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Why Did Rome Fall—And Why Does It Matter Now? [Victor Davis Hanson]
pajamasmedia.com ^ | February 11, 2010 | Victor Davis Hanson

Posted on 02/12/2010 5:58:58 AM PST by Tolik

Count the ways

A German scholar twenty years ago listed, I recall, some 210 reasons for the collapse of the Western empire. Readers, you have heard many of them, plausible and otherwise—corruption, civil strife, Germanic barbarians, Christianity, lead in the pipes of the elite, etc.

Any such discussion is also predicated on two other twists: the Eastern Empire at Constantinople went on for nearly another 1,000 years until the 1453 sack by the Ottomans. And for the last twenty years, revisionists have disputed Gibbon’s notion of a dramatic “fall” in the West, and argued instead that it was a “transition” as the “barbarian” “other” was insidiously assimilated into what would emerge in the latter Dark Ages as “Europeans”.

The East certainly had more defensible borders with the Danube and the Hellespont. Constantinople was far better fortified naturally and artificially than was Rome; the defense of Byzantium could rely to a greater degree on naval forces. And greater wealth was to be had in Asia and Egypt than in the northwestern provinces.

How could Christianity have caused the Western ‘fall’ when a very Christian East survived? (So I postpone here discussion of that crux of why the East enjoyed another 1000 years (e.g., larger population, greater wealth, less civil strife, more defensible borders, fewer Germanic enemies, etc.), given it shared many of the same pathologies of culture as the West.)

Them and us

My concern, however, is instead with the indisputable decline in material culture in Britain, Iberia, Gaul, Italy and North Africa from the 4th-5th century AD onward, with the end of strong government that had resulted in everything from secure borders to internal calm (the sort of world that St. Augustine in Tunisia saw ending at his death).

Rather than rehash Gibbon, or review the spate of recent books on Rome’s decline and our own supposed end, I throw out a few general notions.

Luxus

The Romans themselves by the first century AD (cf. Horace to Livy to Petronius to Juvenal) felt that the enormous influx of unearned wealth from conquered provinces had undermined the old republican virtues of small farmers and merchants (e.g. the old yeoman with four kids and a wife on five acres of grain now either devolved into the urban unemployed spectator in the Coliseum at Rome on the dole or evolved into the sterile estate owner with 50 slaves and 200 acres of wine grapes and an expensive pasture with a herd of beef cows.)

So the rise of latifundia, and the influx of unheard of wealth and slaves, gradually, in the ancients’ own view, created a dependent class on the dole and corruption among the elite. “Decline” as seen in the ancient mind was not inevitable, and was almost seen as a moral question—material progress resulting in ethical regress.

A Pretty Slow Fall

Yet Rome did not fall for four centuries after its moralists wrote of its decadence and decline. Why the resilience?

Entitlements and official corruption were for centuries subsidized by the profits accruing from global standardization and Romanization—brought about by the implementation and imposition of Roman law, order, and commerce throughout the Mediterranean. As long as the empire was cohesive, it brought in thousands yearly into its sphere of influence.

Those from the Black Sea to the Nile and from Portugal to Iraq were now subject to habeas corpus, a standard official language, regularization in weights and measures, and security on roads and the seas. The centuries-long result of such Romanization is easily discerned in the later historians from Ammianus to Zosimus, who remarked on both widening prosperity and a persistent moral crisis, rather than the dangers of material impoverishment.

We Are All Romans Now

So such global uniformity created real wealth in newfound places faster than such bounty could corrupt the citizens in the old Italian core to the degree to bring down what was now a world system. In other words, the creation of entirely new cities like Leptis or the growth of Asian centers such as Ephesus, brought previously unproductive tribal folk into the Roman system at precisely the time old Romans were no longer doing the things that had once created their own vibrant culture that swept the Mediterranean—the ancient version of the Chinese youth working 10 hours in an Adidas factory while an American counterpart is still “finding himself.”

One can see the resultant transition in the center of power— emperors mostly were born in the provinces, wealth centers were increasingly found in Asia and Africa, and good soldiers were no longer native Latin-speakers. The West taught the East, and the East soon became not only the more productive hemisphere of the empire, but also the more enthusiastic upholder of being Roman itself.

Petronius’s Satyricon (ca. AD 60) is a glimpse into the world of tough-minded Asian immigrants who had created fortunes in business—and who were desperately (and crudely) trying to buy into the snotty aristocratic and bankrupt world of fossilized Old Rome.

Americanization

The point? We see something like this today. What made American culture boom through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were traditional American values like the Protestant work ethic, family thrift, limited and stable government, equality of opportunity rather than result, lower taxes, personal freedom, opportunity for advancement and profit, and faith in American exceptionalism.

But the cloning and spreading of this system after WWII (“globalization”) did two things: literally billions of non-Westerners adopted the Western mode of production and began, in economic terms, becoming far more productive in creating valuable manufacturing goods, food, and exporting previously unknown or untapped natural resources; in addition, the vast rise in population added billions to the world’s productive work force.

Two, this influx of imported goods and inclusion of hundreds of millions into the American orbit enriched the United States in unimaginable ways. In my own life, the very notion that I would have a tooth implant rather than one of my grandfather’s poorly constructed false teeth is mind-boggling. We once huddled around a 19-inch fuzzy black and white TV to watch 4 days of the JFK funeral in 1963 in a small 800 square foot house; now today I have 2 plasma 500-chanel cable TVs. Poverty, as I saw it as a boy in Selma in 1960, might be defined by occasional homes with outhouses in the back yard, gravel rural roads, no TVs and rampant illiteracy among those over 30.

Today, the “poor” as I see them daily at Wal-Mart and Food-4-Less in Selma (a poor town in a poor county in poor central California) buy blue-ray DVD players, have to buy food-stamp subsidized sirloin rather than rib-eye (as I can attest watching 5 carts ahead of me in line tonight), and drive used 2000 Tahoes and 2001 Yukons rather 2010 Honda Accords. Government subsidies for housing, food, transportation, etc., coupled with cheap Chinese and Indian imported consumer goods, have for a time been substituted for the old manufacturing jobs or resource-based work (e.g., we don’t make steel, we increasingly curtail farming, we don’t drill, etc.). In other words, we are enjoying a lifestyle undreamed of by our grandparents who had values quite different from our own—a result of globalization, advances in technology, and massive borrowing and debt.

The Tab

But as in the case of Rome, there is a price for all these sudden riches. Just as the Iberians, and Libyans and Thracians were hungrier and more enterprising than Italians back in the bay of Naples, so too we, the beneficiaries of this wealth, lost the values that were at its heart, in a way that the Indians, Chinese, and others have not–yet. Our youth in schools are not so excited by the notion of creating 100 new nuclear power plants, creating new mountain reservoirs, building new railroads and highways, or eager to rebuild the steel industry, or dreaming of increasing food production or eager to mine more ores—instead the emphasis in our schools is more on race/class/gender engineering, regulation, redistribution, etc, all of which in classical terms is not necessarily wealth creation.

We are now borrowing nearly $2 trillion a year to do things like ensure the 84-year old has a hip replacement—nearly half of it from the Chinese where 400 million have never been to a Westernized doctor. We spend $45,000 to incarcerate the felon in California, to meet utopian court-ordered mandates. As imperial Romans, we are felt to be owed a standard of living, even as our own daily habits would no longer necessarily translate into such largess, even as those on the periphery have learned what made America so wealthy from 1950 to 1990.

Where does it all end? I have no idea, but offer only competing scenarios: 1) as our debt becomes unsustainable, we react and increase the retirement age, cut spending and entitlements radically, and renew our work ethic (impossible by choice, made possible by necessity), and enjoy a renaissance; 2) we become a UK-like museum, with witty cynical observers, as the new giants in Asia produce the next Microsoft, Exxon, and Ford, and we fade; 3) India and China discover that they too have a rendezvous with suburban blues, environmentalism, consumer regulation, and a pampered citizenry, and there is some sort of shared global postmodernism.

We inherited a wonderful infrastructure from our parents. A superb system of politics and economics was likewise given to us at birth. Many of us try to copy our grandparents and parents whose values and work ethic we increasingly eulogize. But against all that is that Roman notion of luxus, untold wealth and leisure that we see juxtaposed with shrill cries and accusations that we are too poor, exploited, and in need of someone else’s income. The wealthier we become, the louder and angrier we become that we are not even more wealthy.

In short, what ruined Rome in the West? Lots of things. But clearly the pernicious effects of affluence and laxity warped Roman sensibility and created a culture of entitlement that was not justified by revenues or the creation of actual commensurate wealth—and the resulting debits, inflation, debased currency, and gradual state impoverishment gave the far more vulnerable western empire far less margin of error when barbarians arrived, or rival generals marched on Rome. For a while the Romanization of the wider Mediterranean subsidized this ennui, but eventually the old western and southern provinces neither could protect what they had created nor could continue to be as productive as in the past nor believed that being Roman was any better than the alternative.

A State of Mind

The strange thing is that these wild swings in civilization are at their bases psychological: decline is one of choice rather than necessity. Plague or lead poisoning or famine did not destroy Rome. We could balance our budget tomorrow without a great deal of sacrifice; we could eliminate 10% worth of government spending that is not essential; we could create our own energy with massive nuclear power investment, and more extraction of gas, oil, and coal. We could instill a tragic rather than therapeutic world view that would mean more responsibilities rather than endlessly more rights. We could do this all right—but too many feel such medicine is worse than the malady, and so we probably won’t and can’t. An enjoyable slow decline is apparently  preferable to a short, but painful rethinking and rebirth.


TOPICS: Editorial
KEYWORDS: americanempire; godsgravesglyphs; history; romanempire; rome; statism; vdh; victordavishanson; welfarestate
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1 posted on 02/12/2010 5:58:58 AM PST by Tolik
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Victor Davis Hanson:

Just a partial list: http://www.freerepublic.com/tag/victordavishanson/index:

Why Fear Big Government? The more of it, the more dangerous and creepy our lives become
The Trouble With Elitist Theories. Nobody likes to be lectured by those claiming superior wisdom but lacking common sense
Victory — How Quaint an Idea! Defeating Islamic terrorism is not only definable and possible, but closer than ever before
Partisanship, Then and Now
Civilization’s Lies [Victor Davis Hanson on the West embracing noble lies not squaring with reality]
America Rides Off into the Sunset. The only people excited about the “change” in America's foreign policy are the world’s bad actors
Mr. President, Words Matter. Obama, the rhetorician, forgot that people might actually take seriously what he said
Our Obama Saga [Victor Davis Hanson dissects Obama, painfully, again]
The Obamarang. [Victor Davis Hanson dissects, deconstructs, ridicules and demolishes Zero’s lies]
Trashing the Job Makers. The Obama administration’s tax-talking frenzy has left business owners feeling uncertain
Post-election Thoughts (Liberals do not understand populist outrage. Bloodletting will Continue)
Our Philosopher-King Obama. He doesn’t mind pushing noble legislation that most people oppose
Why The Great And Growing Backlash? What Scott Brown’s election portends for the Obama agenda
"Let me be perfectly NOT clear" & "Make lots of MISTAKES about it" [Victor Davis Hanson on Obama's lies]
Truths We Dare Not Speak. Five propositions that simply have become taboo
2010: Our Year of Decision
Beating the Dead Terrorist Horse. September 11 taught us many lessons. To our peril, we have forgotten them
A Humpty-Dumpty View of the World
2009 Chickens and Their 2010 Roost
Where Did These Guys Come From? The Origins of Obamism
The War Against the Wannabe Rich. Why attack the productive classes who want to be rich?
The Long March From California to Copenhagen [Hanson on debate between capitalism and socialism]
The Palin Wonder
Why Are We Tiring of Obama?
If Iran Refuses To Cooperate, Block Its Ports
Riding the Back of the Tiger [Victor Davis Hanson on Obama not understanding What Causes Wars...]
What Bush Inherited, and What He Left Left Behind
Who Are ‘They’? To Obama, “they” are responsible for all our troubles. Problem is, “they” are most of us
Afghan Mythologies. We have everything we need to defeat the Taliban.
The Discreet Charm of the Left-wing Plutocracy
Truman and the Principles of U.S. Foreign Policy. Jimmy Carter rejected the postwar consensus. President Obama appears to be following a similar path
Dr. Barack and Mr. Obama - The backlash is sharp as voters learn that Obama is not the man they thought he was
Obama and "Redistributive Change". His real agenda
The War Against the Producers
President Palin’s First 100 Days. Imagine if Sarah Palin had Obama’s record
Thoughts About Depressed Americans
Our Battered American [gets angrier - Must Read Rant]
Just a partial list. Much more at the link:  http://www.freerepublic.com/tag/victordavishanson/index
2 posted on 02/12/2010 6:00:11 AM PST by Tolik
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To: neverdem; Lando Lincoln; SJackson; dennisw; kellynla; monkeyshine; Alouette; nopardons; ...

 

  Ping !

Let me know if you want in or out.

Links:   

FR Index of his articles:  http://www.freerepublic.com/tag/victordavishanson/index
NRO archive: http://author.nationalreview.com/?q=MjI1MQ==
Pajamasmedia:  http://pajamasmedia.com/victordavishanson/
His website: http://victorhanson.com/

3 posted on 02/12/2010 6:00:41 AM PST by Tolik
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To: SunkenCiv; LS

You might be interested - PING


4 posted on 02/12/2010 6:02:27 AM PST by Tolik
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To: Tolik; Deb
VDH is:


5 posted on 02/12/2010 6:03:40 AM PST by Servant of the Cross (the Truth will set you free)
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To: Tolik

Once again, outstanding insight and analysis from VDH.


6 posted on 02/12/2010 6:04:34 AM PST by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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To: Tolik
-- wild swings in civilization are at their bases psychological: decline is one of choice rather than necessity --

Quite true. Not that the choice is "I want to decline," but rather, the choice is to abandon what should be immutable values and principles. See, in the US, the wholesale abandonment of the principles meant to be shored up by the Constitution. Rather than a weak central government, we have a strong one. See too, as James Burnham pointed out in Suicide of the West - when a civilization (and I submit this applies to countries as well) stops asserting itself as superior over other - when diversity is embraced as a strength - then there WILL be declines in order and in standard of living.

7 posted on 02/12/2010 6:07:09 AM PST by Cboldt
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To: Tolik
Duh! Rome fell because the people lost interest in governing and became interested in what they could get out of government...as Juvenal said in his Satire X.
The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now concerns itself no more, and longs eagerly for just two things - bread and circuses!
Juvenal, Satires
Roman poet & satirist (55 AD - 127 AD)

8 posted on 02/12/2010 6:08:35 AM PST by Sudetenland (Slow to anger but terrible in vengence...such is the character of the American people.)
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To: Tolik

Socialism, or rather, the type of cultural thinking, decline, and weakness that Socialism brings. The Romans had their own brand of socialism. Bread and Circuses...


9 posted on 02/12/2010 6:11:51 AM PST by Paradox (ObamaCare = Logan's Run ; There is no Sanctuary!)
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To: Tolik

Great!!! I always find it interesting how the Western Roman Empire lasted so long with all the instability and deadly infighting at the top. It would be nice to be Emperor but the minute you were on the throne you had a big bulls eye on you and your life expectancy would be measured in months.


10 posted on 02/12/2010 6:11:54 AM PST by C19fan
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To: Tolik

The Romans themselves by the first century AD (cf. Horace to Livy to Petronius to Juvenal) felt that the enormous influx of unearned wealth from conquered provinces had undermined the old republican virtues of small farmers and merchants (e.g. the old yeoman with four kids and a wife on five acres of grain now either devolved into the urban unemployed spectator in the Coliseum at Rome on the dole or evolved into the sterile estate owner with 50 slaves and 200 acres of wine grapes and an expensive pasture with a herd of beef cows.)
___________________________________________________________

Were they more productive than we are today? Because a rancher in Texas with 200 acres is not exactly able to support 50 slaves and be a sterile estate owner.


11 posted on 02/12/2010 6:13:16 AM PST by Woebama (Never, never, never quit)
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To: Tolik
Read this and find out:


12 posted on 02/12/2010 6:24:38 AM PST by frogjerk
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To: Joe 6-pack

I agree, I think this is the most insightful thing from a contemporary writer that I’ve read this year.


13 posted on 02/12/2010 6:26:30 AM PST by Liberty1970 (http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/lydiablievernicht)
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To: Tolik

Hammer meets nail.


14 posted on 02/12/2010 6:27:46 AM PST by sitetest (If Roe is not overturned, no unborn child will ever be protected in law.)
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To: Tolik

Thanks for posting. VDH is always a good read.


15 posted on 02/12/2010 6:31:32 AM PST by Crolis ("Nemo me impune lacessit!" - "No one provokes me with impunity!")
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To: Liberty1970
VDH is good when he comments on current events, but his forte is in classical studies, so I truly enjoy when he correlates an event or circumstance from Greco-Roman history to our society.

Many (especially on this forum) decry the study of liberal arts like history, literature, aesthetics, etc., but the problem is not the discipline, merely the way they are currently taught. They are in many ways the underpinnings of our civilization, and Hanson's body of work echoes Santayana's famous admonition that, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

16 posted on 02/12/2010 6:33:58 AM PST by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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To: Tolik
Where does it all end? I have no idea, but offer only competing scenarios: 1) as our debt becomes unsustainable, we react and increase the retirement age, cut spending and entitlements radically, and renew our work ethic (impossible by choice, made possible by necessity), and enjoy a renaissance; 2) we become a UK-like museum, with witty cynical observers, as the new giants in Asia produce the next Microsoft, Exxon, and Ford, and we fade; 3) India and China discover that they too have a rendezvous with suburban blues, environmentalism, consumer regulation, and a pampered citizenry, and there is some sort of shared global postmodernism.

I hope for Option 1!

17 posted on 02/12/2010 6:33:59 AM PST by Rummyfan (Iraq: it's not about Iraq anymore, it's about the USA!)
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To: Sudetenland

But still your quotation is hundreds of years before the final fall of Rome. The Western Empire survived into the 400s because it was still Roman. It fell when the peninsula was flooded with those who did not consider themselves Roman but yet had the defacto status of freemen.

Do we have more and more citizens who do not call themselves Americans?


18 posted on 02/12/2010 6:35:43 AM PST by Monterrosa-24 (...even more American than a French bikini and a Russian AK-47.)
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To: Tolik

Good analysis, but I would quibble with one small point - “The East certainly had more defensible borders with the Danube and the Hellespont”

The Danube was no barrier. The Goths crossed it with ease, and the Bulgars used it to hit the Byzantines time and time again.


19 posted on 02/12/2010 6:41:44 AM PST by Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus (We bury Democrats face down so that when they scratch, they get closer to home.)
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To: Tolik

VDH does some really fine writing sometimes. This isn’t one of those.

About here: “One can see the resultant transition in the center of power— emperors mostly were born in the provinces...” I lost patience waiting for VDH to mention the Roman military, which deserves mention and most of the credit for the situation he’s exploring (including the origins and stations of numerous emperors).

By the way, Mr. H., if you’re reading: please don’t preface your commentary with so much disclaimer about what you’re NOT about to comment upon. We’ll figure that out.


20 posted on 02/12/2010 6:44:06 AM PST by 668 - Neighbor of the Beast (STOP the Tyrananny State.)
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