The fall of ... America?

Marshall Ward
Marshall Ward

At their peak during the reign of Trajan (98-117), the Romans governed distant regions of the globe from the Rhine, the Danube, the Euphrates, the edge of the Sahara, and northern Britain.

But by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), the Roman empire had become a Byzantine outpost ruling a few scattered territories from Constantinople.

Housing around one million people in the first century AD, Rome was reduced to around 20,000 inhabitants.

With the breakdown of the Roman order, western Europe fragmented into warring Germanic tribes, while Islamic armies conquered much of what remained.

What caused that empire to fall?

In Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, he proposed that the fall of Rome may have been “the single greatest regression [decline] in all of human history.”

Harper argues that it was pandemics multiplied by climate change that disrupted Roman networks. He writes, “The ecology of the empire had built an infrastructure awaiting a pandemic.”

For example, rapid deforestation allowed the pooling of water, and turned the forests into grain fields where mosquitos multiplied. Infections then entered Rome by flea-ridden rodents that thrived in grain bins. In addition, tuberculosis, leprosy, and fevers were common.

During the Antonine Plague (165-180), 2,000 people died in Rome every day. Seven million people may have died during this pandemic.

Struggling to make sense of this catastrophe, which mocked faith in a rational cosmos, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius fell back to the practice of trying “to live each day as the last.” He communicated it loud and clear to Rome’s citizens.

Centuries later Rome was shaken by the catastrophic Justinian plague (541-750), a bubonic pandemic like the 14th century Black Death.

Lessons for us today?

There are undeniable similarities to our World today.

The very achievements of Roman civilization hastened conditions for its collapse. The interconnectedness that the Roman empire achieved created ideal conditions for the pandemics that would overwhelm it.

The Romans could not have known that they were creating an environment in which diseases could spread as never before, and they had no understanding of the climate changes that were underway.

As a result, the Roman mind became unhinged by fears and “end times” religions.

In our times, the COVID-19 pandemic appeared during a time of peak interconnectedness, with tightly stretched supply chains of goods and services. In addition, we are expanding and degrading regions such as the Amazon. As these areas are turned over to agriculture, local ecologies are damaged, and animal-borne infections jump more easily to humans.

Harper writes, “Mass air-travel accelerates disease transmission from wildlife markets and factory farms. Like ancient Rome, the pre-Covid global interconnectedness was wired for pandemics.”

However, it is the impact of the virus on our belief systems that are the most intriguing.

Just as climate change and pandemics undermined a ruling Roman worldview, COVID has shaken our extreme egocentric faith that we can reshape our natural world as we please.

Harper continues: “The pandemic has highlighted our deep conflicts. Geopolitical rivalries are intensifying, and xenophobia is being weaponized.”

“Intellectual tribalism, volatile ideologies, conspiracy theories, fake news, and quack cures are everywhere.”

As a result of the unequal costs of lockdowns and demagogic disinformation, our divisions have exploded, such as the mask vs. anti-mask debate.

But the virus spreads regardless of human beliefs. It does not care whether mass gatherings are peaceful or violent, anti-racist or white supremacist, or opportunistic looting. For the virus, all of society is a target and all mass gatherings super-spreader events.

Human knowledge has increased 1000-fold, but are we more reasonable than the Romans? Or are we descending into a state of collective derangement, far more rapidly than the Romans did?

The answer may become clearer in the coming months. For now, let us hope that our society can come to its senses, for the good of all of us.


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Marshall Ward

Marshall taught history and economics for twenty years in Charleston, SC, then moved to Murray, KY, where he taught AP history for seventeen years. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


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