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Lecture 14

The Decline and Fall of Rome

One of the reasons for the success of the Roman Empire was that the Romans treated their Empire as the world. In other words, the world was equated with the Empire. This belief formed the social cement which kept the Empire sustained. However, this bond, this social cohesion, was temporary at best. There were, after all, forces outside the Roman Empire which were eating away at the Empire itself. And regardless of whether we accept the fact that Rome fell as a result of internal pressure or invasions from the outside, or both at one and the same time, one thing is abundantly clear: Rome fell, and did so with a loud noise. It would take Western Civilization nearly ten centuries to recover and refashion a world which could be the rival of the civilization of Rome.

By the third and fourth centuries AD, it is proper to speak of a Greco-Roman tradition of thought. The Romans tried to limit the influence of Greek thought in the early days of the Empire. However, over time Greek ideas joined with Roman conceptions and a new tradition of thought was forged. In some respects, the Hellenistic world became Romanized. This is just one more example of how the Romans succeeded by assimilated other cultures. Furthermore, the Greco-Roman tradition refers as much to classical and Hellenistic Greece as it does the days of the Roman Republic and the Empire. Both civilizations produced a world view which we could only call pagan. This world view was secular through and through. Gods and goddesses were common to both civilizations and yet as time passed it was the virtuous life of the good citizen that was of supreme importance. The emphasis was on living the good life in the here and now, whether in the city state or the cosmopolis.

The Greco-Roman tradition was fashioned over the one thousand year history of the classical world, the world of Greece and Rome. The Renaissance of the 14th through 16th centuries attempted to revive the ideals of the classical world, and so the humanists of the Renaissance tried to imitate the humanism of centuries past. Humanist scholars took great pains to study the texts of the ancient world, not just to "harvest" the virtuous life of classical man, but to learn classical Greek and Latin. If ancient texts needed to be studied, then they needed to be studied in the language in which they were composed. What had happened between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance was the bastardization of classical languages. As scholars, the humanists needed the classical world for its language as much as it did for its ideas.

However, it was also during the age of the Pax Romana that this pagan tradition, this Greco-Roman tradition, was joined by another important tradition, by another world view. This world view is called the Judeo-Christian tradition. That is, the ethical and ordering principles of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

The Greco-Roman tradition was secular: it proposed no one God and formal religion as we know it today, did not exist. While the Greeks would pay homage to their  many deities, as would the Romans, there is no doubt that they placed their true faith in the hands of man. In other words, humanism: man the thinker, man the doer, man the maker. For the Greeks, man was endowed with Reason, the capacity to think and use his intellect. This initially took the form of glorifying the city state: the city state was the world. Anything outside the city state was somehow inferior, barbarian. In an important respect such an attitude was narrow in focus and provided the Greeks with a tunnel vision that prevented them from further growth during the Hellenistic Age.

The Greeks were also obsessed with the personal cultivation of the individual. "Know thyself," repeated Socrates. The good man ought to seek the good life and so become a good citizen, a virtuous citizen. And a collection of virtuous citizens would constitute the virtuous city state. The only way that the good life was at all possible was through personal examination. Or, as Socrates again argued, "the unexamined life is not worth living."

Above all, the Greeks asked questions. What is knowledge? What is the state? What is beauty? What is virtue? What is justice? Was the best form of government? The Greeks, in the last analysis, were thinkers rather than doers. In time, the Greek world view came or to be based on the intellect more than it was on action. The best illustration of this world view -- a view of thought rather than of action-- was the Stoic and Epicurean therapies of the Hellenistic Age. These therapies taught resignation in the face of chaos and disorder -- they taught men to resign themselves in private reflection and thought.

The Romans, on the other hand, were doers, they were men of action. They succeeded in translating into action what the Greeks had only thought possible. The Romans also asked questions about the world, about nature, and about man. To be sure, they inhabited the same world as the Hellenistic Greeks. They understood and accepted the chaos and disorder of the world. However, they were clearly more prepared to develop their thought of the world in relation to what kind of world in which they wanted to live. The Romans also had the example of the Greeks and their history. In other words, the Romans were cognizant of what the Greeks had accomplished and not accomplished. The Greeks had no such history to which they could refer.

The end result for the Romans was that they managed to create their own world and they called it the Roman Empire. And their world view became embodied in a pagan cult. This cult was nothing less than the patriotic worship of Rome itself. And throughout the Empire we find the expression Genius Populi Romani celebrated by all Romans. If anything sustained the Empire, it was the conception of the "Genius of the Roman People." The Romans were taught to believe that the destiny of Rome was the destiny of the world and this became embodied in a civil religion which embraced the genius of the Roman people. This civil religion was a secular, pagan religion, in which all men devoted their energies toward public service to state. It was their duty to serve the state. It was virtuous. These duties consisted of service and responsibility because only through responsible service would one come to know virtue.

Despite the obvious fact that the majority of Roman emperors were scheming, devious, opportunistic, or plainly insane, the world view dominated the social life of the Roman citizen of the Empire. The history of the Empire is dotted with political assassinations, strangulations, emperors playing fiddles while Rome burned, court intrigue and rivalry not to mention a widespread incidence of downright insanity or paranoid schizophrenia. In the end, it is extraordinary that the Roman Empire existed for as long as it did. For Edward Gibbon, author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (3 vols, 1770s), the decline of Rome was natural and required little explanation: "The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident and removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long." [Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., vol. 4, ed. by J. B. Bury (London, 1909), pp. 173-174.]

It's a complicated question and has occupied the attention of historians for centuries. One thing can be said with certainty -- although Rome ultimately fell  in A.D. 476, the its decline was a process that had been going on for centuries. This goes back to the comment we've been making all along, that Roman strengths eventually became Roman weaknesses. Another thing which we ought to remember is that the Roman Empire was large, and when we speak of the fall of Rome, we are talking about the western half of the Empire. The eastern half survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453. Lastly, there is no one explanation that accounts for Rome's decline and fall.

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