‘Racial Weakening’ and the Decline of Ancient Rome

Muslim migration to Europe in recent times, and the resultant presence of large Muslim immigrant communities in several European countries, has often prompted much alarmist commentary ranging from accusations of Fifth Column style betrayal to suggestions that Muslims are incapable of assimilating in any shape, manner or form into ‘European culture.’ The decline of Europe downwards and into ‘Eurabia‘ thus appears foretold by the presence of that lurking menace, the Muslim.

Theories of this kind, which find contamination by an external agent as cause for the internal weakness and degradation of a civilization, ‘race’ or nation, and often prompt horrendously misguided responses, are not uncommon or even new in European history. Indeed, they have a distinguished pedigree, as they have been offered as an explanation for the end of the ancient world: the decline of Rome, and the commencement of the Middle Ages.

In The Origins of the Middle Ages: Pirenne’s Challenge to Gibbon, Bryce Lyon makes critical note of these theories.  For instance  M. P. Nilsson argued in Imperial Rome that:

[T]he quality of Roman civilization depended upon racial character and that alien races and barbarian tribes, to be assimilated, must be interpenetrated by the conquered. Unfortunately, because the Romans did not succeed in interpenetrating those who conquered them, their birthrate declined while that of the non-Romans increased, Roman blood was diluted by inter-marriage, and the mingling of races produced not Romanization but a mongrelization that spread across the empire, resulting in the loss of stable spiritual and moral standards and the death of a proud civilization. [quote from Lyon]

As Lyon points out:

The rebuttal to this interpretation of the Romans as a kind of master race is that they simply appropriated the rich cultures that the conquered Greeks and peoples of the Middle East had already created. Who can say that Roman ability to build roads and a national system of law is superior to Greek literary, artistic and philosophical talent or to eastern religious perception? Why also did the eastern Roman empire, the Byzantine, that was essentially Greek and eastern, survive a thousand years after the Roman empire in the West was no longer a political entity?

Lyon also points to Tenney Frank who concluded that:

Rome and the Latin West were inundated by Greek and oriental slaves who, as they became emancipated and achieved citizenship, changed the character of the Latin West. He has estimated that, ultimately, ninety percent of Rome’s inhabitants were of foreign origin and that this ‘orientalizing of Rome’s populace has a more important bearing than is usually accorded it upon the larger question of why the spirit and acts of imperial Rome are totally different from those of the republic,’ a situation that inevitably created the triumph of oriental despotism or absolutism, the popularity of oriental mystery religions, the decline in the quality of Latin literature, and the disappearance of those Romans with a flair for government who had built the empire. Rome’s disintegration is thus explained by ‘the fact that the people who had built Rome had given way to a different race.’

Lyon’s refutation is short:

[E]pigraphical research has..placed in doubt Frank’s statistics, suggesting that his sample is invalid, and that he has confused eastern with western slaves.

The long history of the failure of such theories, and their dubious foundations in misapplications of Darwinism, have certainly proved no barrier to their continued expounding by demagogues and racists of all stripes.

Much tedious rebuttal lies ahead.

One comment on “‘Racial Weakening’ and the Decline of Ancient Rome

  1. While Nilsson uses the inept language of his day (“better” in lieu of “different”), a close reading suggests the argument is not based on such an obvious mistake. At the bottom of 378 in the book you cite he says: “…in view of their later history, it is risky to contend that the Semites and the Germans were less able races.” Then he explains the 2nd half of the chapter explaining that whatever racial admixture replaced the Romans – who racially declined near extinction by the early empire period according to all authorities regardless of Lyons overly-brief rebuttal – after a period of local isolation during the dark ages virtually all of them (not just certain ones) regained the ability to organize and carry out civilization.

    There are essentially 3 theories of cooperation, or group behavior. That of Axelrod which is non-genetic and subject to instability, degenerating into unending tit-for-tat retribution, and two genetically based theories. The most rigorous is that of Hamilton from the early 60s, much debated, and rapidly failing in effectiveness beyond first cousins. The culture theory of Boyd & Richerson (possibly others) is based on common genetic enablers. This does not have a sufficiently strong connection to natural selection in my opinion, which I hope to remedy. Nilsson in discussion of marriage practices may point the way.

    So in essence I agree with you that “an external agent as cause for the internal weakness and degradation of a civilization” does not have explanatory power over the observations. But much research on the evolution of cooperation (even Axelrod’s theory requires persistent interaction, which migrations disrupt) suggests it has a role, and repeat of the superficial circumstances of ancient migrations that preceded the collapse of both the Bronze Age and Roman Empire without quantitative mathematical understanding of the evolution of group behavior traits seems risky.

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