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Contemporary lessons from the fall of Rome

It’s a time-honored game, and any number can play. The rules are simple: just take whatever problem is bothering you today, add the word “Rome,” and voilà. You have just discovered why the mightiest empire in Western history came to an end.

In 1969, Ronald Reagan blamed it on “the twin diseases of confiscatory taxation and creeping inflation.” In 1977, Phyllis Schlafly said it was due to “the ‘liberated’ Roman matron, who is most similar to the present-day feminist.”

And (a personal favorite), in 1984, Joan Collins told Playboy, “It’s like the Roman Empire. Wasn’t everybody running around just covered in syphilis? And then it was destroyed by the volcano.”

So it was all-but-inevitable that, when a mile-long caravan of migrants from Central America began its fateful trek to the U.S. border, the specter would be raised of the waves of barbarian invaders that, we have long been taught, overwhelmed the Empire in the fifth century.

Like all the other reasons for Rome’s fall, this one comes with an implicit message: if we want to avoid Rome’s fate, we had better act. OK. But how?

Build the wall? That didn’t work out too well for the Romans, as the impressive remains of Hadrian’s Wall in England testify.

Let everybody in? The Romans tried that, too. In fact, a historian once suggested that the Fall could boil down to “an imaginative experiment [in citizenship] that got a little out of hand.”

Don’t expect the answer to come from the ivory tower, because academics like to play the game as much as anybody, though usually more subtly. So, at various times, the Fall has been blamed on a decline from rationalism into religious “superstition,” on too much bureaucracy or not enough, on the welfare state, moral decline, globalism, environmental decay, monotheism, lead poisoning, and a drain of precious manpower resources into churches and monasteries (to name but a few).

The common denominator to all these explanations is that they project their authors’ own concerns onto Rome. That is easy enough to do. Rome is a vast tableau, and the Fall didn’t occur in one day or even in one year. It was a long-running process that lasted hundreds of years. Anything you want to look for is probably there.

So if you want to play the game, go right ahead. But here are a couple of suggestions for playing it more usefully.

“more lives were lost due to Romans fighting Romans in constant civil wars than were ever threatened by outsiders.”

First, don’t just look for comparisons; contrasts are equally important. Yes, Germanic peoples fleeing famine or disaster did put pressure on Rome’s frontiers. But as Romans themselves recognized, more lives were lost due to Romans fighting Romans in constant civil wars than were ever threatened by outsiders.

Second, bear in mind that everything changes. If (like Edward Gibbon) you think Rome reached its high point in the second century, then everything that changed has to be a “decline.”

Suppose we taught U. S. history that way. Maybe America at the time of the Founding Fathers was led by smarter and more godlike beings. But are you ready to say that everything from cell phones to fluoride toothpaste represents a decline? Some things are better, some things are worse.

Once you have taken these two steps, you are in a position to identify what it is about Rome, or us, that was essential—the sine qua non, so to speak. Let me suggest that for us it is not a matter of race or religion or even of language. As Abraham Lincoln put it in a speech in 1858, what those “descended by blood from our ancestors” and those immigrants who, he estimated, made up “perhaps half our people” in his day had in common was “that old Declaration of Independence,” where they can find “that all men are created equal.”

If they subscribe to its principles, Lincoln said, “they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.” That, he said, is “the electric cord” that makes us all Americans.

In a day when it can easily seem that we are besieged on all sides, we should remember, with Lincoln, the enormous, transformative effect that our political culture has had on the world.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can learn something from Rome’s fall.

Featured image credit: Roman Forum, Rome. Photo by Bert Kaufmann. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Frank ciccarelli

    Sic transit gloria…

  2. cyp

    Well Rome fell as a result of universal suffrage. The wellfare state increased fast once women got the power the economy and birthrate went to shit and the military became weaker and weaker as no one felt the need to work or fight.

  3. Gregory Tzanetos

    Many times, when we try to look objectively at any cause of the change in the historical course of the humans’ society , we forget to look at both sides: At the ”bad” side of the change and at the other ”good” side, considering all those things by one side – which we think that they concern the ”change”- showing one single line of causes ”flattening” the historical reality in our conception..

    But, I am afraid that it might be not so simple, as a ”flat” of historical evidences..

    We might understand better the complexity in the change, if we conceived the things by two options for humans’life – which would be the only objective reason by which a human could conceive him / or herself, and r all those which might belong to what by him / or her self could recognize as a species of human, in a state of life -: Then we might understand the change by what we could realize as ”bad” condition of the lives of people, as members of a physical species, due to the failure of their political organization, or by the ”good” option of what the change could follow as opposite to what was presented as ”catastrophic’ for human populations at a particular historical framework.

    Then, we could also realize that the historical course might move like a ”pendulum” to both directions: Between the ”bad” condition for humans which might ”decline” inevitably from a ”good” condition of their lives, presenting (at a major scale of the society) the ”historical waves” of the ”change” in the paradox’ itself – which has been presented indeed as ”declination”-. Then, in the ”pendulum”, the declination could appear the dynamics of the change in a unique – as continuous – process of the historical course of the society in physical world and in the time framework of a historical ”present”; in which the true cause of the change might be appeared in the paradox of the ”declination” in every ”Rome”..

    Thank you for reading this. GregoryTzanetos.

  4. Donald Bittner

    Interesting and thoughtful piece. Correctly emphasizes a caution about projecting current concerns into the past; also, the contrasts between now and a past era may be more important than the similarities – a point I always emphasize to my students. With regard to the subject of the “fall of Rome”, as I stress with my students, context and specifics change; hence, my interpretive approach to Rome is not that Rome “fell”…but over the centuries evolved into something different in both east and west.

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