The “Decline and Fall” of Rome — A Dangerous Idea?

By Ronald MellorOctober 8, 2021

The “Decline and Fall” of Rome — A Dangerous Idea?

The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Edward Watts

IT HAS BEEN 2,800 years since the city of Rome was founded on the hills beside the Tiber River, making it the longest continuously surviving state in human history. But its history has not been peaceful. There have been invasions, civil wars, economic collapses, dynastic revolutions, religious turbulence, and political transformations of every kind. The Romans were repeatedly complaining about a decline from their glorious past, and historians have again and again tried to recount and analyze that decline.

Now the distinguished historian Edward Watts has provided not a history of Rome in the longue durée, but an intriguing examination of the very idea of “Decline and Fall” from the elder Cato around 200 BCE to politicians, historians, and political theorists (and now journalists) over 22 centuries. Watts insightfully calls it a “dangerous idea” for the ways it has been used and reused to advance political, theological, and nationalist agendas through the ages. Watts, who is the Vassiliadis Endowed Chair in Byzantine History at UC San Diego, is an extraordinarily prolific specialist on Roman and Byzantine history with almost a dozen books. His range reveals itself in this latest monograph.


Cato’s fulminations against Rome’s “corruption” by Greek culture — immorality, luxury, self-indulgence — provide a template to illustrate the negative consequences of change. Ready-made stories of decline are available for any context. But what is Byzantine history, and why does Watts make it the centerpiece of his book? Constantine the Great, who ruled from 306 to 337, had two extraordinary accomplishments: he converted the Roman Empire to Christianity and he founded a new capital, Constantinople, on the site of the earlier Greek city of Byzantium. Hence the “Byzantine” Empire or the Eastern Roman Empire from 330 to 1453 CE was truly the second millennium of the Roman state. The Byzantines called themselves “Romans” (Rhomaioi — in Greek) right until their conquest by the Turks in 1453. Cato’s corrupt Greeks had become the saviors of the Roman Empire. 

Watts’s chapters provide vignettes to understand the political use of the idea of decline to attempt to gain or retain power. He also examines those who built literary and political careers around jeremiads against decline alongside promises for rebirth and renewal. During the last century of the Roman Republic (133–27 BCE), political disputes from the Gracchi onward led to bitter civil wars between Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Octavian (later Augustus Caesar). Augustus promoted his new regime as a “restoration” with such catchwords as PEACE, RENEWAL, PIETY, and LIBERTAS on his coinage, which was widely distributed to citizens and soldiers. This Roman Peace lasted two centuries, culminating under the Antonine emperors in what Edward Gibbon regarded as the happiest age in human history.

The next three centuries provide Watts with a parade of collapses and declines. The era of the erratic Severan emperors was followed by the “Military Anarchy” (235–284) with 50 imperial claimants — some ruled local kingdoms and most never even reached Rome. After a particularly chaotic decade, Decius (249–251), a military man from the Balkans, proclaimed renewal. He added the name of Trajan as part of his program of nostalgia and combined his promotion of traditional religion (emphasizing the cult of emperors) with brutal persecutions of Christians whom he blamed for the earlier decline. Neither saved him from defeat at the hands of the Goths. He was the first Roman emperor to actually die in battle with the barbarians. It was another Balkan general, Diocletian (284–305), who brought stability not through claims of renewal, but wisely through economic and administrative reforms.

In the fourth century, Constantine the Great (306–337) used persuasion to unify the empire under the new Christian religion. But decades after his death, the rhetoric of decline once again led to disaster. The philosopher-emperor Julian (later called “the Apostate”), tried to restore paganism, but he fell to Persian invaders on the eastern frontier. Theodosius (379–395) proceeded to attack Arian heretics, Jews, and pagans in the name of preserving the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed, but at his death the empire was divided between his sons — never to be reunited. In 410, the Visigoths sacked Rome for the first time in 800 years since the Gallic sack of 390 BCE. The sack of Rome provoked a torrent of attacks on Christianity and Christian apologetics in response. The most famous was St. Augustine’s City of God, which argued that it was only the city of man that was destroyed but the City of God was untouched. Another Christian thinker, Orosius, attributed the sack as God’s punishment for Rome’s evil deeds. It was followed by continual disasters until 476 when a Germanic chieftain deposed the last Western emperor, the 12-year-old Romulus Augustulus. The Senate sent the imperial insignia to Constantinople. There was an Italian recovery from 475 to 520 — the Golden Age of Theodoric — but that king was in fact a Goth.

The sixth century brought another “renewal” when the Byzantine emperor Justinian proclaimed his power and piety as manifest in the successful “Reconquest” of Italy. But the cost was enormous; the Western imperial capital Milan was destroyed and its people enslaved with renewed persecutions of both Jews and pagans. Justinian’s great general Belisarius, after his conquests in the West, was awarded the first triumph in six centuries for a general who was not part of the imperial family. That celebration was part of the repeated cycle of renewal and violence. The great church of Hagia Sophia survives and is used, and we still marvel over the magisterial Code and Digest of Justinian; but there was a ruthless massacre with 30,000 killed after the so-called “Nika riots” in 532 that, like other brutal repressions of ordinary people, were forgotten. Arab armies had begun to chip away at Byzantine rule in Egypt, as did the Persians with their conquest of Syria and Jerusalem.

When Watts turns to the devastating effect of the Iconoclastic movement, he does not emphasize its Old Testament antecedents (e.g., prohibition of “graven images”) as much as the centuries-long attempt to explain God’s displeasure with his Christian emperors. The iconoclastic violence in the East was paralleled by the philosophical treatises in the West (like Augustine). The long reign of Constantine V (741–775) promoted iconoclastic ideology with persecutions — even the humiliating public torture and execution of the patriarch of Constantinople. This was the dark side of a quest for purity, renewal, and orthodoxy. His reign, and the civil wars between his successors which led to the brief reign of the female emperor Irene (797–802), increased the division from the papacy who, in the face of Lombard power in northern Italy, turned for help to the Frankish kings across the Alps. On Christmas Day of 800, Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne as emperor. This creation of the Holy Roman Empire, which survived until it was dissolved by Napoleon in 1806, was an example of “renewal” which had an immense effect on European (and world) history.

For centuries, popes in the West, emperors in Constantinople, and the transalpine Frankish/German emperors moved in and out of political and religious alliances in the face of other opponents. Despite a cultural “Carolingian Renaissance” in the West and a cultural reflowering in 10th-century Byzantium, there was a definitive schism between Western (Roman Catholicism) and Eastern Christianity (Orthodoxy) in 1054 that has survived to the present day. In the ensuing centuries, Norman invaders took Italy and Sicily, the Arabs under Saladin took Jerusalem, and the Turks took Byzantine lands in Asia Minor. Eventually the popes called upon Western Christians to launch great crusades to support the Roman emperors in Constantinople and to liberate the “Holy Land” from Muslims. Much devastation followed.

The first or “People’s Crusade” consisted of bands of peasants and low-level knights rampaging across Europe, murdering Jews and sacking Christian towns on their way to Asia. A century later (1204), the infamous Fourth Crusade was turned toward the imperial capital itself. Watts rightly says, “The Fourth Crusade was a mess.” Underfunded and in debt to the Venetians, the crusade’s leaders turned their eyes to the wealth of Constantinople, where their soldiers massacred the Greek inhabitants and looted and destroyed churches, monasteries, and palaces. The crusaders claimed their goal was to return the orthodox church to papal dominion, but in fact it was to repay the Venetians and other sponsors. After the devastation, the population of Constantinople was reduced from 500,000 to 35,000 inhabitants. Watts demonstrates how perhaps the greatest city on the Mediterranean was virtually destroyed by greed in the name of renewal.

Though the new Palaeologan dynasty made progress in rebuilding the capital, the emperor Michael demonstrated the same ruthlessness as others who claimed to restore Rome over 1,300 years. The Ottoman Turks were successful in defeating the Serbs as Kosovo, but their siege of Constantinople was undermined by Tamerlane’s attacks from the East. This respite would not last. The last Palaeologans did continue the restoration of the city under the banner of tradition and piety, and they even made a last attempt to heal the schism with Rome, but to no avail. Mehmed II took the city and its remaining sliver of territory along the Bosporos, on May 29, 1453, and instituted an Ottoman sultanate that lasted until the Turkish Republic in 1922. The “Romans” were enslaved. The Romans had survived Hannibal, Civil Wars, Germanic invasions with a capacity for self-renewal. But now there was no genuine possibility of renewal — in 1453 Rome had truly fallen.

There were still Caesars of the West — for example, the French Charles VIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the Low Countries and Spain, but neither showed interest in a new crusade to reestablish the Byzantine Empire. In fact, among his many titles, Mehmed used “Kayser-i Rum” — “emperor of Rome.” Others, like the Grand Duke of Muscovy, sought recognition as the Roman emperor, and through the centuries Caesar’s name reappeared as Kaiser in Germany and Tsar in Russia. Despite flowery orations on the imperial past, there was little respect for the city of Rome itself. After Pope Clement VII joined the French against Charles V, the emperor’s unpaid mercenaries raged out of control and sacked the city in 1527. They were landless Protestants hostile to the papacy. Clement had to flee the city and go into hiding and later pay an enormous ransom. Though that ended the Renaissance in Rome, European diplomacy being what it was, by 1536 the new pope awarded Charles a triumph on the Capitoline Hill.


What Watts calls the “dangerous idea” of Rome’s decline continued to be used in various contexts in the Renaissance. Leonardo Bruni regarded Rome’s fall as necessary for Florence’s rise — for him a good thing! — but his Florentine compatriot Niccolò Machiavelli tried to use history more analytically to understand modern events. The French political theorist Baron de Montesquieu used Rome to argue that political vitality arose from liberty — an argument which found fertile ground among French and American revolutionaries later in the 18th century. But it was his successor Edward Gibbon who created in the popular mind the grand trajectory of Rome’s “Decline and Fall” in his 4,000-page masterpiece that remains in print! He began in the Antonine Age and traced numerous “falls” until 1453.

Since Gibbon, historians have “blamed” Rome’s fall on a wide range of causes from degeneracy to lead poisoning, from excessive bureaucracy to Christianity. But in his final chapter, Watts demonstrates the absurd lengths “political commentators” will go to use Rome to buttress their criticism of modern politics and society. If even Rome fell, it can happen again. The Roman historian H. A. Drake published a whimsical short essay collecting some of these recent suggestions by (usually) conservative polemicists. Joan Collins — before she became Dame Joan — gave a 1984 Playboy interview in which she launched an attack on liberal values as the cause of AIDS. Dame Joan has been married five times but professed a strong moral compass: “It’s just like the Roman Empire. Wasn’t everyone just covered in syphilis? And then it was destroyed by the volcano.” No, I am not making this up, nor is Edward Watts, nor is Hal Drake! Phyllis Schlafly attributed the fall of Rome to the “liberated Roman matron, who is most similar to the present day feminist.” There are countless others who use Rome’s decline as an easy code. We read of the dangers of the suicide of the West — most often as a paean to white supremacy.

We are a long way from the Founding Fathers, who possessed (and read) copies of Plutarch’s Lives as moral exemplars for young Americans, and the Roman presence survives in colonnades, capitols, and even European ruins. But Watts persuasively illustrates the dangers of trying to revive romanità. Charlemagne, the crusaders, Charles V, Napoleon, and Mussolini sacrificed millions of men and women in pursuit of the “Dangerous Idea” of renewing Rome. But the conclusion of this learned and provocative book is that despite the many “causes” of Rome’s decline, more lives were lost due to civil wars — Romans fighting and killing other Romans. That is the most powerful lesson of Rome’s decline.


Ronald Mellor is Distinguished Research Professor of History at UCLA where he taught Greek and Roman history since 1976. His many books are focused on Roman history and the Roman historians.

LARB Contributor

Since 1976 Ronald Mellor has been teaching Greek and Roman History in the History department at UCLA. He studied classics and philosophy at the University of Louvain (Belgium) and Fordham University (A.B. 1962) and received his doctorate in Classics at Princeton University in 1968. He is the author of numerous books on Greek and Roman history, including THEA ROME: The Goddess Roma in the Greek World (1975); From Augustus to Nero: The First Dynasty of Imperial Rome (ed. 1990); Tacitus (1993); Tacitus: The Classical Heritage (1995); The Historians of Ancient Rome (ed. 1997; 2nd ed. 2004; 3rd ed. 2013); The Roman Historians (1999); and Text and Tradition: Studies in Greek History and Historiography in Honor of Mortimer Chambers (co-ed. 1999); Augustus and the Creation of the Roman Empire (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005); and The Annals of Tacitus (Oxford University Press, 2012).


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