A dear friend is presently reading a history book The Story of England – Makers of the Realm, by Sir Arthur Bryant published in 1953. He summarizes the reasons for the decline of Roman power in three paragraphs. There is, I believe, an uncanny prescience in his words:
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“Rome had grown out of greatness of individual character. It became a community in which individual character counted for nothing compared with an abstraction which proved, in the hour of testing, capable of nothing. By sacrificing the individual to the State the rulers of the Roman world undermined the real virtues which sustained it. They turned active and self-respecting citizens into inert and selfish ones. They discouraged the capitalist from thrift and foresight, the trader from enterprise, the craftsman from hereditary skill, the husbandman from pride in the soil, the mother from maternity, and the soldier from courage and self-sacrifice. They made the moral shell that protected society so soft that it could protect it no longer. A creeping inertia paralysed everyone and everything. Even before the barbarians broke in, the elegant cities had begun to crumble, trade to die for want of purchasers, learning, art and even bureaucratic efficiency to disappear for lack of men of ability. The middle-class was exterminated. Civilisation slowly gave place to barbarism at the Empire’s heart.
There was a further reason for Rome’s decay. At its root lay a lack of faith and hope. The citizens and rulers of the Empire came in the end to see no purpose either in society or their own lives. The religion of their remote predecessors – a little pastoral Italian State – had been a simple nature worship based on love of home and country. But the Mediterranean peasant’s adoration of grove, stream and hill, and of the imaginary gods who personified them, could not satisfy the sophisticated citizens of an international empire. For, though Rome accepted every local god as her own and promoted to her pantheon, under names half-Roman and half-British, the celtic deities of river and spring, earth and sky — Apollo-Maponas, Sol-Minerva, Mars-Nodens, Victoria-Brigantia — no educated person any longer believed in them. The only thing that Rome really worshipped now was herself – the all-embracing State – and, as its power began to disintegrate in a murderous welter of ambitious generals contending for the throne, it became impossible any longer even to believe in that.
While the strains and stresses of the Empire grew and disasters multiplied, men and women sought feverishly for some answer to the tragic conundrum of existence. Despite the noble creeds of small philosophical minorities like the Stoics, neither pagan deities nor a meaningless succession of divine Caesars offered an ideal strong enough to inspire the masses to perform duty or sacrifice themselves for the community. The gods in the old Mediterranean myths had behaved without regard to morality or justice. So did the rival emperors who fought each other for the purple. It was natural that their worshippers should come to despise and despair of them. And when men despise and despair of their gods, they presently despise and despair of one another.”
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