HISTORICALLY the rise and fall of empire is measured in millennia. The former is often imperceptible, while the latter could be abrupt, immediate and deadly. Such was the fate of the Roman Empire. Its rise is covered in the mists of time and suffused with myth, making it almost impossible to separate the chaff from the grain. Legend has it that the brothers Romulus and Remus founded Rome. They were the offspring of gods and a mortal. Because of some prophecy that the twins would cause the downfall of a family member, they were abandoned at birth on the Tiber River. Rescued and suckled by a she-wolf, the twins were later adopted by a shepherd. The prophecy of course came to pass. Both eventually founded Rome. In a bizarre twist, Romulus killed Remus, thus the birth of the Roman Empire midwifed in blood augured its downfall.
Final sacking of Rome
Rome’s destruction has been accurately pinpointed in 467 AD, when the last Roman Emperor, ironically named Romulus, was deposed by a Germanic chieftain Odoacer, who subsequently sacked Rome and became its first barbarian ruler. This was simply the culmination and the exclamation mark of the city’s end. The classical causes of an empire’s demise are often attributed to invasion by other empires out to expand their influence while extracting the victim’s resources, or conquest by hordes of “barbarian tribes” — Goths, Vandals, Visigoths, etc.
But the fall of Rome as an empire began imperceptibly several centuries earlier as the seeds of its destruction were planted, in episodes either as uneventful ones or distinct milestones, which germinated pushing Rome inexorably towards its decay and death. It is said that Rome did not simply fall. “It committed moral and economic suicide. Romans first lost their character. Then, as a consequence, they lost their liberties — and ultimately their civilization.” (“We Are Rome” by Lawrence W. Reed, director, Foundation for Economic Education.)
This column is an attempt to extract lessons from Rome’s internal decay and lay it against contemporary events, the better to understand with clarity the forces arrayed against us, mindful of Santayana’s dictum about faulty memories. Despite Santayana, we never learn, perforce we are condemned to repeat history’s follies. And the sceptics’ definition prevails, that history’s essence is simply its repetitive character, just like a broken vinyl record.
We will draw heavily from Reed’s thesis laid down in his excellent essay on Rome’s decay that started when it lost its soul as a republic with its attendant belief in personal responsibility. In short, the economic components are closely intertwined with concepts of freedom and liberty. You lose one, you lose all. In the span of a thousand years, roughly the first 500 years, Rome as a republic emerged as the center of the known world then. Romans regarded themselves as their chief source of personal income and livelihood, which they could acquire voluntarily in the interplay of the marketplace, the precursor of the modern concept of free enterprise.
This propelled Rome’s economic ascendancy and subsequent military dominance establishing its might in the known “Western” world, outside of which was the domain of the barbarians.
Rome as a welfare state
Reed proposes that Rome’s initial decline began when the people discovered another source of income, the political process — the state. Over the next five centuries, self-responsibility and self-reliance began to erode. Romans voted themselves benefits to use the state to extract from other people’s pockets to “…rob Peter to pay Paul.” Thus, the concept of the welfare state came into being, defined then as the “legalized plunder of the Roman State sanctioned by people who wished to do good.” This populist notion pervaded Roman life, and even its judicious and more circumspect citizens who opposed a welfare state, still clinging to the old Roman virtues of work, thrift and self-reliance, “began to drink at the public trough” as it were, with the justification that if “they didn’t get it, somebody else would.”
The second half of Pax Romana paradoxically ushered in political factions trying to control the state apparatus and access to public loot leading to corruption. The ever-expanding demand of the populace for free benefits laid a heavy burden on the taxing powers of the state. Private enterprises were squeezed dry by burdensome regulations and high taxes, driving many to bankruptcy and outright takeover by the state. The state had to resort to this to seek new sources of income — creating new money. The minting of the Roman denarius debased its coinage from 94-percent silver content to eventually .02-percent silver by 268 AD, rendering money practically worthless.
This inflationary scheme of flooding the economy with cheap money, fueled by populist demands, resulted in the state running huge deficits, high prices, savings erosion and political turmoil. The markets subsequently collapsed as goods and services were no longer fairly priced. From then on, the empire’s downfall was guaranteed.
Although Reed’s article was meant as a warning to America in its profligate ways mirroring Rome towards its decay, it is well worth noting that the Philippines too could extract lessons from the causes that impelled Rome’s disintegration. Not that our country has delusions of empire building, despite Duterte’s invitation to China and Russia for a “triumvirate against the world.” But, like America, we are in some ways mimicking Rome’s lead in her early centuries of development. For one, being the first colony of America, we were her guinea pig practicing its tentative first attempt at hegemony and empire building, bequeathing to us a government, which was a perverted version of her own. America’s mistakes are replicated in ours. The lessons from the two empires, Rome’s and America’s are thus relevant to us.
History’s stubborn lessons
Reed offers what he calls “three most stubborn lessons”: 1) No people who lost their character kept their liberties; 2) power that is shackled and dispersed is preferable to power that is unrestrained and centralized; and 3) the here and now is rarely as important as tomorrow — plan accordingly.
The second one is a timely reminder, especially in our march towards the dispersal of political power towards the periphery in President Duterte’s aborted march toward federalism. The third lesson could be self-evident and a reiteration of what we already know, but not practiced. But none is as important and as critical as the first one.
Liberty, a universal idea, is equated with concepts of “rule of law, respect for and protection of the lives, property rights and contracts of others.” Reed’s caveat is that this is the only “social arrangement that requires character.”
And what is important is character! Rome’s decay and ultimate downfall could be traced to its erosion and loss. When self-responsibility, self-discipline and self-reliance went down the drain, so did Rome.
And for the Deegong, my two cents worth: The absence of character produces, chaos and tyranny; its presence makes liberty possible.
And his survival, too!
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