Why Empires Fall

Posted on July 6, 2014


One of the most famous books in history was written in the late eighteenth century by Edward Gibbon. Its title was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and it was published in six volumes, the first one in 1776 (a year of some interest to us Americans) and the last three in 1788-89. It caused quite a stir among readers, although today’s tweeters might find six volumes a bit
intimidating. Just the titles and subtitles probably exceed the normal tweeter’s attention span.

Gibbon provoked the ire of a lot of his readers by claiming that Christianity could itself be held to account for a lot of the decline and ultimate fall of the Romans. Gibbon maintained that the principles of Christianity–love, forgiveness, forbearance, peace, etc.–undermined the martial spirit of Rome’s great military establishment built around the famed Legions. Weakened by pusillanimous Christians, the barbarians poured across the northern borders of the empire, eventually reaching and sacking (what all barbarians did of course) Rome in 410 A.D.

Gibbon’s conclusions turned a lot of thinking on its head, since most Christians believed in general that more rather than less Christianity was best for any civilization. But Gibbon’s age, the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment, looked back on medieval and early modern Europe as a time of religious mysticism, witchcraft, bigotry, intolerance and cruel persecution—all pretty much true–, and so Christianity was not very much in favor among the “modern” secular thinkers of the Age of Reason.

Thomas Jefferson, BTW, was one of these who didn’t have a high regard for organized religion. And from that perspective was born the principle of the separation of church and state that has become a holy grail of sorts for those wishing to disenfranchise and tease religion out of all public and publicly-financed affairs in today’s world. But that for another time, since as important as Jefferson’s phrasing was his thinking in the matter.

Another contributing factor to Rome’s gradual decline over a 400 or 500 year period–longer than the existence of our republic founded in 1776 and still rocking along 238 years later–was decadence, corruption, and moral decay in general. Rome’s rise to prominence as a republic began about the 500 B.C. before becoming an “empire” about the time of Christ, and then expanding to conquer much of the “Western” world, from Britain to Egypt and parts of the old Eastern civilizations.

The seeds of its destruction were probably put into motion by its own internal weaknesses, although the famous barbarian invasions helped push down the doors and walls of the old empire most dramatically. Aside from blaming the Christians, Gibbon and other students nailed other causes.

Power and opulence had replaced the simple virtues, morality, republican sentiments and forms of government that had lifted Rome up from a small, community on the Tiber River to dominance of the ancient world. By the end of the empire, emperors were governing pretty much at will, often savage tyrants, when, in the beginning, a constitution governed the patricians and plebs, elections were held to determine who would govern, term limits were in place, and a division of political powers was followed. Fanatically devoted to discipline and order, the political organization of the Republic was mirrored in her Legions as they evolved into the finest fighting force in the ancient world.

What happened? The republic turned into an empire and the empire grew corrupt from its own tremendous power. This unbridled power and authority in turn undermined the early virtues of the Republic. With the Empire there arose, like mushrooms after a rich and long rain, self-indulgent vices accompanied by pride and power that eventually crumbled under the venial side of man’s nature. Given free reign with wealth and power, that will happen as an oft quoted observation noted:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” wrote the English essayist and historian Lord Acton in 1887.

No empire has sustained its rule as long as Rome did, which was close to a thousand years if we measure its history from the rise of the Republic to the “fall” of the Empire which took several hundred years. That’s why, I think, it is an endless source of fascination for those who measure time in centuries, not nanoseconds.

In fact, one could well make the argument that the Roman Empire never truly fell. It evolved over time into what became known as the Holy Roman Empire, an empire of religious unity over much of the Western World, rather than the political and military one which the old empire represented. And when the Holy Roman Empire, which Voltaire smirked was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, ceased to be, it was replaced by other empires, notably the empires of France, England, and Spain that began with the conquest and settlement of the Americas and then expanded across the globe. By the end of the nineteenth century, European nations had colonized or created economic, military and commercial spheres of influence across much of the globe.

It is like watching a predictable ballet or opera, or even a Hollywood movie, all with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends, marked by triumph after triumph, crisis after crisis, and then the resolution of it all at the end. Crash. Most of the European empires lasted until the Second World War, and colonialism has been receding since then.

We come full circle to our question, “Why Empires Fall?” I thought about the title a bit. It could just as easily be “Why Empires Fail?” since failure is actually more important, and more difficult to answer, because it addresses the causes, not just the sequence of events, like losing battles and political cohesion that are part of the fall.

But we may just be playing semantics here. An empire falls when it becomes so self-important that it loses touch with the values that produced it. We are the destiny of the world.

There is a glowing sense of power that is irresistible, and those who get to the controls lose touch with the ancient virtues that gave their people their value and worth.

Some think that the last hundred years have marked the rise of the American Empire, driven by many factors, some intangible ones like freedom and liberty, others more easily nailed down, like popular sovereignty and the right of self-determination, some economic, like capitalism. Others say the American Empire is on the decline, and point to the fall of Rome and other empires, where hubris replaced legitimate civic pride, power went unchecked, and the morality of the people sank, into self-service, gluttony, corruption, decadence, and plain obscenity.

Maybe it’s time to take stock of what virtues marked of our nation in times past, and how we recapture or reinvent them for the future. My dad always said he wanted to leave a better place for his children. So do I. The question I ask myself, as we must all ask ourselves is: am I doing my part? And, as always, I find looking into the present and possible future a most unflattering exercise.

This article was published in my column The Port Rail as Why Empires Fall: Corruption, Not Religion in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 20, 2014.

Posted in: History