The Fall of Rome
The modern United States is often compared, both in its virtues and its flaws, to the Roman Empire. Parallels range from superpower status to more nuanced issues like hubris, militarism, integration, and tolerance. So it should alarm modern Americans that three of the forces that brought down the imperium sine fine now menace their own country: populism, self-doubt, and illegal immigration.
The “Fall of Rome” typically refers to the ultimate collapse of the empire in the 5th Century AD. But it can also refer to the destruction of the Republic in the final decades of the pre-Christian era.
From the overthrow of the ancient monarchy until the usurpation of Caesar, Rome was a Republic. Power was divided between the aristocratic Senate and assemblies of the people. Republican leaders guided Rome as it grew from a petty city-state to a world power. But by the 2nd Century BC, the Republic was under duress.
Roman expansion resulted in an ancient globalisation, with stark parallels to the modern version. Plunder and land in newly-conquered provinces enriched everyone, but wealth ended up concentrated in the hands of the elite. Senators bought up land in Italy, forcing farmers (the respectable blue-collar workers of the day) into peonage, or off of their land entirely. Dispossessed masses flowed into the capital, where they came under the sway of populist demagogues who promised wealth and glory for all Romans.
Successive generals-turned-politicians gradually chipped away at republican institutions. Gaius Marius broke the taboo to serve as consul several years in a row, and a generation later Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the first man to crown himself dictator for life. The frustrated mob accepted the degredation of the once-sacred Republic in exchange for grand vows to take on the elite and make Rome great again.
By the middle of the 1st Century BC, the situation was desperate. Inequality had not decreased, and now there was mounting instability caused by the grandiose efforts of the men who had tried to solve the Republic’s problems by undermining it. To the horror of the elite, the people turned to the populist general Julius Caesar, who effectively sought to abolish the Republic.
Caesar met his famous demise at the hands of the Senate in 44 BC, but after a civil war his adopted son Augustus took the throne as Rome’s first emperor. The defeated elite meekly implored him to respect Rome’s time-honoured institutions, but the common people demanded, and got, ever-greater autocracy.
For the better part of two centuries Rome prospered under the Pax Romana. But in the long run the abolition of the Republic led to tyranny, instability, and decadence. Thus, populism caused the first fall of Rome.
The final fall of Rome was far more total. Long-deprived of any role governing their own affairs, and coddled by centuries of not having to fight for their own freedom, Romans committed suicide before they were conquered.
Rome marched to power on the backs of her legions. Military service made hard, patriotic men of all Romans, and effectively integrated conquered populations. But over the course of the imperial period, Romans gave up conquering, and gradually turned over the defence of the empire to barbarian auxiliaries.
Germanic barbarians, much like today’s immigrants, were at first impressed by and envious of Rome. They were glad to defend the frontiers, in return for citizenship and land at the end of their service. Latins in the soft climes of the Mediterranean were happy to let someone else patrol the ominous forests of the Rhine-Danube frontier.
Exacerbating Roman decadence was a new religion, Christianity. Christians were viciously persecuted for centuries, but after Emperor Constantine legalised the faith in 313 it took off. Roman Christianity bears striking parallels to modern leftism- it was a universal faith promising salvation for all mankind, and fundamentally undermined the nationalism upon which the empire was founded. Any healthy society will criticise itself, but the classic lament of the latest generation’s supposed moral decline and military softness was replaced by a denunciation of Rome, St Augustine’s sinful “City of Man,” in its entirety. Christians realised that according to their new faith, their celebrated conquering forebears were irredeemable sinners. Long so confident in their manifest destiny to rule the world, Romans turned on themselves.
The brave Germans on the frontiers slowly realised that the empire was rotting from the core. Romans were no longer willing to serve in the military or even pay the taxes necessary to make others defend them. In the 5th Century, barbarians realised they could simply take large swaths of land as their own private kingdoms, and the decadent Romans could not muster the will to fight back.
The Romans built a great empire through a seemingly paradoxical combination of military might and high ideals of freedom. People from around the world aspired to serve Rome and eventually become Romans themselves. But as they enjoyed the good life and increasingly doubted, then despised, their own heritage, Romans eroded the foundation of the civilisation they took for granted. When the barbarians came, they had nothing left to fight for.