Of all the endlessly fascinating questions we have about Rome one stands foremost. Why did the Roman empire fall anyway? We see today in that decrepit shell of what once was the legendary splendor and impressive achievements as admiringly reviewed by every civilization to follow. And we do it not without a trace of troubling introspection. I summarized in the introduction of my recently published book ERIC II what I believe to be a compelling answer to this question. Rome, to put it simply, ran out of money. Yes yes... let's dutifully note the legendary wastefulness of the emperors and their palaces and banquets. Check on the list too for the deleterious effects of endless waves of marauding barbarians. Yeah, the lead in the pipes (right) and even the changes born of a quickly Christianizing proto-Europe. Say what you will but the bottom line is that the living heart of any empire, be it ancient, modern or future as long as homo sapiens is involved, is only as viable as its economy. And the economy, stupid, runs on money and nothing else.
Is this a bold statement? Well, before we take a look at the Romans why not browse over the demise of some more recent empires? The British empire, the first truly global one... did it not succumb because it had sucked the very life out of its many far-flung outposts and in so doing irremediably upset the locals into revolt in each case? Its crown jewel, the U.S., was not taxation without representation the seminal call to independence? What possible business does the crown have in establishing a presence in a place as inhospitable to your average pasty Englishman as, say, Rhodesia if not to drain its varied resources? The Spanish empire swallowed whole the Americas and siphoned god knows how many tons of gold and silver while giving but cranky missionaries and smallpox in return. The Soviet Union - do you really think it was sunk because of Reagan's appeals to embrace freedom and democracy? More like Reaganomics. The Iron Curtain had to shift such a high percentage of its GDP into military spending to keep up that the rest of the country and its satellites were left in disastrous shape. And herein leads my thesis: that irrespective of size or era a community, nation or empire subsists solely insofar as its monetary health is not compromised. Withdraw the money pool and political instability is the guaranteed result. In fact, I can't think of a single historically significant such community that did not thrive on the accumulation and trade of resources - or collapse when their availability was no more. And, before someone brings to point an example of a pre-coinage era (Egyptians, Mayans) no need to be pedantic: we may substitute the word money with capital or resources and maintain the strength of the argument.
Rome's resources were not limitless. The grain, the silver, slaves... all that kept Rome flourishing in the early years. However, those gilded conduits flowed primarily because of their success at expansionism. Their military engine was more sophisticated than that of their neighbors and when these were conquered the Romans, innovatively, did not seek to destroy the vanquished but keep them instead as confederates that could generate more income and pump air into an economic balloon. But a balloon it was. The empire grew too fast and each succeeding province won was more expensive to subdue and administer. A Roman commander may have stepped foot as far away as present-day Afghanistan only to look back on a supply line stretching thousands of miles to Rome. The maintenance tab on those long-distance tendrils sapped the profits down to zero. Pop goes the bubble.
The decline of the Roman empire began, if we must pin an exact date, precisely the day Trajan gave up his sieges in Arabia. He headed home on a caravan swollen with other peoples’ money; a store so wealthy that it easily suckled the lifestyles of generations of spoiled emperors to come. But the clock had started ticking. Without war - for its mines had given out - Rome had far less capacity to generate income than to consume it. The evidence is hard to miss from all that strewn marble. Each of those monuments, from the lowliest statue to the aqueducts and the coliseum, is testament to a people who dedicated themselves to building for the sake of no loftier reason than the good life with nary a care for saving for a rainy day. It was, through and through, a consumerist society. With the singular though notable exception of its state-of-the-art road system you may look hard at the Roman way of life and find little evidence of an infrastructure that made any real attempt at becoming self-sufficient. Its trade deficit was simply epic: those highways were one-way tentacles radiating in every direction and designed strictly for suction, not for export. Carthage and Egypt provided food, from the east came spices and other luxury goods, from the north timber and slaves. And Rome in turn sold just about nothing with which to balance the spreadsheet. On the archeological record, look for any Roman presence outside of its borders and just about all you find are its coins. The coins, of course, which were made for buying foreign goods!
The spigot ran dry as did Trajan's teat then crisis quickly ensued. Taxation, the laziest way to make money, is a worse than useless tool when used on an insolvent citizenry for it harvests but resentment. So with no money the fact that droves of Romans were trading their ancient gods for Jesus is largely irrelevant. That "moral decay" on which Rome's fall is blamed - the endless partying and orgies and gladiatin' and all that other showy opulence… is this in the least possible without a near-bottomless pit of money? That "depopulation" given as a contributing factor for the downfall, is this not a terminal symptom rather than a cause? What soldier risks life and limb for no pay when he is at the employ of a dissolute tyrant? Look at each of the traditional reasons given and see whether money, or rather the lack of it, is not the naked, ugly core of the problem. Of course the Romans were swept off the map by barbarians but they were the victors only to a golden crown on a rotted tooth.
And now comes that introspection part. Hasn't it occurred to anyone yet that the U.S., and probably Europe too, shares an uncomfortable number of parallels with our western ancestors? Is that old maxim about those who don't learn from history being condemned to repeat it not yet sinking in? Let's pick at this scab once more. Our economy, as everyone knows, is practically a mirror of Rome's old ways. Our own tentacles stretch from every zip code outwards, particularly to China, and disgorge their contents on the shelves at Walmart. We modern Romans send the modern-day Denarius to Shanghai and Stuttgart alike along with little else besides the next purchase order. Garbage, I kid you not, is our largest export and I think you will agree that garbage, as a commodity, is not very valuable. With each flatscreen tv we buy we sell back the cardboard and styrofoam it came in and by necessity a trade deficit grows on a par with that of old Rome. Each gallon of Arabian gas, each African diamond placed on a bride's finger and each call to a help desk in India is just a new puff into a stretching balloon.
To be fair, Rome's economy was vastly simpler than our own and the U.S. still creates a lot of wealth of its own accord. Exports and the global trade balance only tell part of the story. If the rest of the world were to be shut out from us somehow I envision an abysmal level of discomfort but we would somehow learn to cope and survive. However, the fundamental question remains: are we as a nation making more money than we're spending? The only candid answer is no. And the answer to ponder, if we fail to consider the fate of the Romans or that of every other once-successful empire, should be quite disconcerting. It is in our human nature to overconsume and move on but earth, we’re told, is a prune on its way to a raisin.
Collectively we pay lip service to a green movement or a charity or some other feel-good cause by some symbolic token of personal sacrifice while only an insignificantly small number of people will commit to major life changes necessary in order to reach a self-sustaining balance. Let's face it, we do this because it's only normal, from the human perspective, to maximize our well-being and security with only half-hearted nods to the future. I very much doubt that as Romans contemplated the ominous signs in their own not-to-distant futures they forsook the pleasures of their baths and attending plays or eating exotic animals because curtailing those activities in the name of hoarding resources in case of crises is just not a very fun lifestyle. And before I lift a hypocritical finger at their excess I grin and note that last week I was bathing in Panama, am looking forward to trying out my first Kobe steak tonight and going to next week's opening of Transformers with the kids. But what happens when the last coin is spent?