Decline and Fall
Last week I made a comparison between our current situation in the United States and France's in 1788. Some years ago – perhaps seven or eight, although I can’t be sure – I wrote a similar meditation on Internetmonk comparing us to Rome. I’m reposting it now, with a little commentary, because I think it offers perspective on not only the ongoing similarities between the US and Rome but on how much our country has changed in just the few years since I wrote it.
There’s been a lot of discussion over the last 1500 years or so of what led to the fall of the Roman Empire and ushered in the Dark Ages. Such discussions are hard to conduct because already there are those (and I am among them) who want to point out that the eastern half of the Roman Empire survived until almost the time of Columbus and that the “Dark Ages” is an unnecessarily condescending term for the years from oh, say AD 500 through AD 800. But still, I am going to talk about the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of the Dark Ages, because the conditions that prevailed then are eerily familiar to us now.
First, a rough collection of scholarly opinion about the fall of the western half of the Empire would have to include the following points.
Immigration Conflict: Starting in the 300s, the western Empire was overrun with immigration. Some of it was violent – invasion, actually – while some was potentially peaceful. At one point, the Germanic tribes on the other side of the Danube, squeezed by the inroads of Asian nomads and attracted by Roman culture, petitioned to be allowed to join the Empire. The petition was granted. But when the Goths tried to cross the river, they were met with a fatal reception of corruption and inefficiency, which resulted in warfare that killed the emperor. Eventually the Goths entered the Empire anyway.
Environmental Disaster: It wasn’t really a disaster, just a cold winter. But the winter of 406-407 was cold enough that it froze the Rhine River, and Germanic warriors were able to cross into Roman territory. Troops had to be pulled from other areas of the Empire to defend the Rhine frontier, and as a result Britain was emptied for good – one domino down.
Depopulation: The Goths were ultimately successful in moving into western Europe because the Roman Empire was drastically depopulated. There were several causes for this. There had been outbreaks of what was probably the bubonic plague around the Mediterranean world. There had been ongoing fighting around the borders of the Empire for centuries, and both soldiers and civilians were frequent casualties: army recruiters accepted more and more non-Romans as soldiers because there simply weren’t enough Romans left to defend the vast frontier. Finally, the population of the Empire consisted of as much as thirty percent slaves. Roman slaves were largely agricultural; some did heavy labor in other areas, such as mining. All slaves, with the exception of household servants, lived in barracks and were not permitted to reproduce themselves. The slave-owners and slave-traders had to raid or finagle farther and farther afield to acquire new slaves. (The profitability of slave-trading was what was behind the corruption mentioned under Immigration Conflict.)
Rural Collapse: Because there were so few people, whole villages and towns collapsed. Rural dwellers left the land and moved to the cities. The Roman tax system, which was based on land occupation, had a dramatically shrinking base, and the government could no longer raise the revenues it needed.
Collapse of the Monetary System and Economic Recession: By around the year 600, there was very little money in circulation in western Europe. Local governments took their payment in goods or labor.
Negative Balance of Trade: Because of the increased poverty and decreased population, Europeans produced no attractive trade goods and had little ability to increase their wealth through trade with the East or, soon, with the vibrant economies of North Africa.
Hypertrophy: Maybe the Empire was just too big, and it was inevitable that it would collapse under its own weight. Diocletian worried about that at the end of the third century, and from that point on there were often two emperors. There were also two languages eventually – Greek and Latin – and many diverse cultures, customs, and religions.
Cultural Decadence: This one is a bit harder to prove, but it’s probably the most frequently evoked in recent centuries. Edward Gibbon thought that the cultural decadence that led to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was Christianity. He posited that after their conversion the Romans became so focused on the other world that they were no good at defending their borders. Nowadays you hear the opposite. People talk about the revolting and costly entertainments in the latter days of the Empire – gladiator shows, martyr burnings, orgies, what have you – as the root of the Empire’s collapse. I’m sympathetic to the idea, but while I see correlation, I’m not sure I see causation. But then, I’m not an evangelical preacher.
So I’ve been wondering: Are we – perhaps America, perhaps the whole Western world – at the same point? Do we face a new Dark Age? History never repeats itself, and because I can never know what I don’t know, prediction is hopeless; still, it’s been interesting for me to look at this past year and wonder.
Certainly both America and Europe are very conflicted about a growing immigrant population. Many people with different cultures and practices are entering Western countries. Immigrants are having more children than those of the original cultures, whose birthrates have fallen drastically. Rural areas in all developed countries are emptying out at an alarming rate, and although our tax system is different from the Roman one, still this flight from the land is having serious economic and cultural consequences. Europe and America both have – well, monetary and financial troubles, although I wouldn’t use the word collapse. We have a trade deficit with burgeoning new economies. We are at war on several fronts and wondering if we are wise to continue to defend our interests so far afield. We are large enough that we lack a unity of vision about religion, culture, and morals, and aspects of our arts and entertainments are certainly decadent by any definition of the word. At least there’s no major epidemic, but how about those environmental disasters? Will we look back at the recent tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires, droughts, floods, and earthquakes and see them as the tipping point?
I really have no idea; nor do I even know if the potential changes to society would be a bad thing. If our Western culture collapses and a new dark age descends on our part of the world, what will it be like?
Update 2020: Here are some thoughts I had in reading this again seven or eight years later.
The first time around I didn't mention the impact that poor land use and stripping of resources had on Rome, but they, like us, were not using their land sustainably. Many of the things I did mention have intensified since I wrote this, particularly immigration conflict, environmental disaster, economic recession, negative balance of trade, and arguably cultural collapse – because whether you do or don't like the direction our culture is going, nonetheless it's obvious that it is the source of great division in our society. And I casually commented in the original post that “at least there’s no major epidemic.” Well, that’s changed.
So also has the American assumption of stability in government. A response to the original post made a point about how different the Roman Empire's problems with succession were from our current American system. The contributor said: The Roman Empire had a fatal flaw built into its political structure: there was no settled method for the transfer of power. . . . How does this relate to modern America? Poorly. Mostly the structural flaws in the Roman Empire are absent from the United States. Regardless of the genuine and severe problems we face, I am deeply skeptical of attempts to compare them to the Roman Empire.
I answered, saying:
Richard — Your comment about Rome’s transfer of power problems does indeed point out the chief contrast between then and now. While it’s possible that our current peaceful transfer of power will degenerate, still we can be grateful that the system holds so far.
But there is some worry that the degeneration has begun. It's an open question whether we will have a smooth and peaceful election and aftermath at the end of this year.
Just a few years after the original post, the problems I outlined have continued or intensified, and the two issues that we did NOT share with the time leading up to the fall of the western Empire, epidemic and questionable transfer or power, have now arisen. What will happen next?