Decline and Fall

One wonders, did the Romans (the old pagan Romans) know that they were done for? I am thinking of the third and fourth centuries, when the markers of civilizational decline were all around them, and yet life went on.

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That famous Goth Alaric had not yet trashed the Eternal City, nor Attila shaken it with his Huns, nor Gaeseric plundered it with his Vandals. Nor, in the end, had the German Odoacer deposed “Little Augustus” — the last Roman Emperor — and put definitive end to Roman rule over the West.

But these were all events of the fifth century, by our calendar. Through the third and fourth, there was little to see more dramatic than the constant sapping of civilizational forces.

Much of that makes sense in modern terms: the falling birthrates; the rapid growth of government, and therefore taxes; the inflation that followed when the government could not tax any more, yet could not stop spending, either; the “illegal immigration” across the frontiers, of tribal peoples whose birthrates were secure. The Empire became increasingly “multicultural,” in our modern sense, as these people were assimilated less and less.

With the growth of government came the shrinking of personal liberties; whole classes of people were assigned “group rights” instead of any plausible individual status, and these groups in turn became political clients of one kind or another, to be manipulated in the mass.

At the very top of the Empire, a succession of emperors who were themselves not really Roman anymore, not really conversant with the traditions and culture that had assured Roman greatness. Instead, an increasingly murderous barbarism was leaching from the top down.

True, some part of Rome did not collapse and remains alive today. Roman law and the Latin language continued to uplift men, and organize their thinking, far far away; and let me mention the seed that blossomed in Roman Christendom.

For a crude parallel, one might imagine the U.S. Constitution, and the English that all of America once spoke, continuing as forces in history, far afield, long after the United States has ceased to exist as a country. Some things are never entirely lost, even in this world.

But my question — a very commonplace question, for I can remember it being asked even in Latin class when I was a schoolboy — was: Did the Romans know they were done for? I used to think yes; now I think no.


My article today is inspired partly by looking into my old Loeb edition of Ausonius (who died at a fine old age around 395), a distinguished schoolteacher of Roman Gaul, a native of what is now Bordeaux, who became tutor to Gratian and rose with him to governorships, then a consulship. His permanent retirement from public life followed when Gratian was murdered.

Ausonius is a gentle and elegant writer, with a taste for learned trivialities. He reminds me of Plutarch in some ways, garrulous and domestic; sweet, curious, and nobly whimsical.

But he is a poet, and so adept metrically that I cannot even begin to grasp the allusive games at which he plays. In his long poem on the Moselle, for instance, we see this brave flare of near-heroic hexameters, but they are devoted to giving a catalogue of the fish that swim in that river, and various other notes on nature and local history. There is an incredible array of epigrams — on daily and family life, on his own genealogy, on what goes on in schools. Ausonius is apparently as much at home in Greek as in his native Latin. He is brilliant and charming, and eminently worth reading, though it is hard to explain why.

All the people who tried to teach me Latin are dead now. One in particular, a certain Jessie Glynn, showed me Ausonius in high school and colored my view of him. Calling attention to his vivid echoes of Virgil, and other things I have long since forgotten, she presented him to me as a serene old gentleman, watching the passing of Roman civilization, and lamenting that passage in a lyrical way.

But returning to him now — after decades, and with only my own lights to guide me — I see no evidence that Ausonius had the fondest notion that the Roman Empire would be gone forever within a few short years of his own demise. His temperament is instinctively oriented to the past, but he is not lamenting something that is lost, or being lost; instead, “Romanism” is very much alive in him, and in his surroundings.

He is a Christian, incidentally. He doesn’t make much of this in his works, however; it is “just his religion,” and he wears it lightly. We forget that, even in the first centuries, most Christians were probably like most people in every time and place: accommodating. Witness, for instance, the almost innocent delight Ausonius takes in acquiring a pretty blue-eyed German slave girl — assigned to him as a trophy of a frontier campaign — and whom he has evidently taken as a mistress.

Confronted with the earnestness of his former student, Paulinus of Nola (also a correspondent of Augustine’s), who has taken Christianity to monastic lengths, he is inclined to think the man is crazy. Ausonius’s immediate ancestors were Christians, yet in his memorabilia they don’t seem to have been very devout, either. He often seems a rather “modern” man, unworried by little hypocrisies.

My Latin teacher was, I think, right in the main: that if one studies Ausonius closely, one will find he provides much evidence of a civilization in acute decline. One will also find the antiquarian’s conceit, that “things were better in the old days.” I’m sure he told this to the younger folk when he was in his cups. (He is clearly a connoisseur of the vine.)

Yet I’m now fairly sure he doesn’t take it seriously; that he assumed the Empire would go on forever, and that men like him — “Ivy League” types — would continue to play their part in it.


Today, as a consequence of centuries of deep historical revelation — of a fairly detailed knowledge of the past, unavailable to readers in the centuries before — we are conscious of the possibility of “decline and fall”; with Gibbon it became a meme of the historians. The evidence of a quickly accelerating decline is all around us; but still I doubt we take it very seriously.

I look, for instance, at what has become of the universities in the time since I was young. I notice things like the disintegration of the second-hand book trade: Books of real value and price (for their content, not as collector’s objects) a generation ago may be found heaped up in the flea markets now, at a dollar a volume. And as an inveterate urban walker, I have watched the trend of manners in our streets. There is no question that, in the broadest sense, the “civilities” at the root of our civilization are being obviated.

Technology the late Romans had. Their roads and bridges and aqueducts got better and better — until they ceased to be built. Engineering is cumulative in a narrow way; at an earlier epoch, many of the engineering advances of the Greeks survived the collapse of scientific inquiry in later Hellenistic times. It is when we parse the centuries more carefully that we see the art, science, economy, and faith upon which that technology ultimately depended being washed away. Finally, the roads aren’t being fixed anymore.

Yet out in the countryside, behind walls ever better fortified, little islands of civilization continue, largely beyond the reach of the tax collectors. It is urban life that collapses first.

Our own situation will be different: for our governments have inherited the technology to bring everything down, having intruded into every aspect of common life. That “hopey-changey thing,” as Sarah Palin has so eloquently called it, will wreck the Red States as surely as the Blue. And yet it is itself only a symptom of a civilization that has been, already, gutted from within.

But our situation will also be the same. For I am convinced the Catholic Christian conception of high civilization is, as democracy has been called, “the worst system except for all the others.” So that on the ruins of our own failed efforts, something quite imaginable will again begin to rise.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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