John Stossel and the Decline of the Roman Empire

Ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, people have speculated on the cause of that fall. In general, those who have indulged in such speculation have seemed to believe that Rome had some fatal weakness that made its fall inevitable. They have often gone on to point out that their own country has flaws rather similar to Rome’s and that the fall of their nation’s power is likewise inevitable. We, Americans have not proven to be immune to the temptation of comparing ourselves to the Romans and wondering if the decline and fall of the American Empire is just around the corner. John Stossel ponders this question in his latest column at

Unfortunately, the fall of Rome is a pattern repeated by empires throughout history … including ours?

A group of libertarians gathered in Las Vegas recently for an event called “FreedomFest.” We debated whether America will soon fall, as Rome did.

Historian Carl Richard said that today’s America resembles Rome.

The Roman Republic had a constitution, but Roman leaders often ignored it. “Marius was elected consul six years in a row, even though under the constitution (he) was term-limited to one year.”

Sounds like New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg.

“We have presidents of both parties legislating by executive order, saying I’m not going to enforce certain laws because I don’t like them. … That open flouting of the law is dangerous because law ceases to have meaning. … I see that today. … Congress passes huge laws they haven’t even read (as well as) overspending, overtaxing and devaluing the currency.”

The Romans were worse. I object to President Obama’s $100 million dollar trip, but Nero traveled with 1,000 carriages.

Tiberius established an “office of imperial pleasures,” which gathered “beautiful boys and girls from all corners of the world” so, as Tacitus put it, the emperor “could defile them.”

Emperor Commodus held a show in the Colosseum at which he personally killed five hippos, two elephants, a rhinoceros and a giraffe.

To pay for their excesses, emperors devalued the currency. (Doesn’t our Fed do that by buying $2 trillion of government debt?)

Nero reduced the silver content of coins to 95 percent. Then Trajan reduced it to 85 percent and so on. By the year 300, wheat that once cost eight Roman dollars cost 120,000 Roman dollars.

The president of the Foundation for Economic Education, Lawrence Reed, warned that Rome, like America, had an expanding welfare state. It started with “subsidized grain. The government gave it away at half price. But the problem was that they couldn’t stop there … a man named Claudius ran for Tribune on a platform of free wheat for the masses. And won. It was downhill from there.”

Soon, to appease angry voters, emperors gave away or subsidized olive oil, salt and pork. People lined up to get free stuff.

Rome’s government, much like ours, wasn’t good at making sure subsidies flowed only to the poor, said Reed: “Anybody could line up to get these goods, which contributed to the ultimate bankruptcy of the Roman state.”

As inflation increased, Rome, much like the U.S. under President Nixon, imposed wage and price controls. When people objected, Emperor Diocletian denounced their “greed,” saying, “Shared humanity urges us to set a limit.”

Doesn’t that sound like today’s anti-capitalist politicians.

Diocletian was worse than Nixon. Rome enforced controls with the death penalty — and forbid people to change professions. Emperor Constantine decreed that those who broke such rules “be bound with chains and reduced to servile condition.”

It might be useful to consider a few dates. Gaius Marius was consul in the years 107, 104-100, and 83 BC. The Claudius who ran for tribune is probably Publius Clodius Pulcher. He was murdered in 52 BC. Tiberius reigned as Emperor in the years AD 14-37. Nero reigned from 54-68. Commodus reigned from 180-192. Diocletian ruled from 284 to 305 and Constantine ruled from 306 to 337. The Roman Empire is generally considered to have fallen when the German warlord Odoacer forced the last Emperor Romulus Augustulus to abdicate in 476. This is not actually a very good date for the fall of the Roman Empire since government’s authority had collapsed outside of Italy about half a century earlier. Still, it seems that the excesses and follies of various Roman leaders which caused the fall of Rome took a long time to effect that fall.

Actually, Romulus Augustulus was not the last Roman Emperor. There was still a Roman Emperor in the East at Constantinople. The Eastern Roman Empire, usually called the Byzantine Empire survived intact up until the Arab invasions of the seventh century. Even then the Empire survived in Greece and Asia Minor with its capital at Constantinople until the Turks finally captured Constantinople in 1453. It is true that the average citizen in Constantinople in 1400 lived in a very different society that the Roman in 100 BC. He spoke Greek, not Latin, was ruled by an autocratic Emperor, not a republic, and was a Christian, not a pagan. Still, that citizen of Constantinople never doubted for an instant that he was a Roman a true descendant of the people who had once ruled the world.

The traditional date for the founding of Rome is 753 BC. Modern historians do not take the legends about Romulus and Remus very seriously, but 753 is probably as good as any other date for the beginning of the Roman state. If we consider Rome as having begun in 753 BC and ending in AD 1453 than Rome, as an independent state in various forms lasted for an incredible 2206 years. That is an existence longer that any other nation with a continuous history except for China and ancient Egypt. Rome was a major power from about 300 BC until AD 1100 or 1400 years. Rather than asking what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps we should be asking how the Roman Empire lasted so long.

Are there lessons to be learned from Roman history? Perhaps. We should keep in mind that Ancient Rome was a very different society than modern America. The Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, in part, because Roman political leaders stopped following the unwritten Roman constitution. We may be able to learn something, though There are signs that many contemporary American politicians view our constitution more as a hindrance to get around than a basic law to follow. I don’t think that our situation in America is like fifth century Rome. There are no Visigoths ready to sack New York or Washington DC. I think it is more like Rome in the late second century BC, a republic whose institutions are starting to break down. I am afraid that there is a Julius Caesar or Augustus somewhere who is fated to fundamentally transform the American Republic into the American Empire.

The Emperor Julian 1

A little while back, I mentioned the Roman Emperor Julian in passing. He was the Emperor who tried to restore paganism as the state religion of the Roman Empire, after Constantine had legalized Christianity. He was actually quite an interesting historical figure, so I thought I would write a little more about him.

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Julian (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Julian was born Flavius Claudius Julianus in May or June ofA.D. 331 or 332. His father was Julius Constantius, the half-brother of the Emperor Constantine I and his mother was named Basilina. Both parents were Christians so Julian was raised as a Christian. When Constantine died in 337, his three surviving sons; Constantius II, Constantine II, and Constans divided the Roman Empire among them. (Evidently Constantine was not too original in naming his children.) Constantius II got the wealthier eastern half of the empire while the other two brothers each received a share of the western half. The three brothers then slaughtered every remaining member of their family who could possibly have a claim to the throne. Only Julian and his half-brother Gallus were spared because of their youth.

Julian grew up in the province of Bithynia under the care of his maternal grandmother and was taught by Eusebius, the Bishop of Nicomedia and a eunuch named Mardonius. He had a Christian education and had a thorough knowledge of the Bible, which he used later in life to attack the Christian faith. He was also educated in the old Greek and Roman classics. Meanwhile his cousins fell out among themselves and began to quarrel over their inheritance. Constans and Constantine II fought a war in which Constantine was killed in 340. Constans turned out to be a cruel ruler and was killed by the usurper Magnentius in 350. Julian lived an uncertain life, sometimes exiled to one of the imperial estates, sometimes summoned to play a role at court.

It may be the savage behavior of Julian’s cousins that turned him against Christianity. He may have decided that if that was the way Christian rulers acted, he wanted no part of it. His continuing studies in philosophy probably also played a role in his conversion to paganism. He began to study Neoplatonism in 351. In 355 he moved to Athens, which had become something of a university town, to continue his studies in philosophy. While he was in Athens, he was initiated into the Eleusinian Mystery cult. Julian would probably been happy spending the rest of his life in Athens, studying and teaching, but that was not to be his fate.

In 351, Constantius made Julian’s brother Gallus Caesar over the Eastern Empire, while he marched west to deal with Magnentius. In the late Roman Empire, “Caesar” was a title given to a junior Emperor while “Augustus” referred to the senior Emperor. Gallus was corrupt and brutal so when Constantius finished his business in the west he had Gallus arrested and executed. In 355, Constantius  summoned Julian to Mediolanum (modern Milan) which had become the western capital of the Empire and made him Caesar over the West, charging Julan with the task of driving out the German tribes which were raiding into Gaul. Over the next three years, Julian revealed an unexpected talent for military affairs. His soldiers were victorious in nearly every battle with the Germans and not only did he drive them back across the Rhein, but he even invaded Germany and compelled several kingdoms to submit to Roman authority. His soldiers adored him and hailed Julian as the new Julius Caesar.

Constantius II
Constantius II

Back east, Constantius was not happy.  He had been having difficulties with the Sassanid Persians and Julian’s successes made him look bad in comparison. Constantius also knew that over successful generals had a way of becoming Emperors. In 360, he sent orders west for half of Julian’s forces to be transferred east for the war with Persian. Julian’s troops did not want to leave Gaul so they proclaimed him Augustus. It is not known to what extent this was something Julian wanted, but he must have realized that he had no choice but to go ahead and allow himself to be made Emperor. Constantius would never have believed that it wasn’t Julian’s idea so he had to either fight or die.

Julian marched with his army east while Constantius left Constantinople to meet Julian in battle. Fortunately, the Roman Empire was spared yet another civil war. In November 361, Constantius died of natural causes. In his will, he declared Julian to be sole Augustus or Emperor. Julian quickly traveled to Constantinople to be made Emperor.

This post is longer than I had expected so I will cut it in half. I will post the rest of the story of the Emperor Julian tomorrow.

The History of the Later Roman Empire

I am not sure whether I only received the first volume of a two-volume book. Despite the title, the book I read only related the history of the late Roman Empire from Arcadius to Phocas, that is, from around 400-600. I won’t complain, however. J. B. Bury’s history is still interesting to read even it only covered about half the period I expected. Actually, 600 seems to be a logical place for ending the story of the late Roman Empire. In the year AD 600, the Eastern Roman Empire was still recognizably the same state that had existed two centuries earlier. The western provinces had been lost, although Justinian made a great effort to recover them. The capital was no longer Rome, but New Rome or Constantinople. Still, all of the institutions of the late empire had survived.

In the following century, however, the Roman Empire of late antiquity had changed into the medieval Byzantine Empire. The invading armies of Islam, and Slavic migrations stripped away all but the core of the empire in Greece and Asia Minor. The empire was fighting for its life and every institution had to be changed to defend the empire from its enemies. Although they still called themselves Romans, right up to the end,  this was no longer the empire of Caesar or even Constantine. Even the official language of government was changed from Latin to Greek, by the Emperor Heraclius just after this book closes,  in recognition of the fact that there were few, if any, native Latin speakers left in the domains of the Roman Empire.

I should say, though, that this is not just a history of the Eastern or early Byzantine Empire.  Bury also covers the last decades of the Western Empire and the establishment of the Germanic kingdoms that succeeded it.  He made an important point that the conquest of the Western half of the Roman Empire was more a matter of slow demographic movements, than conquering armies. When the Germans were a small segment of the population, as the Ostrogoths in Italy or the Vandals in North Africa, their kingdoms did not last, while the Frankish kingdom in Gaul endured because there were already a large number of Germans who had emigrated there.

Despite a few flaws, I highly recommended A History of the Later Roman Empire, as a good guide to a period of history not often studied.

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