Recently Stephen Green of Vodkapundit wrote a post titled President Nero referring to President Obama’s seeming cluelessness on the state of the world under his leadership, particularly the president’s prioritizing action on climate change as post Cold War order is breaking up into chaos. Obama is fiddling while the Middle East burns. There is much worth reading here yet I think that Stephen Green is being more than a little unfair to Nero. Nero did not, after all, really play the fiddle, or his lyre as the violin had not yet been invented, while Rome burned down. In fact, Nero did everything that could be expected of an emperor in that disaster. Nero was not a particularly good emperor, to be sure, yet his reign was not a complete disaster, especially early on while his advisors Seneca and Burrus still lived. Despite the short civil war after his death and the rebellion in Judea, the Roman Empire was still strong and whole at the end of Nero’s reign. In fact, the next century was to prove to be the height of the Pax Romana under the Flavian Dynasty and the Five Good Emperors. Perhaps a better fit for President Obama might be a later emperor, Honorius who was emperor when the Visigoths sacked Rome in AD 410.
Honorius was Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 395 to 423. The Roman Empire had been first divided into Western and Eastern halves by the Emperor Diocletian about a century earlier. After ending the period of incessant civil wars and foreign invasions that had nearly destroyed the Empire, Diocletian realized that one man was unable to meet the challenges of ruling the entire empire and so had divided it. The two halves were not seen as a division into two separate empires, simply a means to divide the labor of ruling but although strong emperors could rule over both halves of the empire, after the third century it was divided more often than not with the Greek speaking East and the Latin speaking West becoming more estranged over time.
The last emperor to rule over the whole Roman Empire was Honorius’s father Theodosius the Great. After his death in 395, the empire was divided for the last time between his two sons Arcadius and Honorius. Arcadius was the elder brother and so inherited the more desirable Eastern Empire where he ruled from Constantinople, while Honorius became the Western Emperor. Both emperors were minors when they acceded to their thrones and neither ever really showed much talent for ruling but the wealthier and more urbanized Eastern Empire proved to be better able to weather Arcadius’s inept rule. The West was not so fortunate and Honorius’s reign was a disaster from beginning to end with continuing invasions by the barbarian Germans and continual civil war by usurpers. At the beginning of Honorius’s reign the true ruler of the West was his guardian, Stilicho a Roman general of mixed Roman and German descent who had been related by marriage to Theodosius. Stilicho was perhaps the last Roman ruler who could have saved the Western Empire from destruction. He had some success in holding the Empire together but proved unable to prevent the invasion of Gaul by the Germans in 406 and the subsequent abandonment of Britannia. By this time, Stilicho’s enemies at court had persuaded Honorius that Stilicho was planning to supplant him and Honorius ordered Stilicho’s arrest and execution in 408, along with the execution of anyone he perceived to have been an ally of Stilicho, including a large number of Germans living in Italy. This proved to be not a very good idea, since by then, the Roman army was largely made up of Germans, large numbers of Honorius’s soldiers simply deserted leaving Italy defenseless against the invading Visigoths under their king Alaric.
The Visigoths did not intend to capture Rome or conquer the Roman Empire. Indeed, they did not believe such a thing was possible. They, along with their kinsmen the Ostrogoths had fled into Roman territory to escape the Huns. Alaric wanted to negotiate with the Roman government for a homeland to establish an independent Visigothic kingdom allied to Rome. Alaric decided to threaten the city of Rome to compel the Roman government to negotiate in good faith. Honorius and his court were not greatly concerned however because it had been a long time since Rome was actually the capital of any part of the Roman Empire. He was safe in the city of Ravenna with its impregnable defenses and kept putting Alaric off until he was exasperated enough to sack Rome on August 24, 410.
Sack was perhaps too strong a word for the actions of the Visigoths. They did systematically take anything of value they could carry away, but there was no destruction of buildings or slaughter of the population. The Visigoths could not believe they had actually captured Rome and they acted more like awestruck tourist than barbarian plunderers. Meanwhile Honorius was distraught upon learning that Rome had been taken, until the messenger clarified that he meant the city and not Honorius’s pet chicken Roma. Then Honorius lost interest in the news.
Honorius managed to survive as Emperor until 423 while his empire crumbled around him. By the time of his death, Gaul, Spain, and Britannia were all lost to Rome and the Western Empire was limited to Italy and parts of Africa. The Western Empire itself lingered under the rule of increasingly feeble puppet emperors and their German masters until finally the warlord Odoacer grew tired of the pretense in 476 and deposed the last Western Emperor.
We don’t have barbarians sacking Washington D.C. or New York, at least not yet, but it would be hard not to see that President Obama’s fecklessness has made the world a more dangerous place for us and our allies. He seems to be as little concerned about the collapsing international order previously upheld with American strength as Honorius was about the fate of the city of Rome. Unless the next president can repair some of the damage Obama has done, future historians may well identify Obama as the president who presided over the beginning of the end of the American Empire.