The book was Edward Gibbon’s nonfiction historical work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in six volumes. My reason for reading it was to find out why superpowers fall, especially since I live in the world’s last existing one.
As you turn the pages of this massive work, you meet emperor following emperor, hear the names of generals who rise; some to the top post, and of others who fall, with one foot on the threshold of the throne room. In a book of this size you cannot expect to remember the names and individual backstories of the characters. In these pages you will read of the wars with the “northmen,” and of the midnight ride, through the forest, to save his empire, by Juliun the Apostate, as well as of the pride of Arp Arslan, the invader: as his captive who had escaped, Sir Joseph, ran at him, Arslan told his guards he would kill him himself, but he slipped, and was given a mortal blow. Amidst all these tells, in the small schemes sometimes seemingly disconnected, you find a pattern.
Like waves, hitting upon a beach, first you see the trough, the dark times, such as when Rome was founded, and the Etruscans came to rule with a heavy hand, when Romulus allegedly killed his own brother Remus for climbing over the walls of the city rather than going through the gates. But then you see the top of the wave, the good happy times, under good emperors and peaceful trade, such as the years of Julius Caesar. But the good times seem always to be followed by the bad again, like the fall of the wave, crashing upon the beach, and sinking down in the sea once more.
Right after Tiberius and his peaceful years, during which Jesus Christ walked the earth, we have emperor Nero, the sadist mental case who was, so go the stories, too much of a coward, in the end, to push his own suicide blade home, and had to order a slave to do it.
But these are just the headlines, the things that got remembered, the mile markers on the road to the fall of an empire. It was why it fell that I was interested in, however.
As my view may be guessed from the head of the article about America, so it was in Rome, it was always, from then to now, that the great events, while being led, perhaps, by a few, were the work of many.
No emperor, however unpopular, could reign if he was too unpopular, which is what happened the family of Vespasian came to power, overthrowing the warring factions after the fall of Jerusalem, the old class had become too unpopular, (maybe because Nero was one of them?) and was swept aside.
The reasons for these things, these events, is, in a way, more fascinating than the events themselves.
There is another big book, this one only in three volumes, although I have never quite had the stomach to finish it. It is Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia. In it, the man who discovered why every time you try to hit a hole-in-one, it always seems to fall short, (gravity, if you were wondering) gave three basic laws that govern movement.
One of them is “An object at rest will tend to stay at rest.” So it is with societies, things tend to stay the same for a long time. There can be a lot of difficulty in getting things going for reform, for transformation, and progress. Whether it is bureaucratic in nature, or “lack of funds,” lack of interest that is holding things up, etc.
But there is the other part of that law, which is also true. “An object in motion tends to stay in motion.” Such as the sudden race to minimize all our technology in size, whereas before we were perfectly fine with computers which would not fit in our living room, and weighed about as much a blue whale, now that society knows of a better way, people will not be caught dead without some small enough to fit into their hand, and smart enough to do eighteen things at once.
But, even as a countries greatest weakness is its people, its complex, difficult, often lazy people who always seem to vote someone in that everyone hates, its people are its greatest strength. Rome, Gibbon tells us, fell, not when the emperors and all their minions finally turned bad. The vast majority of them, it seems, were always bad. It did not fall to some great invasion of the “northmen.” It only crumbled, in the end, when its people just gave up, sat down, and watched it die.
America’s people do not look like they are going to do that anytime soon. All sorts of issues are constantly pointed out, and it is true, our massive country, with all its conflicting ideas, all its insane things it sells, buys, and even eats, probably looks to the rest of the world like some sort of otherworldly thing. But that is all the outworking of the differences, sameness, friction, and connections that hold together our number one strength. All three hundred million of them.
Andrew C. Abbott