In the wake of the Paris attacks, historian Niall Ferguson has suggested that Western Civilization is now reprising the story of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D., with Muslims cast in the roles of the invading barbarians. But his recent invocation of “The Fall of Rome” is a rhetorical maneuver and not a serious attempt to engage with the history of the late Roman Empire: rather than a genuine search for insights, Ferguson has summoned a weary specter from a haunted mansion, knowing well even before he did so just what words of warning it would wail.
Ferguson opens by summoning of the spirit of Gibbon, only to reject his main thesis:
True, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn over a millennium. But a new generation of historians, such as Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather, has raised the possibility that the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth: a ‘violent seizure . . . by barbarian invaders’ that destroyed a complex civilization within the span of a single generation.”
However, as James J. O’Donnell notes, Ward-Perkins and Heather focused on the material and military aspects of Roman history, and ignored the spiritual and cultural dimensions of what occurred. Ferguson does not quite suffer from the same blindness, but he does not really face up to what he sees through a glass darkly:
Let us be clear about what is happening. Like the Roman Empire in the early fifth century, Europe has allowed its defenses to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its shopping malls and sports stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.
So, Europe’s “self-belief” has shrunk, and it has become “decadent.” Perhaps there is a reason that this has happened, other than the fact that Europe has not been listening to Niall Ferguson’s call for empire? Perhaps as Europe rejected its Christian heritage, and embraced the moral nihilism of Nietzsche and Foucault, it ceased to have any basis for “self-belief”? And perhaps decadent consumerism is a symptom of a civilization that no longer believes in anything more than “utility maximization”? And, if that is so, what will adopting a more aggressive attitude towards the Muslim world avail it?
Certainly, every decent person wants all governments to prevent murderous attacks on their citizens. But how will increasing Europe’s military prowess or the efficacy of its border patrols solve the more fundamental problem that many of its residents no longer see any point to life other than acquiring nicer electronic gadgets, great vacation homes, and good champagne?
Ferguson continues with the interesting observation that, “As Gibbon saw, convinced monotheists pose a grave threat to a secular empire.” Note the conclusion that follows logically from Ferguson’s hypothesis: Rome was correct to persecute Christians, as they were the “convinced monotheists” of the time! And in any case, describing Rome as a “secular empire” overlooks the fact that the Roman emperors themselves understood the extreme difficulty of maintaining a purely secular empire, and were always desperately seeking a spiritual basis for their rule, at various times trying a return to paganism, Stoic philosophy, the cult of Sol Invictus, and, finally, Christianity.
But Ferguson then lets the cat out of the bag:
I do not know enough about the fifth century to be able to quote Romans who described each new act of barbarism as unprecedented, even when it had happened multiple times before; or who issued pious calls for solidarity after the fall of Rome, even when standing together in fact meant falling together; or who issued empty threats of pitiless revenge, even when all they intended to do was to strike a melodramatic pose.
Ferguson here admits that his whole analogy is flimsy, and he really has no idea how similar these two different situations are. “The Fall of Rome” was invoked not as a concrete historical situation which we might carefully study for hints as to what we might do today, but as an instance of what Michael Oakeshott called “emblematic characters and episodes,” such as “Caesar crossing the Rubicon… Canute on the seashore, King Arthur, William Tell… Davey Crockett… Colonel Custer making his last stand.” “The Fall of Rome” here is part of a “storehouse” of “fables” in which interested parties may “spend an afternoon routing round for themselves in the hope of picking up a bargain,” a storehouse in which “parties of schoolchildren will be shown round by their teachers.”
Ferguson quotes Ward-Perkins putting this fable to the use for which it was processed and placed in the storehouse: “Romans before the fall… were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.” (As Oakeshott wryly notes, “The Huns and Vandals are always with us…”).
But, as O’Donnell notes in the review linked to above, “Ward-Perkins too is so Rome-centric that he misses important questions also missed by Heather. Any account of how Rome declined and fell is obligated, I think, to say what it imagines the alternative to have been.”
The Romans’ civilization was spent: actual Romans had ceased to man the Empire centuries earlier, as the impetus which had motivated them, the pagan ideals of the Roman Republic, had disappeared by the first century B.C. (My book, Oakeshott on Rome and America, documents this breakdown, and it is hardly the first to do so.) From early in the second century, the Emperors were generally not only not Roman but not even Italian, and the legions were increasingly recruited from outside Italy as well. By the fifth century, Rome was employing barbarian generals and mercenaries not because of Roman “complacency,” but because there was no one else to take the job. As Voegelin writes, the civilizational force of Rome had collapsed with the Republic, but “historical factors had tipped the scale for the survival of Rome just long enough to carry the state over into the imperial expansion and then keep it going by the organized plunder of the orbis terrarum…”
So essentially, what Ward-Perkins and Ferguson are asking is, “Is there any reason that this organized plunder of most of the known world couldn’t have continued a while longer? If the Romans had just been more self-confident and less complacent about robbing everyone else, they might have go on for a few more centuries!”
Ferguson evokes this cautionary fable because he is worried that Europe will succumb to Muslim terrorists. But these terrorists (in a horrific act) managed to kill somewhat over 100 French citizens on a single day of this year. Meanwhile, French abortionists kill over 500 would-be French citizens every day of the year, year after year, and far from protecting these victims, the French government subsidizes their deaths. When a civilization is wiping itself out that fast, it is a little fatuous to put the blame on opportunistic parasites who are invading its dying body.
Gene Callahan teaches economics and computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America.