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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

XXI — The Lesson of the Roman Empire

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The Lesson of the Roman Empire

Dear Mr.——,—In my opinion, the great danger before us is the destruction of the spirit of the people. The risk we are running is that our nation may fall through the weakening of the national fibre owing to the well-meant but illplanned schemes of the Socialists. Let no one suppose that this is all matter of theory, and that there is no possibility of proof. Here, if anywhere, history can help us. We know from history that what has tamed great nations in the past has often been the enervating State action which it is the aim and object of the Socialist Party to impose on this country. I can give on the present occasion only one instance; but it is enough. The more the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is studied, the more clear does it become that it was not the armies of the barbarians which destroyed that Empire Rome fell because "her heart was stone," and her heart had become petrified because her people had been ruined and pauperised by the insidious action page 117 of State Socialism. You will find the story of how State Socialism ate out the vitals of the Roman Empire told with extraordinary charm and interest by Dr. Hodgkin in his Italy and her Invaders. The pauperising legislation of Rome first wore the insidious form of a gentle intervention to lower the price of corn:—

When Spain, Sicily, and Africa were pouring in their tributes of corn or money to the exchequer of the Republic, it was not an unnatural suggestion that the wealth thus acquired might fairly be expended in easing the material condition of the Roman citizens, of the men on whom had fallen the heaviest weight of all the blows, from Regillus to Cannae, by which the Roman State had been fashioned into greatness. Not an unnatural thought; and yet if the remembrance of the scourged veteran in the Forum, and of the cruel wrongs of the early plebeians, had anything to do with ripening it into action, we have here an instance of that strange Nemesis of unrighteousness which sometimes leads statesmen in the very excess of their penitence for an injustice in the past to prepare a new and greater injustice for the future.

Dr. Hodgkin goes on to refer to the legislation under which the Romans became in Rome a pauper people. He tells us of the enormous doles of corn and other means of subsistence that were given to the poorer Romans, until at last they became the pensioners of the State. While that disease was eating into the vitals of the humbler classes, another was attacking the middle class. Dr. Hodgkin points out that although Aurelian's bounties and rations might have made page 118 him a popular Emperor, yet Communism thus robed in the purple was becoming the destroyer of the commonwealth; and he adds that the middle class were being oppressed beyond endurance. A system of rates and levies so burdensome was imposed by the State that they found it impossible to exist. There was a huge Land-tax, and cities staggered under a mountainous burden of rates. Finally, there came what under such conditions was inevitable—depopulation. One of the things that helped most to ruin Rome was the failure of the human harvest. Conditions arose under which the race was pressed so hard on the one side, and was so demoralised on the other, that the true Roman, the old Roman stock, actually died out.

Dr. Hodgkin ends with a passage of lofty eloquence coupled with a rare political insight:—

Of all the forces which were at work for the destruction of the Roman world none is more deserving of the careful study of an English statesman than the grain largesses to the populace of Rome. Whatever occasional ebbings there may be in the current, there can be little doubt that the tide of affairs in England and in all the countries of Western Europe, as well as in the United States of America, sets permanently towards democracy. Will the great democracies of the twentieth century resist the temptation to use political power as a means of material self-enrichment? With a higher ideal of public duty than has been shown by some of the governing classes which preceded them, will they refrain from jobbing the commonwealth? Warned by the experience of Rome, will they shrink from reproducing, directly or indirectly, page 119 the political heresy of Caius Gracchus, that he who votes in the Forum must be fed by the State? If they do, perhaps the world may see democracies as long-lived as the dynasties of Egypt or of China. If they do not, assuredly now as in the days of our Saxon forefathers it will be found that he who is a giver of bread is also lord. [Dr. Hodgkin might have added, "and he that receiveth the bread is a loafer."] The old weary round will recommence, democracy leading to anarchy, and anarchy to despotism, and the national workshops of some future Gracchus will build the palaces in which British or American despots, as incapable of rule as Arcadius or Honorius, will guide mighty empires to ruin amidst the acclamations of flatterers as eloquent and as hollow as the courtly Claudian.

I cannot find a better end for these letters than those moving words. But, believe me, I quote them here, not for their historic learning nor for their literary excellence, but because they have a message for each one of us. If we are to avoid the fate that overtook Imperial Rome, we must avoid not merely the crimes, but the well-meaning blunders in philanthropy that sealed her fate. We must not destroy but build up the strength of the nation; and the strength of the nation is the strength of the spirit of the individuals who compose it. But the pauper, the pensioner, the serf of the State, no matter under what pleasant aliases you gild their position, are never strong in spirit. That is a gift which belongs alone to those who possess the priceless treasure of independence, who know how to make their own living, and who, page 120 free alike from a personal and a corporate lord, are the captains of their own souls and of their own bodies. Let us never forget that freedom is worth every other possession of mankind, and that under a Socialistic system freedom cannot exist. The air of Socialism is too close and heavy for a free man to breathe.—Yours very sincerely,

J. St. L. S.