The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: An echo from the past and an omen for the future

Before the onset of the 5th century AD, Imperial Rome dominated the known world.

True, the empire had previously been split in half for administrative purposes, with one Emperor in Rome and another in Constantinople; but to all outward purposes the empire exuded strength and power. Roman legions still stood guard on far flung frontiers. Roman commerce dominated the Mediterranean and Roman roads connected all areas of the empire. Roman technological and engineering innovations were the envy of the rest of the world. The major Roman cities had an elaborate system of public baths, fed by aqueducts which brought in a steady supply of fresh water. These aqueducts also provided uncontaminated water for drinking and cooking as well as sewage. In addition, Rome supplied its citizens with free foodstuffs and entertainment.

Naturally, all of this required a great deal of money. The Romans accomplished this by taxing their provinces and using the funds thus collected to finance not only their welfare state, but to pay for the occupation forces and the Roman administration necessary to ensure the continuity of their rule. This was not as terrible as it seems, for as colonial rulers, the Romans were less oppressive than anyone else. In an age when it was customary for a conquered people to be exterminated or sold into slavery; their cities and towns razed to the ground, the Romans usually left the administrations and infrastructure intact, preferring to exercise authority through local kings or satraps, wherever possible. Local religious practices and customs were usually respected. In return, Roman rule offered peace, stability, and security. This was the age of the “Pax Romana”: the peace of Rome. If however, a province rebelled against Roman authority, as was the case with Judea, then an example had to be made as a warning to anyone else.

Rome’s finest hour was during the 2nd Punic War. That war, fought by Rome and Carthage between 218 – 201 BC, saw the Carthaginian General Hannibal, cross the Alps with his army and a herd of elephants. For 15 years Hannibal rampaged through Italy, defeating every army that Rome was able to muster and throw against him. At the battle of Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal defeated a Roman army of nearly 90,000 men, killing some 50,000 Romans. Everyone expected Rome to capitulate after such a catastrophe, but the Romans refused to concede defeat and eventually found a commander (Scipio) able to formulate a strategy to defeat the Carthaginians. This was possible because the Romans were able to appeal to the patriotism of the average Roman citizen.

By the end of the 4th century AD, all that had changed. The army was, by that time, composed almost entirely of mercenaries; mostly Germans. The aristocracy and the urban middle class sought escape in pleasure, the pursuit of gain, and the attainment of material wealth. They grew selfish, fixing their hearts on idleness and amusement, preferring instead to savor the bloody spectacles at the coliseum; getting their free handouts of food and luxuriating at the public baths. A psychological malaise had set in where their creative power and energy had dried up; along with any desire to take up arms in defense of the state. Their system of agriculture fell into disuse, with many rural Romans abandoning the large estates of the wealthy landowners to flee to the urban areas where they could receive the free handouts offered by the state. After all, why toil in the fields to receive either pay or a share of the crop when the state will provide it for free? The Roman monetary system had by this time been so devalued that Roman coins of the later period contained little, if any, precious metals. Industrial and manufacturing activity, which prospered under the early empire, had by now lessened its output, grew feeble, and died away…to be replaced by goods, chiefly luxury items, imported by Eastern merchants and catering to the demands of the wealthy aristocracy. The middle class was disappearing. Those that survived were lost among the rabble of the great cities. They either worked for and were maintained by the state, or toiled as serfs (sharecroppers) for the great landlords. Slavery, though it still survived, no longer played any part in agriculture, trade or industry. Their only function was to serve as domestics in the great houses of the nobility.

In 376 AD the Gothic tribes received permission from the Eastern Roman emperor Valens to cross the border in order to escape the depredations of the Huns; then sweeping westward from Central Asia. The Romans initially viewed these people as natural allies against an invader they themselves believed they would have to face. Mistreatment, at the hands of corrupt Roman officials soon provoked the Goths into war with the empire. The Romans sent an army to subdue them, which the Goths defeated with relative ease at Adrianople in 378 AD. Unlike Cannae, centuries earlier, this was a disaster from which the empire would never recover. Having pierced the shell of the empire and finding nothing but hollowness within, the Goths eventually invaded Italy and marched on Rome. In 410 AD the city fell. It was the end of an epoch.

The Roman empire that existed was until its demise, the envy of the rest of the world. Despite all of the negative aspects . . . the cruelty and slavery; Rome was still a beacon of light. To outside eyes, this was civilization. After its collapse, a new era began, which lasted until the onset of the Enlightenment in the 16th century. The aqueducts which supplied fresh water to the larger cities fell into disrepair. The public baths and sewer systems ceased to function. Supplies of uncontaminated water for drinking and cooking were no longer available. Epidemics, which were always present in the ancient world began to multiply; both in number and intensity. The tolerance that was one of the hallmarks of Roman life in a polytheistic society, gave way to fear and superstition, as religious fervor replaced science and rampaging mobs destroyed priceless artifacts because they did not conform to the new religious ideal. The Pax Romana which had provided peace, security, and stability for centuries, gave way to an almost fratricidal level of warfare between the former subjects of the empire. Feudalism; which had its beginnings even before the fall of Rome, became the law of the land, with the feudal lord exercising absolute power of life and death of all who resided within his realm. The last vestiges of this archaic system would not disappear until Czar Alexander II of Russia freed the serfs in 1860. In chronological time, this epoch is referred to as the Middle Ages. History however, records another name for this period . . . the Dark Ages. The Roman collapse did not occur overnight, nor was it a pre-planned conspiracy on the part of any cabal. Rome fell because the idea of Rome gradually died in the hearts and minds of its people, long before the first Gothic invader crossed the threshold of the eternal city.

We are now at a precipice in time where the eventual collapse of another great civilization appears imminent in the not so distant future: the world’s sole surviving superpower; the United States of America. Many will say that you cannot compare an ancient civilization that existed 2000 years ago with America; yet it is a fact that virtually all of the factors which contributed to the fall of Rome are now present in the US today. Like Rome, our army is now mostly a mercenary force: volunteers who enlist, in many cases not out of patriotism or love of country, but in the hope of learning some kind of trade that can be applied to civilian life or for other assorted benefits. Like Rome, our agricultural system is in trouble, with many small farmers deeply in debt or being forced to sell their farms to large corporations or conglomerates. Like Rome, our manufacturing and production capacity has decayed, leading to a massive trade imbalance. Like Rome, our monetary system has been devalued. This actually occurred back in the 1960’s when we went off the gold standard. The silver colored tokens that pass for our coins today contain only small amounts of that precious metal, while the paper certificates we primarily use are no longer redeemable in silver. Like Rome, our middle class has steadily declined, while the wealth at the top 1% has risen drastically. Like Rome, we have succeeded in establishing a welfare state where creativity, incentive, and desire to succeed have given way to idleness, sloth, indolence, and the pursuit of pleasure. Almost every American now possesses an i-Phone or i-Pad; while the entertainment industry continues to churn out movies, video-games, music, social media, Internet porn, shopping, and sporting competitions all aimed at dulling our senses, distracting from reality, and ameliorating the misery of our existence. Finally, like Rome, we too are experiencing a psychological affliction where everything we had previously held sacred has been turned upside down. Our institutions of government are no longer held in high regard. Our leaders are mocked and ridiculed. Our religious traditions are subject to scorn. Our law enforcement apparatus and judicial system is disrespected and distrusted. Our cities and infrastructure are in a state of decay. Our production incentive and capacity has been greatly diminished. Our educational system has been downgraded while our institutions of higher learning are fertile breeding ground for anti-American activity. Our constitution has been derided, while our history has been subjected to revision. Our morals have been corrupted, while our families are collapsing. Our flag has been desecrated. Our youth continues to be alienated. Our national debt rising; job prospects dismal, and our economy in trouble while our hope for a better future uncertain. The idea of America is slowly dying; the American dream no longer a viable option for many of our citizens. The threads that hold us together as a nation are slowly unraveling.

Still unconvinced? Perhaps another more recent example might suffice to add weight to this argument: the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. This was Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire”; the country which had crushed the might of Nazi Germany and the vast monolithic empire which held a third of the world under its dominion. The Soviet Union’s finest hour came during WWII. With the entire western portion of the country overrun, millions of soldiers, casualties of war, vast population centers under the control of the invader, and their industrial and agricultural heartland devastated; the Soviets still refused to concede defeat. Like Rome, during the 2nd Punic War, they were able to tap into a wellspring of nationalistic fervor. The official Soviet name for this conflict confirms the veracity of this account: “The Great Patriotic War.” The Soviets were able to appeal to their people to rise up; not in the name of Communism, but out of love for “Mother Russia.” By the mid 1980’s, the Soviet Union still radiated an aura of strength and power. They still maintained a military force of over 5.5 million, fielded thousands of nuclear weapons, and possessed some 50,000 modern battle tanks ready to roll across the North German plane and inundate Western Europe. To outside eyes they appeared almost invincible, yet when their time came, they collapsed with barely a whimper, taking the entire Eastern bloc along with them. The Communist debacle did not occur overnight, nor was it the result of any pre-conceived plot on the part of the West. The Soviet Union collapsed because the idea of Communism had died in the hearts and minds of its people long before the tricolor flag of the Russian federation replaced the hammer and sickle fluttering atop the golden spires of the Kremlin. Like Rome, centuries earlier, they too had long since rotted out from within.

The history of man is a chronicle of the rise and fall of great civilizations. Even before the advent of Rome, the Egyptian and Hellenistic empires, to cite but two examples, rose to great prominence only to eventually decline and collapse. In our own hemisphere, the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan civilizations flourished and had begun the process of decay long before the first Spanish conquistador left his carbon footprint in the sands of the New World. Every great civilization that has ever existed has eventually fallen into ruin, and either collapsed, or been conquered by another rising power just beginning its ascension. These civilizations all deteriorated because they either failed or were unwilling to live up to the ideas that made them great. This is one of the great lessons of history. The idea of Communism was a utopian ideal that promised universal brotherhood and equality for all; coupled with a gradual “withering away” of the state. In reality, all they succeeded in doing was creating a moribund, ossified bureaucracy which discouraged incentive, stifled ambition, and reduced the average citizen to near total dependency on the state for all manner of sustenance. The breakup of the Soviet Union saw the country devolve into 15 separate republics; divided among their various constituent groups. The same fragmenting happened in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire. Rome, in its heyday, stood like a colossus astride the known world: a civilization that beckoned to countless millions who could only dream of partaking in the magnificence of its public works, the opulence of its palaces and structures and the grandeur of its pomp and pageantry. “All roads lead to Rome” states an old adage. The idea of Rome centered around their belief in themselves as an exceptional people; the same way as America used to be regarded as an exceptional nation.

The Romans created one of the greatest civilizations that has ever existed, with amenities for the average citizen that no other society in the world offered. The collapse of the empire saw it divided into its various entities, many of whom were in an almost constant state of war. This brings to mind another of history’s great lessons: when you kill an ideal, people fall back on what they know; national, ethnic, religious, and cultural identities.

Many people both here and abroad believe with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War that it is now the turn of the United States. There are those on the left who say that Capitalism has failed . . . it must be replaced. They claim that America is the source of most of the problems in the world and that we must be made to atone for the triple sins of imperialism, colonialism, and racism. Our own government seems to agree. The current US administration has embarked on a policy of deliberate American withdrawal around the world with predictable results. The collapse of the “Pax Americana” has created a power vacuum which our potential adversaries seem only too happy to fill. Here at home, our government appears to be advocating for the adoption of many of the failed policies of our former Soviet adversary: big government, the creation of a “socialist welfare state,” and the ideology of the class struggle. Sentiments such as patriotism and love of country are generally viewed as antiquated and obsolete. The last time any American politician asked the populace to put country first was on January 20, 1961 when JFK challenged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The politicians of today, all too often try to outdo one another in the magnanimity of their various programs, aimed at winning votes at all cost, instead of acting as role models to motivate each citizen to take responsibility for their lives and give back to the community and their nation. All the while, our country continues to decline, our standing among the nations of the world is further eroded, our middle class continues to disappear, mob rule seems to have taken the place of the rule of law, and much of the educational system is now controlled by the radical left. When you lose control of your educational system you have lost your future. This is only just the beginning. It may very well be, given the depths to which we continue to sink, that our only choice at this critical juncture is between a slow descent into gradual oblivion or a sharp fall over a precipitous cliff. If this is indeed our fate, then this is the inexorable ebb and flow of history.

The purpose of this article is to awaken a “consciousness of the American spirit” that once made us a great nation. There will be many who disagree with its conclusions and others who sincerely believe that a better world will emerge like a phoenix out of the ashes. The latter point is not however what history has taught us. The collapse of a great civilization or empire has invariably led to a period of great uncertainty, lawlessness, anarchy, and chaos; not necessarily to a “brave new world.” The late historian and philosopher Will Durant in his 1944 work “Caesar and Christ” probably summed it up best when he wrote, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

by Caren Besner who has written articles published by Sun-Sentinel, American Thinker, Independent Sentinel, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Journal, IsraPost, The Jewish Voice, The Times of Israel, San Diego Jewish World, The Algemeiner, Jewish Press, The Front Page, and The Florida Veteran

About the Author
Caren Besner is a retired teacher who has written articles published by American Thinker, Sun-Sentinel, The Algemeiner, Jerusalem Post, Jewish Journal, IsraPost, The Jewish Voice, Independent Sentinel, San Diego Jewish World, Arutz Sheva, Jewish Press, The Front Page, The Florida Veteran, Jootube, The Moderate Voice, and Israel National News.