Rome Was Eternal, Until It Wasn't: Imperial Analogs of Decay

The tricky part is distinguishing the critical dependencies–those resources the empire literally cannot do without–from longer-term sources of decay and decline.

In response to my recent post What If There Are No Analogs for 2024?, an astute reader nominated the Roman Empire as a fitting analog. Longtime readers know I’ve often discussed the complex history of Western Rome’s decay and collapse, for example, Why Rome Collapsed: Lessons For the Present (August 11, 2023).

Dozens of other posts on the topic stretch back to 2009: Complacency and The Will To Radical Reform (February 12, 2009)

What conclusions can we draw from recent research and the voluminous work done by previous generations of historians? Our first conclusion is simply to state the obvious: it’s complicated. There was no one cause of Western Rome’s decay and collapse. A multitude of factors generated feedback loops and responses over hundreds of years, some more successful than others.

Indeed, we cannot help but be struck by how many times impending collapse was staved off by brilliant leadership and policy adjustments. LBJ: The Mastermind of... Phillip F. Nelson Best Price: $7.91 Buy New $11.23 (as of 06:30 UTC - Details)

Our second conclusion is to distinguish between the erosive forces of decay and critical vulnerabilities that can trigger collapse. Many authors have pointed to moral decay and fiscal over-reach as sources of Rome’s eventual fall, but there were far more pressing dependencies that created potentially fatal vulnerabilities.

In the case of Western Rome, these included:

1. The depletion of the silver mines in Spain (and the eventual loss of Spain to the Visigoths). Once you run out of hard currency, your free-spending days are over. This dependence on large quantities of hard currency to fund your armed forces is a trigger for collapse.

2. Dependence on revenues from foreign trade with India, Africa and Central Asia. Western Rome’s income was highly asymmetric, depending heavily on import duties from foreign trade funneling through the Red Sea and the Roman ports in Egypt. Many of Rome’s far-flung provinces were net drains on the imperial coffers; rather than generate income, they were costs.

3. Military defeats. In his recent book The fall of the Roman Empire: a new history of Rome and the Barbarians, historian Peter Heather persuasively argues that the Roman Empire was neither on the brink of social or moral collapse, nor fatally weakened by resource depletion. What brought it to an end were the Barbarian invasions from what is now Germany and Eastern Europe, mass tribal movements triggered by the Huns pushing into Europe from the east.

Heather argues Rome’s great success eventually led to its undoing, as the small, loosely organized Barbarian tribes learned from the Romans how to form larger, more cohesive and thus more powerful social and military organizations.

We must also note Rome’s many defeats at the hands of Attila the Hun. It is not coincidence that Attila died in 453 AD and the Western Roman Empire expired in 476 AD, unable to recover from the losses incurred by the Huns, Visigoths and Vandals.

4. Dependence on wheat from North Africa. Rome depended entirely on the bread-basket of North Africa to feed its populace. Once the Vandals swept through Spain and conquered North Africa, cutting off Rome’s supply of wheat, the empire was doomed.

5. Incompetent leadership. Western Rome–and every empire, if we look closely–was critically dependent on competent leadership when faced with existential threats to the Empire’s cohesion. We can cite Marcus Aurelius and Constantine as two examples of many.

When the leadership was weak and/or incompetent, defeats and failures piled up and things fell apart. Barefoot Dreams CozyCh... Buy New $47.00 (as of 07:30 UTC - Details)

We must also note the role of the great tidal forces of demographics, disease, climate change, regional rivalries and cultural sclerosis in weakening the empire’s ability to respond to polycrisis. The rise of the Barbarian tribes led to Rome’s successful melding of diplomacy, bribes and military victories, a strategy mirrored by the Han Dynasty in China at the same time.

(I’ll have more to say on the Han Dynasty this weekend for my subscribers.)

Rome successfully Romanized the Barbarian tribes, but made the critical cultural error of dismissing this new cohort of productive Roman citizenry as second-class. Romans who happened to have been born in Gaul (France) or Germany eventually chafed at these institutional biases, and this contributed to their eventual replacement of Italian leadership and its centralized control.

Indeed, the Roman Empire did not disappear in 476 AD as much as break apart into Barbarian-led pieces of what they reckoned was a continuation of the Imperial era. This complex history is ably addressed in the remarkable volume The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000.

In some ways, the Catholic Church replaced the political-military empire as a centralized authority in Western Europe. In the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire) that continued on for another thousand years, the Orthodox Church played a central role in its coherence.

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