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The importance of the Roman legacy built on a 1000-year foundation can scarcely be exaggerated nowadays. Forming the root of the Western philosophy, literature, science, legal system and arts, it never ceases to provide humanity with valuable historical lessons, many of which can be learned from Rome’s demise.
The traditional date of the end of the Roman Empire is 476 A.D., the year of the deposition of Romulus Augustus by a German chieftain Odoacer (Perry et al., 2012). Yet the last great republic of Antiquity did not fall overnight. The dissolution took almost 4 centuries and was the result of the ongoing decay of social, political, military, economic, and other aspects of life coupled with “necessary yet fatal introduction of barbarians into the Roman armies” (Stephens & Friell, 1994) and unending waves of foreign usurpations.
The first signs of decline started to show as early as the end of the 2nd cent. A.D. The Pax Romana, the golden age of the Roman Empire, was brought to a close by the death of Marcus Aurelius (180 A.D.), and the country faced serious social and cultural changes. Internal unrest in various parts of the Empire was shaking the country. The economy started to stagnate, mainly due to lack of capital investment, overreliance on slave labor, heavy tax burden and no technological development. Rational and civic thinking started giving way to proliferation of mysticism (the cult of Mithras, magic, alchemy) and self-indulgence (the pursuit of luxuries and banqueting, gladiatorial contests) (Perry et al., 2012).
The ground for this confusion, as well as the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th cent., had been laid in the early 1st cent., when Augustus, following the defeat of the Roman army by the Germanic tribe Cherusci, had given up the admissions to expand the country to the Elbe and started building friendly client chieftainships with the Germanic tribes who would protect the Roman border from other tribal threats in return for money subsidiaries or Roman protection against their enemies (Stephens & Friell, 1994).
The main drive behind the importing of the barbarian peoples, including the Germans, was the idea that they were an inexhaustible source of warlike recruits who would ultimately be assimilated. To the Germans, however, Rome represented “boundless riches and almost unlimited power” they constantly hoped for and occasionally tried to grab. Thus, when the 3rd Century Crisis swept the country, the balance of powers on the frontiers shifted drastically away from the Romans and the German threat became much more formidable to Rome (Stephens & Friell, 1994). Between 235 to 285 A.D. as many as 26 soldier emperors tried to usurp the power; 25 of them ended up being violently killed (Perry et al., 2012).
Torn by military mutiny and civil war the country was forced back together by efforts of Aurelian, Diocletian and Constantine (Stephens & Friell, 1994). A new capital was set at ancient Bizantium and the country was basically divided into two halves: the Latin-speaking West with the center in Rome and the Greek-speaking East centered on Constantinople. This furthered the division within the Empire where people started to dramatically diverge politically and culturally. The horrors of the 3rd Century Crisis, namely military anarchy, barbarian raids, Persian attacks, unbearable taxes consumed by military needs, economic ruin and breakdown of Hellenism under the pressure of occults and new Eastern religions gave birth to a different empire – regimented and militarized. Diocletian and Constantine did prevent the Empire from collapsing but the task of guarding its frontiers required constant inflow of manpower (Perry et al., 2012). This drove the Romans to conscript more and more tribal recruits, heavily represented by Germans. As a result, by 350 A.D. about 15 per cent of the Empire’s population, and a majority of its army, were of some barbarian origin. (Stephens & Friell, 1994)
By the late 4th century the Goths and Alans, pressured out by the Huns, sought refuge within the Roman Empire as independent peoples. Their pleas were refused. Enraged by such unjust treatment the Visigoths fought and victoriously defeated the Romans at Adrianople in 378 A.D., basically leaving the Eastern frontiers defenseless. (Perry et al., 2012) The Western emperor Gratian and the Eastern emperor Theodosius managed to scrap together a new army and bring the Goths to a peace treaty in 382 A.D., granting them settlement land with obligation to provide military forces for the emperor upon demand. Although the settlement worked pretty well during the reign of Theodosius, it shook the long-established political scenario by letting the Goths see themselves as equals, not subjects. (Stephens & Friell, 1994)
When Theodosius died in 395 A.D., the thrones of the East and West were left to his two immature sons, and the Visigoths were quick to fill in the power vacuum. Their leader Alaric proclaimed himself king, leaving the Eastern government with no choice but to grant him the top military command in Illyricum, which entailed 15 years of Alaric’s destructive rule in the region. Trying to assemble enough forces against Alaric the Western generalissimo, Stilicho striped the borders off the necessary defenses, thus clearing the way for barbarian invaders. (Stephens & Friell, 1994) Finally, in 406 A.D. the borders collapsed as various tribes overran the Western Empire. In 410 A.D. Alaric plundered Rome. Province after province recognized the new kings until in 476 A.D. the last legitimate Roman emperor of the West was overthrown and German Odocear took the throne (Perry et al., 2012).
The process of decline and fall of the Roman Empire spanned many centuries and reflected the deterioration and ultimate breakdown of internal and foreign policies. In the context of contestable political decisions, the concept of barbarian recruitment, which initially was an effective solution to the growing military needs, gradually let the tribal enemy take over the country. The ambitions of new conquests and world supremacy drove the country to the limit economically, politically, socially and culturally until the Roman Empire as a united nation could stand no longer and finally collapsed under the pressure of eager usurpers.
Though separated in time by over 15 centuries, the Roman Empire and the USA are often compared as having lots in common (with speculations over the possibility of the latter meeting the end of the former). Though some may find certain trends of the history of the two countries uncannily similar (build-up of military forces, huge public expenditure on the needs of the army, presence of the soldiers in almost every part of the world, the “melting pot” society structure with never-ending immigration, economic stagnation and inflation, deterioration of cultural and religious values among the most commonly-cited similarities), one should remember that these two countries exist in two different historical non-intersecting realms. Therefore the outward formal similarity of certain events from the history of Rome or the reality of the USA can not serve as the ground for predicting the same outcomes for our contemporary world.
At the same time nobody denies the fact that the lessons from the history of the Roman Empire may and should serve as an analytical tool for the USA, enabling it to better understand the present state of things through the prism of historical experience and make wiser decisions for the future. The example of Rome shows that when a country chooses to be a superpower, there is no turning back. Additionally, the democratic values are not easy to transfer, especially to archaically built nations, and the one who tries is bound to meet resistance. Finally, the nations come and go but what remains and really matters is the legacy.