Critique “The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome”: The Road to Ruin

It is a story of Rome whose first name is that of Donald Trump and the name of Ronald Reagan almost the last. President Trump earns his place with his inaugural address promising to “make America even better,” President Reagan with a speech in 1969 on the theme of “decline and fall” in which the greatest empire in history Western society has collapsed into bureaucracy, excessive welfare payments, taxes on the middle class and students with long makeup hair. Edward J. Watts, professor of history at the University of California at San Diego, is a late-world scholar who takes his readers from Republican Rome to Republican Washington with a resounding theme that anyone who promises to restore the greatness lost is probably no good.

The eternal decline and fall of Rome

By Edward J. Watts


320 pages

We may earn a commission when you purchase products through the links on our site.

Over the years of its history, he finds a series of cases where politicians first claim that society is “deteriorating” than it was in a great past, and then “suggest a path to recovery. restoration which consists of rebalancing society to solve the problems they identify. His modern aggressors in history come from Spain and the Philippines as well as the United States. When ‘radical innovation’ is disguised as ‘defending tradition’ he sees a trail of victims – immigrants, dissidents and young people.

Roman history, he argues, is most abused in this way because it is absolutely at the heart of Western culture. President Trump, after appearing in Mr. Watts’ frontline, is no longer mentioned by name and no one has ever suggested him as a classics student. Yet Mr Watts is not the first to point out the real estate mogul’s instinctive understanding of rhetorical themes – populist anti-elitism as well as nostalgia – which were well tested throughout the Roman ages.

It is a powerful lens for looking into the past, both for those who think they already know it well and for those who have practical uses for it. The book’s earliest villains are identified even before Rome had an emperor, led by the “cynic” Marcus Porcius Cato, who blamed Greek immigrants for corrupting Roman youth in the early 2nd century BC. aristocrat Lucius Cornelius Sylla, who in the 1980s slaughtered thousands of his fellow citizens as part of a backtracking program to a better age. At the end of the book, Mussolini in Ethiopia and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila joined other villains in what Mr. Watts sees as a model of disguising brutal policies within a spurious story.

What to read this week

The endless fall of Rome, the quiet convictions of Calvin Coolidge, the right-hand man of Jefferson Davis and the fiction of Richard Powers and Wole Soyinka.

There are surprisingly generous words for the rulers regularly considered the worst of their kind, the Caligula emperors (AD 37-41 “language of Roman decline and revival.” These men may have been vicious fantasies, claiming divinity and artistic genius for themselves, but they did not inflict a political fantasy of restoration.

It is difficult to make heroes of Caligula and Nero. A firmer positive verdict goes to Antoninus Pius (138-61), a “savior and restorer” in the eyes of those to whom he sent help, and to the first African emperor, Septimius Severus (193-211), who restored the fabric of Rome at the end of the second century without claiming to restore a more grandiose concept. This is the model that Mr. Watts endorses. In his last paragraph, he offers his readers two approaches to what he sees as urgent modern crises: “modern political instability, environmental degradation, wealth inequality and climate change”. Some, like Sylla, create scapegoats. Others, like Antonin le Pieux, aim to bring society closer together. President Trump was certainly a Sylla: if his successor is an Antoninus, Mr. Watts is not saying so.

The author gives an elegant analysis of how such verdicts have become important beyond academia. The changing role of Christianity has changed the meaning of the Restoration. Shortly after Severus’ death came edicts from his successors that recovery from military defeats and the plague could be best achieved through the persecution of Christians. Another great “restorer” was Diocletian (284-305) who reigned with three colleagues and continued the anti-Christian policy. Only a few years after Diocletian’s death, the emperor himself was a Christian who claimed a very different type of restoration.

During the reign of Constantine (306-37), “the glorious Roman past was suddenly irrelevant”, as Mr. Watts puts it. The newly Christian emperor looked back to when Rome ruled from Scotland to Palmyra, even before Cato complained about the Greeks. Rather, the Emperor would be the new Moses, leading an even greater world from darkness to light. Mr. Watts sympathetically wrote in a previous book, “The Last Pagan Generation” (2015), about the shock felt by citizens in persecuting Christians, who were suddenly dependent on their god. In this book, Christianity separates the first group of Romans, recreating greatness, from those who took up the theme across the world.

These newly powerful Christians had to struggle with the gap between the promises of glory and its absence in the real world. Under Constantine’s successors, the borders of the Roman Empire began to narrow and would never again be so large. Those who saw themselves as Romans had to choose between regretting the decline in time and rejoicing in spiritual progress.

Throughout Roman history, deception of the past was a necessary tool. Mr. Watts correctly describes the role of the most famous ancient emperors in falsifying the reputation of their predecessors: Caligula, Nero, and Commodus all suffered in the history books so that others could be brilliant restorers of virtue. Justinian (527-65), although less known, is one of the worst villains of Mr. Watts, inventing the idea of ​​a “fall of Rome” in 476 to justify the restoration of the Empire by the east. . The Byzantines would continue to call themselves Romans, but hundreds of thousands of Italians and centuries of Roman law were erased.

The writer who most firmly fixed “decline and fall” in Western consciousness was Edward Gibbon, whose six volumes of “The History of the Fall and Fall of the Roman Empire” (1766-88) gave an Enlightenment rationalist’s perspective in some of the greatest English prose ever written. He blamed much of the weakness of the empire on the barbarism of the Roman armies; it was Gibbon that President Reagan cited against the long-haired, scent-scented welfare recipients of 1969.

The manner in which Rome “fell” in the fifth century contributed to another modern debate. Beginning in the 1970s, in both Europe and the United States, it was appropriate for proponents of slow continental integration (most recently in the form of the European Union) to argue that the Germanic takeover of the territories ruled by Rome had been made mainly by negotiation, not by sack and siege. Literary evidence to the contrary has been explained as the passionate imagination of those who hesitate to accept the new reality of power. The “dark ages” became as officially archaic a concept as the period it purported to describe, replaced instead by “transition” and “accommodation.” Those most skeptical of European integration preferred the traditional view supported by the archaeological record of the ruin, in which, to quote Oxford historian Bryan Ward-Perkins, “disaster destroys the magnificent Roman dinosaur, but leaves a few tiny mammals of the Dark Age alive. . “

Mr. Watts’ analysis of “the eternal decline and fall of Rome”, the “dangerous idea” of its subtitle, extends through the political response to ancient and modern plagues to the abuses of “personalities. of the alternative right and white nationalists. . . . from the events of the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th centuries to attack immigration in the 21st century. The historical significance of the book is, however, more than mere material for controversy. It gives a masterful account of the complex family that founded the last and longest dynasty of the Roman Empire, and of its main character, Michael Palaeologus (1261-1282), who restored Constantinople to its status as capital by committing “Sins so great that even his successors hesitated to embrace his legacy too closely. In 1453, these successors lost their city to the Turks.

In Western Europe, Mr. Watts’ story becomes that of emperors who claimed to be Saints and Romans against popes who claimed the same and more, with each side using their “dangerous idea” to advance their interests. The Habsburg emperor Maximilian I (1508-19) hoped to regain Constantinople and again used “the idea of ​​Roman restoration to justify his violent destruction of an existing political order”. But Maximilian had to balance his responsibilities as Holy Roman Emperor and his duties as Habsburg. The family lands and the money would go after his death to his descendants. The title of emperor could be given to a rival family. Although Maximilian was both a restaurateur and a good father, his policy, to recall a later slogan, was Habsburg first.

Copyright © 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Comments are closed.