A farewell to empires

I just finished reading the third volume in Will Durant’s History of Civilization. Caesar and Christ covers the rise and fall of the Roman Empire (with far less detail than William Gibbon) and a brief history of the earliest centuries of Christianity.
Durant challenges Gibbon’s hypothesis that the chief cause of Rome’s fall was the rise of Christianity. Having not read Gibbon (hey, I’ve still got eight volumes of Civilization to go), I must satisfy myself with Durant’s summary: “For this religion, [Gibbon] and his followers argued, had destroyed the old faith that had given moral character to toe Roman soul and stability to the state.”
Durant explains his objection: “The breakup of the old religion had begun long before Christ…Moral disintegration had begun with the Roman conquest of Greece, and had culminated under Nero; thereafter Roman morals improved, and the ethical influence of Christianity upon Roman life was largely a wholesome one.”
(Seems to me that the disintegration of Roman character was caused by the people emulating the horny, capricious, and vindictive deities they worshiped, those centerpieces of the religion Gibbon heralded as a civilizing, unifying force.)

The author cites numeous factors behind Rome’s decline. Disease greatly reduced the population after Hadrian. Much of Italy was wrecked by deforestation; references to the rising of livestock on the peninsula suggest the possibility of overgrazing. Increasing barbarian attacks whittled away at the empire piece by piece. Government was overrun with corruption. (Durant could have added to his epilogue the fact that a large majority of Rome’s chief executives died unnatural deaths; this statistic alone would suggest that Gibbon overestimated Rome’s unity.)
And then there are economic factors: “[T]the rising costs of armies, doles, public works, an expanding bureaucracy, and a parasitic court; the depreciation of the currency [by reducing the precious metal content of the coinage]; the discouragement of ability and the absorption of investment capital by confiscatory taxation, the strait jacket of serfdom placed upon agriculture, and of caste forced upon industry: all these conspired to sap the material bases of Italian life, until at last the power of Rome was a political ghost surviving its economic death.” Also cited is the loss of trade to provincial competition.
How do all these factors tie together? Durant woudl do well to compare the fall of Rome to the demise of other empires, or to contrast Rome to the only great empire that remained strong after it lost most of its colonial expanse: Great Britain. The center of every other great empire is now a crumbling basket case. Despite the fact that this nation the size of a postge stamp suffocates under a greater bureaucracy than it employed at the height of its colonial expansion, England remains one of the most free and most commercially vibrant nations in the world.
Why? First of all, because unlike the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, Persians, and Spaniards, Britain did not allow any dependence on looting to overwhelm its dependence on commerce. (That the Spaniards and not the British discovered the gold-rich civilizations of the New World ultimately benefited the latter.) The Romans on the Italian peninsula got “free” goodies from the provinces and “free” goodies subsidized through exhorbitant taxation. They thought they could afford to neglect commerce. But in the long run, the provinces would revolt and the barbarian kingdoms would seek an eye for an eye.
Second, the British Empire respected individual rights more than the other historic empires. When people feel relatively secure in their persons, they don’t go running off to Philadelphia to declare their independence – Britain didn’t make that mistake very often. The feudal system and other inequities eviscerated Rome’s ability to maintain civil unity, without which it could not effectively face its enemies. Foreign policy mirrored domestic policy; the barbarians, like its citizens and vassals, were a resource to be milked. Thus Rome made more enemies, both foreign and domestic, than it would have otherwise.
Third, England was willing to let go of most of its colonies voluntarily, one of the fruits of the evolving doctrine of liberty raised in the second point. Rome remained relentless until it had no more might, and it was destroyed. Britain simply shrank – and it was able to maintain good relations with the former colonies and with other nations with a stake in their well-being. It’s good to have allies in hard times. Rome had few if any friends as the Huns swept through Italy; Britain had plenty (including those pesky Philadelphians) as the buzz bombs descended on London.



  1. Steve

    “Third, England was willing to let go of most of its colonies voluntarily…”
    This has a nice nostalgic ring to it. I wonder what the folks of assorted central Asia and North Africa would have to say?
    Whether they were residents of “spheres of influence” shared with the French post WWI in North Africa (including those pesky Jews as well as assorted Arabs) or the populations of India and Afghanistan you might encounter some minor disagreements. πŸ˜‰
    It must be remembered what a nice and tidy job was done in voluntarily turning Kenya and environs over to the people, sort of dumped on them one might say or turned over to the handiest rascal.
    The Suez Canal was built for the benefit of the natives with the intent of bolstering the independence of the locals and troublesome reports about that Ghandi chap are likely greatly exaggerated…
    OTOH look at how you’ve summed up Brit history so nicely and to think I wasted all that time reading Churchill, Mr. and Mrs. Durant, A. J. Toynbee, Gibbon and some minor historians… πŸ˜‰
    Generally it’s been my impression that Brits had to be given strong hints in many instances before they became so “voluntary” in their dispositon of colonies. πŸ˜‰
    (My comments are made primarily with humorous design and are in no way intended to be derogatory. Yanks have a nasty habit of recalling that Brits returned and burned some of our more expensive buildings circa 1812, an indication that perhaps the original lesson of independence took a while to fester and sink in. And there are many other examples. πŸ˜‰

  2. Alan K. Henderson

    Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that, by comparison, colonial rule and transfer of power was less destructive under England than under other empires, and that “voluntary” should be qualified with the phrase “under duress.” England contrasts Rome (and all other ancient empires) on both counts; the latter almost never willingly gave up territory, and never had laws as fair as those of imperial England.
    With regard to the other great Western European empire – Spain (France, Belgium, Holland, and Portugal were pikers by comparison) – the main contrast is in colonial rule. English law wasn’t ideal, but it was superior to Spanish law, even in the colonies.
    An empire brings a certain degree of order (and in the cases of England and Rome, superior technology and commercial systems) to its colonies. Decolonization is almost always a destabilizing influence; a technologically and organizationally inferior alien population cannot preserve the institution of their former masters. England and Spain exported large numbers of their own people to many major colonies; thus they were able to preserve the general quality of living as enjoyed under colonization. But the Anglosphere preserved Britain’s gradual trend toward democratization and its efficient and fair commercial laws; Latin America preserved Spain’s corrupt autocracy and its inferior commercial ethic.
    Voluntary-but-under-duress decolonization is a late-history and largely Western phenomenon. Right off the bat, I can’t think of any non-British examples preceding the 20th Century. I do believe that Britain has handled the matter better than Spain and the lesser once-imperial Western powers. While all failed to build stable democracies south of the Sahara, the most modernized nation of the lot is South Africa, a former British colony. Islamic North Africa and the Near East will always be a mixed bag as long as a vast number of its people seek revenge on powers that robbed them of empire.

  3. Steve

    Agreed. Your comments were appropriate in the first place. I apparently was trying to apply to blade to some mental screw and was too off topic to make it useful.

  4. John Anderson

    And here I’d thought the Roman Empire fell because of the use of excessive lead in containers and pipes for wine and water… A slightly off-the-wall idea promoted in the fifties.
    Rome was [mostly] more rapacious than England, but like England once it had brought an area/nation under its sway actually bought what it took. Most others did not, they simply enslaved locals and took goods. I once read an anecdote that Spain became so “rich” that silver became less expensive than iron, so horseshoes were made of it.

  5. Alan K. Henderson

    Thomas Sowell noted one other asset in favor of England: it was relatively open to immigrant commercial talent. In this discussion of his bookMigrations and Cultures, he states:
    If you look further at the financial sector, for a very long time the British had no native Britons in the financial sector. You had Jews and you had Lombards come there. Even today in London in the financial district you have Lombard Street as a relic of the period when the Lombards were the big financiers in Britain. But in that case, the British, like the Japanese, were great at imitating. After a certain amount of time, all of these skills that were brought to Britain by all of these people began to diffuse into the British population.
    By contrast, Jews were evicted from Spain in 1492. Many went to Italy, others went to Turkey. Queen Isabella probably never realized the irony that the latter group would represent to a nation that had fought bitter wars with the Moors:
    Part of the exiled Spaniards went over sea to Turkey. Some of them were thrown into the sea and drowned, but those who arrived, there the King of Turkey received kindly, as they were artisans. He lent them money and settled many of them on an island, and gave them fields and estates. [The Turks needed smiths and makers of munitions for the war against Christian Europe.]