Historians have never gotten 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 often 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 AD, carved up into kingdoms ruled by barbarians. (The eastern half survived but soon lost its super-power status, probably due to the same forces.) Here are three of the dumber explanations for this decline and fall:
- 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 Rome’s glory days.
- Christianity: Church-bashers like to say Christianity sapped the empire’s fighting vigor, after Emperor Constantine welcomed the new faith in 312 AD. 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.
- Lead Pipes: Some say lead water pipes damaged the Romans’ brains, and their resulting stupidity ruined the empire. I think whoever suggested that had been drinking lead-flavored water.
These explanations are better:
- Falling Population: The empire’s population apparently fell during its last centuries. 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 have found it hard to maintain healthy institutions or a strong army.
- Too Little Law & Too Much Equality in Emperor-Selection: The Romans never created 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 AD. The soldiers would not 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. But by the 200’s, Roman society had grown more “equal,” 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. So they couldn’t focus 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.
- Poor Immigration System: In 378 AD, 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. 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 over and over. They turned would-be citizens into the out-of-control armies that eventually broke up the empire.
- Enemies on a Long Land Frontier: On most of the empire’s frontiers, nothing separated Roman territory from enemy tribes except the occasional river or desert. If the border guard ever wavered, armed foes could just stroll across the border. 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, even though Al Gore won more votes.) Plus, the U.S. is the original immigrant nation. And despite discrimination and battles over immigration policy, America integrates newcomers as well as any state in history. Finally, the U.S. is mostly surrounded by water. It has only two neighbors across land borders, and neither 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 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.
- 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, 2018 by David W. Tollen.