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Why Did the Roman Empire Fall, and Is America Headed Down the Same Road?

August 1, 2011

Historians have never been able to get together on a reason for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The question is more than just academic because the West’s great powers have regularly compared themselves to Rome and wondered if they might go the same way. Nowadays, the obvious comparison is with the United States. I’m going to describe the key theories for Rome’s fall and argue that even the good ones tell us little about America’s future.

The western Roman Empire dissolved during the late 400’s C.E., carved up into kingdoms ruled by barbarians. (The eastern half survived but lost its super-power status, probably due to the same forces.) Here are three of the dumber explanations for this decline and fall:

  1. Decadence: Decadence serves as a convenient whipping-boy for most societies’ problems. But there’s no evidence that the Romans of the final centuries were any sluttier, drunker, or luxury-loving than those of the empire’s glory days.
  2. Christianity: Church-bashers like to say Christianity sapped the empire’s fighting vigor, after Emperor Constantine welcomed the new faith in 313 C.E. Really? Have you ever seen a movie about the Middle Ages? Medieval Europeans rank among the most blood-thirsty warriors of all time, and they were devout Christians. Christianity doesn’t prevent a vigorous military.
  3. Lead Pipes: It’s been suggested that lead water pipes damaged the Romans’ brains and that their resulting stupidity ruined the empire. I think whoever suggested that had been drinking lead-flavored water.

These explanations are better:

  1. Falling Population: The Roman region’s population fell during the 500’s C.E., and the process may have started much earlier. Plagues and slavery are possible causes—the latter because it reduced so many people’s incentive to have kids. With less person-power in every generation, the Romans would’ve found it hard to maintain healthy institutions or a strong army.
  2. Too Little Law & Too Much Equality in Emperor-Selection: The Romans never developed a real legal system for choosing their ruler. Military power made a man emperor, so a rival with enough military power could overthrow the emperor. Yet hostile takeovers were rare during the empire’s glory days: the first two centuries C.E. The soldiers wouldn’t follow a claimant who wasn’t a high-ranking senator, so the emperors had only a few potential rivals to watch, most of them acquaintances. By the 200’s, however, Roman society had grown more egalitarian, and the soldiers might follow any Tom, Dick, or Hortensius. Eager to stay alive, the latter-day emperors focused the government on detecting and destroying would-be usurpers, instead of on much-needed projects, like land and tax reform. Over the centuries, civil wars and mismanagement sapped Roman strength.

The next two factors probably played a role too, as sources of long-term wear and tear.

  1. Poor Immigration System: In 378 C.E., Gothic barbarians actually killed the emperor in battle. The same tribe sacked the city of Rome in 410. Ironically, the Goths had entered Roman territory with government permission, as immigrants. But the empire hadn’t integrated the Goths into Roman society, and the authorities had generally abused and harassed them. Historians have suggested the Romans mismanaged barbarian immigration repeatedly, turning would-be citizens into the out-of-control armies that eventually broke up the empire.
  2. Enemies on a Long Land Frontier: On most of its borders, nothing separated the empire from its enemies except the occasional river or desert. If the border guard wavered, armed enemies could stroll into Roman territory, in any of a hundred places along a vast frontier. So even a slight dip in military readiness could spell invasion.

What does all this tell us about today’s super-power? America has none of the problems above (except possibly decadence and Christianity). The U.S. is one of the few Western nations with a growing population. And America certainly has a stable legal system for choosing its chief exec. (Witness George W. Bush’s court-assisted victory in the 2000 presidential election, which didn’t even lead to fist-fights, despite the fact that Al Gore won more votes.) Plus, the U.S. is the original immigrant nation, and despite discrimination and battles over immigration policy, it integrates newcomers as well as any state in history. Finally, the U.S. is largely surrounded by water, with only two neighbors across land borders, neither of which has any incentive to invade, or a strong military. Unlike the Roman Empire, America could survive a dip in military power without enemies swarming its territory.

In other words, I don’t recommend rushing out to sell your U.S. Treasury Bills, at least not because of ancient history. That doesn’t mean Roman/American comparisons are useless. America certainly resembles Rome in other ways. And the U.S. may someday tumble off its high horse too. It’s just that Rome’s decline and fall doesn’t predict America’s.

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SOURCES:

  • Goldsworthy, How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009): A monumental and up-to-date treatment by one of the best popular historians around.
  • Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (1971): A classic—delightfully short and illustrated with color photos—though I think Brown goes too far in calling the empire’s demise a “transition” instead of a “collapse.”
  • Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005):  A great argument for the “collapse” view—and also delightfully short.
  • Herrin, The Formation of Christendom (1987): Kind of dull (I didn’t finish), but well-respected and thorough enough to serve as a great secondary source for serious research.
  • Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Six volumes published between 1776 and 1789—but you might consider an abridged version. Of course, Gibbon is way out of date, and he adopts the “blame Christianity” position, at least in part. But he’s fun to read, and his history is itself a piece of (Eighteenth Century) history.

© 2011 by David Carthage.

Illustration: Hubert, Roman Ruins with the Colosseum (1798) — photo © by Erich Lessing, courtesy of the Lessing Photo Archive.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. matteo d permalink
    August 1, 2011 11:10 pm

    First of all, congratulations for launching this space and the great topic you are starting with! Regarding the points above, I would not underestimate the economic factors and their effect on liberal societies. There are some great writings on this subject by Rostovtzeff, arguing essentially that as the Romans could no longer service the government debt, the government stopped functioning and taxes became so severe that a feudal society ensued. This may not happen again here – or at least in that “shape” – but there are certainly lessons to be drawn from the past and to be mindful of!

  2. August 1, 2011 11:45 pm

    Great blog, so I am writing my first comment anywhere on a blog. Ever.

    Agree with you about 50/50. I think you should read this — http://www.amazon.com/Fall-Roman-Empire-History-Barbarians/dp/0195159543. A lot of good recent research.

    Most of the “immigration” turned out to be involuntary, for example. And early Christianity (the relevant comparator for the late Empire) certainly forswore material or military prowess.

    Heather makes the additional points that barbarian tech had equalized or neutralized the former Roman military superiority; the Romans had lost their maritime supremacy; the public fisc was constantly depleted, as th tax base was mostly gone in the late empire — too few Romans had a stake in the system as either able-to-pay taxpayers or contributors to care, to finance the state, or to or serve in the military; and the landholding elites really were concerned more about preserving their (non-portable) land wealth to whichever local potentate they needed to swear fealty to, rather than get behind a common unifying loyalty to Rome and resist. In the end, it was too much.

    There are more similarities there than you might think.

  3. August 2, 2011 9:28 pm

    Great comments, Harry and Matteo–and thanks for becoming my very first participants! I’ll definitely check out the Heather book, and I’ve actually heard of Rostovtzeff, though I don’t think I’ve read him.

    I agree that all the forces you pointed out played a role, but to me they’re effects, not causes. Why did the Romans lose their vast technological superiority over the barbarians, why was the public fisc constantly depleted, and why were so few Romans incented to contribute to the state? Why did the Romans need such high taxes to defend themselves? I think a satisfactory answer has to explain the change: the shift from the success of the first century and the 100’s to the decline of the 300’s and 400’s. That’s why I find my points 4 and 5 convincing: declining population and chaotic emperor-selection. To me, they qualify as causes because they explain the change over the centuries. Population fell over time, and Roman society grew more egalitarian over time, and so more open to imperial usurpation by just about anyone and more prone to distracting paranoia and civil war. I suspect those factors explain the others.

    BTW, Harry, I agree that Christianity was truly anti-war during its first few generations. But Constantine welcomed it as a tool of war, and he claimed it gave him victory in battle at the Milvian Bridge in 312.

    Anyway, I think the real reason historians can’t pin down a reason for the decline and fall is that it’s too big and complex. I doubt even time-travel-powered research could tell us for sure what’s the cause and what’s the effect.

  4. November 19, 2012 12:05 pm

    I have to think that no immigration was voluntary. If you did you risked being put into slavery.They tried to unite vast areas by force. This is the main reason why Rome fell. Their coffers were empty trying to maintain a forced occupation, generally far from Rome. This is why taxes were so high.

    We did not win our independence because we had better generals and army than did the British– the opposite was true. Washington was a plantation owner. He lost more battles than he won. If the French had not come to our aid then we’d still be British subjects. In the 1770s it was hard for an army to win a war so far from home. It was a matter of logistics. It was more true in 1st millennium. Lines were stretched to the breaking points. Of course the extensive network of roads leading into Rome made it easier for an invading army to succeed. Main point is if the Romans had not tried to build unity by force then they would not have needed their army or to have stretched so thinly, their country would not have gone broke. They should have tried to lead by example and not by force. Napoleon and Hitler never learned this lesson. Neither have we. We are still trying to impose our wills by force.

    Reduced population is also another factor. Some say that our country is growing the the people of British, Irish and Scottish decent numbers are diminishing. Our country is growing because of immigrants both legal and illegal. The hispanic population is growing very fast.The Roman Empire, perhaps due its relative peace began to think that they did not need a lot offspring.They ‘controlled’ most of the known world at the time.

    I just wonder how big their slave population was– their non-citizen population, relative to their citizen population?

    • November 25, 2012 9:21 am

      Thanks, Eric. You make interesting points, and I share your unease about any state imposing its will by force. But the Romans weren’t unusual on that front. All empires have been created by force–by the imposition of one group’s will on others. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that all states larger than the village level have force–an army–at their heart.

      I’m also not sure the change of the ethnic mix is a factor. I think any healthy state grows by incorporating new people. Rome did that amazingly well, for a while. And I think the U.S. does it better than anyone. To me, that’s an entirely positive factor. (Note my possible bias, as a descendant of immigrants, with no ancestors among the nation’s founders–at least that I know of.)

  5. mauro permalink
    June 30, 2013 12:11 pm

    USA is more like Venice than Rome, is more an economic power than a territorial impire

  6. Fale permalink
    November 6, 2015 8:10 am

    Well there is cheap labor here in America kind of like slavery in classic Rome but we still have our own rights, but with the president deporting everyone who’s going to do all the work?

Trackbacks

  1. The Roman Empire Survived Unbalanced Executives — Maybe America Can Too | Pints of History

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