Decline of the Roman Empire

The world-wide and historical value of the Western Roman Empire decline “consists not only of the fact of its death but that the crash of the Western Empire marked the death of a slaveholding system, a slaveholding way of production. After the decomposition of the slaveholding relations in the east failed, first of all, in China, the main citadel of the slaveholding in the West fell and, as a result, new, historically more progressive way of production received great opportunities for the development”.

Speaking about the death of the slaveholding society of the Western Roman Empire, it is necessary to recall the deep internal reasons, first of all. The slaveholding way of production became obsolete; it settled possibilities of its development, causing the slaveholding relations and the slaveholding society to be at a deadlock. The slavery became a hindrance for further development of the production.

The decomposition of such a way of the production leads to the fact that, in the Roman society, in the times of the late Empire, the complex, inconsistent combination of the old slaveholding relations with the new elements, anticipating the feudal relations and being born still in the slaveholding society, is observed. These new relations and forms sometimes intertwine fancifully with the old ones; they coexist, but at the same time are in continuous fights between them. However, the development and the victory of new, more progressive relations in the conditions of the late Roman Empire were impossible without “the radical revolution” as the old foundations were still rather resistant and hardy, and arising new forms were entangled by a dense network of the same old relations and remnants.

So, for example, there are all reasons to ascertain the decomposition of the slaveholding form of ownership. As it has already been shown above, the small and average land tenure, which was connected with the cities and kept most lines of the slaveholding economy of the former times, endures the decline in the late empire. At the same time there is a growth of large estates not connected with the cities. In process of the development these estates turned in a closed whole (both in the economic and political meaning) and became actually independent of the central power. Such estates have already differed essentially from the classical slaveholding latifundium and anticipated some lines of the feudal estate in tits structure. However, in the conditions of the late Roman Empire, this new form of the ownership could not have a free and complete development, and the estates of the Roman magnates of the IV—V centuries should be recognized “only as an embryo of a new form of the ownership”.

Besides, it is impossible to underestimate a specific meaning of the small and average land tenure in economy of the late empire. The economy of small land owners and curials was not completely absorbed by large estates. A number of legal (first of all, the code of Feodosia) and literary (Sidony, Apollinary, Salvian) sources confirm the existence of curia unambiguously and the forms of the landed property, related to them, up to the crash of the Western Roman Empire. These circumstances gain bigger value as the cities’ decline cannot be imagined as a simultaneous and universal phenomenon. Not mentioning an important role of the cities of the eastern part of the empire or Africa, it should be noted that the cities of the western provinces in some cases continued to keep their value as the local economic and political centers, for example, in the Rhenish and Danubian areas.

A serious obstacle for the development of a new form of the ownership was the circumstance that in the late Roman saltus, this new form was entangled by a dense network of already eliminated slaveholding relations. The work exploitation of the colons (the slaves, who planted on the land) did not still gain the nature of the feudal exploitation. Here is “the basic difference of a colon from a serf of the feudal era, as the basic difference of the late Roman saltus from the feudal estate”.

Despite the preservation of a big mass of slaves and using their work as in the large and average land tenure, the colon, undoubtedly, becomes a leading figure of the agricultural production of the late empire. It is especially true for the last two centuries of the existence of the Western Empire when there is a certain leveling of the positions of all categories of the dependent population.

The peculiar nature of this leveling was that it “as though united two processes, meeting half-way each other: along with a general restriction of freedom, enslaving of various categories of the dependent population, there was a distribution on all these categories, including colons of the legal status, having the economic relations of slaveholding society in its basis” (Bowersock, 2005). The considerable proximity of the colon to all the system of the slaveholding relations, an intermediate nature of its position between a classical slave and a medieval serf is defined, in particular, by the fact that he, as well as other categories of the dependent population, “did not receive his property on instruments of the production” (Ferrill, 2000). We know from the sources that still in the early Empire, the land owner gave necessary instruments of labor to the colons for using. In the last centuries of the existence of the Empire, the right of land owners on the instruments which colons used, and in general on all the colons’ property were fixed legislatively. So, for example, in the legislation of the times of Arcady and Gonory, the end of the IV century, “it is specified that all the property of the colon belongs to his master, in the code of Feodosia it is said that the colon has no right to alienate the land and something from the property without an agreement of the master”. At the beginning of the VI century (Justinian’s code) the legislation confirmed that all colons’ property belonged to the master. Thus, though the colon conducted an independent housekeeping, he did not have any property right and had no property on the instruments of production. It was also an essential feature which distinguished the colon from the feudal serf. The relation to the instruments of production and those forms of the distribution of the products of production ,quitrents and duties of the colons, which dominated in the late Roman Empire, pulled together substantially the colons and the slaves in a sense of their small interest in the results of work. One of the most characteristic contradictions of the slaveholding way of production, thus, remained both at this new form of the exploitation and in the labor of a new category of the direct producers.

The lack of the property right of the colon on the instruments of production is the feature which also distinguishes the late Roman saltus from the feudal estate. It is necessary to consider the most characteristic and defining feature of the latter that there is an individual property of the serf on the instruments of production and on the private enterprise, based on a personal labor along with the feudal ownership of the land. The property disability of the colon, approaching him in this sense to the slave, excluded a similar possibility. So, “|the old relations of the slaveholding society, braking and limiting the development of the elements of the feudal way of production, gravitated over all these new forms of the more progressive social order” (a new form of the landed property, new forms of the dependence).

The ruling class of the late Roman Empire was also in a decomposition condition. The top of the land magnates, connected with a large land tenure, owners of the saltuses, was allocated. A certain value was kept by a quite narrow layer of the monetary and trading nobility. “The position of curials-slaveholders worsened catastrophically in the last centuries of the existence of the Roman Empire”, but curias, as it has already been told, remained, and consequently, “curials still represented a certain social and political force”.

The ruling class of the Roman society has never been represented as a whole both in the early Empire and even in the republic. However, “it was quite new that the late Roman land magnates owned the huge estates on other bases than large landowners of the era of the republic or the early empire did, that was not as the member of the group of free slaveholders and land owners”. In due time, the belonging to such a collective was a necessary condition of the possession of the landed property. The late Roman land magnates, on the contrary, got emancipated from these collectives, from the cities, and in some cases from the central power, and consequently, “they quite often felt in their huge estates as independent governors and independent kinglets”. But the regeneration of this ruling clique in a class of feudal lords did not occur and could not occur, as the feudal form of ownership still lay at the heart of their economic and political power.

It is also necessary “to emphasize a conservative character of the superstructure of the late Roman society and, first of all, its political superstructure”. The transformation of the Roman state into a huge car for pumping out taxes and requisitions testifies rather brightly to its braking role; it was a serious obstacle for the development of new, more progressive relations. So, for example, fixing legally the absence of the colons’ property rights on the instruments of production, the state prevented their transformation into the producers of the medieval serf type.

The imperial power in Rome in the IV—V centuries tries to maneuver between new land magnates and old slaveholders-curials. “Konstantin’s government supported large magnates, and some time later, namely during Julian’ government, we face opposite efforts of the imperial government, with an aspiration to revive city curia”. In this maneuvering a well-known conservatism of the Roman state was also shown. It lost its social support. It was still, probably, necessary for curials, but they weakened gradually more and more and could not serve as a r strong support for the land magnates, who got emancipated from the central power more and more, and from a certain moment, approximately from the middle of the IV century, they became only a hindrance. However, when it was a question of suppression of national movements, large land magnates appeared interested in the existence of the state and its help. The Roman state remained slaveholding even in the last centuries of its existence for it was a product of the development of slaveholding relations, it was protected and supported by purely slaveholding rights, a legal fixing of the colons’ rights on the instruments of labor, and a purely slaveholding ideology, education of free citizens’ contempt for working people.

However, there were essential changes in the field of ideology, too. The Christianity victory was the largest of them. The Christian doctrine, which arose in the form of a social protest of masses, turns into the state religion of the slaveholding empire. But “it occurred in the period of the decomposition of the slaveholding relations, in the period of the ideology crisis”. Just because the Christianity was the brightest expression of this crisis, subsequently it appeared possible to adapt it to the needs of the social order which came instead of the slaveholding one.

As a whole, those elements of new feudal institutes, which arose in the Roman society, had “no prospects of free development and were braked by resistant and not fully eliminated slaveholding relations”. A similar situation is quite natural and clear, as all these institutes were formed in the Roman Empire in the conditions of a perishing civilization, in the conditions of the slaveholding society, which was at a deadlock.

The revolution, a radical revolution, was the unique means, which could provide free development to new forces, “finally capable to bury the slaveholding society with its rather powerful political superstructure”. However, this revolution could not be made by only internal forces of the Roman society. “Large national movements of the III—V centuries, which were bagauds’ revolt, agonistics’ movements, undoubtedly, loosened the Roman Empire but they were not able to break it completely”.

For this purpose, the combination of the class fight in the society, with such an external factor as invasions of “barbarous” tribes on the territory of the Roman Empire, was required. And really, as a result of the incorporated influence of these historical factors, the death of the Western Roman Empire and the death of the slaveholding system took place.


In the middle of the I millennium A. D. there is a deep change in the social and economic development of the ancient world. The slaveholding system, which has reached the maximum borders of its distribution in the territory of Europe, Asia and Africa in the first centuries AD, falls into decay almost everywhere.

This process accepts various historical forms in the different countries, but its main purpose is everywhere the same. The slaveholding property becomes obsolete: gradually, there is a large land tenure, which is combining with a small amount of the slaves, working on the land, and the renters, attached violently to the land, communal farmers, etc. Such categories of the working population as colons in the Roman Empire, anazats in Armenia, ke and bin-ke in China and others become the main figures of production. The origin of new relations of production occurs in the conditions of the intense social fight. Revolts and national movements shake various parts of the ancient world — from the northern coast of Africa to the coast of the Yellow Sea.

Especially sharp forms of class fights occur in the areas where the slaveholding relations reached the greatest development where there were strong means of suppression in the hands of the ruling class, as it was, first of all, in the Roman Empire. In the countries, where the slaveholding was less developed, and the exploitation of the free population, communes, played a significant role throughout all previous history — in Iran, the Eastern Roman Empire, etc. — the process of the decomposition of the slaveholding relations proceeded slowly.

The destruction of the slaveholding system led not at once to the strengthening of a more progressive feudal system, which opened new possibilities for the development of productive forces. The feudal property and feudal relations of production as well as political and legal institutes, ideology and culture were made up only as a result of a long development. Between the colons of the late Roman Empire and the serfs of the feudal Europe, according to Ferrill, there were free Frankish peasants.

A difficult decay process of the communal and patrimonial system with the social orders “remained the only inheritance of the slaveholding states”. This became a starting point of the development and strengthening the socioeconomic relations, characterizing a new era of the world history — the feudalism era.