*Two texts were used: an unabridged (six volumes) where detail was desired and an abridged text by D. M. Low for context reading.
The parallels found in the early history of the ancient republic of the Roman Empire to that of the United States today are remarkable. Author Gibbon spent the majority of his life perusing biographies, government actions and documents, societal mores, and other histories in order to delve into the causes for the decline and eventual collapse of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. The Roman Empire was a model republic, copied and sought by many, including the United States. While we did not adopt all of its ideals, some are obvious: a strong military defense, a civil code strictly enforced, great respect for education, and a deep commitment to constitutional government while retaining individual freedom.
In its infancy, Gibbon stresses that the greatness of the Roman Empire was due to its commitment to retain these principles. What happened, that the great empire lost these ideals and its place as the world leader? What lessons are in this scenario of Gibbon’s for us?
Gibbon wrote these volumes in the eighteenth century (first published in 1776) with no knowledge of the United States at all, so we cannot assume that he directed his conclusions toward us. Yet they fit like a glove. Perhaps the most striking parallel, because of its timeliness, is that the Roman Empire’s most dangerous failure was in its loss of control of its borders. The Empire allowed foreign ideologies to become rooted in its own educational and government systems (original chapters 31-34). These foreign bodies displaced the foundation principles of a strong republic that protected individual freedoms. Education was infiltrated with socialist ideas rather than fresh ideas, and new cultures were not a diverse variety but a carefully planned insidious infiltration (the first of these by Attila).
The second egregious failure was in the Empire’s giving itself over to self-indulgence. Christianity was once a strong part of the Roman Empire and even in its partner of Catholicism, there was respect for religion. Constantine made it law that Christianity was to be tolerated throughout the Empire. Yet the individuals became foolish in their prosperity and gave way to self rather than to ethic. Then Emperor Julian (361-363 A.D.) reversed the Constantine edicts and persecuted Christians and Jews and restored the practices of Pagan Idol worship. This left the society without morals and creed and the party life began. No more was the individual responsible for himself, nor was he obligated to maintain dignity (p. 699, original text). Gibbon refers to this as the “decay of taste” (ibid.) and further elaborates this to be just that, the lack of taste in art, dress, manners, and even education subjects.
There is also the matter of a constant decline in the preservation of the Empire’s history and its symbols. In chapter 71 (abridged text) Gibbon reports, “The public and private edifices, founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, and their ruin is the more visible by the relics that have survived” (p. 890). He continues a few sentences later by concluding, “Every successive age hastened the ruin of works of antiquity” (ibid.). We see a cataclysmic shift from attendance to important matters to obsession with sports, animal worship, and parties as another of the reasons Gibbon gives for the decline of this great Empire. These activities became primary rather than secondary, and important issues of defense and liberty took a back seat.
Finally, Gibbon points to the domestic hostilities (his words) that permeated the country before any action was taken to abate these crimes. Citizens lived in fear of lawlessness and its consequence to them and their properties. No ruling authority was given enough power to effectively quell the violence. The law of the land became ‘if you have something I want, I’ll either steal it from you or kill you for it.’ To his credit, Gibbon reveals that his gut instinct was the decline and fall occurred when the moral base of Christianity was disregarded more than by the outward invasions. “In comparing the two, we must pronounce domestic hostility the far more ruinous to the city. The relics of Rome, the image of her pristine greatness neither time nor the barbarian can boast the merit of this tremendous destruction; it was perpetrated by her own citizens, having done with the (pagan) battering ram what the Punic hero could not accomplish with the sword” (chapter 71, p. 898/ abridged text).