America Has Been Warned: Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
What can a chronicler of barbarian invasions, writing in the 18th century, explain to Americans in the 21st century?What lessons can we learn today from the fall of an ancient empire? Plenty. Many.
Indeed, as immigration is a hot issue today, we might look to long-ago scholarship to remind us that the basic patriotic loyalty of the home population can never be taken for granted. In particular, if the demography of the population changes, its loyalties will change.
Edward Gibbon’s famous work of history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes, from 1776 to 1788. And the first appearance of that work, of course,—in that evocative year of 1776—has led many to consider its significance to American history. Could America ever fall like that? Could America collapse like the Roman Empire?
Gibbon was English, and yet even after the American Revolution, his work was widely read in the new republic known as the United States; we know, for example, that George Washington included Gibbon in his library.
Indeed, Gibbon’s conservative turn of mind made him particularly popular among the American Founders, who were, after all, themselves conservative. Yes, George Washington & Co. were revolutionaries, but they were definitely not radicals. They rebelled in 1776 to uphold their ancient liberties, not to try new fads.
Indeed, as recently noted here at Breitbart News, the Founders looked to history to tell them what could go wrong with a government; then, with that knowledge in mind, they sought to build in protective checks and balances. So to the Founders, Gibbon’s sober worldview—his statement, for example, that “history is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”—coincided with their own thinking, which began with a basic mistrust of human nature. The world, after all, is Fallen; men are not angels.
Come to think of it, maybe American politicians today, too, should be reading Gibbon, because America today is under threat, not least from the sort of demographic transformation—some might call it an invasion—that toppled Rome.
We might consider, for instance, the evidence of President Obama’s Executive Order granting amnesty to millions. “Democrats bet on diversity”—that was the blunt headline in Politico. And we know what that means. If there’s one thing that Barack Obama, Al Sharpton, and La Raza can probably all agree on, it’s that it’s high time for the rule of Americans of European descent to come to an end.
Meanwhile, the Main Stream Media is doing its best to speed up the Multicultural Bandwagon. It’s to be expected, of course, that The New York Times would be cheerleading Obama’s effort, but here’s a similar headline from The Houston Chronicle: “Momentum gathers in Houston for Obama’s immigration order.”
So we might ask: In the face of this onslaught, what of the Republicans? Aren’t they supposed to be leading the opposition? For the most part, the Republicans seem strangely ineffective. Here’s another Politico headline: “Lack of immigration plan flusters GOP.” As the story puts it,
“Congressional Republicans woke up on Friday morning with no clear legislative response to the president and with their membership scattered across the country on a 10-day Thanksgiving break. Meanwhile, Obama headed to Las Vegas to begin selling his proposal to shield millions of young immigrants and some of their family members.”
Even those who recognize that Politico leans left might be hard pressed to identify any error in the above paragraph.
Yes, Republicans intend to do a lot of litigating, and they will be holding some Congressional hearings. But Iowa talk show host Steve Deace speaks for many concerned citizens when he describes this GOP wordplay as “Sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Indeed, as Quin Hillyer observes, it’s far from certain that many in the Republican elite really oppose what Obama is doing. Oh sure, top Republicans are good ’n’ mad that Obama went around them with that Executive Order, but many of them have already pledged themselves to “comprehensive immigration reform.” In other words, they’re mad at Obama over procedure, not substance.
And yet it’s the substance that matters most. It’s the substance that determines the fate of the nation.
Let’s return to that blunt Politico headline: “Democrats bet on diversity.” And let’s say it: Democrats envision a different America; they look forward to what they call a “Coalition of the Ascendant.” And of course, if one group is rising, then another must be falling—and so we come back to Edward Gibbon.
Gibbon begins his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with a look at the ruins of the Roman Forum—once the vital hub of the Republic, then of the Empire. But many centuries later, he recorded, the Forum had disappeared as an urban center; the once-important public space was now just ruins, overgrown with petty farming and overrun by farm animals:
“The forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the cultivation of pot-herbs, or thrown open for the reception of swine and buffaloes. The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, naked, and broken, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.”
But Gibbon was much more than just a poetic tour-guide; he offered his readers a general theory of historical decline. He began his narrative in the second century AD, when the Roman Empire was at its peak, and then he chronicled the failures of feckless elites, the consequences of demoralized faith, and the disasters of military incompetence. And as we shall see, there was a further problem as well—the danger of outright treachery.
So what went wrong? Why did Rome fall? One problem, as Gibbon makes clear, was the emergence of a welfarist “bread and circuses” policy for the city of Rome. The Empire had been so rich for so long that Rome itself had become a magnet for those looking for a soft life. From around the Empire, people made their way to the capital city.
And so what to do with them when they got there? Inside the city, the governing elites found it easiest to simply buy off the motley population with free food, and to keep them entertained with free shows.
As Gibbon puts it, Rome’s rulers aimed to “relieve the poverty and to amuse the idleness of an innumerable people.” He explains: “For the convenience of the lazy plebeians, the monthly distributions of corn were converted into a daily allowance of bread; a great number of ovens were constructed and maintained at the public expense.”
Moreover, to further pacify the population, the authorities arranged free shows for the public: “The Roman people still considered the Circus as their home, their temple.” As a result,
“From the morning to the evening, careless of the sun or of the rain, the spectators, who sometimes amounted to the number of four hundred thousand, remained in eager attention; their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear for the success of the colours which they espoused; and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race.”
If this bread-and-circuses policy doesn’t seem like a policy built to last—you’re right. It wasn’t. The Empire’s Roman core had been hollowed out, and by the Fifth Century, barbarians had overrun much of the realm.
In 410 AD, the Goths besieged the city of Rome itself. As Gibbon explains, the Roman authorities were preparing a defense, but—and this is crucial—“they were unable to guard against the secret conspiracy of their slaves and domestics, who either from birth or interest were attached to the cause of the enemy.”
And so, as Gibbon records, at midnight, disloyal Romans silently opened one of the city’s gates. Thereupon, most Romans “were awakened by the tremendous sound of the Gothic trumpet,” as the enemy rushed in. The result:
“Eleven hundred and sixty-three years after the foundation of Rome, the Imperial city, which had subdued and civilised so considerable a part of mankind, was delivered to the licentious fury of the tribes of Germany and Scythia.”
Yes, of course, the sacking of the city was brutal and bloody. For a while, the conquerors made some attempt to limit the damage, but one thing led to another:
In the pillage of Rome a just preference was given to gold and jewels, which contain the greatest value in the smallest compass and weight, but, after these portable riches had been removed by the more diligent robbers, the palaces of Rome were rudely stripped of their splendid and costly furniture… The most exquisite works of art were roughly handled or wantonly destroyed: many a statue was melted for the sake of the precious materials and many a vase, in the division of the spoil, was shivered into fragments by the stroke of a battleaxe. The acquisition of riches served only to stimulate the avarice of the rapacious barbarians, who proceeded by threats, by blows, and by tortures, to force from their prisoners the confession of hidden treasure.
And so, in the end, the Goths’ conquest of Rome meant “promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless.”
And while Rome had been weakening for many years, the decisive blow that lead to the fall of the city in 410 was betrayal from within.
We’ve been warned: Yes, the nature of the population—loyal or not—matters a great deal.
That’s one of the lessons that Edward Gibbon teaches us. And the Founders, those apt students of history, would most definitely agree.