When Civilizations Collapse (Part Two): Lessons From Rome’s Fall

Like the civilizations of the late bronze age discussed in our previous article, the Roman Empire declined due to a synthesis of several factors. Economic issues, barbarian invasions, weakening cultural bonds, and political corruption all contributed to the fall of the West’s greatest empire. Two factors particularly relevant to Americans today are military overextension and government overspending.

This article is part two of a series of posts exploring the causes that have contributed to civilizations’ declines and observing parallels to our present society. Part one of the series may be found HERE.

The Edges of Empire

At its height in 117 AD, the Roman Empire covered nearly 2 million square miles. From the coasts of England to the sands of Arabia, Rome’s territory spanned diverse terrains, peoples, and climates. Imperial lands even completely encircled the Mediterranean Sea. However, this enormous land needed defending, and it was Rome’s legions who had the unpleasant duty of maintaining the empire’s borders, a job that required complex logistical planning and coordination. 

With such vast distances between Rome and its frontier, military and administrative officials were strained as barbarians continually threatened invasion. The emperor Hadrian tasked his soldiers with the construction of his famous wall in an effort to keep hostile incursions at bay, and Marcus Aurelius spent decades on campaign with his legions in order to hold onto frontier lands. Eventually the vast expenditures and complex planning needed to maintain the empire’s garrisons began to take their toll. In 285 AD, Diocletian split the empire in two halves, east and west, in the hopes that it would ease the administrative burden of Rome’s leaders. According to the World History Encyclopedia:

“Diocletian understood that a major problem in ruling a territory of the extent of the Roman Empire was its immense size. It was far too large to be ruled by just one person, so one of the first actions taken by the new emperor was to split the empire into two parts.” [1]

Though inventive, the idea did not adequately solve the problem, and peace failed to last. Barbarians soon pressured the lands around the Danube River, and over the next half-decade Diocletian battled the invaders with little long-term success [1]. By the 5th century the empire’s military was too stretched to contain the large barbarian migrations that swept through its lands. One major blow came in 439 AD when the Vandals conquered North Africa, overtaking Rome’s “grain heartland.” The failure to control essential resources like food supply was a sure signal that the end was nigh for the western Roman Empire. In his book The Inheritance of Rome, Chris Wikham writes:

 “….the conquest of the grain heartland of Africa by the Vandals in 439, which the Romans mistakenly did not anticipate and resist, seems to me to be the turning point….Army resources lessened too much after that; the balance of power changed.” [2]

Territory covered by the Roman Empire at its height in 117 AD.

The Insatiable Beast

Unsurprisingly, economic issues often go hand-in-hand with military overreach and continual warfare. In the case of Rome, massive military spending was accompanied by large public building projects. Again we turn to Diocletian to provide us with an example. 

In 284 AD Diocletian began a massive spending binge on a proposed new capital city in Anatolia called Nicomedia. To procure funding for this project, the emperor raised taxes dramatically though this failed to cover the costs of the new projects in addition to the concurrent increases in military spending. Diocletian resorted to currency debasement by shrinking the amount of silver and gold in coinage. Inflation resulted as merchants recognized the lower value of these coins and raised prices to offset the difference in actual gold and silver [3]. Eventually the Emperor resorted to price controls which ultimately failed, leading to continual economic dysfunction in the late Roman Empire.

In summation, economic turmoil was initiated by the high costs needed to maintain the empire’s lengthy borders and rash spending by the government for public projects.  

The Sequel

The post-enlightenment West borrowed many things from Rome: republican government structure, trial by jury, and beautiful architecture. Recently western nations, particularly the United States, have begun to duplicate some of the vices touched on above as well. Foreign military endeavors like those in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the U.S. trillions of dollars and untold resources while doing little to ensure the safety of American citizens and protect interests at home [4]. These failures abroad were recently on full display as the world watched a botched military handover in Afghanistan which ultimately gave the Taliban full control. Just as Rome fruitlessly battled barbarians at their furthest borders, so America failed to achieve long-term success with its middle-eastern occupations. 

Along with reckless spending abroad, domestic fiscal policy has done serious damage to the American economy. In 2021 the United States suffered from the worst inflation in decades, no doubt accelerated by the federal reserve’s printing binge in an attempt to keep the economy afloat during pandemic lockdowns [5]. The Mises Institute warns against the dangers of inflation and policies that lessen the value of money:

“When the government issues currency—promises of payment—that are neither a store of value nor a generally accepted means of payment nor a unit of measure, it not only does not create money, it destroys it by sinking the purchasing power of the poor captive citizens, who are forced to accept its notes and little pieces of paper (government officials, pensioners, etc.).” [6]

In recent years the average price of goods has exploded in the U.S. showing the extent of inflation.

Inflation ultimately destroys faith in a populace’s future because it limits their ability to save. In addition to ancient Rome, many societies have suffered serious consequences as a result of runaway inflation: Venezuela, Rwanda, The Weimar Republic (Germany), and Yugoslavia all had massive inflation within the past century. The United States government should take the threat of higher inflation rates seriously and reconsider the factors that have contributed to current rates.

Rome’s inability to manage its large size administratively and military, along with reckless financial decisions contributed heavily to its demise. The U.S. would be wise to learn from Rome’s failings and turn back from its dangerous military and financial strategies if it hopes to remain the world’s greatest power in the near future. Calm, prudent deliberation in regards to these strategies must be called for now more than ever as war drums beat in eastern Europe. Such decisions decide the fate of empires.

Books to Read

Sources

[1] https://www.worldhistory.org/Diocletian/

[2] The Inheritance of Rome p. 108 Chris Wickham

[3] https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/economic-ideas-the-ancient-romans-who-went-from-rule-of-law-to-corrupting-inflation-and-price-controls

[4] https://www.brown.edu/news/2021-09-01/costsofwar

[5] https://news.northeastern.edu/2022/01/26/what-is-causing-inflation/[6] https://mises.org/wire/when-fiat-currency-stops-being-money

2 thoughts on “When Civilizations Collapse (Part Two): Lessons From Rome’s Fall

  1. Very good analysis. Also spiritual decay is a contributing factor ..when we want to much for the wrong reasons. The cavities this cause starts the decay from inside out.❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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