How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome

How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome

By Bruce Bartlett

Cato Journal, Vol. 14, No, 2 (1994)

Colosseum Roma

Introduction: Beginning with the third century B.C. Roman economic policy started to contrast more and more sharply with that in the Hellenistic world, especially Egypt. In Greece and Egypt economic policy had gradually become highly regimented, depriving individuals of the freedom to pursue personal profit in production or trade, crushing them under a heavy burden of oppressive taxation, and forcing workers into vast collectives where they were little better than bees in a great hive. The later Hellenistic period was also one of almost constant warfare, which, together with rampant piracy, closed the seas to trade. The result, predictably, was stagnation.

Stagnation bred weakness in the states of the Mediterranean, which partially explains the ease with which Rome was able to steadily expand its reach beginning in the 3rd century B.C. By the first century B.C., Rome was the undisputed master of the Mediterranean. However, peace did not follow Rome’s victory, for civil wars sapped its strength.

Following the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C., his adopted son Octavian finally brought an end to internal strife with his defeat of Mark Antony in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Octavian’s victory was due in no small part to his championing of Roman economic freedom against the Oriental despotism of Egypt represented by Antony, who had fled to Egypt and married Cleopatra in 36 B.C. As Oertel put it, “The victory of Augustus and of the West meant… a repulse of the tendencies towards State capitalism and State socialism which might have come to fruition … had Antony and Cleopatra been victorious.”

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