The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Time off from the hurly-burly of the markets….

I am reading the abridged version (1250 pages) of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon published in 1776 which is a long, sad commentary on the history of a nation that gave up political liberty to become a superpower.   Gibbon’s work is considered one of the greatest works on history ever written in the English language.

My brief synopsis

  • Under the republican constitution that the Founding Fathers admired and Gibbon describes, Rome enjoyed a balance (30 B.C. – 476 A.D.) between the senate and the people, with a strong executive commander-in-chief.
  • Rome rose from a tiny city-state to become by the 1st century B.C., a diverse empire with tremendous affluence.
  • This affluence corrupted every aspect of the republican political system, elections were openly bought and sold, and political factions were so strong that the Roman senate was gridlocked. (Sound familiar?)
  • Finally, the Roman people lost confidence in their government and in the republican way of life. They wanted peace and order. Rome emerged as a bureaucratic, totalitarian state.
  • The Roman people gave up their political liberty and transferred all real power to a military dictator, their emperor. The first emperor was Julius Caesar, who was followed by the great statesman Augustus. Caesar and  a new order that brought peace and prosperity to Rome.
  • The Roman Empire reached its apex in the 2nd century A.D. It stretched from the North Sea to the Sahara and from Scotland to Iran. The inhabitants were joined in common allegiance to Rome.
  • Gibbon shows us that Rome collapsed because of its involvement in the Middle East and its failure to solve the problems there. The Middle East had come to absorb all the attention of the Romans. Rome had been involved in nation building for three centuries in the Middle East and had poured vast wealth into the region while keeping large numbers of troops there, which alienated the population.
  • While the Romans were distracted in the Middle East, they ignored the growing power of Germanic barbarians along the Danube and the Rhine Rivers. In the 3rd century A.D., these northern barbarians crashed through the Roman frontiers. The Roman Empire was no more. Almost 2,000 years would pass before another republican government would emerge in the world, America.

Plenty of lessons to be learned by America in the 21st century. Giving up your liberties for security brings neither.

8 responses to “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

  1. one of my less favourite historians
    perhaps its just me but this was far too boring for me to get into, and I love! history. Very informative but.. idk
    I prefer the stuff that gets you thinking, new ideas such as ranke, evans, hobsbawm etc,
    good post though I did enjoy this summary

    • I am amazed at the path the US is following to destruction in the Middle East–following the lead of Rome. I chose to read this book because Winston Churchill learned his prose from Gibbon’s work. Yes, a tough slog at times, but I am enjoying the book.

      Another lesson, I can not find one single war (even WW II) that makes any sense. None.

      I admit ignorance of the authors you named.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I have this book b y an author that comes highly rec’d by Bill Gates…which I must confess I have not gotten to reading yet other than a few segments: “Why America Is Not a New Rome” by Vaclav Smil. I think you would really appreciate his approach as a researcher

  3. Dear Lu Li:

    I will look this book up. I want to learn of another opinion. I hope the author is right. I just hope America stops all its wars (to keep us “safe”).

  4. I am always seeking and welcoming the opposing argument to mine.

    Why America Is Not a New Rome (Hardcover)
    This is a really strange book. I found it in part almost absurd. That is because Smil made direct comparisons between the U.S. and the Roman Empire. And, he unsurprisingly found the Roman Empire to be a really primitive society while the U.S. is an advanced one. Smil repeats several times that the U.S. GDP per capita and energy consumption per capita are over 50 times what the Romans were. And, Americans lifespan is three times the Romans. This type of direct comparison without accounting for a two millennia gap in historical context is indeed absurd. The citizens of any developed modern country enjoy a living standard that is a multiple better vs what the Romans’ was. This is self-evident.

    Smil moves on to richer intellectual territory by contrasting the essence of both entities. While Rome was indeed a conquering empire, the U.S. is not. The Romans needed more territory, more slaves, and more conquered armies to sustain Rome. The Romans extracted far more from their acquired territories than they gave back to them. Meanwhile, the U.S. is not an empire. It has not expanded beyond its border. The U.S. is temporarily occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, just as it occupied Japan and Germany after WWII, for the sole purpose of shoring up those countries back to sovereign independence. Contrary to the Romans behavior, the U.S. has spent far more on those lands than they received (Marshall Plan, Millennium Fund, foreign aid). Smil also mentions other wide discrepancies between the two entities. Romans were surprisingly lacking in innovation. They only developed a few civil engineering application from the Greeks geometry. Meanwhile, the U.S. is a worldwide agent of change due to leading technological innovation.

    Next, Smil moves on to interesting revisionism. Rome was not such a strong empire after all. There were several competing empires at the time including: a) the Parthian/Sasanid empire in the Middle East and Central Asia; b) the Gupta empire in India; and c) the huge Han empire in China (page 159). Similarly, the fall of Rome represented only the partial fall of the Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire kept on thriving a millennium after the fall of Rome.

    Another area where the two concepts differ is regarding their respective decline. The Western Roman Empire collapsed abruptly in a similar fashion as the USSR did in the early 90s. By comparison, the U.S. is not declining per se. The U.S. capabilities on all front are still increasing. It is just that the whole world is now developing rapidly and catching up. As a result, the U.S. share of world GDP has decreased from 28% in 1950 to 22% currently. Nevertheless, U.S. share has held up pretty steady since 1980. Thus, the U.S. decline if it is one at all is very slow. It certainly does not entail the collapse of an empire for two simple reasons. First, there is no empire to speak off and second there is no prospective collapse. The U.S. economy, military, society are unlikely to “collapse.” The “imperial overstretch” metaphor is of limited applicability regarding the U.S. as its defense spending currently represents much less than 5% of GDP.

    Smil argues that Pax Americana is far more valuable than Pax Romana ever was. When the Western Roman empire collapse, it did not leave much of a footprint on the history of civilizations. Meanwhile, if the U.S. leadership would truly evaporate, it would have severe consequences. The U.S. has developed a set of practices in commerce, trade, law, technology that have positively affected the whole world.

    Overall, Smil’s book fulfill his mission of deconstructing the Rome vs U.S. parallel. His historical investigation uncovers that no matter how you look at it, this comparison is truly meaningless.

    If this subject interests you, I also recommend two excellent books. First, Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World does an excellent job of contrasting the U.K. in the 19th century vs the U.S. in the 20th. This contrasting analysis is far more fruitful than Smil’s the U.S. vs the Roman Empire. Second, Carroll Quigley’s EVOLUTION OF CIVILIZATIONS, THE is a seminal book on historical analysis that studies the life cycle of civilizations and empires.

  5. Thank you, I have been looking for info about this subject matter for ages and yours is the best I’ve located so far.

  6. I would like to recommend this book which offers very insightful analysis focusing on the ‘why’ rather than ‘what/ how’ of Rome’s governance

    Grand Strategy of Roman Empire by Edward Luttwack

    Incidentally this is also strongly recommended by Harris Kruppy who runs an insightful blog Adventures in Capitalism

  7. nice work, carry on the great site.

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