How Does a Civilization Die? Part I: The Decline
So Part I of this essay shows you how a strong free people transitions into an empire. Its successes and growth eventually channel its development into a complex social construct that requires interdependence and eventually destroys freedom and individuality in exchange for collective security and stability. And with the loss of individuality and initiative there comes a certain passivity and fatalism.
By the 120 A.D. the Roman Empire was said to be at its height. Trajan was a warrior emperor. He conquered what is Romania and defeated the Parthians thereby adding Mesopotamia (Iraq) to the empire. He was enlightened in his choice of successor picking a wise ruler instead of just going with familial loyalty. As far as anyone could tell the empire would last forever and eventually encompass the entire world. But within sixty years the roman world would be plunged into internal and external conflict from which it would never wholly recover. Its vitality quickly diminished and its intellectual, cultural and economic levels would all retreat from the high points they had reached during the republican period.
Many historians attribute this ebb to a plague in the second century A.D. Others say that the various barbarian incursions were responsible. I think they are mistaking effects for the cause. The Germanic tribes and Huns were no more powerful or numerous than the Carthaginians or the Gauls of previous times. In fact under the circumstances of the republican times these same peoples would have been eventually absorbed along the frontier of roman territory and converted into subjects and eventually citizens.
And under normal circumstances, the roman army was still an effective fighting force (although much diminished from its earlier might). So how was it dismantled by illiterate barbarians and who didn’t have the where with all to coin their own money or make their own arms?
The short answer was that the roman people didn’t know what to do. Whether they were the slaves of roman land owners or germanic overlords they were still slaves. And slaves don’t drop their ploughshares and grab swords to fight off invaders. They keep ploughing and hand over the fruits of their labor to the landlord regardless of whether he’s named Romulus Augustus or Odoacer. And long before the end, the lack of martial spirit had become so typical that the roman army took to outsourcing their work to the very barbarian tribes that they were supposed to be defending against.
Now let’s look at the United States.
I can remember hearing that during World War I young American men were hoping that the U.S. would get involved so that they would have the chance to fight. My own grandfather who was under-aged enlisted under the pseudonym of Charlie Young in order not to miss out on the adventure. What about today. Now granted, after the 9-11 attacks thousands of patriotic young men enlisted and did their part proudly. But look at the Millennials. They’ve been brought up to equate assault with saying “mean things.” How does someone who thinks in terms of “micro-aggressions” handle the Hun at the door? He doesn’t.
Economically, the globalist corporations and the last few administrations have dismantled almost all the industries that formerly employed millions of middle class Americans and shipped them to China and Mexico. With the help of Obamacare and the tax code they are now finishing off the small and medium sized companies that are left. Pretty soon the only ones not on welfare will be government emploees.
Socially, the first and second amendments are under attack and eventually we won’t be allowed to say or think anything the government doesn’t like. And without guns we’ll never get to change that situation.
So yeah, that’s sort of where the Romans started on the downward road to medieval serfdom. I think realistically we still have a few more years to change course. But I think it’s hard to be optimistic.
As a sort of exhibit of what the situation looked like in the final days of the Roman Empire I think the following example is instructive.
About 450 A.D. Atilla the Hun, the Scourge of God was sacking and despoiling the cities of both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. This almost exactly coincides with when historians mark the end of the Western Empire and the beginning of the Germanic kingdom of Italy.
Anyway, the Eastern Roman Emperor sent a delegation to Atilla’s camp to negotiate tribute to limit the Hunnish incursion. One of the delegates was a Greek named Priscus who wrote a history of his times that has survived. His description of this delegation includes his meeting with a renegade. This was an eastern roman citizen of greek descent who had been captured when the Huns sacked Viminacium (a city on the Danube). He adopted the Hun lifestyle. He was now a full member of Atilla’s court.
Priscus questions the renegade about his life. The renegade defends the Hunnish lifestyle and attacks the Roman institutions. He defends the life of a marauder describing how after battle the warriors can enjoy their spoils in leisure. Even balancing in the hardships and dangers of war the life was good. He compares this to how the Romans in time of war suffer from the poor quality of the army and generals and if their army is defeated the civilians have no arms of their own to defend themselves. In peace time they are burdened with crippling taxation and the laws and the courts are hopelessly rigged against the common man. It was not the life you would choose.
Priscus answers these charges by defending the fairness and well-meaning nature of the roman law and claims that the divisions of society are necessary for the efficient and proper function of life.
The renegade grants that in theory the roman world should be a good place but he concludes by saying that the rulers were corrupt and had ruined the roman world.
Looking at this window into the past it’s hard not to draw parallels to our own time. In theory all the things we do increase fairness and safety but in reality they damage the health of the nation. The government restricts freedom and amasses power into its own hands. The people become less able to improve their own lot and control their own destiny. They become more dependent on an all powerful state and less capable of acting independently in an emergency. Sound familiar?
So this is how a civilization dies. It regiments the populace into castes like insects in a hive and when a catastrophe disrupts the pattern of normal life the whole structure collapses like a deck of cards. The inhabitants lack the flexibility or will to adapt and save themselves and their world by changing.