What Could America and Britain Learn From Rome's Fall?
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Even 2,000 years later, the greatness of ancient Rome fires people's imaginations. The Roman Empire's impressive ruins dot the landscape of Europe and the Mediterranean with roads, aqueducts and amphitheaters. By around A.D. 180, the city of Rome likely became the first city of a million people.
Within this City of Seven Hills, the famous Colosseum housed up to 50,000 spectators for sporting events. And possibly a quarter million fans watched chariot races at the nearby Circus Maximus.
In a few centuries this would come to an end. The official date for Rome's fall is A.D. 476, when the Germanic Chief Odoacer made himself king after deposing the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus. For centuries historians have analyzed Rome's past to explain why such an enormous empire of such civilization and wealth collapsed into primitive barbarism.
The story of Rome's fall isn't just a history lesson. It's important for us to understand today. Could the same forces that turned Rome into ruins also take down Britain, which not long ago ruled a fourth of the world? Or what about America, which is still the world's leading military and economic power?
If American and British citizens think they're invincible, they're in as bad a place as the Romans were when their empire reached its peak. Today, the same forces that helped to destroy Rome are undermining America and Britain. Can they learn from the past so they don't repeat it?
Creeping government control over citizens' lives
What do America and Britain have in common with ancient Rome? One factor is the way government expands its role to expand its control over the lives of citizens.
During the centuries after the first Roman emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14), the empire became more heavily regulated. Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) supported using coercion to finance legions, pay the civil bureaucrats and support a large, imposing palace court.
In A.D. 332, Emperor Constantine helped to lay the foundation for medieval serfdom by binding farmers to the soil. Finishing the process that Diocletian began, Constantine ordered the sons of farmers to become farmers, the sons of soldiers to become soldiers, the sons of bakers to become bakers, and so on. The members of town councils couldn't quit their positions. Often they had to make up for shortfalls in the collections of local taxes out of their own pockets. Individuals couldn't change occupations or even leave their place of birth.
Over time, this expansion of government control and regulation turned the empire into a type of prison for tens of millions of its citizens. The already-high taxes roughly doubled in the 50 years after Diocletian.
Of course, lack of freedom in the English- speaking world today isn't that extreme. But many of the trends over the past 100 years or so are ominous.
Consider how government has grown progressively bigger and more powerful. One way to measure this is by looking at government expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). For the United States, in less than a century this ratio quadrupled from under 9 percent in 1913 to over 40 percent in 2010. Such numbers hold serious implications for the future of Western democracies. Freedom could be damaged by the fact that lawmakers are letting regulatory bodies make law with little or no oversight.
Note an example from 1932. A British Parliamentary committee found that Parliament delegated law-making authority because "many of the laws affect people's lives so closely that elasticity [i.e., arbitrary power] is essential" (quoted by F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 2007, p. 107).
Arbitrary power is essentially unrestricted legislative authority. Think about the long-standing trend of more and more laws that are too complex for most to understand. In America, that can be measured in part by the number of pages of regulations issued in the Federal Register annually and the size of the IRS income tax code.
In recent years the Federal Register—a compilation of federal government regulations—has grown to around 80,000 pages. The IRS tax code includes some 3.4 million words and, according to its own documentation, forces American taxpayers and businesses to spend about 7.6 billion hours each year complying with its filing requirements—the equivalent of almost 4 million full-time jobs.
As any American who has traveled through an airport since the 9/11 terror attacks has seen, times of crisis can lead to vast expansion of government control over the lives of citizens.
What if another disastrous national security or economic crisis hits America or Britain? History shows that such crises could be followed by a headlong descent into societal regimentation along the lines of Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany. No one should assume what author Sinclair Lewis gave as the title of his 1935 novel about a fascist takeover of America: It Can't Happen Here.
Destroying personal wealth by currency inflation
Inflation occurs when governments dilute the money supply by creating more money, typically to finance more government spending. With more dollars (or pounds, or euros) chasing the same amount of products, prices on those products naturally rise.
Like many modern politicians frustrated by inflation, Diocletian tried to prevent prices from rising. The Law of Maximum Prices (A.D. 310) threatened death penalties against people who charged too much for food.
However, the Roman government's own decisions had been the primary cause of rising prices. The empire systematically devalued silver coinage for decades, since government expenses chronically exceeded government income. From the time of Augustus to Diocletian, the denarius (Roman currency) fell from being 100 percent silver to only 5 percent silver. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) alone knocked down its value by 25 percent.
We see that same pattern at work today when governments run huge and inflated budget deficits and "print money" to finance the added debt.
In recent years the Federal Reserve initiated three programs of "quantitative easing" (QE1, QE2 and QE3) designed to stimulate the U.S. economy. As a result, from 2008 to 2012 America's central bank hiked the money supply by 61 percent, and the "monetary base" by more than 200 percent. QE3, announced in September 2012, in effect creates out of thin air $40 billion a month to inject into the U.S. economy. The program is open-ended, meaning it will continue indefinitely.
These increases will lead to future inflation, meaning higher prices for everything. America's federal government has run up over $5 trillion of deficits (about 9 percent of its annual GDP) in its four most recent fiscal years—more than $4 billion per day. Its total debt passed $16 trillion in 2012 and now exceeds the nation's total GDP.
Great Britain's deficits are similarly ugly, despite the commitment of its ruling government coalition to austerity. Recently the country's deficit was the third highest in the European Union (at 10.4 percent in 2010), only slightly better than that of shell-shocked Greece. Excluding the bank bailouts (which more than double the final figure), Britain's public sector debt escalated from 37 percent in 2007 to 63 percent of its GDP in 2012.
Any government that recklessly follows such economic principles while unloading its debt on the international bond market should heed Proverbs 22:7: "The borrower is servant to the lender." Greece is already learning the hard truth of this text. America and Britain will too, if they don't quickly change course.
Growing government by increasing taxation
Over the centuries, Rome imposed an increasingly heavy tax burden on its citizens. This was to pay for growing cost and welfare measures, like entertaining the city-based population.
The biggest governmental expense by far was paying for the army, which doubled in size from A.D. 96 to 180. Even long before in the closing years of the Republic, Julius Caesar found that 320,000 people were on the list to receive free grain every month. Augustus was able to get the number down to 200,000 during his rule. Yet this was still a huge drain on Rome for decades afterward.
It also wasn't cheap to supply games for the Roman mob. Just imagine the scale of the type of entertainment provided for citizens. For example, when Emperor Trajan in A.D. 107 celebrated conquering Dacia (mainly Romania today), 10,000 gladiators fought. About 11,000 animals died in the gory spectacle. When Marcus Aurelius ruled, enormous amounts of money were spent for both free games and for the daily allowance of pork, oil and bread given to the capital city's poor residents. His gifts would equal more than $1,000 per person today. He provided free spectacles 135 days a year.
But all this liberal giving had its downside. In A.D. 167, he sold his palace's furniture to help pay for wars against the barbarians and Persians. It was a lot like the tax revolt that King Solomon's son Rehoboam experienced in the Bible, which cost him most of his kingdom (1 Kings 12:3-19).
Popular support for Rome fell as taxes rose. Between the third and fifth centuries peasants fought back against tax collectors and judges in areas that are now France and Spain. Some of them even found that being ruled by barbarians or leaving the empire was better than living with Rome's harsh tax collectors.
The biggest material reason that Rome fell was that its economy was too weak. It was a low-income agricultural economy, and it couldn't support the armies needed to keep out the barbarians.
Compare Rome's disastrous economic experience with America's federal government spending. The Pentagon's budget more than doubled in only 10 years. It went from under $305 billion in 2001 to over $693 billion in 2010 while the nation fought two major wars against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other income support programs almost doubled from $1.07 trillion to $2.11 trillion.
As America's population gets older and the Baby Boom generation retires, these big expenses will only grow larger. The federal government's unfunded liabilities (unpaid promises of future benefits) were estimated at $61.6 trillion in 2011, which is about four times the annual GDP. That's $528,000 per household! And some figure the liabilities to be much higher. Think about what this means for your future. Can you really expect to receive everything you were promised?
Low birthrates lead to collapse, not prosperity
Let's look at another way that the United States and Britain are like ancient Rome. From the mid-200s A.D. onward, Rome's population began to drop. Disease, barbarian invasions, wars and economic decline in the second, third and later centuries all contributed to the fall of the empire. Even worse, the fact that slavery was institutionalized meant that the slaves didn't want to have children. After all, why bring children into a world where they'll know only harsh slavery? As Roman laws and taxes turned many free people into bitter, apathetic slaves to their state, the birthrate among the common people went down as well. As Rome's educated upper class stopped having many children, the empire's high culture decayed.
Historian W.H. McNeil, in The Rise of the West, explained that "the biological suicide of the Roman upper classes" weakened "the traditions of classical civilization" (1991, p. 328). Unlike their Germanic neighbors outside the empire, the Romans limited family size (resulting in the practice of infanticide). Instead they invested more in educating and raising their surviving children. The illiterate Germans chose to have many children. Even in rich families, though, they treated them with benign neglect. This difference helped the Germanic peoples to overwhelm Rome by sheer numbers.
Europe, and the United States to a lesser extent, is facing a similar problem today. High birthrates and less desire to assimilate into European cultures by immigrants signal an ominous trend. Secular people, no matter what background, have fewer children than religious people. So if the trend continues, the future belongs to the staunchly religious.
Fracturing families through divorce
One cause of the low birthrate for Rome's elite, which worried the first emperor Augustus, was their high divorce rate. All a husband needed to do to legally divorce his wife was to say three times, "Go home." By 55 B.C., a Roman wife could divorce her husband almost as easily.
In the first century, the philosopher and playwright Seneca described how Roman upper-class women regarded their marriages: "They divorce in order to re-marry. They marry in order to divorce." The satirist Martial fired one of his pointed short poems at a woman who married for the 10th time. He accurately labeled it legalized adultery.
Homosexual behavior was so widespread that many Roman writers, like "the arbiter of elegance" Petronius, the gossipy historian Suetonius, and Martial, assumed all Roman men were bisexual. The fact that they often engaged in such behavior reduced the birthrate even more. It's obvious that high divorce rates, lower birth rates and gay subcultures aren't new social innovations. It's just picking up where pagan Rome left off.
America's no-fault divorce laws, a product of the 1960s' "Sexual Revolution," caused the nation's divorce rate to explode. It became one of the worst for any major country (3.2 per 1,000 in population per year). Britain's rate isn't far behind (2.9 per 1,000). What socially liberal people regard as "forward-looking social legislation" often just resembles a failed ancient pre-Christian past.
Immigration changes society
What happened when Rome's population declined? In North Africa, one estimate found that a third of the land was no longer cultivated. As farmland was abandoned, tax receipts fell. To recruit enough soldiers for its armies and to till its empty fields, the imperial government resorted to immigration.
That's the same solution Europe has resorted to in more recent decades. Barbarian allies of Rome along the empire's northern frontier and elsewhere were enticed into military service through land grants and offers of citizenship. Even by A.D. 180, according to historian W.G. Hardy, a major part of the Roman army was made up of foreigners and semi-civilized tribesmen.
The legions were increasingly filled with non-Romans. As a result, when the barbarian Vandals invaded North Africa, the Roman governor protected the city of Hippo there with Gothic mercenaries. The local Roman population provided little help. Since many thought the barbarians were better or no worse than the Roman tax collectors and officials, in a lot of cases they didn't even want to preserve the empire.
A growing culture of corruption
Let's consider deeper spiritual, religious and philosophical reasons for Rome's decline and then ask ourselves if America and Britain are experiencing the same things today.
The satirist Juvenal famously painted the average Roman as only caring about bread and circuses (i.e., athletic contests). Today, how many Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders are just as content to sit and be entertained, heedless of the world's gathering storm so long as they have their chips, beer and TV? Empty desire for material things dulls our spiritual senses. Petronius mocked the rich people of ancient Rome for obsessing over luxuries and wealth.
Especially throughout the empire's first two centuries, the worship of material things and overemphasis on enjoying luxuries characterized the lifestyle of the rich. During huge, extended banquets, the rich Romans would vomit so they could keep gorging themselves. Seneca described them by saying, "They vomit so that they may eat, and eat so that they may vomit."
It's not that different in the United States and Britain today. Millions give themselves up to sexually lawless and materialistic lives. They don't care about God's law and spiritual principles. The apostle Paul condemned materialism and sexual sins in
1 Corinthians 6:13: "Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body."
Each person's religious and philosophical worldviews have a major impact on how they deal with the pressures of life. Pessimism, materialism and hedonism start with anti-religious skepticism. Like so many of today's intellectuals, ancient pagan Rome's scholars had no infinite God or way to relate their lives to having true meaning or an ultimate purpose.
By contrast, the Bible's revelation gives people an integrated view of life. Faith and reason, purpose and pleasure, the infinite and the finite, general universal values and particular human lives are all reconciled. The Bible's total-life knowledge and values bring meaning to individual lives.
The most important things can only come to humanity by divine revelation. The Bible's worldview brings meaning and purpose to human life that simply can't be known by human reason or emotions alone. But as this general heritage of the Protestant Reformation has been assaulted for over two centuries, a growing crisis of civilization is brewing.
This has ominous implications for the survival of Western culture. It goes even deeper than its economic, social and demographic problems. According to famed sociologist Daniel Bell of Harvard University, "The lack of a rooted moral belief system is the cultural contradiction of [a post-industrial] society, the deepest challenge to its survival" (quoted by Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? 2005, p. 225).
Abandoning long-held beliefs
America and Britain share in a culture based mostly on ancient Greco-Roman culture and the Judeo-Christian religion. But like falling Rome's scholars didn't believe in their gods anymore, many of today's highly educated people have lost faith in their traditional faiths of Judaism and Christianity.
Few academics believe in the true God or take the Bible seriously anymore. Many are secular humanists who think man is the measure of all things. But significant numbers have also grown more apathetic, skeptical, uncertain and pessimistic. They doubt that human reason can provide an integrated unified worldview of existence or can offer any real meaning to life.
Over the past two and a half centuries since the rough mid-point of the Enlightenment (ca. 1745), their faith in human reason's effectiveness declined nearly as quickly as their faith in God's existence. It's no coincidence that they have rejected both reason and faith in God. Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) reconciled the two so the West could have both in the High Middle Ages. As Emile Cammaerts summarized the thinking of English author G.K. Chesterton, "The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything."
The apostle Paul once explained the consequences of false religion in terms that apply to us in the modern world. First, people have "without excuse" rejected the proof of God evidenced in nature's design and perfection. As a result, "although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Romans 1:20).
As so many Western intellectuals and others, who "professing to be wise became fools" (verse 22), their anti-Christian worldview unleashed damaging sins, including the homosexual lifestyle. It's as the noted American scholar Richard Weaver noted in the title of his 1948 book: Ideas Have Consequences.
Rejecting truth while embracing error
The huge upswing in the West's interest in eastern religions, the occult, reincarnation and "New Age" ideas is proof that empty, atheistic modern thought just doesn't meet most people's needs. The ideology of multiculturalism, which ultimately stands for no values other than accepting all ideas as equally valid, reflects Western intellectuals' philosophical bankruptcy. Such self-contradictory clichés as "All is relative" and "There are no absolutes" ultimately prove to be empty and meaningless.
By contrast, many of the Muslim immigrants who are flooding Europe uphold a dogmatic certainty about their faith. They see no need to apologize for their imperialist, jihadist past. Like their medieval ancestors, many of today's Islamists believe they are obligated to force their beliefs and values on others.
There's a serious ideological battle between skeptical, uncertain secularists and devout, dogmatic Islamists. History inevitably favors the latter over the former. When people lose confidence in their own civilization's values and virtues, it's been seen that they won't fight strongly to prevent their own collapse. It happened with Rome, and it's happening today to the West, and to the United States and Britain in particular.
The 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon, in his classic work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, famously blamed traditional Christianity for undermining the empire's ability to survive. But even if his interpretation is blindly accepted, it's important to realize that patterns of history don't always repeat themselves exactly.
Unlike ancient Rome, modern America's and Britain's lack of faith and commitment to living as truly Christian nations will be the biggest cause of their downfall. In fact, a lot of their economic and demographic problems are directly related to their lack of regard for God's law and His wisdom.
As these nations turn their backs on God, He will turn His back on them. God is increasingly withdrawing His blessings and protections from them. His words are recorded in Hosea 4:6: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."
Many will be surprised to learn that the Bible and other historical evidence reveal that America and Britain are the main recipients of the great birthright blessings promised in Genesis to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. (Read the Bible study aid booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecy.)
Because these nations have been so blessed by God, they are much more responsible to God for what they do. They became great not because of their own goodness, but because Abraham obeyed God, who was faithful in His promises to this great biblical patriarch (Genesis 27:4-5).
But now these nations' disobedience to God's law will cause them to lose their high status. Only heartfelt repentance, coupled with a commitment to obey God's law and to have faith in Jesus Christ, will save them from the coming national calamity referred to in the Bible as the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21).
No matter what others choose to do in whatever nation we live in, we're all individually responsible to God. We all need to come to know and have faith in Jesus of Nazareth, repent, and obey God's law. This is what brings true meaning and real purpose to our lives. Whether nationally or individually, let's trust in God's love when He promises in Jeremiah 29:13, "You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart."