Thursday, October 22, 2009


“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

From the people who brought you such great hits as the aqueduct, roads, and the public bath (woohoo), came one other lesser known hit…out of control government spending!

Rome, a once modest village that rose to rule over 120 million people and stretch across 2.5 million square miles, was brought to its knees by out of control spending, heavy taxation, and, of course, inflation.

Inflation started rising early in the Roman Empire, but the steady influx of gold from newly conquered lands kept government spending afloat. They were able to build extravagant buildings of pure marble, have a vast standing army of 500,000, and afford huge salaries for their bureaucrats. Let us also not forget that there was the price of keeping the citizens happy and distracted with ridiculous events and poorly computer animated fights between Russell Crowe and tigers.

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Come on! So lame!

Eventually the Roman Empire expanded their territory all the way into the Persian Gulf (modern day Iran and Iraq). But those lousy Persians wanted their land back and kept attacking poor Rome for it. Rome even struggled with invasions from northern barbaric Huns. So even though Rome was not expanding, it had to maintain its very large and very expensive army. But without more gold coming into the system, the Romans did what any self-respecting empire would do…tax the hell out of the population. (And by population I mean, everyone but the army and the civil servants.)

Rome had always had a tax but at first it was very minimal. As the costs of maintaining the Imperial army grew, so did the tax burden. Heavy taxes led people to flee their land, evade taxes, lose their homes, and lose their jobs.

Tax revenue started to fall dramatically, so instead of cutting back, Rome manufactured more money and inflated their currency. Their coin, the Denarius, which at one point in the early times of the empire was 90% percent silver, fell to .5% in two centuries. Prices rose dramatically, and in some cases more than 15,000 percent. When price controls were implemented a greater recession followed.

The result was that the government, in order to protect its civil servants and its soldiers from the effects of inflation, began to demand payment of taxes in services rather than in “silver” coin from the working class. (Nothing like a little slavery to bring the empire together.) Roman coin had become so worthless that the government that printed it wouldn’t even accept it as payment.

With the mass of the population of Rome now suffering, and the economy failing, barbarian invasion was a blessing…and an easy victory for the Huns was inevitable. Well done!

Thankfully, today we live in a country that spends within its means, does not have extravagant social programs, does not get entangled in nation building (especially in the Persian Gulf), does not overuse their military, does not overtax, and does not inflate their currency. Oh wait.

We’re so screwed.

On a lighter note, here is my version of the Roman Persian War. I call it The Battle of the Sepia Tone Posters. Who will win?