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[Kim Seong-kon] What led to the fall of Roman Empire?

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 30, 2023 - 05:31

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In his celebrated book, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Edward Gibson clarified the reasons why the Roman Empire perished. He wrote that the political and military leaders of Rome “first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple.” Then he continued, “The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy.”

Corruption, then, was the key reason for the Empire’s decline. But this corruption arose in response to other conditions, as Gibson succinctly summarized: “I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attack of the Barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of the materials. IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.”

As to this last cause of the Empire’s decline, Gibson emphasized the role of civil war. Just before the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome had a wise, philosophical emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Unfortunately, his son and successor Commodus ruthlessly executed his political enemies and consequently sent Rome into a civil war, thereby ending the period of peace known as the Pax Romana. Therefore, Commodus, too, was responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire.

Today, we have three big countries that resemble the Roman Empire in their own ways: America, Russia and China. Both America and Russia think of themselves as the rightful heir to ancient Rome, and China seems to aspire to be like the Roman Empire so much that in its historical movies and dramas, the armors of its ancient soldiers resemble that of Roman soldiers.

In America, fortunately, a Marcus Aurelius-like political leader is still there and yet, a Commodus-like politician and his ardent followers are ready to strike back and take over the throne when the time comes. The problem is that they will defy the original dream of their nation’s Founding Fathers and try to make America a monolithic and monochromatic country, excluding and banishing minorities under the name of patriotism. If so, it surely is problematic because the greatness of America comes from cultural and ethnic diversity, not the other way round.

Another problem is that the clash of two extreme political ideologies have already split America into two antagonizing groups, thereby inciting an insurrection that will eventually cause the decline of the country. In America, political ideologies have torn families and friends apart. Gibson warned that such internal division and domestic scuffles brought forth the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

People believe that in Russia and China, unfortunately, thoughtful and discrete Marcus Aurelius-like political leaders have long since vanished and replaced by impetuous and impulsive Commodus-like political leaders now.

In Russia, nostalgic longing for the past when it was a mighty empire seems to be the main driver of its political decisions. As a result, it is dreaming of expanding its territory by annexing independent, neighboring nations to it. Consequently, Russia is now facing severe criticisms and economic sanctions from the international community. To make matters worse, it has to spend an astronomical amount of money for war, which will irrevocably hurt its economy. According to the History channel, “overexpansion and military overspending” was one of the causes for the decline of the Roman Empire.

China, too, has a strong nostalgia for its glorious past when it was a colossal empire. Consequently, it is also dreaming of restoring those good old days by aggressively expanding its political and cultural influence in the world by actively investing in foreign countries and putting them in debt, thereby fostering their dependency. By doing so, it has tried to situate itself at the center of the world, as the Roman Empire did.

Their main obstacle to implementing this program is that the international community does not seem to want China to emerge as a new empire that would take over the rest of the world. People know that China is a socialist country, and its totalitarian society is fundamentally incompatible with countries that value liberal democracy. The expansion policy of China thus confronts strong resistance from the global village, which will eventually damage its economy. Again, the History channel says that “economic troubles” was one of the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire.

Instead of pursuing ideological brawls, expansion policies or the desire for world domination, therefore, what these three great countries should do is to cooperate with one another to protect the world order, promote world peace, and solve the climate crisis, so our descendants can live in peace and prosperity. Why is this goal, which is much more important than their petty squabbles, not the main prerogative?

In the 1964 Hollywood film, “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” the narrator intones at the end of the movie: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

We all should keep this grave warning in mind.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.