Americans have long had a fascination with Roman civilization (shared with our British-Commonwealth cousins) for many reasons.
This is particularly true for a major reason: Rome fell.
Rome’s ultimate collapse: both the fall of the Western Empire (centered on today’s Italy) and the Eastern or Byzantine Empire (centered on Constantinople, today’s Istanbul), can teach us many lessons about Western Civilization AND American Civilization.
These are lessons about what we should be looking out for, and lessons learned from history that can help us avoid repeating history.
Maybe. Or maybe the warning signs just help us prepare for collapse.
Today, let’s concentrate on the Western Empire.
FEE recently republished an article from Notes on Liberty, “Why Rome declined and modern Europe grew.” The writer addresses Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, and not the modern (and rapidly declining) European Union. (By the way, please repeat after me: collapse of a government or governmental system does NOT mean the collapse of civilization OR society. Not automatically.)
A quick summary: Rome was, by and far, a slave economy. And the Roman culture was one in which large landowners – farmers (or those who rented to or owned farms) who looked down both on those who worked with their hands AND those who were merchants (traders, shippers, etc.).
So even though Rome itself was larger in AD 100 than any European city in 1600 or much of the 1600s, it didn’t have the ability to continue to grow, expand, and in particular make general use of the technology they already had. Much less invent many new things: mechanical devices that would reduce (even eliminate) the need for “human automatons” (slaves).
The article makes a good case: These two things turned out to be fatal.
So the Roman economy in essence ran out of steam (no pun intended) and was unable to support the civilization, the massive governmental system, the essential and extensive military establishment, and a population as wealthy as that of Europe in the 17th Century. (Clearly, the burden of supporting the ever-larger government (even at the expense of the military) was an enormous one, even for a healthy economy.)
This is obviously far different than the popularly-held view (inspired by the historian Edward Gibbon; “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” published between 1776 and 1788. Among other major causes, he blamed five primary reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire:
- First: The rapid increase of divorce, undermining of the home, which is the basis of society.
- Second: Higher and higher taxes; and the spending of public money on bread and circuses.
- Third: The mad craze sports, becoming every year more exciting and more brutal.
- Fourth: The building of armies to fight external enemies, when the most deadly enemy, the decadence of the people, lay within.
- Fifth: The decay of religion; faith fading into mere form, losing touch with life, and becoming impotent to guide it.
- (The Notes on Liberty article does not claim these things had no effect, and some of them clearly overlap the point the article was making. But social/moral decay is hardly unique to a declining Rome. But there were more fundamental reasons for Rome’s fall. Ditto for TPOL’s view. Morals are important, and good religion (and other practices) are as well. And certainly insane spending is very damaging – no matter WHAT “modern monetary theory” claims.)
Weakened, the Imperium (SPQR) was unable to cope with a huge combination of unfortunate events: climate change (NOT manmade), barbarian disruption and invasions, plague, internal revolt, and lust for power. And the decay (moral and otherwise) of society – and the ravening appetites of government.
While I believe the basic concept is valid, the discussion does not go far enough, even for a libertarian journal. I’ll address these in the next commentary.
Meanwhile, consider how those seven issues and points (both the Notes on Liberty and Gibbons’ understanding) are duplicated today in ALL of Western Civilization (including the Chinese Communist version). And especially in the European Union, the British Commonwealth, and the Fifty States.
And yes, it is okay to get a few shivers of fear. If we are honest with ourselves and about our society (and our role in it), we can see all of these things. But there is more, to discuss in the next posting.
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