"The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
~ Robert A. Heinlein (1907—1988)
"The common man, finding himself in a world so excellent, technically and socially, believes it has been produced by nature, and never thinks of the personal efforts of highly endowed individuals which the creation of this new world presupposed. Still less will he admit the notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice."
~José Ortega y Gasset (1883—1955)
The glory years of Pax Romana can rightly be set as that period in Roman history from the beginning of Augustus’ reign in 27 BC to the end of stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ reign in 180 AD.
The Christian apologist Tertullian (200 AD) gives us an excellent example for how Rome was viewed during this period: “Surely a glance at the world shows that it is daily being more cultivated and better peopled than before. All places are now accessible, well known, open to commerce. Delightful farms have now blotted out every trace of the dreadful wastes; cultivated fields have supplanted woods; flocks and herds have driven out wild beasts; sandy spots are sown; rocks and stones have been cleared away; bogs have been drained. Large towns now occupy lands hardly tenanted before by cottages. Islands are no longer dreaded [as the abode of pirates]; houses, people, civil rule, civilization are everywhere.”
However, even as the ancient world basked in the glory of the Roman civilization its very foundation was decaying. The causes for this decay and the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire have long been debated by historians and are generally attributed to one or more of the following:
- Lack of Public Health which led to relatively short lives among the wealthy and debased living conditions among the lower classes and the poor.
- A marked decline in the morals and ethics among all Roman social classes as witnessed by the gladiatorial games, rampant prostitution, gluttony of the ruling class and alcoholism among all classes. Certainly the wealth of the empire contributed to various forms of social and individual debauchery. As one author put it: "The Roman Empire couldn’t stand prosperity."
- Excessive government with its accompanying political corruption which can be demonstrated through the Roman state’s use of the frumentarii or the Roman secret service. It was the frumentarii that Emperor Hadrian engaged, to collect the corn throughout Roman’s provinces. This brought them in contact with local politics, and as spies for the emperor they gathered a wealth of intelligence concerning the people and their thinking throughout the empire. This in turn earned those who spied for the emperor, the hatred of the people. The people feared and hated the frumentarii so much that when in the third century (217 AD) Macrinus appointed a former head of the frumentarii and prefect of the Praetorian Guard to the senate, he alienated a large portion of the Roman establishment against him, in effect signing his own death warrant which was summarily executed the next year. This is not to excuse the gangster rulers of the latter part of the 3rd century nor the totalitarian, socialist state created by Diocletian, Constantine, and their successors which not only aided but exacerbated the destruction of the Roman society.
- Excessive military spending with corresponding government projects and social programs which led, in due course, to inflation and then hyperinflation.
- Inflation, price controls, and the state’s attempt to completely regulate the Roman economy destroyed manufacturing along with the empire’s agricultural base. This swelled the unemployment rolls and sent large numbers of people to cities looking for either work or to get on the public dole. Such was the desperation of the empire that in 274 AD Emperor Aurelian extended the relief rolls by making government subsidy a right of heredity. He also replaced bread for the traditional wheat and added free pork, olive oil and salt to the rations, making the Roman state’s war on wealth even more pronounced.
- Inferior Technology is not often thought of as a reason for the decline and eventual collapse of the Roman Empire. However, behind all the architectural grandeur that was Rome there was deadly lack of simple technology needed to advance, protect and sustain the Roman civilization. From the early part of the second century there were no technical improvements in industry. Roman tools were poor at best: men working in quarries, mines and construction were required to use brute force to make up for inadequate tools. The Romans never devised a practical harness or horseshoes which would have made their draught animals more productive. The Roman horse collar applied too much pressure to the animal’s windpipe, causing choking, and greatly reducing the animal’s ability to haul or do any heavy work. The Roman military’s inability to develop heavy cavalry to protect the empire was due to their failure to develop the simple stirrup, a failure that would haunt them in later years.
- Civil war accompanied by external invasions.
Each of these points can be expanded or elaborated on to show their relationship to the ultimate collapse of the Roman Empire. Certainly no serious student of history would dare ignore any of these lines of reasoning in studying the fall of the Roman Empire. However, there is one further item that is rarely addressed but which should be of equal importance to understanding why great empires, like Rome, ultimately fail.
Whether we are talking about an autocracy, oligarchy, or democracy we are in the final analysis dealing with a coercive force which will become violent to attain its ends. As the state increases its power base and the demands upon its citizens, it will seek to have a domineering effect upon the human spirit. The result is the destruction of self-reliance, self-determination and self-confidence of free citizens and replacing them with a dutiful, subservient drone totally reliant on the state.
The pressure the state exerts on it subjects was not lost on Tacitus who bemoaned the servile mood of the Roman Senate under Tiberius in contrast to the character of the Senate during the building of the Empire. Even Tiberius is reported to have said in disgust of the Roman senators: "O men, ready for slavery!"
Three of the great writers of antiquity — Livy, Pliny the elder, and Tacitus — all recognized that the Roman society was becoming enslaved. Livy felt it was because of the wealth and Pliny concurred that the lack of intellectual interests was the result of the worship of wealth.
Tacitus, however, stated that "genius died by the same blow that ended public liberty" laying the blame directly at the feet of the rising tyranny of the Roman state.
However, it is the unknown philosopher of Longinus’ On The Sublime who pinpoints the cause when he says: "we of to-day, seem to have learnt in our childhood the lessons of a benignant despotism, to have been cradled in her habits and customs from the time when our minds were still tender, and never to have tasted the fairest and most fruitful fountain of eloquence, I mean liberty. Hence we develop nothing but a fine genius for flattery. This is the reason why, though all other faculties are consistent with the servile condition, no slave ever became an orator; because in him there is a dumb spirit which will not be kept down: his soul is chained: he is like one who has learnt to be ever expecting a blow. For, as Homer says — u2018the day of slavery takes half our manly worth away.’"
In Catiline’s War Gaius Sallustius Crispus opens his dissertation with this statement: "Every man who is anxious to surpass the lower animals should strive with all his power not to pass his life in obscurity like the brute beasts, which nature has made the groveling slaves of their bellies. Now our whole ability resides jointly in our mind and body. In the case of the mind it is its power of guidance, in the case of the body its obedient service that we rather use, sharing the former faculty with the gods, the latter with the brute creation…"
We may say then, without too much contradiction, that the real war between a free people and the state resides over who will control the mind: the individual or the state.
If it is the individual, society will continue to grow and flourish, while if the state wins control, the society rapidly decays, allowing the points often citied for the fall of the Roman Empire to occur.
What is reflected by these ancient authors is not merely loss of liberty but a mood of apathy. This lethargy was prevalent throughout the empire and it was strictly due to the severe paternalism of the Roman state; the result being the people had lost their will to succeed.
Curiosity was discouraged; the history of the Roman Republic which had been the foundation for the Empire was bastardized, forgotten or ignored. The accepted leaders of Roman cities were persecuted to the point they lost all their initiative and public spirit; their every thought being subject to the whims of Rome. For the general public the results were to suppress the entrepreneurial spirit, while in its place every effort was made, by the Roman citizen, to secure for himself and his family a docile and inactive life on a safe, if modest, income.
In short, almost every intellectual endeavor was discouraged, suppressed, or redirected, reducing the population to "groveling slaves of their bellies" and to the Roman Empire.
While history will judge when the American spirit of self-reliance, self-determination and self-confidence was destroyed we have an indication that its destruction is well advanced.
Recently I was sent an email asking me to take a civics quiz that was designed and issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute of Wilmington, Delaware.
While most LRC readers will find the quiz easy if not simplistic I was stunned to see the results when the quiz was issued to a random sample of Americans. Testing their "knowledge of America’s founding principles and texts, core history, and enduring institutions" showed that of the 2,508 respondents only 21 could pass it with a score 90% or better; 66 with 80 to 89.9%; 185 with 70 to 79.9% and 445 with a "D" score of 60 to 69.9%. This left an unimaginable number (1,791) who were not able to pass this basic quiz. What is worse is that the mean score of all who took the test is 49%.
Now if that wasn’t bad enough the ISI broke the score down and found that elected officials taking the test scored 5% BELOW the mean with an average of 44%.
The politicians’ weakest points were the questions dealing with U.S.-Soviet Tension in 1962, the Declaration of Independence, Sputnik and not surprisingly the definition of Free Enterprise. This from those who believe they are supernaturally endowed to be the sole lord and arbiters of our private actions and property when they should be the brunt of our jokes and exiled from our midst.
I have often lamented that politicians always emanate from the dregs of society; the historical proofs now have modern confirmation.
It is always dangerous to lay current events at the door of history and say because it happened before under these circumstances it will happen here and now. But given the recent presidential campaign and the promise of "change" trumpeted by the president-elect I suspect that we are doomed to witness the destructive exploits of another Diocletian rather than the calming influence of an Augustus.
Given also that the society that elected the president-in-waiting is dominated by blind nationalism, trendy savior-worship, an unending ignorance of history, economics and philosophy and devoid of a critical thought process, I fear history will say of this moment, "the civilization of the modern world suffered final collapse."
The American author and revolutionary Thomas Gordon wrote: "…[I]t is that we everywhere find tyranny and imposture, ignorance and slavery, joined together…" one then wonders how long America can last.