I don't think Bob won that election legally. I can't believe a convicted felon would get so many votes and another convicted felon would get so few.
-Lisa Simpson, Sideshow Bob Roberts
Why did the Roman Empire fall?
The question is more complicated than it seems because there were, in Roman history, two separate political entities (three, perhaps, if you include Byzantium), both of which eventually fell. On one hand, you have the Roman Republic and on the other, you have the Roman Empire itself. Just to complicate matters, it isn't actually easy to say when the Republic became the Empire. Was it in 83/82BC, when Sulla won the first civil war; 49/44BC, when Julius Caesar won the second civil war, only to be assassinated himself; 31/30BC, when Augustus Caesar defeated Antony and Cleopatra ... or 14AD, when Tiberius Caesar succeeded Augustus as Emperor? The Romans did not, you see, point to a single moment when the Republic was finally dead, even in hindsight. They still thought of themselves as a republic long after Augustus became the first true Emperor.
To us, that may sound paradoxical. However, Augustus, learning from Julius Caesar’s mistake, was careful not to portray himself as a dictator, even though he was practically unassailable. He consulted regularly with the Senate, worked hard to pose as a simple citizen and generally did what he could to keep the appearance of republican rule in place for as long as possible. His dominance was considered far more acceptable, therefore, than the dictatorships of either Sulla or Julius Caesar. For all of his genius, however, Augustus suffered from a run of bad luck when it came to his family. His sole practical successor was the dour Tiberius and, for all of his virtues, Tiberius was ill-suited to be Emperor. Not the least amongst his flaws was a simple failure to understand that the republic was beyond recovery.
And his successors - Caligula, Claudius and Nero - were far from great.
The Roman Republic fell, in short, because the governing system Rome had evolved was simply ill-suited to the task of governing an immense empire. Rome was ruled by stiff-necked aristocrats who preferred to allow problems to fester, rather than allow someone else to claim the credit for solving them. The system produced many larger than life figures - Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Cato and Julius Caesar - but it also tried to restrain them. A man who grew too powerful would be pulled down by the combined work of his peers back in Rome - a dangerous thing to do, when the Romans had been breeding men who were prepared to fight to the last over a point of pride. Julius Caesar was quite right when he asserted he’d been forced into war. Put in a position where he had to submit or fight, he chose to fight - and, upon reaching supreme power, was assassinated. However, by this point, the death of the dictator was not enough to automatically restore the republic. Too much damage had been done.
Largely thanks to Augustus, the early years of the Roman Empire showed a considerable amount of promise and even bad emperors - Nero in particular - were not enough to bring the structure toppling down. The civil wars of 69AD, which saw four emperors crowned in rapid succession, weren’t fatal. However, as time wore on, successive problems began to emerge which rotted away at the heart of the empire. By the time the barbarians stormed Rome itself and dethroned Romulus Augustus in 476AD, Rome had weakened to the point where, again, recovery was no longer possible.
The principle causes of the collapse of the Roman Empire were many; in essence, however, I believe the core of the problem was that the Romans themselves no longer considered Rome to be worth fighting for. This should not have been surprising. The empire’s citizens were no longer honoured, but treated as serfs by their overlords. Taxed savagely, unable to meet their obligations, vast numbers of civilians were forced into debt-peonage or crushed under the immense weight of bureaucracy. Fairness and justice were no longer evident; runaway peasants were forced into banditry to survive. The Emperors themselves were so isolated from their own people that their attempts to come to grips with the scale of the crisis, when they bothered to take note, were largely ineffectual.
And, in the end, the Roman Empire died. It committed suicide.
It has always struck me as odd that Westerners, mainly Americans, have looked to Rome as a source of inspiration for their politics. George Washington, for example, held up Cato as an example of what a man should be. And yet, such comparisons are often misleading. A counterpart of Cato in 1777 would not be George Washington, but Lord North; a counterpart of Julius Caesar, Benedict Arnold. The Roman World was not the world of 1777 any more than it is our own.
But that shouldn't stop us learning from the mistakes of the past.
[People interested in a short look at the empire’s failings would be well-advised to read The Fall of the Roman Empire, by Michael Grant. The best modern narrative history of the decline and fall of Rome is The Fall of the West, by Adrian Goldsworthy.]
The problem facing the West today is centred around what has been generally called the "political class," men and women who have rarely been uninvolved in politics and very rarely have any experience outside politics and its related fields. Like the aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France, the political class has little in common with the people it rules, to the point where it doesn't have any real understanding of the problems they face. Existing in an echo chamber, they find more in common with politicians who are nominally on the other side of the political divide than non-politicians. It is hard for them to hear any dissenting voices and, when they do, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the dissenters don’t have any legitimate concerns.
This may seem paradoxical. Unlike the aristocracy of every state from Rome to the British Empire, the political class has no legal existence. A democratic state is not supposed to have an aristocracy with an inherent right to rule. However, the political class controls a great deal of the political establishment, giving it the ability to promote its selected candidates over candidates who may be favoured by the rank and file. The existence of political dynasties like the Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons - and their ability to push their children forward as their successors has been limiting the influx of new blood into the political arena. Indeed, given how savagely newcomers have been attacked by the establishment, it is easy to see how so many newcomers choose not to take part in politics.
Unsurprisingly, the results have been disastrous. A number of people who have no experience of anything outside politics - and a very specific kind of politics at that - are incapable of doing their job in anything like a reasonable fashion. Senators who don’t understand the lives of the people they purport to rule are unlikely to pass legislation that actually helps the general population. Congressmen who have no contact with their constituents are hardly likely to understand their concerns. And Presidents who have never served in the military are unlikely to grasp what it can and cannot do. The real world rarely operates on political timescales.
And when the political class uses its power to escape the consequences of its actions, or to evade laws that apply to everyone else, it merely sows the seeds of destruction.
The political class, in a very real sense, is merely the tip of an iceberg that threatens to sink the ship of state. It is buttressed by a media establishment (the mainstream media) that supports its candidates uncritically, while hammering any outsider with charges that are simply inaccurate and yet maddeningly difficult to refute. A favoured candidate can expect to have any problems in his life smoothed over - Obama’s sheer lack of experience, for example, or questions raised about his academic standing or even nationality - while anyone who raises these issues gets attacked sharply. But a candidate who is unfavoured can expect to be brutally attacked for even the tiniest of gaffes.
This too has been disastrous. President George W. Bush embarked upon a long and dangerous endeavour, but the media expected results at once. Small failures were treated as immense disasters, forcing Bush to play keep-up instead of merely learning from the problems and pushing forward. Much of Bush’s early reputation was shaped by the media choosing to present a very unfavourable picture to the world. (A problem made worse by the media rarely understanding the issues.) Obama, on the other hand, was treated so favourably by the media that he developed a truly staggering level of narcissism. His policies have been disastrous because he appears to believe that his involvement is enough to make them successful.
As I write these words (February 2016), the race for the American presidential nomination is in full swing. It has already taken on the veneer of a revolt against the elites, with the Republican base eying Trump and the Democratic base considering Bernie Sanders while the elite tries to promote Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton. Neither of the latter two are really appealing to voters, in times of trouble. They have been part of the political class for decades. (So has Bernie Sanders, to a quite considerable extent.) Indeed, Donald Trump’s coarseness - his willingness to say what he thinks and his complete refusal to apologise for anything - has made him astonishingly popular, because he appears to be standing up to the elites.
This does not mean that Trump would make a good President. But the skills needed to be a good President are not the skills needed to get elected.
The Roman Empire died, at least in part, because it rotted away from within. Our society is facing the same problems. The rise of the bureaucratic nanny-state is sapping our virility; the rise of unchallenged and unchallengeable political consensuses is stripping common sense from our world; the slow decline of education is turning our young men and women into morons; the cuts in our military make it harder for us to fight; political correctness is making it impossible to stand up and say, bluntly, that the emperor has no clothes.
And we are also facing many of the same exterior problems. Russia and China are both growing stronger, while we are at war against an Islamic ideology that seeks the complete destruction of every opposing ideology. The global economy is on very rocky ground, thanks largely to the carelessness of politicians who thought the good times would never stop. And economic migrants are flooding our borders, bringing with them ideas and cultures that cannot be tolerated, while our politicians do nothing. The situation is dire.
We are not Rome. We don’t have to go the same way. But time is short.
Christopher G. Nuttall