Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

For the past few months I've been reading the abridged version of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Penguin Classics). Its part of my new interest in history that has fueled my purchase, but the book tends to drag on in parts. So I'm torn between periods of boredom and periods of extreme fascination. Last night, I found one of the periods of extreme fascination.

Gibbon details how barbarian law differs from Roman law. It follows the fall of the Western Empire (~500 AD). My takeway was that with Roman law, while far from perfect, still had strong elements of a rule by law and at least a nod towards justice, rather than a rule by muscle. The barbarian law that took effect after Roman jurisprudence left. The barbarians worshiped strength, bravery, and fighting skills. When it came to law, what mattered was not evidence of a wrongful act, but your character. So, to be acquitted of a charge, you needed to have people stand up and vouch for your character. Depending on the severity of the crime, the more or less people that needed to vouch for your character.

And even if you committed a wrongful act, you could compensate those wrongly hurt with money and be done with it...even murder. So basically, a priced was levied on everyone's head. If you had enough gold, you could kill whomever you wanted, as long as you paid in gold.

In this one chapter, I found the evidence of the connections between several parts of Rand's politics as she described in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. The relationship between rule of muscle and mob rule. The relationship between rule by force and rule by faith. The relationship (or lack thereof) between rule of force and justice. The relationship between morality and politics. And why rule of force is morally evil...hence the description of this period as the "Dark Ages".

As others have said more eloquently then me, in order to understand politics today, you should study history. Here indeed is a great example.


  1. An exciting story of diffusion and progress is the history of the rediscovery of Roman Law. A book that should be available in almost all university libraries is Charles Homer Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Pages 194-210 (in Ch. VII, "The Revival of Jurisprudence") describes the intellectual and institutional changes involved in the process.

    Haskins's book is quite old, so some of the details are probably outdated. Nevertheless, it is a very readable introduction to the subject of the revival of Roman Law. There are heroes--such as Irnerius, the teacher who had great influence in spreading the revived Roman law. He was a clear thinker (separating the study of rhetoric from the study of law) and a powerful classroom lecturer. (Haskins, pp. 198-200)

  2. Thanks Burgess! I'll add it to my cue.

  3. Barbarian law sounds like...anarcho-capitalism!

  4. Marsha,
    I'm not sure I would classify it as anarcho-capitalism, but I can see where you might have gotten that impression from my post. I really didn't go as in-depth as I could have, but the Barbarian law, particularly in France had kings, nobility, and what not, that still ran the government. The discussion in the book (and in my post) focused primarily on jurisprudence. I guess I should have been clearer.