Is the fall of Rome a picture of America's demise?


Is America as "powerful" as it used to be? Many politicians compare the political, social and economic state of the United States today with the state of the Roman Empire just before its fall. Are we on the verge of collapse, as some politicians claim?

As I mentioned in last month's column, when reading history, I find the similarities between what happened in different eras of history and the parallels with what is happening in the world today fascinating.

Books on the causes of empire collapse generally fall into two categories. The first emphasizes the role of external pressure such as the stresses World War II placed on the British Empire or the arms race that bankrupted the Soviet Union. The second emphasizes homegrown influences, such as political dysfunction, social unrest or moral decline.

Why did the Roman Empire collapse? The death of the Roman Empire is one of the perennial mysteries of world history. Historians have been arguing the cause of Rome's downfall through the ages.

Edward Gibbon tackled this question in a six-volume masterpiece that was the first definitive history of the Roman Empire. Gibbon attributed Rome's downfall to the faint-heartedness of its soldiers and the consequent outsourcing of the army to the same barbarian mercenaries who eventually overran the empire. Gibbon criticized the ebbing manliness of Rome's population and suggested that the spread of Christianity -- with its emphasis on the afterlife -- had left Rome's citizens unwilling to fight for their empire. The six volumes of Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" were published between 1776-1789 and are still in print today.

Ramsay MacMullen, author of "Corruption and the Decline of Rome" (1990), believes that the primary reason for the fall of the Roman Empire was corruption. He observes that bribes paid by the rich to gain exemption from taxation and the increasing corruption of the courts, starting in 250 A.D., undermined the civil fabric of the empire.

MacMullen labels these trends the "privatization of power" that ultimately left Rome vulnerable before its invaders. His basic thesis is that corruption grew during the third and fourth centuries, during which time it went from something frowned upon but grudgingly accepted to something systemic and codified.

The overall argument MacMullen puts forward is that the traditional web of patronage extending downward from the emperor (or leading Republican families) came undone as soon as money could buy whatever you wanted.

Buying military commissions, legal acquittals, imperial posts and so on was no different than purchasing "meat and vegetables."

In " The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization" (2005) Bryan Ward-Perkins uses archaeological evidence to theorize that the sudden scarcity of fine pottery, coinage, and roof tiles exemplified the collapse of Rome's extensive commercial network which had immediate and severe consequences for the everyday lives of the empire's citizens.

He gives substantial proof for the declining quality of life in the 5th century, and bases his work primarily on archaeological remains and pottery studies that are often ignored by the text-centered classical scholar. Ward-Perkins is concerned with impact of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire on the standard of living, or what he calls "the loss of comfort."

Seen from this standpoint, the end of Rome was the end of the world's first complex, specialized economy. Ward-Perkins is careful to explain that the end of the Roman Empire was not a uniform process, and that the Eastern half of the empire continued to flourish until the time of the Arab attacks in the seventh century.

Peter Heather, author of "The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians" (2005) proposes that the demise of the empire was caused by factors beyond its control. In 376 A.D., the Huns erupted beyond Rome's eastern border, setting off a domino effect of migration that eventually brought down the empire. Heather theorizes that centuries of imperialism turned the neighbors Rome called barbarians into an enemy capable of dismantling an Empire that had dominated their lives for so long. He relates how Europe's barbarians, transformed by centuries of contact with Rome on every possible level, eventually pulled the empire apart.

He shows first how the Huns overturned the existing strategic balance of power on Rome's European frontiers to force the Goths and others to seek refuge inside the Empire.

The Goths first destroyed a Roman army at the battle of Hadrianople in 378, and went on to sack Rome in 410. Heather convincingly argues that the Roman Empire was not on the brink of social or moral collapse. What brought it to an end were the barbarians.

"How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower" (2009) by Adrian Goldsworthy gives an excellent survey of Roman politics and civilization.

Goldsworthy begins with the death in 180 AD of emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose reign is traditionally viewed as the apex of Roman power.

During the disastrous century that followed, emperors rarely ruled more than a few years; most were murdered, and civil wars raged.

Invasions slowly chipped away at the empire until it vanished in A.D. 476 with the abdication of the last Western emperor.

Goldsworthy challenges the traditional assumption that Rome was sacked by foreign armies.

He contends that the real problem was that the Roman Empire had fatally weakened itself through many decades of civil wars and internal struggles for power.

The acquisition of personal power, rather than service to Rome, had become most important as emperors demonstrated again and again that Roman rivals were considered a greater threat than any foreign enemy. Such internal wars depleted troop strengths, reduced tax income, and eroded loyalty.

Goldsworthy argues that the eventual result of this internal weakening was that external threats could not be successfully resisted; he reasons that it was civil war and paranoia that destroyed the empire from within.

So what caused the fall of the Roman Empire? Literally hundreds of possible factors have been proposed since Gibbon wrote his classic work.

If there is one conclusion we can draw from the five hypotheses above, it is that whenever it is finally time to write a recap of the American Era, there will no shortage of theories or ink spilled on the topic.

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