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We Should Think About Rome — But Not For Her Glories

There is much we can learn by studing Rome’s descent into oblivion.


The year in “a word,” according to a Dec. 22 Financial Times article, is “The Roman [E]mpire.” The Roman Empire also happened to tie into one of the year’s top social media trends, according to The New York Times. That’s pretty impressive, given it was only in September that people the world over were suddenly fascinated, perplexed, and amused by how often men think about it.

More than 1 billion people viewed a TikTok video encouraging women to ask the men in their lives how often they think about the subject. “Three times a day,” answers one man to his fiancé in one viral video; in another, a woman’s father explains that using the commode provokes thoughts of ” how the Romans invented the modern-day sewage system.” 

Granted, there’s plenty to commend a political entity that lasted a thousand years, which at its height controlled an empire spanning three continents and crafted technological advances that still amaze modern man. And yet, truth be told, the society from which that empire issued was already showing signs of decrepitude during the life of Christ, a century before the empire reached its greatest extent during the reign of Trajan. Rome’s greatest victories, in some respects, precipitated and accelerated its downfall. As such, they serve as a cautionary tale for those seeking to identify the traits of a thriving civilization.

Early Signs of Imperial Problems

As the story typically goes, Rome propelled herself onto the world stage via strict adherence to republican virtue and civic piety. In three wars with the Carthaginians, the republic proved her mettle, courageously suffering catastrophic losses — including approximately 50,000 in a single day at Cannae — but ultimately triumphed. Just over a century after the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C., Rome exerted total dominance over the entire Mediterranean and made significant incursions into Gaul, central Europe, and Asia Minor.

And yet, the very same expansion that occurred as Rome transitioned from a republic to an empire acted to obscure the virtues cementing her success. Originally a cultural backwater of the Mediterranean world, conquest brought her into communication with a rich diversity of ideas, beliefs, and practices that undermined her rigid, family-focused principles. Twentieth-century French scholar and member of the Académie française Henri Daniel-Rops explains in the first volume of his History of the Church of Christ:

Her conquests led Rome into a kind of spiritual no man’s land. Her intake of spiritual ideas — all those things which form the very basis of a civilization, its interpretation of life, the conception which it has of itself — came less and less from her own ancient loyalties. As they became more cultured and civilized the Romans deviated more and more from the ideal picture of their race that they had held in bygone days, regarding it now as uncouth and old-fashioned.

Even in the earliest days of the empire, Roman society was already descending into hedonism and backstabbing intrigue — the poet Sextus Propertius called the vacation city of Baiae,  frequented by indulgent, conspiring Roman elites, a “den of licentiousness and vice.” The emperor Augustus instituted laws — the leges Juliae — to combat the scourges of adultery and divorce, though with little effect.

“Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective,” observed ancient Roman historian Livy in his History of Rome

The Unexpected Curses of an Empire

The same Roman generals who expanded the empire into Europe, Asia, and Africa returned to Rome with astronomical amounts of gold. Tributes levied on eastern provinces alone amounted to annual deliveries of 90 million gold sovereigns.

“In an era when capital possessed few outlets for investment, owing to the lack of large-scale industry, gold merely enabled the common people to stop working, and the idle rich to spend riotously on dwelling-houses, food and drink and material pleasures of all kinds,” writes Daniel-Rops.

Imagine if an entire society won the lottery. Actually, you don’t even need to imagine: The citizens of the exorbitantly wealthy (and decadent) Gulf state of Qatar — which has made a fortune off oil and gas — enjoy tax-free incomes, high-paying government jobs, free health care, free higher education, financial support for newlyweds, housing support, subsidies that cover utility bills, and plush retirement benefits.

Roman wealth was based not on industrial enterprise benefiting the entire social structure but on a monopoly of gold and land. Wealth was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands — at one point, half of Roman Africa belonged to six men. There arose a small class of extremely wealthy individuals intimately connected with the government and separated by a vast financial gulf from the inferior strata of society.

“A serious lack of balance existed between a small, pleasure-loving aristocracy and the enormous mass of the people, which only received the crumbs of all these benefits of Roman civilization,” explains Daniel-Rops.

Military conquests also brought slaves to Rome in unprecedented numbers, sometimes as much as 150,000 in a single campaign. Daniel-Rops writes, “During Augustus’s reign, slaves accounted for more than one-third of the population of Rome; in Alexandria, possibly two-thirds.” Consequently, manual labor was no longer performed by the once-idealized citizen-farmer such as Cincinnatus but by a massive underclass of imported slaves. Cities, in turn, overflowed with unemployed and uprooted peasants, skilled workmen, and visiting foreigners, all of whom were parasitic clients paid for their doubtful loyalty by bread and diverted by the circus.

The addictive tendencies of indolence and ceaseless entertainment discouraged the once-fecund Romans from family life, and birth rates plummeted. By the beginning of the second century A.D., to have even three children was quite exceptional. Men of means could shirk marriage and its obligations since, as bachelors with female slaves, they possessed bed companions who could be exchanged as they pleased. And if these consorts became pregnant, abortion and exposure of newborn infants (i.e., wanton abandonment) were easy options.

Being Rome May Not Be a Good Thing

Periodic attempts by the state to curb Rome’s suicidal tendencies — such as Augustus’ leges Juliae, which offered benefits to those who married and had at least three male offspring — had little effect. The alimenta, a welfare program introduced in the late first century A.D., seems to have had similar aims but, like the efforts of Augustus, failed to encourage a significant bump in procreation. “A nation is indeed sick at heart if in order to live decently and to produce children it needs a series of subsidies and rules to enable it to do so,” argues Daniel-Rops.

A widening uneven distribution of wealth, the evisceration of an independent middle class and importation of a burgeoning servile class, the infantilization of the elites via luxury and mindless entertainment, and the vitiation of the family for the sake of freedom and pleasure — these were the (unintended) fruits of the Roman imperium. As many scholars and pundits observe, such trends are also visible in a contemporary America that is experiencing rising inequality, widespread exploitation of immigrants for cheap labor, a culture of constant amusement, and the abandonment of the family in the name of autonomy, self-fulfillment, and financial security. “We’re DINKs. We go to Trader Joe’s and work-out classes on the weekends,” says a woman in a recent video that epitomizes an America suffering the lowest birthrates in its history.

Whether or not America is Rome, the imperium is as much a cautionary tale as it is an ancient marvel. Concurrent with some of its most remarkable achievements, Rome was already steadily decaying within. Even while it continued accumulating territories, its citizens were growing ever weaker and incapable of self-government. The armies it used to expand and defend its borders became less Roman and, as a result, less allegiant to the citizens they swore to defend. It was, after all, a Roman mercenary army that sacked the eternal city in 410 A.D.

And measures, however well-intentioned, to renew those ancient Roman mores typically fell flat. “States have always shown themselves completely incapable of restoring their moral foundations once they have allowed them to weaken,” Daniel-Rops opined. If so, it would be good to reflect on Rome, but perhaps less so for her glories than for what lessons we may learn from her descent into oblivion.

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