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Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Decline and Fall of Rome

Blowing in the Wind

Gibbon blamed the decline and fall of the Roman Empire upon Christianity.  He was, of course, grinding an ideological axe.  The causes of Rome's decline are, as to be expected, complex and multiple.  One of them is that economies based upon slave labour are remarkably inefficient and unproductive.  Without consistent plunder of others, they cannot survive.  Another cause was the Empire's declining population.  This curse also had various causes, one of which was the lack of male commitment to their wives bearing children and the fathers taking the responsibility to raise them.  Apart from the occupations of soldiering, peasant farming, property speculation, and politics there were not too many avenues for successful income generation.

There is a significant body of contemporary testimony that the fecundity of Roman women was low.  Rodney Stark comments as follows:

. . . [T]here are compelling reasons to accept the testimony of ancient historians, philosophers, senators, and emperors . . . that the average fertility of pagan [non-Christian] women was so low as to have resulted in a declining population, thus necessitating the admission of "barbarians" as settlers of empty estates in the empire and especially to fill the army.  The primary reason for low Roman fertility was that men did not want the burden of families and acted accordingly: many avoided fertility by having sex with prostitutes rather than with their wives, or by engaging in anal intercourse.  Many had their wives employ various means of contraception which were far more effective than had been thought until recently; and they had many infants exposed. . . . Pagan husbands also often forced their wives to have abortions--which also added to female mortality and often resulted in subsequent infertility. [Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion (New York: Harper One, 2011), p. 131.]
One consequence went beyond the low fertility of women: there was also a significant gender imbalance.  Stark claims that the best estimates are that there were 131 males per 100 females in Rome, rising to 140 males per 100 females in the rest of Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.
In a remarkable essay, Gillian Clark pointed out that among the Romans, unmarried women were so rare that "we simply do not hear of spinsters. . . . There is not even a normal word for spinster."  As further evidence of the acute shortage of women, it was common for them to marry again and again, not only following the death of a husband, but also after their husband had divorced them.  In fact, state policy penalized women under fifty who did not remarry, so "second and third marriages became common,"  especially since most women married men far older than themselves.  Tullia, Cicero's daughter "was not untypical . . . married at 16 . . . widowed at 22, remarried at 23, divorced at 28; married again at 29, divorced at 33--and dead, soon after childbirth, at 34."   [Cited in Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion (New York: Harper One, 2011), p. 130.]
Amidst all this, the Christian Church gradually prospered.  One reason is that the Church had a more biblical view of work, of marriage, and of family.  Christians did not regard women as lesser beings.  They regarded both women and slaves as being equally made as all were--in the image of God Himself.  They proscribed abortion.  To our knowledge there was no long term gender imbalance in the Christian communities.

With such beliefs, practices, and convictions Roman pagan culture was eventually subdued and Christianised.  It may take a couple of centuries, but we believe this will recur in the now pagan West.  The ordinary activity of Christians has now become, as it once was, a most revolutionary calling, undermining and ultimately breaking paganism apart.  Critical here are worship and weekly covenant renewal, the pronunciation of the Gospel to those outside the Church, marriage and childrearing, and raising children in the faith of their fathers.  In contrast, the culture of the West has no holy places left, no covenant with God, no good news to pronounce, no recognizable doctrine or practice of marriage, and nothing meaningful into which those children they do have are to be raised. Desiccated and friable, Unbelieving culture is blowing in the wind.



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