Decline of Nordic Character

by Henry Farrell on October 20, 2005

Adding my little bit to the Maggie Gallagher “pile”: “up”: ; isn’t her “claim-in-passing”: that the Roman Empire collapsed because of “death by sexual disorganization” rather entertaining? Sounds like a great way to go out to me; even more fun than Death by Chocolate (what clobbered the Aztecs, as any fule kno). Gallagher isn’t the first to advance this thesis – I “linked”: a while back to a list which included childlessness and homosexuality among 210 extant explanations for the decline of the Roman Empire. But her claim seems no less ridiculous on its face than some of the other putative causes, which include bolshevisation, culinary excess, decline of Nordic character, female emancipation, Jewish influence, hyperthermia, tristesse and vulgarization. “Explaining” the collapse of Rome seems to be one of those historical Rorschach tests in which quack amateur sociologists stare into the inkblots and see their own prejudices and crackpottery staring back out at them.

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10.22.05 at 1:19 pm



Dan Nexon 10.20.05 at 11:58 am

The western Roman Empire fell because of a terminal case of declinism. Everyone knows that.


blah 10.20.05 at 11:59 am

Flouride in the water. It sapped thier vital essences.


Steve LaBonne 10.20.05 at 11:59 am

Well, you had all those wacky Hugh Hefner prototypes like Augustine wandering around, you know. Lupanar Dei was quite the underground best-seller in its time.


abb1 10.20.05 at 12:08 pm

Libruls, definitely libruls: Constantine banning crucifiction – vital tool in saving Roman lives, their freedoms, their way of life.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 10.20.05 at 12:34 pm

So, before Rome began to Fall, it was “sexually organized”? Was this, like, Scout troops or something?


Uncle Kvetch 10.20.05 at 12:35 pm

That early Christianity wasn’t muscular enough. Niall Ferguson would have straightened those pansies out.


ajay 10.20.05 at 12:52 pm

Well, if you’re going to be disorganised, you might as well have a good time while you’re doing it.

So, before Rome began to Fall, it was “sexually organized”? Was this, like, Scout troops or something?

I think that your Scout troop must have been rather different from my Scout troop.


Barry 10.20.05 at 12:57 pm

“…,decline of Nordic character,…”

What’s this? The Germans wimped out, got tired of being cold all the time, and rampaged south for a warmer, sunnier lifestyle?


C.J.Colucci 10.20.05 at 1:22 pm

Don’t forget the lead plumbing and drinking vessels.


Davis X. Machina 10.20.05 at 1:28 pm

When the US was losing in Vietnam I was taught it was loss of imperial nerve.

When the prime was at 17% I was taught it was inflation.

When the Greens and left SPD were being unreasonable about Pershing II and Cruise, I was taught it was the unwisdom of relying on Germanic allies.

I expect to live long enough to be taught it was due to a lack of cheap broadband access.


Colin Danby 10.20.05 at 1:51 pm

This is amazing: (from

“we are in the middle of a huge and only partly acknowledged crisis around marriage and family. … experiencing grave dysfunctions and disruption in the family–and precisely around this whole business of generativity.”

The flavor of panic, the idea of a hidden crisis of generativity, are strikingly reminiscent of older eugenic writings. And what exactly is one to make of:

“Every single society that that we think of as, in other ways, the very best for human flourishing (stable, democratic, market economies with respect for political and creative freedom)”

Who exactly is the “we” here? Why exactly is “market economy” here and why exactly is that relevant to a discussion of marriage? And how does this list of requirements subtly morph, a few paragraphs later, into:

“technologically innovative, wealthy, western, democratic, market societies.”

Once you see “wealthy and western,” I think the game’s up: this is the old eugenic fear that white people are being overwhelmed by nonwhite people. If you take Gallagher’s first list of criteria, I can see no interpretation that would include Italy and France while excluding India. By the second list it’s pretty clear that India does not make the list of Gallagher-approved societies.

Anyone who is interested in the underlying pattern of thought around race, descent, reproduction, and generation might like Alys Eve Weinbaum’s _Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought_ (Duke, 2004). And if you haven’t gotten around to reading

Butler, Judith. 2002. “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” _Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies_ 13(1): 14-44. reprinted in Judith Butler 2004, _Undoing Gender_. New York: Routledge.

it’s well worth it.


jet 10.20.05 at 1:52 pm

The 300 years before Jesus was when Rome grew to be a super power and those 300 B.C. years of growth and conquest probably included the most “sexually disorganized” years of Rome. So Maggie Gallagher isn’t even a hobby historian as the rise of more “civilized” behavior in Rome also coincided with the schism of Rome and its eventual downfall.


arthur 10.20.05 at 2:10 pm

Gallagher claims The Gay caused the fall of the Roman empire? The space aliens should sue her for libel.


Tracy W 10.20.05 at 2:41 pm

Forget lead in the drinking water, the Germans, Christainity, sexual disorganisation, etc. The Roman Empire fell because, lacking zero, they had no way to indicate successful termination of their C programs.


Matt 10.20.05 at 2:44 pm

I’ve long suspected that the collapse of many of my own projects was due to a decline in Nordic character. I can only keep my Nordic character going and up for so long and when it goes, I do too. It’s a common problem, though, I like to tell myself.


John Biles 10.20.05 at 2:50 pm

The Roman Empire fell ultimately because it was the victim of two cycles which tended to tear down all empires up until the 18th century, at which point, nomads lost their military potency in comparison to settled nations:

1) The cycle of the gradual rise of nomad populations, which then puts pressure on those tribes nearest settled lands to invade them in ever greater numbers to relieve population pressure.

2) The boom / bust cycle of ancient empires: Because these states were based on agriculture, once the land filled up, they could only sustain economic growth to match their population growth by conquest of neighbors. But technology set limits on how large any empire could grow and hold together, combined with geography. So population would keep growing and as the elites got more numerous relative to wealth, they tended to become more corrupt, while the masses became more poor and angry and disorderly.

In the case of Rome, Rome needed ever fresh supplies of slaves to sustain its slave agriculture economy. The end of expansion greatly slowed the flow of slaves into the empire. The roman economy became sluggish. Even though the cycle could have been restarted by the plagues of the 2nd century, Rome had the wrong kind of economy to respond well to the chance to refill the agricultural land. Instead, the roman economy increasingly was controlled and dictated from above in rigid ways. (see Diocletian’s laws) Rome’s military strength declined and it became necessary to use less disciplined barbarian auxillaries increasingly.

At the same time, the nomad invasion cycle hit another peak in the 5th century, and the poor leadership of the early 5th century emperors led to the collapse of the western empire.


Peter 10.20.05 at 2:55 pm

Somerset Maugham’s brother, a judge, thought that Rome fell because of an obsession with personal cleanliness. When the Barbarians came knocking at the gate, everyone was in the bath. The British Empire, he opined, would never suffer this fate . . .


abb1 10.20.05 at 3:02 pm

…lead plumbing…

Uh-oh: Showers ‘may damage your brain’

Washington – Traces of manganese found in household water could be sufficient to cause permanent brain damage to those who take a regular shower, according to a report published in the US journal Medical Hypotheses.

John Spangler of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina and his team suggested that breathing in vapour containing manganese salts could be dangerous over the longer term.

“Inhaling manganese, rather than eating or drinking it, is far more efficient at delivering manganese to the brain. The nerve cells involved in smell are a direct pathway for toxins to enter the brain,” Spangler wrote.

The team used animal studies aimed at showing how much a person who showered for 10 minutes a day would absorb.

The effects are dependent on the levels of manganese in household water. In the United States, a limit of 0.5 milligrams a litre of water is imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, while in the European Union, an upper level of just a 10th of that was set only in 1998.

Spangler suggested that even levels below the US upper limit could lead to brain damage.


eweininger 10.20.05 at 3:14 pm

Technically speaking, John Biles is certainly on target.

But the correlation with the spread of Christianity inside the Empire is too good to let go of.


Alan 10.20.05 at 3:25 pm

At the time Rome fell in the West, its sexual legislation was deeply repressive. After Constantine a series of Christian emperors imposed heavy penalties on homosexual acts. In 390. for example. Valentinian II decreed:

Cod.Theod. IX. Vii. 6: All persons who have the shameful custom of condemning a man’s body, acting the part of a woman’s to the sufferance of alien sex (for they appear not to be different from women), shall expiate a crime of this kind in avenging flames in the sight of the people.

Given Roman progress before and after the advent of Christianity, it would seem the more ‘sexual disorganisation’ the better.


bellatrys 10.20.05 at 4:18 pm

“Christianity” was a popular explanation, q.v. Gibbon; after study, and comparative analysis, I tend to think it had something to do with expanding the economy in a way that benefited only a tiny elite, disinheriting the small businessmen, farmers, and landowners by “insourcing” labor via slavery, a lot of which were POWs, the others children of citizens who couldn’t afford to pay off their credit cards, the problem that the expansion and military needed to maintain the “bread & circuses” by which said elite managed to (barely) keep down the frustrated proles was muy expensive – particularly when even the death penalty didn’t dissuade the SPQR’s versions of Halliburton from profiteering – and that such a cycle of civic looting and bubble expansion can’t be kept going infinitely, but like all things eventually dies the death of entropy…

Not encouraging, I know.


Grand Moff Texan 10.20.05 at 4:32 pm


She didn’t!

She did?

A “Rome ‘fell’ because of [stuff I want to bitch about anyway]” argument?

How pathetic is that? Why is it that when conservatives try to go all armchair and calabash on an issue (that they’ve never bothered to study) they wind up striking only as high as the seventh-grade Asperger syndrome kid with the post-nasal drip?

Tell me when Rome “fell.” I need a good laugh!

We already have a war built on cartoonish notions of WOGs. We don’t need a social policy built on cartoons involving togas. So take your cold-fusion economics and your bone-in-the-nose creationism and kindly stay the fuck out of the way of thinking people.


Grand Moff Texan 10.20.05 at 4:46 pm

I would like to apologize for my gratuitous use of the definite article.

I would also like to apologize to Romulus Augustulus, but I can’t because he’s dead.


dearieme 10.20.05 at 4:52 pm

You chaps aren’t seriously suggesting that it wasn’t the fault of the British, are you?


bob mcmanus 10.20.05 at 5:07 pm

It was Bill & Ted, in the shelved Adventure #3


Antoni Jaume 10.20.05 at 5:18 pm

It was tax cuts for the richs.



John Quiggin 10.20.05 at 9:17 pm

It was because they didn’t listen to Cicero, who said (according to numerous rightwing sites) “The budget should be balanced. Public debt should be reduced. The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed, lest Rome become bankrupt”

I’ll leave it to the classicists to work out how Cicero managed to anticipate such concepts as budgets, public debt and bankruptcy.


sara 10.20.05 at 9:29 pm

“We are in the middle of a huge and only partly acknowledged crisis around marriage and family. … experiencing grave dysfunctions and disruption in the family—and precisely around this whole business of generativity.”

No, we’re in the middle of an huge and only partly acknowledged crisis in the right-wing inability to think logically, to filter out their psychosexual and racial projections, to check their assertions, and to write decent prose.

In fact, the Roman empire may have fallen due to excessively “organized” sexuality, if by that Gallagher means heterosexual reproduction. Bruce Frier, an expert on Roman demography, has advanced the argument that in the first two centuries of our era, the population increased up to carrying capacity (given constraints of ancient agriculture).

What demographers euphemistically call “demographic contraction” ensued, from a plague in the 160s (maybe smallpox), chronic civil warfare in the third century AD, and eventually the barbarian invasions (which began in the third century — Goths in the Black Sea region). The government, as said upthread, put more and more demands on a shrinking base.

The Western empire eventually couldn’t handle it. The Byzantine East, more urbanized and wealthier, remained intact much longer (it remained a political entity even after Egypt and the Near East were lost to the Arabs)

Gallagher also assumes that homosexual activities would preclude hetero reproduction, which is not the case at all; even ancient Greek pederastic lovers were expected to marry women and produce children.


dr ngo 10.20.05 at 11:45 pm

I understand that the TV mini-series ROME may not have started yet in the UK (despite BBC co-production), so of course you don’t have the benefit of seeing Rome portrayed vividly before your very eyes.

Here in the US we are up to Episode 8 already, and as soon as the series finishes, I’ll be sure to post and tell everybody The Answer, which I have no doubt will be provided for us. Vividly. (I’ll head the piece “SPOILER” for those who don’t want to know whether Rome fell or not until they see it themselves.) (I hope I’m not spoiling it for anyone when I say that in Episode #1 Polly Walker looks absolutely amazing with her kit off. Vividly so.)

Meanwhile, however, I try to evoke the gravitas of a Presidential (or Imperial?) spokesman in saying: “While the investigation is continuing, it would be premature to speculate about this matter.”


Anarch 10.21.05 at 10:00 am

Meanwhile, however, I try to evoke the gravitas of a Presidential (or Imperial?) spokesman in saying: “While the investigation is continuing, it would be premature to speculate about this matter.”

But, as Peggy Noonan once remarked, it would be irresponsible not to speculate!


John Casey 10.21.05 at 3:52 pm

Depending on what measure one uses, the Roman Empire existed from 31 BC to either 410 AD (first sack of Rome) or 1453 AD (fall of Constantinople). So, 441 years to 1484 years of existence.

If the US does as badly as that, we can expect the successor state to take over sometime between 2217 and 3260.


Nicholas Weininger 10.21.05 at 7:15 pm

Re “…your scout troop must have been very different from my scout troop”:

If you’re looking for adventure of a
new and different kind,
And you come across a Girl Scout who is
similarly inclined,
Don’t be nervous, don’t be flustered, don’t be scared.
Be prepared!

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