Is there anything to learn from an empire that collapsed over 1,500 years ago? Yes indeed, since it’s the Roman Empire that provided a longer period of peace and prosperity for a crucial part of the world than it had ever experienced before or has since. Here is Edward Gibbon in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
“In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extended monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs, but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the design of subduing the whole earth and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.”
Too blissful a picture? Subsequent scholarship has nicked Gibbon’s great epic but hardly dented it. His view remains paramount. As he says, the empire that held sway over much of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was created by the wars of the republic that preceded him. No other military force was a match for the Romans whose discipline, organization and tactics assured victory over superior numbers. They were slow to go to war. It was not a first impulse but a last resort, and then they meant to win.
But conquest alone was not sufficient. In the aftermath, they welcomed the defeated into their own ranks. Everyone with a little effort could become a Roman. That was the secret of empire. Again Gibbon:
“The narrow policy of preserving, without any foreign mixture, the pure blood of the ancient citizen, had checked the fortune and hastened the ruin of Athens and Sparta. The aspiring genius of Rome sacrificed vanity to ambition and deemed it more prudent, as well as honorable, to adopt virtue and merit for her own wheresoever they were found, among slaves or strangers, enemies or barbarians.”
So the name of the game of empire was immigration, lots of it until ultimately the barbarians carried it too far and ended the empire.
There was a certain coarseness to these triumphant Romans. They could at times be exceedingly brutal as in their total destruction of the city of Carthage. Their form of entertainment was the bloody gladiatorial contest, and like other polities before and since, they practiced slavery, mostly prisoners of war, from which it was possible to rise, as did one of the most successful emperors, Diocletian.
Yet what Romans valued most was character, a single word that may account for their achievement. It meant courage, honor, devotion to duty, stoicism under pressure and yet measure in all things. So statesmen like the older and younger Catos were admired as much for their character as generals like Julius Caesar were for their conquests.
Why didn’t Rome last beyond seven centuries? All kinds of reasons have been offered. Gibbon blamed pacifist Christianity for sapping the will of the Romans, though others have argued that the new religion adapted to the state and strengthened it. One serious flaw was the unresolved problem of succession to power. Too often toward the end it was achieved by murder, weakening leadership when it was most needed against the barbarian onslaught. But let’s not ask too much. Rome has set an example for all time.