Why it Isn’t What Most People Think, and Why it is Essential Knowledge For All of Us
When I finished reading Livy’s history of early Rome this summer, I was still excited about Roman history and went looking for other books on the topic. I found a lot of mediocre books and a few good ones. And also one great one!
At the same time, I received a lot of messages from people asking about what to study concerning the fall of Rome. I had mentioned Livy and a few of the things I learned from him in various articles and blogs, and there was a huge response — mainly about the fall of Rome.
My answer to almost everyone who asks about where to study the fall of Rome is to read Livy. This is a bit frustrating for people, because when they actually do read Livy they find out that he ends his book just a couple of hundred years after the Roman Republic began.
The truth is that it is a matter of debate when Rome actually fell. The official date for most people is around A.D. 476, but this only deals with the fall of the Roman Empire.
And when people today ask about studying the fall of Rome they usually do so because they are interested in the comparisons to our own American nation — and our decline.
To tell the truth, the fall of the Roman Empire in A.D. 476 has very little to do with our current America. Here’s why: By 476 the Roman people and colonies had been enslaved for well over four hundred years. The reigns of tyrants like Tiberius, Caligula and Nero came long before the city of Rome fell to Germanic attackers.
This is why many historians and commentators adamantly argue that Rome didn’t fall because of moral decay at all. But they are talking about the fall in 476.
It is simply inaccurate to call 476 the actual fall of Rome, just like it is wrong (but popular) for scholars to point out that officially the Holy Roman Empire didn’t fall until the Ottomans took over in A.D. 1453.
Many modern readers are confused by these dates, because, as I mentioned, what they are really looking for is how the fall of Rome was like our day and our nation.
There are really three great eras of Roman history:
- The founding and life of the Roman Republic from about 600 to 49 B.C., which gave the American founders a great deal of wisdom and experience in freedom and leadership.
- The Roman Empire from 49 B.C. to 476 A.D., which is one of the worst tyrannies in history.
- The Holy Roman Empire from roughly 476 to 1453, which was one of various world power centers during this era.
Each of these three “fell,” and readers are often confused by this because they tend to think that the fall of Rome refers to one period, not three.
But while the scholars frequently use “the fall of Rome” to describe either the year 476 or 1453, the fall that really applies to modern America is the one that happened between 120 and 49 B.C.
If these dates are confusing, I apologize. It’s just that so many people have emailed, facebooked or contacted me in some other way to ask how they can learn more about the fall of Rome and it’s parallels to our modern world.
The answer is surprising. To find the real fall of Rome, meaning the one most like our time, look to the fall of the Roman Republic.
To do this most effectively, study the early rise and establishment of Rome in the writings of Livy.
I know that Gibbon’s famous book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has caught the attention of many people. As one summary put it:
According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, “manly” military lifestyle.
Gibbon suggested that a loss of morals and a focus on bread and circuses weakened the proud Empire and made it prone to decay and eventually collapse.
Again, while this is all accurate, this has little to parallel the modern United States. America hasn’t lived under five hundred years of tyrants, violent aristocracies, and a class system that promoted slavery, Imperial Dictatorship, and rule by secret police (the Praetorian Guard).
In fact, that is where the American model may be headed. That is where the parallels are most striking. America is much like the Roman Republic in many ways (though different in various ways as well).
It is the first great fall of Rome, before Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, before Tiberious and Nero and Caligula, that is of the most concern — precisely because these tyrants were the result of this fall.
In short, it isn’t that fall of the Empire that should concern us, but how a Republic dedicated to morality, justice, service, and improvement became powerful and then forgot about everything except the power, the money, and the control of other nations.
This is the fall of Rome that matters to us, because this is exactly where we are as a society today.
Will Durant said that this fall came about because of corruption among the politicians, political party divisions in the capital city, and the military’s constant involvement in violent conflicts around the known world.
Tacitus also noted that the great downfall of the Roman Republic was twofold: 1) by the time of Caesar “there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality” of the Roman Republic, and 2) the “equality” of all people in freedom was replaced by a growing class divide between the elites and the regular people.
Put these five issues together, and we have an excellent overview of why the Roman Republic fell:
- a loss of morality
- a growing caste system and divide between elites and the regular people
- corruption among politicians
- political party divides in the capital city that dominated all politics
- constant military conflict in other countries that drained the treasury
The most striking thing about this is what came next. Before it happened, people knew that the Roman Republic was in decline.
But they had no idea that within a century it would become one of the worst tyrannies in the world. They would have been shocked if anyone suggested it.
They had the benefits of freedom passed to them from their ancestors, and the idea of how bad it would get — and how quickly — just wasn’t believable.
That’s why reading about the fall of the Roman Republic is so incredibly valuable for today! We all need to see what can happen. In fact, what is happening right before our eyes.
This is why people who have closely studied history — people like Winston Churchill, W. Cleon Skousen, Orrin Woodward, or myself — may sound a little extreme when we predict what our current decline is headed toward. To normal eyes, things seem like they’re getting a little worse, but they can’t possibly become extreme!
To eyes accustomed to reading the history of the world, our current events are downright alarming. We are headed for disaster. And quickly.
But, alas, this sounds crazy to most modern ears, just like it did when Virgil warned of what was coming to the Romans in 38 and 37 B.C. In those years, the dictatorial Empire was just beginning, but Virgil saw what was happening because he knew history well enough to see the repeating patterns.
Still, most Romans thought his warnings were overstated.
But back to the original question. Where is the best place to study this fall? The answer, as I said, is to read Livy. By the time you finish Livy’s book, you’ll have a clear understanding of the real fall of Rome.
Then, to go even deeper, read the one truly great book on Rome’s fall: the works of Virgil. But you have to read Livy first, or Virgil won’t make nearly as much sense.
Especially read Virgil’s The Eclogues and The Georgics. These were written early on, while the Aeneid came later after the Empire was in full swing.
For example, the very first page of Virgil’s writings discusses how he is “exiled from home” because of his stand for freedom, while his friend sits at home “careless in the shade,” “at ease,” not realizing that freedom is in rapid decline.
“Such wide confusion fills the countryside,” he tells us, because Rome has exerted its power above the rest of the world, and yet its citizens, he tells us on page 2, “have no hope of freedom.”
He goes on and on. It is in Livy and Virgil that one best studies the fall of Rome that parallels our time.
The problem is that few modern Americans have learned to read this deep kind of writing. We read a quote from John Adams or Patrick Henry, but when asked to read their words from beginning to end, we frequently tire and give up. Ditto with Livy or Virgil.
As a result, we lose our freedoms because we won’t do what the American founders did — make ourselves read the great books on freedom, even though they are challenging, in order to truly understand how freedom really works.
In all of history, as both Livy and Virgil teach (as well as Jefferson, Madison and the other founders), there are two kinds of nations: 1) those where elites rule the rest, and 2) those where the people rule themselves.
The second type only exists where the regular people read the great books on freedom (including Livy and Virgil) and understand it every bit as well as the elites. If we don’t read the great freedom books, we will continue to lose our freedoms.
Our reading choices determine the future of our liberty.
Anyone can teach themselves to read and understand Livy and Virgil, Madison and Jefferson. But few do. The nations that do, become free.
The others lose their freedoms to be ruled by elites.
Choose wisely. Your children and grandchildren will live with the results.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.