The events of January 6 have caused more people than ever to ask whether our nation is coming to an end. At the very least, it is reinforcing the idea that we are in decline. For the first time in several decades, people stormed the Capitol building and threatened violence against the people’s representatives. The country is evenly divided, and calls for unity are falling on deaf ears. With the open approval of many in government, tech companies are shutting down speech with which they disagree in the name of safety. The fearful are already planning on taking refuge, storing up food and ammunition. The question naturally arises, are we seeing the end of American civilization?
When faced with the question of how civilizations die, most historians turn to Rome as an example. We know a great deal about the rise of the Roman Republic, the transition to imperial rule, and the fall of Rome, making it a perfect study for those seeking to know what causes civilizations to fall. Historians have studied Rome for centuries, as nearly every culture at one time or another seeks answers about their own decline. Some people date the fall of the Roman Empire to 410 when the Visigoths sacked Rome for the first time and some from 476 when the Germanic leader Odoacer deposed the western emperor. In fact, border incursions from the Goths and Huns had been ongoing since the 300s. At the same time, most historians recognize that, while exterior threats caused the empire’s immediate demise, other long-term interior conditions allowed this fall to occur. The same is true today – the causes of our decline are more than the events of the last week or even year.
For example, many point to the decline in virtue as a cause of the fall of Rome. Virtue was what Romans called an attitude of service to the state. Perhaps most famous of these theories is that of Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was once the most famous book on the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s thesis was that Christianity displaced state religion and made people less public-spirited. Most historians now reject this view and point to increasing selfishness in the upper classes as the greater cause. Whether nobles were also Christians made little difference. Rather, as patricians and equites became richer, they were less willing to serve in the military or in government or did so only to enrich themselves. This led in turn led to weaker armies, greater reliance on mercenaries (mostly the same groups that later invaded the empire), and more corrupt government. We also find today that many only go into public service to enrich themselves, and that the wealthy seek to use government for their own benefit. The result is that fewer people than ever wish to serve to actually help others.
Others have pointed to economic causes of the fall of Rome. The gap between rich and poor continued to widen, with more and more of the upper classes living off government largess. Aggrandizement of bureaucrats, embezzlement of public funds, and the increasing lavishness of the emperor and the court cost a lot of money. Endless wars bankrupt the country. Without a decent army, paid mercenaries became common. While conquest once brought in great wealth, this was no longer the case by the third century, as the empire began to shrink. As a result, taxes were extremely high. There are reports of towns unable to provide basic services to citizens because of taxes paid to Rome. Instead, the emperor paid for handouts and entertainment (such as gladiator fights in the Coliseum) to gain the support of the poor. This cost more money, requiring even higher taxes, which resulted in more people impoverished. It was a vicious cycle. The same cycle exists today as our endless wars and government largess require higher taxes that have driven even more people into poverty.
Although most scholars focus mainly on the end of the Empire, in fact many seeds of the fall of Rome were planted at the end of the Republic. Though an alliance with Pompey and Crassus, Julius Caesar rose to power in elected office, cementing his support through redistribution of land. When Caesar defied the Senate when it demanded he step down, his political enemies tried to stop him by force of arms. To end the civil war, the Senate voted Caesar dictator. A dictator was an elected position given absolute power for a short period of time during national emergencies. As resistance continued, his supporters voted him dictator for life. After his murder, his nephew Augustus consolidated power as emperor, ending the Republic. Over the course of time, the emperors became more erratic, wielding absolute power, demanding to be worshipped as gods, and living in luxury even as their actions impoverished the people. So also today some are using the excuse of political emergencies to abuse their power and eliminate or silence their political opponents.
While the circumstances are not precisely the same as today, we would be blind not to pay attention to the lessons that history teaches. The fall of civilizations begins long before the events that end them. Rome started its decline when, because of an emergency, it embraced single-party rule, which eventually led to graft, selfishness, extreme wealth and poverty, and conquest. This course is not inevitable for us, but we have hard choices ahead if we are to avoid the same fate. Let us choose national unity, tolerance of other views, peace, and selfless service before our own decline becomes irreversible. We still have a choice when our civilization ends.
© 2021 J.D. Manders