The Perils of America's Progress
Bertman, Stephen, Modern Age
IN A WORLD OF ever expanding empires--the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Assyrian, and the Macedonian--the ancient empire of Rome was territorially the largest and temporally the most enduring. From west to east it stretched over some three thousand miles, an extent comparable to the breadth of the continental United States, and lasted for almost a millennium, from the revolutionary birth of an aggressive Roman Republic in 509 B.C. to the abdication of a teenage emperor to barbarians in 476 A.D. Though the Eastern half of the Empire would continue to be ruled from Byzantium, the collapse of the Empire's Western half triggered a centuries-long period of Dark Ages and sent cultural shock waves through the later history of Europe. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire also inspired one of historiography's grandest literary works, an epic study by Edward Gibbon, the first volume of which appeared in 1776, the very year that signaled the birth-throes of our own American nation.
Following in Gibbon's footsteps, later historians have explored the causes for Rome's spectacular fall even as ancient eye-witnesses to history like St. Augustine once speculated on the reasons for its downward spiral. The most obvious explanation for Rome's fall is external: a succession of devastating barbarian invasions. But less obvious, yet more instructive, are explanations that look for causes from within. The internal factors that have been proposed by scholars over the years are many and varied, but can be categorized under five basic headings: administrative, economic, biological, moral, and systemic.
The administrative causes include Rome's failure to provide sound constitutional guarantees for legitimate and orderly succession, a pattern of military coup and peremptory rule by soldier-emperors, the enlistment of barbarians into military and government service, and a breakdown in military leadership and discipline. Numbered among economic causes are a decline in the productivity of the Empire's labor force, a stagnation in the overall demand for goods and services, an unfavorable balance of trade brought about by the shifting of productivity from Italy to its outlying provinces, an oppressive system of taxation that severely reduced people's spending power, a debasement of currency designed to aid the government in meeting its own expenses, and finally an extravagant style of consumption by those who were wealthy and privileged. Among the proposed biological causes are a reduction in the birthrate of native Romans (perhaps caused by lead poisoning), a decrease in the fertility of Italy's soil (perhaps exacerbated by climatic change), and the ravaging effects of epidemic disease. Added to these are moral factors: the corruptive influence of autocratic power (Caligula, Nero, and their ilk), the corrosive effects of sensualism (private orgies and seductive spas), the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized slavery, the disappearance of former virtues (chiefly self-reliance and self-sacrifice), and the enervation and distraction induced by Christianity's emphasis on brotherly love and otherworldly hope. Lastly, there are possible systemic causes: the Spenglerian cycle of youth, maturity, old age, and death to which all living entities--including human institutions--are subject, and the vulnerability of a megastructure to catastrophic World-Trade-Center collapse.
Indeed, under the combined weight of so many factors, it is a wonder that any institution could long stand. Perhaps, rather than speculating on the possible causes for the Roman Empire's fall, we should--as Gibbon himself suggested--marvel instead at how long Rome stood! Who are we, who measure our own nation's history by barely more than a couple of centuries, to fault a civilization that prospered for ten: five under the Republic and another five under the Empire?
If, in fact, the Roman system did prevail for so long, what principles were responsible for its phenomenal success? …