January 19, 2021

Decline And Fall

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last 1500 years or so of what led to the fall of the Roman Empire and ushered in the Dark Ages.  Such discussions are hard to conduct because already there are those (and I am among them) who want to point out that the eastern half of the Roman Empire survived until almost the time of Columbus and that the “Dark Ages” is an unnecessarily condescending term for the years from oh, say AD 500 through AD 800.  But still, I am going to talk about the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of the Dark Ages, because the conditions that prevailed then are eerily familiar to us now.

First, a rough collection of scholarly opinion about the fall of the western half of the Empire would have to include the following points.

Immigration Conflict:  Starting in the 300s, the western Empire was overrun with immigration.  Some of it was violent – invasion, actually – while some was potentially peaceful.  At one point, the Germanic tribes on the other side of the Danube, squeezed by the inroads of Asian nomads and attracted by Roman culture, petitioned to be allowed to join the Empire.  The petition was granted.  But when the Goths tried to cross the river, they were met with a fatal reception of corruption and inefficiency, which resulted in warfare that killed the emperor.  Eventually the Goths entered the Empire anyway.

Environmental Disaster:  It wasn’t really a disaster, just a cold winter.  But the winter of 406-407 was cold enough that it froze the Rhine River, and Germanic warriors were able to cross into Roman territory.  Troops had to be pulled from other areas of the Empire to defend the Rhine frontier, and as a result Britain was emptied for good – one domino down.

Depopulation:  The Goths were ultimately successful in moving into western Europe because the Roman Empire was drastically depopulated.  There were several causes for this.  There had been outbreaks of what was probably the bubonic plague around the Mediterranean world.  There had been ongoing fighting around the borders of the Empire for centuries, and both soldiers and civilians were frequent casualties:  army recruiters accepted more and more non-Romans as soldiers because there simply weren’t enough Romans left to defend the vast frontier.  Finally, the population of the Empire consisted of as much as thirty percent slaves.  Roman slaves were largely agricultural; some did heavy labor in other areas, such as mining.  All slaves, with the exception of household servants, lived in barracks and were not permitted to reproduce themselves.  The slave-owners and slave-traders had to raid or finagle farther and farther afield to acquire new slaves.  (The profitability of slave-trading was what was behind the corruption mentioned under Immigration Conflict.)

Rural Collapse:  Because there were so few people, whole villages and towns collapsed.  Rural dwellers left the land and moved to the cities.  The Roman tax system, which was based on land occupation, had a dramatically shrinking base, and the government could no longer raise the revenues it needed.

Collapse of the Monetary System and Economic Recession:  By around the year 600, there was very little money in circulation in western Europe.  Local governments took their payment in goods or labor.

Negative Balance of Trade:  Because of the increased poverty and decreased population, Europeans produced no attractive trade goods and had little ability to increase their wealth through trade with the East or, soon, with the vibrant economies of North Africa.

Hypertrophy:  Maybe the Empire was just too big, and it was inevitable that it would collapse under its own weight.  Diocletian worried about that at the end of the third century, and from that point on there were often two emperors.  There were also two languages eventually – Greek and Latin – and many diverse cultures, customs, and religions.

Cultural Decadence:  This one is a bit harder to prove, but it’s probably the most frequently evoked in recent centuries.  Edward Gibbon thought that the cultural decadence that led to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was Christianity.  He posited that after their conversion the Romans became so focused on the other world that they were no good at defending their borders.  Nowadays you hear the opposite.  People talk about the revolting and costly entertainments in the latter days of the Empire – gladiator shows, martyr burnings, orgies, what have you – as the root of the Empire’s collapse.  I’m sympathetic to the idea, but while I see correlation, I’m not sure I see causation.  But then, I’m not an evangelical preacher.

So I’ve been wondering:  Are we – perhaps America, perhaps the whole Western world – at the same point?  Do we face a new Dark Age?  History never repeats itself, and because I can never know what I don’t know, prediction is hopeless; still, it’s been interesting for me to look at this past year and wonder.

Certainly both America and Europe are very conflicted about a growing immigrant population.  Many people with different cultures and practices are entering Western countries.  Immigrants are having more children than those of the original cultures, whose birthrates have fallen drastically.  Rural areas in all developed countries are emptying out at an alarming rate, and although our tax system is different from the Roman one, still this flight from the land is having serious economic and cultural consequences.  Europe and America both have – well, monetary and financial troubles, although I wouldn’t use the word collapse.  (Isn’t “catastrophe” the Greek word for collapse?  Hm, that’s appropriate.)  We have a trade deficit with burgeoning new economies.  We are at war on several fronts and wondering if we are wise to continue to defend our interests so far afield.  We are large enough that we lack a unity of vision about religion, culture, and morals, and aspects of our arts and entertainments are certainly decadent by any definition of the word.  At least there’s no major epidemic, but how about those environmental disasters?  Will we look back at the recent tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires, droughts, floods, and earthquakes and see them as the tipping point?

I really have no idea; nor do I even know if the potential changes to society would be a bad thing.  If our Western culture collapses and a new dark age descends on our part of the world, what will it be like?  How will we respond to the challenges as Christians?  Will we curse God and die, or will we bless him for reminding us not to lay up treasures on earth?  Will the struggles make Christianity stronger, or will the faith die out (except of course – pace, Martha – in the beehive monasteries of Ireland)?

These are appropriate thoughts, perhaps, for autumn, when we see the approach of death and cold.  It is the season of fall now.  Falling is certain.  But there is another thing I’m certain of, better expressed by Rilke than by me.


The leaves are falling, falling as from far,

as though above were withering farthest gardens;

they fall with a denying attitude.


And night by night, down into solitude,

the heavy earth falls far from every star.


We are all falling.  This hand’s falling too –

all have this falling sickness none withstands.


And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands

the universal falling can’t fall through.

Rainer Maria Rilke




  1. Jack Heron says

    One of the things that interests me is the way catastrophes are often only seen clearly in hindsight. At the time, people knew things were changing but often did not conceive of the true extent of the changes. Throughout the slow collapse of the Roman Empire, the Senate continued to sit. Tribal kings and petty rulers who took over Roman provinces paid lip service to still being part of the Empire as settled allies. Farmers deserting the land weren’t always fleeing: often they were making a rational economic decision to change their area of business to something more profitable. I suspect that the bulk of the collapse snuck up on people, who knew times were difficult but didn’t live long enough to see the long-term trends.

  2. I do wonder whether, over the course of the next several decades, Christianity won’t become marginalized in American society. I don’t anticipate violent persecution, but I can see it being regarded along the lines of Mormonism or Judaism: most people “don’t have any real problem” with them, but tend to think of them as “weird” . . .

    • If it comes to the point that most people “don’t have any real problem with them,” I can only wonder if that might actually be significant progress.

    • Kate, in many parts of the United States, Christianity already is marginalized. It’s been driven out of a lot of places already (most workplaces, most secular colleges and universities, certain social strata, etc.).

  3. The study of history tells us less about the past than it does the time in which the historians are living. I just got done reading “Why the West Rules…For Now” and it’s premise was that the key reason why the West is dominant today is due to geography, both human and natural. It’s sort of an expansion of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” but far more whimsical in its narrative. I’d recommend it.

    I then went and read reviews on the book and have come to the conclusion that “experts” are not very good at predicting the past, so I’m dubious of their ability to predict the future. It seems like no two historians agree on the reasons anything happened the way they said it did. Sounds cynical, I know, but that’s the way it looks from book reviews by reputable scholars.

  4. I don’t know if we are entering a new dark age, but it wouldn’t surprise me, at least in America. I think too many, especially Christians, are moving forward hoping to regain the past when the US was strong and the economy was strong and Christianity was the dominant religion. I ain’t gonna happen. The world has changed. I watched the CEO of GE interviewed last night on 60 Minutes and he spoke in glowing terms about the global economy and as much as said his loyalty is to his shareholders and his profits, not his country. This would have probably gotten him run out of town 50 years ago. Now, he’s a corporate innovator.

    I don’t think Christianity will ever be the dominant religion it once was. Yes, it changed the world, and yes, a majority still give it lip service, but Christianity in America is fast becoming its own little joke and fast veering into silliness. Islam is, I believe, the fastest growing religion in the world. Why? I don’t know, but I doubt we’ll see Fight Night at the local mosque or Muslim Theology on Tap at the local bar any time soon. Maybe that ‘s why.

    Love the poem. Rilke makes me want to learn German, just to read his poetry in the original.

    • Cedric Klein says

      They don’t need Fight Night. They have Jihad training. And Theology on Tap would be good for Islam!

      James B. Jordan’s term for what he sees as the coming Balkanization of the West is “technogical neo-tribalism”. Hopefully co-existant & peaceful. And I see a plethora of various ‘Christian’ communities- ranging from communal & liberal to libertarian & Dominionist (which I know is a bad word here, but I have mixed feelings.)

    • It’s probably too hard to say with any accuracy if Islam is truly the fastest growing religion. It may be on the rise in America, where Christianity may be on the decline, but look outside and to the third world. Christianity is exploding in China and Africa faster than we can keep track of it. And the many countries controlled by Islamic ideology are finding their principles compromised with exposure to western free-thinking. The moment those countries decide to allow freedom of religion, we may see the worlds fastest shrinking religion in history.

      • Glenn A Bolas says

        I’m not so sure, Miguel. Western ‘free-thinking’, as you call it, seems to me largely reactionary and, therefore, ephemeral. Islam, on the other hand, puts down deep roots. Caliphates and institutions have come and gone in Muslim countries but they are still undeniably Muslim. The one exception I can think of is Spain and that took centuries of war followed by oppressive government policies (including of course the famously unexpected Spanish Inquisition) to change the culture. Allowing freedom of religion is not going to change things all that much, I think.

    • Margaret Catherine says

      I organize my town’s Theology on Tap series’…always with the hope that it will draw Catholics my age out of silliness and towards a deeper faith. Done right, ToT is a great opportunity for ‘seekers’ (usually poorly catechized) Catholics to learn about the faith, and how it does apply to all areas – that there’s no part of life where Christ isn’t or can’t be found – and it’s a venue for college students to find some community and support. Done badly…yeah, might as well go to Fight NIght.

      • Margaret Catherine says

        …seekers AND Catholics, I meant to say, though maybe those categories aren’t so different after all.

  5. WenatcheeTheHatchet says

    To the degree that so much of our culture and cultural artifacts may go digital, and that so much of our economic system is basically an information economy (with fiat currency, fractional reserve banking, and on-line identity) it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a new Dark Age but such a Dark Age might knock us back to a variation of the 1970s. The Dark Ages were not necesarily the end of innovation, learning, or study (obviously) but it could be seen as what happens when you have a DVD that gets destroyed that had your family history on it. and for which you have no hard copies as back up. It’s not that you can’t recreate what you lost in some way, it’s that the new thing will not be the old and will take a huge amount of time and work to reconstruct. To the extent that our society becomes more and more one where there is no hard copy a new Dark Age could very easily happen.

    • Interesting point, Wenatchee. You’re thinking of the Dark in Dark Ages as being without information and documentation — a view a lot of scholars hold, rather than using Dark to make a cultural judgment. I wonder if that could happen.

      • I think our ‘new’ Dark Ages will be fairly similar to the ‘old’ Dark Ages when it comes to remembering the cultures that went before us. The standard model of the Renaissance is the “re-discovery” of Classical civilisation; digging up the old statues and examining the ruins and finding copies of the lost works and going “Hey, look at this!”

        I think there’s equal cultural illiteracy nowadays; if you read any of the pastiches of 19th century novels (and there’s quite a recent vogue both in the literary novel for faux-Victoriana and in genre novels such as crime and romance), there’s a lack of understanding of the past not just in how people lived but in how they thought. The sympathetic characters are late 20th century/early 21st centuiry persons with modern attitudes dressed in crinolines and frock coats, and the less sympathetic characters are hypocrites or bigots. There’s little understanding that people did indeed think differently about things back then, and that they may have acted in a certain manner not because they were subscribing to the prevailing social mores in order to maintain a facade of respectability, and would break those restrictions if they could get away with doing so, but because they genuinely believed that certain behaviours were wrong and certain others were right.

        That’s not even mentioning the deliberate distortions of recent history, such as the 2000 film “U-571” where the plot is that during the Second World War, a German submarine (the U-571 of the title) is infiltrated by disguised United States Navy submariners looking to steal the Enigma cipher machine. This is, of course, complete fiction in all details and the British were very disgruntled about it, because the Poles and the British were the ones who had the breakthroughs in the German codes and capturing the cipher machines, though it was explained to them that the the movie would not have been financially viable without being Americanised and although the producers wouldn’t agree to include a message making it clear that the film was a work of fiction, they did put something in to that effect in the credits. The screenwriter said he wasn’t too happy about creating “this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience” but it had to be done.

        The irony here is that the English made their own film in 2001, “Enigma”, about code-breaking during the war and it was criticised in its turn for downplaying the role of the Poles in this work.

        When we’re learning our history from movies and tv, and it’s false history to appeal to our tastes and prejudices, how are we going to be able to read the tealeaves about applying the lessons of the past to forecasting the future? All empires eventually crumble, for whatever reason; that’s the inevitable lesson of history.

        • Agreed – over and over I say when it comes to history we must not view it through a 21st century lense – that we must put ourselves in the time – the customs and the norms of the day. If we can do it when reading Joshua or Samuel, then we should be able to do it with secular history as well.

        • WenatcheeTheHatchet says

          U-571 was a horrible film. If someone wants to watch a film about submarine crews in WW2 Das Boot would be a better choice, as would a number of other films.

          One thing that makes our era remarkable and unique is that we hae access to more quality and quantity of material from the past than any previous epoch of human history. You can go online and read the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance. You can import a book or music score or audio recording from the other side of the world. It is possible to use computers to find recurring patterns across three centuries of musical or literary works. It’s possible to tinker with genes and genomes to make cats that glow green. We have come so very far in the last two centuries that even if we enter a new Dark Age the post-apocalyptic genre has been around for practically a century by now. As Grant Morrison put it in writing about comic books, superhero stories were bringing up the possible destruction of the twin towers up to a whole decade before the towers actually fell.

          If the United States has been on a decline it may have been on a slow decline since the dawn of the Cold War. We arguably peaked somewhere between 1947-1970 in terms of economic and military power but from 1970-2010 may be construed as a sort of slow roll down the hill. Or not, there are arguably plenty of things that are better now than in the past. There are certain fields of eye surgery that aren’t even a half a century old that I’ve benefited from. We can’t be sure that there won’t be vitreoretinal specialists in whatever new “Dark Age” arrives.

          One of the things I’ve thought a lot about since the end of the Cold War is that the nuclear holocaust progressives assumed was the only alternative to disarmament didn’t happen. And the capitulation of economic and political liberty to any level of negotiation with or interaction with Soviet bloc nations anticipated by the right didn’t really occur either. To put it in absurd pop culture terms, James Cameron’s “Judgement Day” hasn’t happened, neither has the doomsday clock situation in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, neither has the U.S. getting conquered via Canada part of John Milius’ Red Dawn. The end of the Cold War came in a way that confounded a lot of people because it didn’t come in a way that a lot of people expected.

  6. Somebody said that every generation of Americans sees itself reflected in Rome, and that the treatment of Rome by Hollywood reflects this.

    One of the reasons that Christianity spread was because of what we might call “globalization,” in the form of trade and cultural ties among different parts of the Roman Empire. Local cults were less attractive to “foreigners” than the new mystery religions–some of them exotic imports from Asia or Africa–of which Christianity was one. If we are to draw lessons from this today, perhaps we should wonder what new trans-imperial symbolic system will arise to harmonize (or supplant) our disparate cultures and religions.

  7. You touched on a favorite subject of mine – history. And I agree that people tend to forget about the Byzantine empire whch was like a shining jewel against a west that had lost its intellectual capital, wealth and organization.

    I think there is one additional point you left out of your summation above – governernment instability. The level of corruption, bad leadership and interference by military factions coupled with the points above (especially the migrating hordes) really caused the empire to contract to a more defendable position. And once overthrow was confined to the poisoning of specific individuals rather than generals and their whole armies that helped to settle things down at least in the east.

    But it also has to be remembered that America is still young in the scheme of things. It was only 150 years ago that were were thought as savage and uncouth by Europe, a vast sleeping giant. Starting in the mid 1800’s we had waves of immigrants – first irish and german, then other western europeans, followed by the eastern europeans, that added cheap labor (and in a small sense filled the void left open by the repeal of slavery) to an ever expanding nation rich in natural resources and industry. At this time exports were increasing. After World War I we were being taken seriously on the world stage, and after World War II we had the industrial machine, and manpower to take the global market by storm (since Europe had to rebuild and we didn’t).

    Fast forward to now.

    Immigration Conflict: We stil have immigration but now the cultures are not assimilating as was once required. In past immgrations you either became part of the culture or, for the most part you did not survive. Now we put everything in two languages as though we are a country within a country. To take that to the next step, the southwest now has a larger percentage of hispanic. By not assimilating it begins to create risk of destablized unity (similar to muslim issues in Germany and France where immigrants are having more children, or in the eastern countries where cessesian is fought about).

    Global Economy: We are no longer the great exporter, the great producers, and this is partly to do with the cost of labor. As companies operate in a borderless society they will go where the labor is cheaper and the regulation is light (regulation is offset by corruption). This could be America’s Achilles heal (and Europe for that matter). We have the resources and intellectual capital, but if we allow ouselves to be service oriented only, or a pass through from producer to consumer, we are doomed over time.

    Economy: We’ve had bad times before (recession of 1870, the great depression) and weathered it – the latter only by the outbreak of WWII. In actuality sometimes it takes long term events to change the next category – cultural decadence. As people have to struggle and focus on needs rather than focus on isues that only arise when a society has wealth and free time, the pendulum swings.

    Cultural decadence: we’ve seen this before too. The enlightenment brought its own decadence, the victorian age suppressed it. The 1920’s was especially decadent, the depression suppressed it. I believe natural events (barring a plague or an asteroid hit) happen in too short a time in this technical age to have any influence. I believe a world wide economic depression (or war) would.

    So where am I going with all this? I believe these events we are experiencing in the past have happened before. What is different now is that we have a global economy which vastly complicates recovery since labor is sought from the cheapest source, an immigration policy that encorages autonomy over assimilation which may produce instability over the long haul, and a cultural decadence because many do not have to struggle for needs anymore and so we have turned to a more materialistic way of life.

    By the way I don’t participate in the culture wars since I m such a small player, but I do like to observe changing trends, make my predictions and watch them come true barring any unforseen exception (remember Asimov’s second foundation?).

    But we still have a strong, stable government. Partisanship may be hacking away at this foundation but it is still strong just the same. I believe that those countries with the natual resources and cheap labor will for a time join the other econmic front runners. I believe the US will share that spot and at times drop even lower. But if we can maintain unity as we did in other immigration waves through assimilation, and maintain a strong leadership, then we will weather it as before.

    I also believe that organized spirituality will continue to suffer as long as we continue to focus on the me, have overall wealth and prosperity (remember the Israelites) and stability. The “Me” causes the world to be viewed as everyone and everything is alright and does not look at the good of the society as a whole. Exceptions can be focused on and given an overemphasis in the whole scheme of things.

    OK… enough rambling….My thoughts….

  8. This whole time period is one that is really hard to explain and see all that is happening. As I have come to understand it, there is depopulation but the cities are growing due to barbarian tribes. The cities of Southern France and Northern Italy are becoming fortress towns manned by barbarian soldiers. The small percentage of aristocracy is also fleeing to the towns but that’s because they’re seeking the protection of the new army and that’s where the power is developing. Look at Cassiodorus and his court records that show how Roman/Italian aristocrats are still in power. Also, the winter crossing of the Rhine is not that pivotal; later settlements of tribes in Gaul and also the later invasion of the Franks is much more important to understand the transition.
    That being said, I do see similarities between Rome and the modern western world. If there is collapse, then as Christians we should take comfort that God preserved His church then and promised to continue to be with until the end of the age. Even if that means the church goes through the process again (see A Cantincle for Leibowitz).

    • A great book, and well worth comparing with what I’m talking about.

    • “A Canticle for Leobowitz” was my favorite book as a teenager. That being said …
      with regard to the Church, just heard a thoughtful presentation by theologian Diana Butler Bass (“Christianity for the Rest of Us”) who suggested that we might be in a ‘new Reformation’, only this time Christianity itself is the Roman church. She said it may not be as formulaic as Phyllis Tickle’s book presented it (although there are some who believe this) God has not, will not, desert us, as Andrew has pointed out above.

    • Now is the time for Augustine’s city of God. It is always encouraging to know that Christianity is so much bigger than America, though the focus of many evangelical groups makes it hard to remember that. Being part of a more global and historic denomination or tradition can help bring perspective as to what a faith that survives cultural and economic upheaval really looks like, and possibly even what to expect the faith to look like in the future.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Now is the time for Augustine’s city of God.]

        And not Rapture Boarding Passes?

        I think that’s the road American Evangelicals are going to travel — denunciations and anathemas while expecting to be Beamed Up before things REALLY get bad. (“It’s Prophesied, It’s Prophesied…”)

        And when they don’t, you’re going to see a major “Take Your God And Shove It!” reaction. There is nobody so hateful as a spurned/jilted lover.

        • You know, I think it won’t quite be so bad. With the rise of the neo-reformed, left-behind theology is getting, well, …forgotten as many re-discover and embrace amil and other perspectives. I think the “rapture” is going to get discarded into the fundamentalism bin along with KJV-onlyism and dispensationalism. But yes, those who embrace it to strongly will certainly be in for major disappointment that will potentially drive them from the faith. Or, for the stubborn ones, into a deeper/broader understanding of the faith.

  9. 20th century English historian and sociologist Christopher Dawson has been shown to be prophetic with his predictions of Europe and the United States’ coming fall, since we have lost the foundation of our culture: Christian Faith.

    His books are well-worth reading. He predicted the baleful effects of contraception on society back in the 1920s.

    • I completely disagree Devin. America’s founding fathers were at best moral Diests who saw the benefit of Christian ethics but had no time for a personal God. American cannot decline because it lost its Christian Faith because America never had a Christian faith. The founding fathers did not desire a Christian dominion as many people now think in their revisionist history.

      If you want to be critical of Americans’ faith, its perversion into American centric-evangelicalism then that makes sense.

  10. My long comment is stuck in moderation….

  11. I’ll move beyond suggestion and state the obvious: Damaris, you are right on target. The factors that you mentioned and more will lead to a collapse of the American/Western European/Globalization Empire. It doesn’t take much intelligence to see what is going to happen.

    It isn’t pleasant to hear, and politicians make their living by promising a better tomorrow. But the facts are the facts. We have so many deep problems and lack the ability to solve them. So they will only get worse until the whole thing goes up in smoke.

    Will the collapse be utterly devastating? No. In truth, few of us enjoyed the full benefits of empire. Even in the good old days, the middle class were the minority. The exploited mostly rural and small town working class has always had it rough in this country, and they have been hit harder by the recession than any other group. Yet, we will need to relearn from this class of people the arts of subsistence, community life and caretaking. Else we won’t survive. It’s that simple.

    The Dark Ages weren’t nearly so dark as some imagine. The Church took care of Europe and evangelized an entire continent. People worked the land and didn’t have much. The Church controlled the banking interests through prohibitions on usury. A sort of Christian society emerged. It wasn’t perfect, but as G.K. Chesterton has remarked, the fact that a true Christian society hasn’t been tried is not an excuse to give up trying to make one!

  12. Tim Van Haitsma says

    I think a more apt lesson from history that we can learn is to decline gracefully as the british empire did in the last century. They transitioned from mightiest empire and undisputed superpower to a successful nation. I am not certain that americans have the forethought and grace to accept that transition. perhaps we will flare out like the Roman Empire, but I hope not for my children’s and future grandchildren’s sake.

    • Thought-provoking parallel, Tim. Certainly Britain yielded India, etc., pretty gracefully, but I wonder whether we would consider more recent changes in British culture and civilization to be as graceful. Any response from our British readers?

      • Jack Heron says

        Englishman here to weigh in! I reckon it’s probably too early to tell – most of the Empire only melted away 60 years ago or so. Certainly it ended much more peacefully than most empires (which is not the same as saying ‘peacefully’, note, just ‘more peacefully than most’) on account of Britain operating a policy of granting independence to any country wishing it and looking able to manage itself effectively. And certainly things are looking OK for Britain at the moment, given that it was basically drained of manpower twice in the last century and then bombed into oblivion.

        On the other hand, the French fought tooth and nail to keep their empire, lost it, and have then ended up in pretty much the same state as Britain, so maybe it wasn’t our unparalleled genius after all. And questions about the possible break-up of the Union are circulating, not that they’ve ever really stopped doing so in the last three centuries.

        Summary: ask me in three centuries more.

  13. David Cornwell says

    It has been my feeling for sometime now that American power/influence reached it zenith in the mid 1960’s. It was about that time that we became arrogant in power and pushed out beyond our capabilities to sustain. Also huge problems at home began to present themselves with leaders being assassinated, racial discrimination, and huge never-ending military spending. Military bases were built around the world to protect our interests and military ventures most often failed in their stated goals. Our social contract with each other became frayed at the edges and and now seem to be disappearing altogether. Political consensus became an impossibility.

    I really do not know where we are at the present time, but it doesn’t look so good to me. We cannot demobilize and spend less of our resources on sustaining our “dominance” around the world. Our hubris is still with us and I’m afraid we will still launch other military ventures once again convincing ourselves that we can force our will on others.

    American evangelicalism convinced of the righteousness of our way of life and economic system cannot see the truth with any measure of objectivity and now looks for scapegoats on which to lay some of the blame.

    Last word: be extremely careful about marrying up with any political leader, right or left. We won’t find the way or the truth through any of them. We serve another Kingdom, so all is not lost; in the end our King will win all. (By the way, the word “Realm” leaves me cold).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      American evangelicalism convinced of the righteousness of our way of life and economic system cannot see the truth with any measure of objectivity and now looks for scapegoats on which to lay some of the blame.

      Last word: be extremely careful about marrying up with any political leader, right or left. We won’t find the way or the truth through any of them. We serve another Kingdom, so all is not lost; in the end our King will win all. (By the way, the word “Realm” leaves me cold).

      I’m hearing more and more rumblings about “America needs a Dictator” and even some speculation about how long until the first coup.

      • David Cornwell says

        Some wanted FDR to assume dictatorial powers after his first election in the depths of the Great Depression.

    • Well, the rest of the industrial world was basically in ruins after WW2, so of course the USA dominated. With the rise of Western Europe, Japan and the dragons, and now India and China, it’s only natural that the US would suffer a relative decline. It has nothing to do with religion, unless God likes Shinto for some reason.

      Today a number of people suggest that the global economy is unsustainable, for various reasons ranging from peak oil to ecological issues. Maybe they’re right, it’s hard to know. But we’re talking about a completely different social, economic, and military structure than in ancient Rome–the analogy should not be pressed too far.

    • David, as usual you’re worth listening to. I was going to comment to Jack Heron above, to say that one difference between British and American politicians is this: when caught in a scandal the Englishman will resign, but the American will deny, defend, and counter-attack. But that comment will fit nicely here.

      Mid-sixties may be a good bet on our zenith. And your use of the words “arrogant in power” and “hubris” won’t be popular, but we need to hear them. Europe was humbled severely by two world wars and I think Germany foremostly, in a moral sense; yet the US feels pumped up and ready to keep fighting.

      To the US, diplomacy is seen as capitulation, negotiation as appeasement; as if Hitler were going to roll across Poland again—and in recent times we’ve had the goon-in-question surrounded and imposed with no-fly zones. This inflexibility on our part, even to toss a bone to a dictator that has outlived his usefulness to us, is causing nationalism to grow in the countries where we practice regime change. Rather than work out a solution that lets a dictator save face among his people we’ll crush him, and crush his country and people too. Hubris indeed. And it’ll cause our own fall.

      But perhaps the most important thing you’ve said is this: “American evangelicalism convinced of the righteousness of our way of life and economic system cannot see the truth with any measure of objectivity and now looks for scapegoats on which to lay some of the blame.”

      Evangelicals should be the first to question our own sense of righteousness. Shame on us.

  14. Some would tell you that the Roman empire never fell, marches on …and we’re it. As creatures of a Euro-centric history, we suffer many of the same maladies …as if from successive generations of harmful inbreeding. Our strong traits become exaggerated (rationalism) and our weaknesses leave us vulnerable (spirituality). The challenge, methinks, is not to predict our future but to reach an understanding of God’s purpose in all this. That, at least, would bring comfort and consolation.

    Truly there are no experts we can reliably consult. I, for one, would love to know more world history from the eastern world view …China. What were they doing while all this was going on? Did God just ignore them? …put them on a sort of heavenly hold while He worked things out through the Hebrews and the Greeks? Would a synthesis of East and West bring us closer to the Truth? Maybe THAT’s what’s on the way?

    …and, besides, everyone knows it was lead poisoning from the plumbing that cold-cocked Rome. Causes insanity. They still drive on the sidewalks, there. 😉

    • Ah, the old lead-poisoning claim! 🙂 The Byzantines had as much of it as the Italians and continued ruling for another 1000 years. I don’t know if they were SANE years, but they were politically effective.

      “The challenge, methinks, is not to predict our future but to reach an understanding of God’s purpose in all this.” Yes; or if not to understand fully, at least to accept.

    • Phillip K. Dick?

  15. Richard Hershberger says

    The Roman Empire had a fatal flaw built into its political structure: there was no settled method for the transfer of power. There was a weak sense of inheritance from father to son, but this could be preempted by an army in the field. In consequence the legitimacy of any emperor could be challenged. The upshot is that every emperor faced two sorts of potential threats: outside forces (whether barbarians or from the culturally advanced Persians/Parthians) and internal claimants. While the internal claimants didn’t directly affect the security of the empire, they very much threatened the security of the emperor.

    Early on this didn’t matter much. Augustus was secure in his power and so he could delegate military expeditions. Once he is in power you don’t see him personally leading armies. Over the next century or so things begin to change. Initially it was assumed that a pretender to the imperial throne would have to come from the senatorial class, which was fairly small–a couple of hundred individuals. As the imperial throne weakened, the response was to not put senators in charge of armies, restricting this role to the much larger equestrian class. (The precursor of this goes back to republican times, when the governorship of the critical province of Egypt was restricted to equestrians.)

    Eventually an equestrian leading an army took the throne. This changed everything. Now any general could try for the throne. The response was that the emperor had to lead the army himself. This is when the emperors relocated from Rome to Ravenna: it was more centrally located to move north to the Rhine or east to the Danube. This could only work to an extent, so they entered a phase of multiple (as many as four) co-emperors working different parts of the empire. This worked to the extant that they trusted each other and could cooperate, but it also opened up a new path for an ambitious provincial general to carve out his region and make himself yet another co-emperor.

    There also was a phase where emperors were repeatedly assassinated. The response was to tighten personal security, which isolated the emperors from all but an inner circle. This put them out of touch from any sort of day to day administration, and turned the inner circle into gatekeepers to power. In the latest phase in the west the inner circle became the real power and the emperors ineffectual figureheads.

    The military was by far the largest imperial expense. The incessant civil wars meant that much of this was devoted to internal fighting rather than defense of the empire. A pretender to the imperial throne needed the support of an army, and this support was paid for in cash. Usually this was not up front. The newly installed emperor had to scramble for funds to pay off his army, or he would have a severely truncated reign.

    Government became a perpetual state of crisis management. These fiscal stresses eventually reached a tipping point in the west. They started losing regions, and the taxes derived from those regions. These wouldn’t necessarily be lost to barbarian invaders. It might be to imperial or co-imperial pretenders. Either way, once the empire started to lose significant income it also lost the ability to prevent additional losses. This formed a positive feedback loop. The jig was up once they lost North Africa to the Vandals.

    The eastern empire lasted another thousand years because it was wealthier to begin with. This allowed it to form an effective permanent bureaucracy. We normally think of government bureaucracy as a bad thing, and in excess it is. But too little bureaucracy is bad, too. An effective permanent bureaucracy provides administrative stability regardless of who happens to be on the throne, insulating the eastern empire somewhat from shifts of dynastic winds.

    How does this relate to modern America? Poorly. There is some of the physical isolation of the President, but nothing like on the scale of the later emperors. Mostly the structural flaws in the Roman Empire are absent from the United States. For all our inflated military budget, we aren’t using it to have part of the army fight another part. Regardless of the genuine and severe problems we face, I am deeply skeptical of attempts to compare them to the Roman Empire.

    Highly recommended reading: “How Rome Fell” by Adrian Goldsworthy. It hits that sweet spot of being a serious work of scholarship without requiring specialized knowledge to read. Under twelve bucks from Amazon in paperback.

    • Richard — Your comment about Rome’s transfer of power problems does indeed point out the chief contrast between then and now. While it’s possible that our current peaceful transfer of power will degenerate, still we can be grateful that the system holds so far. This was driven home to me some years ago, when we lived in Liberia. My husband was talking with a slightly inarticulate young man who asked about why Kennedy’s assassin didn’t “get the chair.” Assuming he meant execution, my husband began to explain why there hadn’t been a trial — “No,” the man broke in; “why didn’t Lee Harvey Oswald get to be president?”

      That dumbfounded me. Not only had I never thought about it, but Lee Harvey Oswald — and Booth and others — never thought about it. Even assassins take the peaceful transfer of power in America for granted. That is a great blessing.

  16. Randy Thompson says

    Many years ago, an Episcopal priest I knew said something that I’ve never forgotten: “Well, if these aren’t the end times, they certain are an end time.”

    So many American Christians are locked into a “The” End Time mentality that they have a hard time thinking in terms of end times that aren’t “The” end times. That’s a serious liability.

    End times came for Rome, Byzantium, and numerous Chinese dynasties. End times also came for such powers as Spain, France and Great Britain, although they still exist as a shadow of what they once were.

    There is no reason to think that an end time–that of our own country–is impossible. In fact, if we take history seriously, we will certainly end up like all the other great powers. Let’s hope we take our cues from Great Britain, who, as someone noted, managed it’s “end time” with grace.

    Of course, most Americans, Christians included, know next to nothing about history, so it looks unlikely we’ll navigate our end time, whenever it comes, with the wisdom of history.

    • David Cornwell says

      Randy, your thinking on this matter is very similar to mine. It’s going to happen; how we handle it will make all the difference. I’m not an optimist about this.

      • And I fear we won’t handle it well for two reasons. 1) Those “end timers” who believe what they and others are doing will simply hasten the return of the Lord in glory, so what’s the problem? 2)Those that have no sense of history so don’t know how we got here or why. They only know that we are the best, gosh darn it, and everyone else should act accordingly.

        • Suzanne, this is from Amos 5:

          “18Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
          Why would you have the day of the LORD?
          It is darkness, and not light,
          19 as if a man fled from a lion,
          and a bear met him,
          or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
          and a serpent bit him.
          20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light,
          and gloom with no brightness in it?”

          There’s lots more there that applies to us.

    • I think every country goes through a lifecycle. Sometimes there are peaks and dips, other times there are factors that influence the outcome and may keep a country down for a time or altogether.

      I am not a pessimist generally – and if my other response ever comes out of moderation it would explain how I feel about this. But a combined global labor and industrial need that is satisfied by corporations who are free to get there labor from the cheapest source globally, combined with an immigration policy that supports autonomy instead of assimilation, will only continue to hurt our recovery and may eventually drop us out of the top tier. Strong leadership (no chaos, or coup) will continue to be the glue that holds us together through the changes. Moral decedence is just a product of wealth and prosperity, the focusing on the “me” so i don’t believe that changes unless some economic catastrophy or war disturbs the picture.

    • As to whether or not we’re coming up on the Big End or just another end of a page in the long book of human history, I suspect that depends on whether or not we come up with some kind of long-term solution to the dangers presented by modern warfare and weapons of mass destruction.
      I believe that war is an inevitable by-product of fallen, sinful human nature, and as long as we remain in a fallen state, war and the threat of war will always be with us. Honestly, I don’t think we’re ever going to find a truly long-term political cure for war.
      So that means that from here on out, wars will have to be fought with a careful level of restraint and moderation — particularly when fought by nation members of the nuclear club. We can never again engage in an all-out, no-holds-barred slug fest between major world powers — not without sending ourselves back to the dark ages or even causing our own extinction.
      But since the end of the Cold War, we’ve begun to face the danger of continuing nuclear proliferation in an increasingly unstable global environment. Instead of the old stand-off of mutually assured destruction, we now face the possibility (and I would even say the likelihood) that we might burn human civilization down city-by-city, nation-by-nation over an extended period of time.
      And it will become more and more difficult to keep the lid on that boiling pot as more nations acquire weapons of mass destruction while the global population grows and the contest for available resources grows more heated.
      Call me a pessimist if you want, but I really don’t see a lot of hope for us in the long haul outside some divine intervention from above. Heck, without God’s mercy, we’d probably already be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

  17. although i do find history interesting i also know i am not doomed to repeat it if i don’t study it. in fact, i am about as influential to any historical analysis as say, my direct decendents in any historical time period they lived…

    a brief lifespan of existence as an individual adds up to what? i mean really. i am swept up in the current of time that has been channeled by the past, but i am no divine cog in the great wheel of history. place me along any point in the timeline of human history & i would be as insignificant a player in history as i am today…

    collectively i have both benefited & shared in the wrongs of cummulative cultural/political/historical effects i was born into. i cannot deny my humanity & the bloodlines that define me. i don’t know that i can help turn the tide or bring the desired change to this country, let alone impacting my current state of unemployment or simply recovering from my recent divorce…

    and as far as i know, i still cannot change one hair from white to black or vice versa…

    with all its complexity & intrigue & interesting analysis, i must trust that God somehow handles the Big Picture & still pays attention the smallest detail of my existence that He has ‘numbered’ those very hairs i cannot turn from black to white? not just counted them or knows how many, but numbered them sequentially/chronologically too?

    not sure where this rumination was going, but it did get me to think about my historical place in the overall story of mankind…

    • Randy Thompson says

      I think you’re right that we’re not doomed to repeat history by not knowing it. However, I do think we’re a lot less likely to be overly surprised by history when we know history!

      Although none of us will likely have much of an impact on the big picture of history, we can make a difference in our little corner of it.

      I’m a minister, and I’m struck by the fact that I am one link in a chain of ministers throughout the church’s history. (One church I served has been around for over 250 years.) In my ministry, I’ve made no impact on the big picture. But, I have made an impact, and the impact I’ve made has opened the door for my successors to do things impossible to do before. The impact we make, or can make, may be more than we realize. Truly, our life is hidden in Christ in God, and the effects of our lives are more often than not truly a mystery. (Colossians 3:3)

  18. OK – two posts now in moderation – where’s the love guys…. must be using a phrase to trigger this….

  19. The Europian Comine Market stands for the Scarlet Harlet of Babalon witch the Book of Revalations talks about. The famous book arthur Professer Hal Lindsy says Euripe started with the Treaty of Rome. Now Rome has seven hills witch are the seven heads of the Beast, and the ten horns are all the countrys that join Euripe. Then Antichrist gets elected world ruler so all must receave the mark and worshop the devle just like in pagin Rome.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Vern’s off his meds again…

    • You forgot the twelve stars of the European flag being the twelve stars of the crown of the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation, Vern 🙂

      • i wonder at the deliberate effort it takes Vern to misspell certain words to make it look like, well, silly really…

        maybe if we try a modified version of backmasking we would reveal the real Vern??? 🙂

  20. The U.S. is a lot more like Athens than Rome, both in its domestic politics and foreign policy. The Athenians fatally over-reached in their imperial ambitions, which had wide public support (at least among that part of the public who had a say). I’m also a big fan of the “hypertrophy” argument for Rome’s collapse, although it looks like the economic and social stagnation of the late Empire also played a part — when many disenfranchised citizens simply walked out and “melted away” into the (ever growing) frontier during the final decades. An unmotivated populace is the one thing that the Athenian and Roman empires had in common in the end — and probably something our own society shares with them as well.

  21. Okay, so when America declines and falls and Europe with it, who is going to feed the starving folks around the world? China? India? When the folks who can’t take care of themselves with mountains of aid no longer have aid, then what? Will it be a global catastrophe? I mean the best and brightest from those countries come here to seek their fortunes and our companies go there to get exploit cheap labor. If there is a coming dark age, it is going to be a lot darker for those whom we have subsidized than it will be for us. The more of them come here, the worse it will be for us.

    • I think people in other countries will do better because many of them have stronger cultures and stronger solidarity with one another. We will have the most difficulty should the Dark Ages come again because nobody knows each other, nobody is from anywhere, and we are utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuel energy. We drive everywhere. Our food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches our plate.

      Americans are going to have it a lot worse than other folks.

      • Better off without vaccines and food? Really? I am skeptical. Many of those countries were starving when they had 1/10 the population they do now. And they certainly were not and are not peaceful. So, I don’t see what you mean. Nigeria is scary with oil money, but without it? More like hell on earth. I think you are mistaken on how far food travels to our plates. We are food exporters. But I am sure that it travels less than 10,000 miles. Plus, it is no secret that Americans on average are carrying around some extra stored calories. 🙂

    • “I mean the best and brightest from those countries come here to seek their fortunes and our companies go there to get exploit cheap labor”

      Put that way, they’d be a lot better off without America and Europe. What with their best and brightest staying at home to do good works there and nobody coming in from outside to exploit them.

      Gives a whole different perspective on who is ‘subsidising’ who.

      • Good point. It is interesting that their best and brightest don’t seem much interested in improving life for their fellow countrymen. They just seem to want to escape. Maybe they understand those places better than we do.

        • Their home countries can be hard on them. There may not be much education available, so they come here to get a degree. Then they can’t make enough money in their home countries to pay off the cost of an American degree, so they stay here. Many of them do want to improve life for their countrymen, even from here, but the goods they ship back home — money, medicines, technology — may never get through customs. I suppose the goods are at least helping the customs employees . . .

  22. You bring up some interesting similarities between the two eras, but it is not a perfect historical comparison.

    The Dark Ages were dark because there was significant loss of past knowledge that had been gained during the Greek and Roman civilizations. Knowledge about math and astronomy from past cultures was lost. Because of this, the lack of relative stability that the Roman empire brought to Europe, the rise of not only Germanic tribes but also of Moors in Spain and their threat into France (Charles The Hammer anyone?) Europe became and unstable and volatile place.

    That is where your comparison of then and now falls a part. If Western society were to suffer a significant set back the knowledge of past eras is still there. The globalized nature of the internet makes a loss of learning only possible if there is a complete and total collapse all across the globe.

    I do not agree that the, “church took care of society” during this time period as one previous commenter stated. The church did some great things and there is a wonderful heritage from this period. However when advancements in astronomy, philosophy, and other sciences are made based on rediscovering Greek and Roman works the church is responsible for persecution and repression. This also says nothing for the questionable practices of the higher members of the church. So their legacy during this time period is a mixed bag.


    • My husband contends that the new dark age consists of the loss not of information but of discourse. We have all the facts in the world at our fingertips but don’t know what is true, logical, or right; we can’t–or won’t–learn what is true, logical, and right because we don’t believe that there are such things. I think he has a point, but I’m even more pessimistic than he is. I don’t think that mankind as a whole has ever been willing to learn truth through discourse. The Athenians killed Socrates, after all, and nailed Cicero’s hands and tongue up for public view. Politically it’s interesting and useful to chart rises and falls, but in terms of human nature we’ve always lived in the Dark Ages.

      The church during the period between 400 and 800 was certainly not repressing science; after 800 it has had a mixed record in encouraging learning — as has every other human institution.

  23. “when advancements in astronomy, philosophy, and other sciences are made based on rediscovering Greek and Roman works the church is responsible for persecution and repression.”

    Link, please.

    It seems that it a bit of an overstatement, but I will consider evidence. Anyway, my 8th grade son just finished reading The Death of Socrates by Plato, which reminds me the Greeks at least weren’t so totally open to new ideas that they skipped over considering what the logical conclusion of those ideas would be.

  24. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    There’s been a lot of discussion over the last 1500 years or so of what led to the fall of the Roman Empire and ushered in the Dark Ages.

    And in this context, a lot of the “reasons for the fall” can be summed up as “Whatever we’re doing now that I’m Against!”

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