. The miraculous suppressive effects of proper hygiene, immunization, vaccination, and advanced medical treatment of the sick limit (but do not eliminate) the potential for uncontrolled pandemics. With a population of over 7 billion, it is safe to say humankind bounced back, but the epidemics carried by travelers of the silk roads marked a significant setback for the world population.

Describe the reasons for the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Scholars differ over whether the Roman Empire succumbed more to outside invasion or internal degeneration. Plenty of suspects exist for both charges.

The rise of Christianity eroded both the Roman pantheon -the support of which had significant economic effects- and what scholars call the Roman “military spirit.” With its “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” philosophies, there was little incentive within Christianity toward aggressive militarism (at least until The Crusades, but that’s a discussion for later).

This could not have happened at a much worse time for the Roman military. Barbarian (i.e., non-Roman) hordes pushed relentlessly into Italy from the north, most notably the Visigoths. Rome increasingly had to rely on mercenaries, mostly German, to supplement their professional army. Since mercenaries are, almost by definition, not particularly loyal, this significantly weakened the Empire’s ability to fight off invaders and quell internal dissent. Later emperors drew their best troops inward in a “defend the vital organs” strategy. This left an ill-equipped, ill-trained defense on the field, just as their enemies were bringing a very potent offense into the game.

Epidemics killed millions of people throughout the empire, weakening Rome’s commercial trade, its tax base, and its agricultural production. Civil war further depleted the guarding of the Roman frontier, as legions had to be brought home to quell rebellions. Some scholars point to this internal strife, as well as the widening practice of granting Roman citizenship to just about anyone (it was formerly reserved for those who had performed military service), as resulting in a sort of “watering down” of what it meant to be Roman. A few discredited racist theories aside, many scholars attribute the decline, at least in part, to a general but ill-defined “moral decline.” Perhaps it is better to say “cultural decline.” Romans were a proud people who were distinctly and identifiably Roman. Many people residing in the Roman Empire were not “citizens.” Being a Roman citizen meant enjoying certain rights, and bearing certain responsibilities. If simply being geographically located within the borders makes one a citizen, especially one that can easily enjoy the benefits without the incumbent responsibilities, does the term “citizen” have any meaning at all? If Rome could lose its identity as Roman, what is to prevent the same thing from happening to any other nation? Rome fell when its people no longer had any concept that being “Roman” used to mean something special.

Life is not simple, and complex societies do not fall for simple reasons. A variety of factors: invasion, civil disruption, inadequate government, cultural decay, religious conversion, etc. led to the fall of the mightiest empire the world had yet seen. The Sumerians fell. Babylon fell. Persia fell. Classical Greece fell. The Roman Empire fell. All the dynasties of China fell. The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas fell. The Ottoman Empire fell. The British Empire fell (or at least shrank significantly). The Soviet Union fell (although Vladimir seems to be trying to get the band back together for another tour). No law of nature, man, or God guarantees that the American culture will not fall.

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