The rise of the Roman Empire was not due to wild dissipative partying: A.W. Lintott (1972): Imperial expansion and moraldsecline in the Roman republic

The idea that the collapse of the aristocratic Roman Free State into the Roman Empire was due to wild dissipative partying—luxus, a vice caught from the Greeks and “Asiatics”, giving rise to avaritia, which then leads to ambitio and cupido imperii—was originally a meme put forward by those I regard as the true villains—plutocrats and political norm breakers—to avoid responsibility: A.W. Lintott (1972): Imperial Expansion and Moral Decline in the Roman Republic: “Imperial expansion in general did of course have divisive economic and political effects…

…This discord should not necessarily be interpreted as moral decline. In particular, radical politicians, who wished to be patrons of the plebs tried to use the profits of empire to satisfy plebeian grievances. By ancient standards there was nothing either new or wrong in this distribution of praeda, though the actual measures clashed with senatorial tradition. What was new was the determination with which politicians pursued their aims, which in turn reflected the strength of socio-economic pressures and greater competition in the Roman governing class. Affluence, new social customs and intenser political strife in the second century were all changes brought about at least in part by empire, but are not sufficient explanations of each other. They should not be wrapped up together and labelled ‘moral decline’.

In my view the tradition which ascribed the political failure of the Republic to moral corruption derived from wealth and foreign conquest, developed from the propaganda of the Gracchan period. Faced with the catstrophe of 133, some people claimed that Scipio Nasica Corculum was vindicated, the elimination of Carthage had brought ambitious demagogues and would-be tyrants. The destroyer of Carthage, Aemilianus, had to find another scapegoat. Disliking Greek luxury and effeminacy, he put the blame on Gracchus’ association with Pergamum and Manlius Vulso’s triumph. This view was reproduced by his contemporary Piso in his annales, while Nasica’s view was eventually incorporated in Poseidonius’ work. The views have become intermingled and confused in Sallust and later historians. They should not distract us now when we try to understand what changes, if any, in polit- ical mores were involved in the Republic’s collapse…

April 18, 2018


Brad DeLong
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