Abram Leon


The Jewish Question



From antiquity to the Carolingian epoch:
The period of commercial prosperity of the Jews


A. Before the Roman conquest

From a very remote time Syria and Palestine were the highways for the exchange of goods between the two oldest centers of culture of the ancient Mediterranean world: Egypt and Assyria. [1] The essentially commercial character of the Phoenicians and Canaanites. [2] was a product of the geographical and historical situation of the countries which they inhabited. The Phoenicians became the first great commercial people of antiquity because they located the first two great centers of civilization. It was Assyrian and Egyptian goods which at first constituted the main object of Phoenician trade. The same was certainly true for the Palestinian merchants. [3] According to Herodotus, Assyrian goods were the most ancient and most important articles of Phoenician commerce. No less ancient, however, was the connection of the Phoenicians with Egypt. The legends of biblical Canaan, as well as Phoenician myths, reveal continuous relations by land and by sea, between the inhabitants of these countries and the Egyptians. Herodotus also speaks of Egyptian goods which the Phoenicians had been bringing to Greece from very remote times. [4]

But if the geographical situation of Palestine was as favorable as that of Phoenicia for mercantile trade between Egypt and Assyria [5], the facilities for navigation at the disposal of Syria were completely lacking in Palestine. Phoenicia was abundantly provided with everything necessary for sea travel; the cedar and cypress of Lebanon furnished it with timber; copper and iron were also plentiful in the mountains of Lebanon and in the outskirts. On the Phoenician coast, many natural ports were available for navigation. [6] It is therefore not surprising that at a very early date Phoenician ships, heavily laden with Egyptian and Assyrian products, should have begun to ply the navigable routes of the ancient world. “The political and mercantile relations of Phoenicia with the great states of the Nile and the Euphrates, relations established more than two thousand years before Christ, permitted the expansion of Phoenician trade to the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean.” [7] The Phoenicians brought the most diversified peoples and civilizations of antiquity closer together. [8]

For many centuries the Phoenicians maintained a monopoly of trade between the relatively developed countries of the East and the less civilized countries of the West. In the era of the commercial hegemony of the Phoenicians, the islands in the western Mediterranean and the countries bordering it were economically still very backward. “This does not mean that trade was unknown to the society of the day [Homeric Society], but for the Greeks it consisted essentially of importations .... In payment for these purchases [for the raw or precious materials, the manufactured goods, which the foreign navigators came to offer them], the Greeks seem to have given chiefly cattle.” [9] This situation, so highly disadvantageous for the natives, was not long maintained. Phoenician commerce itself became one of the principal stimulants for the economic development of Greece. The rise of Greece was also favored by Hellenic colonization, which expanded greatly between the ninth and seventh century before Christ. The Greek colonists spread in all directions over the Mediterranean. Greek cities multiplied. Thucydides and Plato attribute the Greek emigration to the shortage of land.

The development of Greek colonization was accompanied by a tremendous rise, at least for that era, in Hellenic industry and commerce, This economic development of Greece inevitably brought about the commercial decline of Phoenicia. “In the past, the Phoenicians had landed their goods at the Greek anchorages and had exchanged them against native products – usually, it seems, cattle. Henceforward, the Greek mariners [10] would themselves go to Egypt, to Syria, to Asia Minor, and among the peoples of Europe, the civilized Etruscans, and the barbaric Scythians, Gauls, Ligurians, and Iberians, taking with them manufactured goods and works of art, tissues, weapons, jewelry and painted vases, which had a great reputation and were eagerly bought by all the barbarians.” [11] It The period extending from the sixth to the fourth century appears to have been the era of the economic apogee of Greece. “The characteristic of this new period was that the professions had become more numerous, organized and specialized. The division of labor had been greatly developed.” [12] At the time of the Peloponnesian War, Hipponikos employed six hundred slaves and Nikias one thousand in the mines.

This important economic development of Greece has stimulated most bourgeois scholars to speak about a “Greek capitalism.” They go so far as to compare Hellenic industry and trade with the vast economic movement of the modern industrial era.

In reality, agriculture continued to be the economic foundation of Greece and its colonies. “The Greek colony was not a trading colony: it was practically invariably military and agricultural.” [13] Thus, Strabo relates apropos of Cumes, a Greek colony in Italy, that it was not until three hundred years after settling there that the inhabitants noticed that their city was located near the sea. The essentially agricultural character of the economic life of the Hellenic world is incontestable. Nor can there be any question of an industry comparable to modern industry. “The methods of production and of organization remained on the artisan level.” [14] Only the mines seem to have presented, at least insofar as labor power is concerned, a picture similar to that which we see at the present time.

The fact that despite their great expansion, industry and commerce remained for the most part in the hands of metics, of foreigners, proves best their relatively subordinate role in Greek economy “In the immense trade of which Athens is the center, as well as in its industry the metics play a preponderant role.” [15] At Delos, the great commercial center, the inscriptions show that almost all the traders were foreigners. [16]

The Greek citizen despised trade and industry; he was primarily the landed proprietor. Aristotle, like Plato, was opposed to granting citizenship to merchants. [17]

It is therefore necessary to guard against exaggerating the importance of the industrial and commercial development of Greece. In fact, Greek expansion was primarily agricultural and military. It did, however, go hand in hand with an industrial and commercial development of considerable importance for its time. [18]

The Greeks never became a commercial people like the Phoenicians and the Jews; but we do find a very important commercial and industrial development in the Greek colonies and later in the Hellenic kingdoms. And, of course, the Greek states, while not really mercantile, supported commerce and industry with all their might as financial sources of the utmost importance.

It is not solely to the economic development of Greece and its colonies that we must attribute the decline of Phoenician commerce; there was still another important cause: the growing antagonism between Persia and Greece. Paralleling the extension of Hellenic civilization was the victorious march of the Persians across Asia. The Persian Empire reached its apogee in the fifth century B.C. It extended over a part of Asia and over Egypt.

The parallel development of Greek and Persian civilization necessarily dealt a mortal blow to Phoenician commerce. Trade between Asia and Europe was certainly rendered very difficult by the division of the Mediterranean world between two mutually hostile societies. The Persian and Greek worlds each created its own commercial trade.

With the decline of Phoenicia and the development of Asiatic trade after the period of the Persian conquests, we can assume that Palestine, previously completely supplanted by Phoenicia again began to play an important commercial role. The passageway between Egypt and Babylonia recovered all its value. Whereas Phoenician trade lost more and more of its ancient importance up to the point where, in the time of Lucian, salted products were the main cargo, the Jews played a leading role in the Persian Empire. [19]

Certain historians attribute an important role to the Babylonian exile in the transformation of the Jews into a commercial people. In Babylonia, “the Jews became transformed into a commercial people, such as we know them in the economic history of the world. They found highly developed economic relations among the Babylonians. Recently uncovered cuneiform texts show that the exiled Jews participated actively in commercial life. They were involved in credit business, highly developed among the Babylonians; they were also big traders.” [20]

But the dispersion of the Jews is certainly prior to the Babylonian exile. “There are serious reasons for conceding the existence of a pre-exile Diaspora.” [21] The scope of the Jewish exile under Nebuchadnezzar is very greatly exaggerated. Only a part of the ruling classes was hit by the measures of the Babylonian king. The majority of the Jews established in Palestine continued to live there. Consequently, if during the Persian epoch the Jews were to be found spread over all parts of that enormous Empire (and the Book of Esther is very eloquent on this subject), it would be childish to view this fact as a consequence of the Babylonian exile, an exile which lasted altogether some fifty years. It is equally puerile to believe that the Jewish people returned to Palestine in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah. Their work was primarily of a religious character. It was a matter of rebuilding the temple and of reconstructing a religious metropolis for dispersed Judaism. “Most historians have considerably exaggerated the role of Palestinian Judaism in the Persian epoch. They reason as if Jerusalem, once restored, all the history of Israel became concentrated around the holy mountain; as if all the people had really returned from exile and had lived on a land measuring some few hundred square kilometers in Tekoa, Mitspa, and Jericho. In reality, in this epoch, the Jews of Judea represented only a part, and the smallest, of Judaism. And undoubtedly it was the least vital part.” [22]

The Edict of Cyrus is addressed to the Jews of the Diaspora in the following words: “And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help [those who are going to Palestine] with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (Book of Ezra 1:4). “And all they that were round about them,” continues the Book of Ezra (1:6), “strengthened their hands [the 42,000 Jews who were returning to Palestine] with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, and with beasts.” It is obvious that we are not dealing here with a mass return of the Jews to Palestine but primarily with the reconstruction of the temple.

During the Persian epoch the principal colonies of the Diaspora were situated in Mesopotamia, in Chaldea, and in Egypt. The documents which have been found at Elephantine in Egypt, dating from the fifth century before Christ, throw an interesting light on the condition of the Jewish colonies of the Diaspora in this epoch.

According to the archives belonging to a Jewish family, it appears that the “Jews engaged in trade, bought and sold houses and land, loaned money, acted as depositories, and were well versed in matters of law.” It is very interesting to note that even the songs and chronicles are in Aramaic, which shows that as early as the fifth century B.C. Hebrew was no longer a customary language for the Jews. [23] Aramaic was the great Asiatic language of the period, the commercial language.

The religion of the Jews of Elephantine was not as developed as the official religion codified during the Ezra-Nehemiah era. In a petition to the Persian governor, they asked for authorization to rebuild their temple. But the reform of Ezra-Nehemiah was aimed precisely at concentrating all the Jews of the Diaspora around the single temple of Jerusalem. And it was in fact to Jerusalem that the gifts of the Jews dispersed throughout the world continued to flow up to the year 70.

It was this wealth of the temple of Jerusalem that was probably the principal reason for the offensive of Antiochus against the Jews. “Simon advised him that the public treasury at Jerusalem was fill of large sums and that there were enormous public riches.” (Second Book of the Maccabees, 111:6). Later, on the little island of Cos, Mithridates confiscated eight hundred talents that were destined for the temple of Jerusalem. In the Roman era, Cicero complained in his speeches of the immense sums which were flowing into Jerusalem.

The Hellenistic period constitutes the epoch of the economic apogee of antiquity. The conquests of Alexander destroyed the barriers between the Hellenic world and Asia and Egypt. Cities sprang up like mushrooms in all parts of the Hellenic Empire. The “greatest founders of cities, not alone of this epoch but even in all history, were Seleucos I and his son Antiochus I.” [24] The Hellenistic kings created new urban centers destined to supplant the old Phoenician and Persian cities. “On the coast of Syria, the port of Antioch causes the old cities of Tyre and Sidon to be forgotten.” [25] Seleucos creates Seleucia on the banks of the Tigris in order to rob Babylonia of its central role in world commerce. [26] This goal was completely attained.

Whereas Babylonia fell into decline, Hellenic Seleucia probably became the greatest city of this epoch. According to Pliny, it had six hundred thousand inhabitants. Alongside of Seleucia, Alexandria and Antioch became the centers of the Hellenistic world. All of these cities experienced an unchallenged prosperity during the Hellenistic period.

The situation of the Jews appears to have been further strengthened after the conquests of Alexander. “It appears that they were able to secure special privileges equally well, both from the Seleucidae and from the Lagidae. At Alexandria, to which they had been attracted by Ptolemy I and where they abounded, they formed a separate community which governed itself and was not subject to the jurisdiction of the Greek courts.” [27] “The Jews enjoyed a certain autonomy and a privileged position in Antioch, the capital of Syria. This was also true at Cyrene.” [28] The privileged position and the specific economic roles of the Jews had already become the source of serious conflicts with the population of the cities which they inhabited. Struggles broke out continuously in Alexandria, Seleucia, Cyrene, and Cyprus, as well as in the Palestinian cities. [29] These conflicts had nothing in common with present-day national antagonisms. On the contrary the Hellenistic empires witnessed a tremendous assimilation of their component peoples. The name Greek ceased after a while to be applied to the members of a particular nation but was assigned to the ruling and cultured sections of the population. Alexander ordered everybody, an ancient writer tells us, to consider the world as his fatherland, the well-to-do as his kin, and evildoers as foreigners.

The increased importance of Judaism in the commercial life of the Hellenistic world must also be attributed to the displacement of economic life toward the East. The prosperity of Alexandria, Antioch, and Seleucia offers a striking contrast to the poverty and decay into which Greece has fallen in the same period. Polybius repeatedly stresses the decline of Greek cities. Somewhat later, in the second century, “visitors could hardly believe that this city, where water was scarce, the streets badly laid out, the houses uncomfortable, was the famous Athens.” [30] Athens was shorn of its role as center of the civilized world. What contributed to the ruin of Greece, together with her economic decline, was the ceaseless class struggles [31], which by virtue of the backward mode of production, could bring about no important changes. The victory of the plebeian was ephemeral, the redistribution of wealth could only wind up in new social inequalities, breeding centers of new social conflicts. Thus the triumph of Greece, after the conquests of Alexander, proved illusory. The displacement of the economic center of the world toward the East, which followed the conquests, brought about the rapid decline of Greece. [32] The propertied and aristocratic classes, powerless before the plebeian revolts, had to seek support from Rome [33], but the latter could only answer by dealing the final blow to Greece as well as to Hellenism. The Romans threw themselves on the Hellenistic world as on a convenient prey to be pillaged and conquered. “Between 211 and 208, according to the assuredly very incomplete information which has come down to us, five ‘old cities of the Hellenes’ ... were sacked.” [34] Corinth, the rich commercial city was destroyed. “I was there,” recounts Polybius. “I saw pictures trampled under foot, and soldiers sitting on them while throwing dice.” Rome also dealt very harsh blows to Hellenism in Asia. [35] Under the combined blows of the Romans and the Parthians, the magnificent structure of Greece was destroyed.



B. Roman imperialism and its decline

In contrast to modern imperialism which is based essentially on the development of the productive forces, ancient imperialism was founded on the looting of conquered countries. For ancient imperialism it was not a question of opening new roads for its products and its capital; its objective was exclusively the despoiling of conquered countries. The backward state of production in antiquity could sustain the possessing classes of the conquering countries in luxury only by means of the more or less rapid ruination of the conquered peoples. Exhaustion of the conquered countries, growing difficulties in making new conquests, the gradual softening of the conquerors, all these sooner or later brought about the decline of ancient imperialisms.

Rome provides the classic example of ancient imperialism. There have been great exaggerations concerning the commercial and industrial development of Rome. Its trade always showed a deficit. [36] Rome drew exports from the provinces without giving anything back in return. [37] The Roman ruling classes heartily despised every kind of trade. The Claudian law forbade Senators, their sons, and the entire aristocracy of Rome to own ships drawing more than 300 amphoras, which corresponds to less than 225 bushels of grain or vegetables. This was equivalent to forbidding them to engage in trade. Caesar renewed this ban. Roman policy was never determined by its so-called commercial interests. The best proof of this is that Rome, after the defeat of Hannibal, still allowed the Carthaginians to bar entry into their sea. [38] “In general, it must be said that the Roman economic problems were unusually simple. The gradual conquest of Italy and the provinces more than occupied the surplusage of capital and population so that there was no crying need for industry and commerce,” states Tenney Frank. [39] The traders at Rome were as a rule foreigners and it is that moreover which explains the continuous growth in the Jewish colony at Rome from Caesar s epoch on. Roman businessmen were not traders but usurers who looted the provinces. [40] The development of trade in the Roman Empire must above all be ascribed to the growing luxury requirements of the ruling classes of Rome. Strabo explains the development of the great market of Delos in this fashion: “Hence arose a proverbial saying ‘Merchant come into port, discharge your freight – everything is sold.’ The Romans, having acquired wealth after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth, employed great numbers of domestic slaves.” [41]

The same was true of industry. Roman industry depended primarily on the luxury requirements of the aristocracy. “Tenney Frank, after observing that no appreciable progress was made in the domain of industry in the fourth century B.C., adds: ‘In the two succeeding centuries we do not find evidence of any marked change in the nature of production at Rome. Doubtless the amount of ordinary ware produced at home increased with the growth of the city ... but of goods worthy of export we do not hear. The only difference now is that work previously performed by free labor began in the second century to fall into the hands of slaves.’ ” [42]

Even those authors who consider that Italy had been a producer country in the republican epoch admit that it ceased to be one in the imperial period. “Italy becomes less and less a producer country .... Several industries which were prosperous at the end of the republican period are now in decline .... Thus trade between Italy and the Orient now takes place only in one direction, and it also becomes lodged more and more in the hands of Asiatics, of Alexandrians and Syrians. [43]

Thus Italy now lived only on the exploitation of the provinces. Small property; the foundation of Roman strength, was progressively supplanted by vast domains serving the luxury needs of the Roman aristocrats and on which slave labor predominated. [44] Pliny’s conclusion is known to all: “Latfundia perdidere Italiam.”

The slave became more and more an item of luxury rather than a factor in production. [45] Horace, in one of his Satires, states that a minimum of ten slaves was the indispensable prerequisite of a gentleman. Thousands of slaves did in fact work in the vast latifundia. “In the domains of Tusculum and Tibur, on the shores of Terracina and Baiae – where the old Latin and Italian farmers had sown and reaped – there now rose in barren splendor the villas of the Roman nobles, some of which covered the space of a moderate-sized town with their appurtenances of garden grounds and aqueducts, fresh and salt water ponds for the preservation and breeding of river and marine fishes, nurseries of snails and slugs, game preserves for keeping hares, rabbits, stags, roes and wild boars, and aviaries in which even cranes and peacocks were kept.” [46]

At the same time that free labor was being eliminated by slave labor, Italy became an immense center of squandering the wealth drained from the entire empire. Crushing taxes ruined the provinces; “the frequent and costly naval armaments and coast defenses in order to check piracy; the task of supplying works of art, wild beasts, or other demands of the insane Roman luxury in circus, theater and the chase ... were just as frequent as they were oppressive and incalculable. A single instance may show how far things were carried. During the three years’ administration of Sicily by Gaius Verres, the number of farmers in Leontini fell from 84 to 32, in Motya from 187 to 86, in Herbita from 252 to 120, in Agyrium from 250 to 80, so that in four of the most fertile districts of Sicily, 59 percent of the landholders preferred to let their fields lie fallow rather than to cultivate them under this regime .... In the client states the forms of taxation were somewhat different, but the burdens themselves were if possible still worse, since in addition to the exactions of the Romans there came those of the native courts.” [47]

Roman capitalism, to the extent that the term capitalism is applicable here, was essentially speculative and bore no relationship whatever to the development of the productive forces. [48]

Roman trade and banking resembled organized brigandage. “But still worse if possible and still less subject to any control, was the havoc committed by the Italian men of business among the unhappy provincials. The most lucrative portions of the landed property and the whole commercial and monetary business in the provinces were concentrated in their hands .... Usury flourished as it had never flourished before .... ‘All the communities’ it is said in a treatise published in 684/70, ‘are ruined’; the same truth is specially attested as regards Spain and Narbonese Gaul, the very provinces which, comparatively speaking, were still in the most tolerable economic position. In Asia Minor, even towns like Samos and Halicarnassus stood almost empty; legal slavery seemed here a haven of rest compared with the torments to which the free provincials succumbed and even the patient Asiatic had become, according to the descriptions of Roman statesmen themselves, weary of life .... Even the statesmen of Rome herself publicly and frankly conceded that the Roman name was unutterably odious through all Greece and Asia.” [49]

Clearly this system of parasitism and brigandage could not last indefinitely. The source of wealth from which Rome drew dried up. Long before the fall of Rome we witness a steady slowing up of trade. The arena for pillage contracted in the measure that Rome emptied the conquered countries of their substance.

The fact that the production of grain, especially wheat, diminished, while the vine and olive tree conquered vast domains in the east and west, constituted an ominous token of the state of things. Luxury products displaced products which are indispensable for production and for reproduction of the labor force. “The spread of the culture of vines and olive trees ... not only meant economic ruin for Italy but might also result in a corn famine throughout the Empire.” [50] Trajan vainly tried to ward off this danger by compelling Senators to buy land in Italy. His successors achieved as little. Luxury killed off production. “Soon superb buildings will leave no more land for the plough of the toiler,” Horace cried out.

By the third century, the decline in trade was complete. Relations with distant countries were cut off. “Practically no Roman coins of the third century have been found in India,” which proves a breakdown of exchange between Rome and India. [51] The decline of Egyptian agriculture became so pronounced in the third century that it was necessary to forego a part of the deliveries of grain from this formerly wealthy province. These Egyptian deliveries had to be replaced by grain supplies from the province of Africa (the Algeria and Tunisia of today) [52]

Commodius found it necessary to establish a flotilla for transporting the grain grown in the province of Africa. We have seen that trade in the Roman Empire was primarily based on supplying the wealthy classes of Rome. Is there any wonder then that exhaustion of the provinces was followed by a decline in trade? More and more, Roman emperors were compelled to resort to requisitions in kind, which only resulted, however, in aggravating the lot of the suffering provinces. “The system of requisitions was rampant: corn, hides, wood for spears, and draught animals had to be delivered, and payment for them was irregular and indeed problematic” [53]

A purely natural economy, producing exclusively use values, slowly displaced the exchange of products. “Whereas the Roman peace had formerly brought about a regular exchange of goods and the equalizing of living conditions between the different regions of the Empire, in the anarchy of the third century each country was often condemned to live upon itself, painfully and poorly.” [54]

An attempt has been made to explain the gradual displacement of slavery by the coloni system either as a result of the lack of energy on the part of landed proprietors or by a shortage of slaves caused by the termination of foreign wars. The gradual ruin of the colonies, the halt in the flow of their products, was probably the main reason. The great proprietors, more and more reduced to living on the products of their own lands, were interested in replacing slave labor, relatively low in productivity; by the coloni system, which resembles the system of serfdom that flourished in the Middle Ages. “The colonus owes his master everything that the serf will have to give his lord.” [55]

The power of the landed proprietors, who often possess enormous areas of land, kept growing continuously In Egypt, in the fifth century the peasants will be completely subject to them. State administration passed entirely into theft hands. [56]

It is therefore quite inaccurate to view the natural economy which flourished in the Carolingian epoch as an outgrowth of the fall of the Roman Empire and the destruction of Mediterranean economic unity. [57]

Undoubtedly the barbarian invasions played a very important role in the decline of ancient trade and in the rise of feudal economy. But the economic decline of the Roman Empire began long before the fall of Rome and several centuries before the Moslem invasion.

Another very important indication of the evolution toward a natural economy was the monetary change which had already begun under the reign of Nero. [58] Copper increasingly replaced gold and silver. In the second century, there was an almost complete dearth of gold. [59]

The development of a natural economy, of an economy primarily producing use values, was consequently far from being an “abnormal phenomenon” as Pirenne claims. The Roman Empire was ruined economically before it was ruined politically. The political blow to the Roman Empire was rendered possible only by its economic decline. The political anarchy of the third century, like the barbarian invasion, can be explained accurately and exclusively by the economic decline of the Roman Empire.

To the extent that the provinces were ruined, an intensive exchange of goods ceased, and a return took place to a natural economy, to that same extent the very existence of the Empire became a matter of indifference to the possessing classes. Each country, each province withdrew into its shell. The Empire, with its immense administrative apparatus and its extremely costly army, became a cancer, a parasitic organism whose unbearable weight pressed down on all classes. Taxes devoured the substance of the peoples. Under Marcus Aurelius, when the soldiers after their great victories against the Marcomanni, demanded an increase in pay, the Emperor made this significant reply: “Everything you would receive above your usual pay would first have to be drained from the blood of your relations.”

The Treasury was exhausted. In order to maintain the administrative apparatus and the army, it was necessary to confiscate individual fortunes. While the lower classes were in ceaseless revolt, the possessing classes were turning away from the Empire, which was ruining them. After the economic ruin of the Empire by the aristocracy, the aristocracy was in its turn mined by the Empire. “Daily people could be seen who only yesterday were still among the wealthiest and today have to take up the beggar’s staff,” said Herodian. The soldiers grew more and more bestial. It was not greed alone which forced them to despoil the inhabitants; impoverishment of the provinces and the wretched state of transportation, which created difficulties in provisioning the armies, forced the soldiers to use violence in order to find their means of subsistence. Caracalla, in granting Roman citizenship to all Roman inhabitants, sought only to increase the taxable population. Irony of history: The whole world became Roman when Rome was no longer anything!

The exactions of the Roman administration and the excesses of the soldiery incited all the inhabitants of the Empire to hope for its destruction. “The quartering of soldiers was a real disaster: the population of Syria regarded an occupation by the Parthians as a relief in comparison with a prolonged stay of Roman troops.” [60]

“The Roman government appeared every day ... more odious and oppressive to its subjects .... The severe inquisition, which confiscated their goods and tortured their persons, compelled the subjects ofValentinian to prefer the more simple tyranny of the Barbarians .... They abjured and abhorred the name of Roman citizen, which had formerly excited the ambitions of mankind.” [61] The Christian writer Salvian stated in De Gubernatione Dei: “Hence all the Romans in that region [Gaul and Spain] have but one desire, that they may never have to return to the Roman jurisdiction. Yet we are surprised that the Goths are not conquered by our resistance, when the Romans would rather live among them than at home .... I could find occasion to wonder why all the poor and needy taxpayers do not follow their example, except for one factor that hinders them, namely, that they cannot transfer their poor possessions and homes and their households.” [62]

Far from being an “abnormal” phenomenon, the barbarian invasion was the normal consequence of the economic and political decline of the Empire. Even without the invasions, the Empire would probably have been dismembered. “In Asia Minor, as well as in Syria, one of the leading features of life was the gradual reversion to the feudal system .... The so-called revolt of the Isaurians in Asia Minor is another symptom of the same tendency towards the formation of almost independent states within the Empire.” [63] Similarly, the attempt to create an independent Gallo-Roman Empire, the attempts at secession, prove how weak had become the bond of Empire. The barbarians only gave the coup de grâce to the shaking edifice of the Roman state.

The fundamental cause for the decline of the Roman Empire must be sought in the contradiction between the growing luxuriousness of the possessing classes, between the incessant growth of surplus value, and the static character of the mode of production. During the entire Roman epoch, very little progress was registered in the sphere of production. The tools of the cultivator retained their primitive form. “Plough, spade, hoe, mattock, pick, fork, scythe, sickle and pruning knife, were, as the surviving specimens show, just as they had been handed down from generation to generation.” [64] The growing luxury of the Roman aristocracy and the expenses of imperial administration were covered by a furious exploitation of the provinces, which had as its consequence economic ruin, depopulation, exhaustion of the soil. [65] Unlike the capitalist world, which must perish from the (relative) superabundance of means of production, the Roman world perished from their scarcity.

The reforms of Diocletian and of Constantine constituted an attempt to set the Roman Empire on the foundations of a natural economy. “The State had now to be based on the country and the peasants.” [66] The peasant was now chained to his bit of land. Each landed proprietor became responsible for his domain and for the number of coloni who were established on it; the new tax was assessed on this basis. “The reform of taxation by Diocletian and the edicts of later emperors made the colonus a serf, bound to his domicile and to his master ....” [67] The same was true of the other layers of the population; small proprietors, artisans, merchants, all were chained to their living place and to their profession. The epoch of Constantine is the epoch of the unlimited rule of the great landed proprietors, undisputed masters of vast princely domains. The aristocracy more and more abandons the cities which fall into decay and flees to sumptuous country villas where it lives surrounded by its clients and its serfs.

The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine constituted attempts to adapt the Empire to a natural economy. But we have seen that the Empire had, on this basis, no reason for existence. Its various parts could be held together longer only by tyranny Thus, if from the economic and social point of view, Constantine ushers in a new historical era, symbolized by the adoption of Christianity, from the political point of view, he opens the last act in the history of the Roman Empire.






1. “In the ordinary language of European science, ancient life is that which developed chiefly round the Mediterranean basin.” J.E Toutain, The Economic Life of the Ancient World (New York, 1930), p.1.

2. It was probably the commercial prosperity of Palestine which made it appear to the Israelites as a land of “milk and honey.” It is also probable that the Israelite invasion dealt a serious blow to Palestinian commerce. But with time the Israelites in their turn renewed the profitable relations with the countries of the Nile and the Euphrates.

3. Thus, from the very beginning, it was a specific geographic and historic situation which determined the commercial character of the Phoenicians and the Jews. It is obvious that only the proximity to centers of civilization equipped with a relatively important industry, only the closeness to countries already producing in part for exchange, could permit the development of such specifically commercial peoples as the Phoenicians and the Jews. It was alongside the first great centers of civilization that the first great commercial peoples developed.

4. F.K. Movers, Die Phönizier (Berlin, 1856), vol.2, p.18.

5. “Even before the advent of the Israelites in Canaan, commerce was highly developed there. In the Tell-el-Amarna letters (fifteenth century B.C.) reference is made to caravans crossing the country under protective escort.” F. Bühl, Die Sozialen Verhältnisse der Israeliten (Berlin, 1899), p.76.

6. Movers, up. cit., vol.2, pp.19-20.

7. Ibid., vol.2, p.18.

8. “By their indefatigable commercial enthusiasm and their entrepreneur spirit, the Phoenicians acquired a name as a commercial people far exceeding that of any other people of antiquity It was only later, during the Middle Ages, that this name, with all the invidious connotations attached to it, passed to their neighbors and commercial heirs, the Jews of the Diaspora.” Ibid., vol.2, p.26.

9. Toutain, op. cit., pp.19-20.

10. These “Greek mariners” appear to have been mainly “metics,” foreigners who had established themselves in Greece. The commercial role of the Phoenicians had been tied up with the development of Egyptian and Assyrian civilizations; the rise of Hellenic civilization brought as a consequence the commercial prosperity of the metics.

11. Toutain, op. cit., p.31.

12. Ibid., p.53.

13. Johannes Hasebroek, Staat und Handel im Alten Griechenland (Tübingen, l928), p.112

14. Hasebroek, op. cit., p.78. The production of use values remains the foundation of the economy All that can be conceded is that production for exchange took on in Greece the maximum dimensions possible for the ancient mode of production.

15. Pierre Roussel, La Grèce et l’Orient (Paris, 1928), p.301. See also Michel Clerc. La Métèques Athéniens (Paris, 1893), p.397: “Maritime commerce was in effect largely in the hands of metics”; and Henri Francotte, L’industrie dans la Grèce Ancienne (Brussels, 1900-1901), vol.l, p.192: “This commerce [at Athens] appears to have been mainly in the hands of foreigners.”

16. Hasebroek, op. cit., p.27. In the period of its prosperity; Athens contained 400,000 slaves; 20,000 citizens; and 30,000 metics.

17. “It is no more permissible to speak of the commercialization of the world than of its industrialization. The agrarian character of economy is predominant even in the fourth century B.C.” Hasebroek, op. cit., p.101.

18. “Any analogy between the ports of ancient Greece and modern Genoa or Marseilles will provoke only skepticism or a smile. Nevertheless, the spectacle afforded by all this exchange, shipping, and coming and going of goods was then a new thing in the Mediterranean. It was quite different in intensity and in nature from that previously afforded by Phoenician trade, which had been mere sea-peddling rather than real business. Toutain, op. cit., p.65.

19. Charles Autran, Les Phéniciens (Paris, 1920), p.51.

20. Lujo Brentano, Das Wirtschaftsleben der Antiken Welt (Jena, 1929), p.80.

21. Antonin Causse, Les Dispersés d’Isräel (Paris, 1929), p.7.

22. Ibid., pp.54-55.

23. Jüdisches Lexicon (Berlin, 1927-30), vol.2. Article on Elephantine, pp.345-46.

24. Eduard Meyer, Blüte und Niedergang des Hellenismus in Asien (Berlin, 1925), p.20.

25. Roussel, op. cit., p.486.

26. Meyer, op. cit., p.22.

27. Roussel, op. cit., pp.480-81.

28. Brentano, Das Wirtschaftsleben der Antiken Welt, op. cit., p.78.

29. Meyer, op. cit., p.61.

30. André Piganiol, La Conquête Romaine (Paris, 1927), p.205.

31. These class struggles were limited strictly to the free population of the Greek cities. “Some degree of equality in the possession of property appeared necessary to the maintenance of this political democracy Therein lies the source of the bloody wars between the rich and the poor, the end- product of Hellenic demagogy But the slaves, serfs, and metics took no part in these struggles ....” Claude Jannet, Les Grandes Époques de l’Histoire Économique (Paris, 1896), p.8.

32. “The Greek peninsula [in the Hellenistic period] thus increasingly lost its leading position and the economic center of the world was displaced toward the East.” K.J. Beloch, Griechische Geschichte (Berlin, 1914-27), vol.1, pp.279-80.

33. See N.D. Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Boston, 1874), p.498.

34. Maurice Holleaux, Rome, la Grèce et les Monarchies Hellénistiques (Paris, l921), p.231.

35. Piganiol, op. cit., p.232.

36. See Heinrich Cunow, Allgemeine Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Berlin, 1926-31), vol.2, p.61.

37. Pirenne, A History of Europe, op. cit., p.40. “Products flowed to the center without there being any compensating current backward.” Gustave Legaret, Histoire du Développement du Commerce (Paris, 1927), p.13.

38. Tenney Frank, An Economic History of Rome to the End of the Republic (Baltimore, 1920), p.116.

39. Ibid., p.126.

40. Ibid., p.283.

41. Strabo, Geography (London, 1854-57), vol.3, p.51.

42. Toutain, op. cit., pp.234-35. Toutain does not subscribe to this opinion.

43. Jean Hatzfeld, Les Trafiquants Italiens dans l’Orient Hellénistique (Paris, 1919), pp.190-91.

44. “The subject of the disappearance of the peasants was a common topic of discussion among the leading men of the Augustan period.” M. Rostovtzev, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1926), p.65.

45. Karl Kautsky. Foundations of Christianity (New York, 1925), p.66.

46. Mommsen, The History of Rome, vol.4, p.478.

47. Ibid., vol.4, p.501.

48. Giuseppe Salvioli, Der Kapitalismus im Altertum (Stuttgart, 1922), p.206.

49. Mommsen, History of Rome, op. cit., vol.4, pp.502-4.

50. Rostovtzev, op. cit., p.188.

51. Ibid., p.421.

52. Wilhelm Schubart, Aegypten von Alexander dem Grossen bis auf Mohammed (Berlin, 1922), p.67.

53. Rostovtzev, op. cit., p.374.

54. Eugene Albertini, L’Empire Romain (Paris, 1929), p.306.

55. Ernest Lavisse, Histoire Générale du IVe Siècle à Nos Jours (Paris, 1893), vol.1, p.16.

56. Schubart, op. cit., p.29. Very significant also is the gradual disappearance of the class of knights, the class of Roman “capitalists.”

57. “The demesnial organization, as it appeared from the ninth century on, is therefore the result of alien circumstances; nothing can be observed there in the nature of an organic transformation. This is equivalent to saying that it was an abnormal phenomenon.” Henri Pirenne, Les Villes au Moyen Age (Brussels, 1927), p.46. “The French Empire was destined to lay the foundations of the Europe of the Middle Ages. But the mission which it fiilfilled had as an essential precondition the overthrow of the traditional world order; there would have been no summons to this task if historical evolution had not been turned aside from its normal course, if it had not been, so to speak, thrown off its axis by the Moslem invasion. Without Islam, the Frankish Empire undoubtedly could never have existed and Charlemagne would be inconceivable without Mohammed.” Ibid., pp.27-28. For Pirenne, feudal economy is therefore a result of the destruction of Mediterranean unity; produced primarily by the Mohammedan invasion.

58. Rostovtzev, op. cit., p.171.

59. Salvioli, op. cit., p.245.

60. Rostovtzev, op. cit., p.375.

61. Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Heritage Press, 1946), vol.2, p.1103.

62. Salvian, On the Government of God (New York, 1930), p.146.

63. Rostovtzev, op. cit., p.425.

64. Toutain, op. cit., p.282.

65. Certain authors see depopulation and exhaustion of the soil as the essential causes for the decline of the Empire

66. Rostovtzev, op. cit., p.453.

67. Ibid., p.472.


Last updated on 23.1.2002