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LESSONS OF HISTORY: Why did Rome fall?

Historians and moralists revel in explaining ‘the decline and fall of Rome.’  One theory is that the Middle East was quicksand which ensnared the Empire.  The Middle East arguably distracted the emperors from other critical foreign-policy issues – such as central Europe, with its feisty Germanic tribes.  Professor Fears argues that Rome’s decline lies in the Middle East –the graveyard of empires.

What Made Rome Great…

From Italy, the Roman superpower brought peace and prosperity to a large part of the world.


First, the Empire used military dominance and ruthless force is needed.

Second, it allowed ethnic groups to govern themselves internally, respecting their local customs and values.

Third, it recognized that even a superpower must foster common shared values.  For Rome, one significant shared value was religion – almost any religion.   The Emperors amiably fostered the cults of many different divinities.   Another common thread was classical Greek culture.  It arguably offered a valuable common core for the Realm’s many peoples.   Out of this Greek culture, Rome crafted a new age of excellence in art, literature and philosophy;  Roman emperors wrote and spoke in Greek as well as in Latin.  Greek moral traditions – to include its  Stoic  philosophy — fostered another pro-Roman perspective– God had placed it first among nations and directed everyone’s place in its Empire.

The Empire was premised on an assertive, dominating concept of Roman superiority.  Among its components:

  • The Roman army was a formidable ‘weapon of mass destruction.’
  • Single-mindedness. Romans did not hesitate to employ domination, conquest, or even ethnic cleansing, if necessary.
  • The Roman economy was global. Traders traveled across the Empire, uniting many peoples all the way to China.

This mindset served Rome well.

…and What Led to its Downfall?

For over 200 years, Rome was the world’s greatest superpower,  bringing peace and prosperity.    Then, it fell.  That decline presents a dilemma for the United States.   Could the US be headed into decline, as one  strong contender for  the Presidency  suggests?

Why did Rome fall? St. Augustine argued it was due to a breakdown of morality. Edward Gibbon blamed the fall on the extinction of political liberty.   William Cooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, claimed the Caesars had failed because they extinguished political liberty.

Three other reasons suggest themselves

  1. An ultimate lack of commonality. Rome dominated various ethnic groups by a shared prosperity – but not through a common patriotism.  True, ethnic groups enjoyed the benefits of Roman rule – but many never fully incorporated Roman ways.  The Empire was emulated and praised – yet it was hated as well.


  1. Unresolved foreign-policy issues. Professor Fears contends that Rome fell because its leaders failed to solve critical foreign-policy issues in central Europe and the Middle East.   Since the second century BC, Rome’s leaders tried  military intervention, nation-building, and occupation.   Nothing brought true peace.   The Caesars continued to battle both the fiercely independent Germanic tribes and foes in the East.


  1. Middle East enemies. Another challenge to the Roman Empire was Iran, which had a formidable army and repeatedly defeated the Romans. Augustus ultimately made peace with Iran  and did everything he could to bring it within his sphere of influence.

Emperor Trajan thought of military conquest as the way to resolve Rome’s foreign policy problems; he was successful in Europe but then overextended himself, leading his army East.  Soon, insurgencies broke out, starting with Iraq    Hadrian rejected total conquest and opted for limited expansion; he built a massive wall in northern England, astutely extending Roman rule only so far.  In Germany, he erected a ring of forts and a wall along the Danube.   In the Middle East, he built fortifications along the front.   He literally walled the Roman Empire in and sought to wall out Rome’s foreign  policy difficulties.

Going, Going, Gone ….

In the second century A.D., the Empire was still holding together despite nagging problems in the Middle East.   In the third century A.D., a new native Persian dynasty ravaged the Roman Empire in the East.   Meanwhile, a coalition of Germanic tribes began to dominate in the north.   Rome beat back these attacks but the nation which emerged was fundamentally weak.  The Army was bloated and inefficient; middle-class taxes were onerous; and the bureaucracy was inept.   Above all, the all-important sense of loyalty to Rome had disappeared

By the seventh century, the Roman Empire was exhausted.  German princes now dwelled in the ruined palaces of the Caesars.   In the East, under the banners of Islam, old Roman holdings — Syria, Egypt, and North Africa — were swept away.

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