A Pallas or a Narcissus was in the almost equivalent position of a "Fatty" Arbunkle: rich, praised, popular, but of no significant influence upon the social class system in this or the next generation. The inability of the "merely rich" to become socially important is illustrated by Petronius. He quotes a guest at the table of Trimalchic as saying: 17 Next Page
That one [a friend of Trimalchic] you see lying at the bottom of the end of the sofa has eight hundred thousand. He is quite a nobody.
Trimalchic, in dictating his will, ordered a sundial constructed with his name on it, "so that anyone who looks at the time will have to read whether he likes it or not." 18 Concerning many of these exceptionally rich persons, frequently freedmen, Dill writes that "they will 'pick a farthing from a dung-heap with their teeth' . . . . They were not, indeed, encumbered with dignity or self-respect." 19 Are these people Sorokin refers to, when stating that the shovel of social selection was digging the upper classes from the bottom of the social pyramid? Could Roman society elevate these people to replace diminishing patrician lines? Actually, Rome did not. She did not even elevate the most competent and cultured Greeks who had taught her sons but had been her slaves.
The disintegration of Roman civilization. Slaves and freedmen, the whole mass of them, were destined to be a factor in the underlying changes that the whole Roman civilization was to undergo. They unwittingly contributed to the downfall of the Western Empire and indirectly to the reestablishment of the social system of serfdom and agrarianism. The other major factor in the disintegration of the Roman civilization was the program of rapid city-building. These two phases, both of which affected the social classes greatly, will be taken up in this order: (1) the decline of the population, particularly of slaves, and (2) the disorganization caused by the rapid expansion of cities.
Augustus declared peace upon the world; captives ceased to pour in. The working population, then, began to decline rapidly in numbers. 20 In declining, the agricultural slave finally achieved a bargaining position (without a class struggle) which led to his slight elevation in rights and privileges under a new system of serfdom. Furthermore, declining slave power spelt declining economic productivity throughout the Empire, contributing to the famines and decentralization which started during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
The closing of the period of conquest and the "consequent closing of the importation of fresh slaves, made it necessary to treat the slaves . . . with greater care." 21 The shortage of man power was so obvious that in the middle of the second century many humanitarian reforms were instituted to protect the slave, 22 and as the number of slaves declined, the captives taken in occasional battles were no longer enslaved but were used in agriculture as serfs (Leibeigene). 23 The "natural increase of slaves was, of course, very limited . . . . Many enterprises had to shut down because of the shortage of labor." 24
In a word, the base of the social pyramid shrank, and the economic power behind the social positions of the upper and middle classes weakened. A great economic burden was placed on the shoulders of the middle classes (the senatorial class was both rich and tax-free), and they were literally crushed under it, 25 as will be shown.
Not only was a drop in the general population, and especially in the number of slaves, destined to disrupt normal life. Perhaps more significant was the exodus from the rural regions into the newly built towns of the Empire. This left great sections of arable land utterly unused, decreasing again the economic surplus but adding to the national outgo of these new jewel cities.
17. Petronius, "The Satyricon," in Roman Literature in Translation, C. Howe and G. A. Harper, editors (New York, 1924, p. 566.
18. Ibid., p. 569.
19. Dill, op. cit., p. 119.
20. Ibid., p. 252.
21. Richard Congreve, ed., The Politics of Aristotle (London, 1874) p. 497.
22. Gibbon, op. cit., pp. 35 - 36.
23. Fahlbeck, op. cit., p. 332.
24. Ibid., p. 319; translation ours.
25. Melvin M. Knight, Economic History of Europe to the End of the Middle Ages (Boston, 1926) p. 79.