History and Collapse of the Roman Empire

Empires are unsustainable

It was only a short time ago in evolutionary terms that Rome was simply a small city-state with no more significance than any other state in the region. Perhaps it happened that traders from India, Persia, Greece and North Africa passed through Rome seeded new ideas that some early Romans turned their minds to trade, usery and the accumulation of power? But its is clear they borrowed heavily from the Greeks in developing a hierarchical social structure, military techniques, arts and culture.

As Rome's power grew, it absorbed neighbouring states until it controlled the entire Mediterranean region making it as most history books tell us was the world's greatest empire.

This is not exactly true, long before the rise of Greece as the regional superpower and the march of Alexander against the Persians followed by his consequent defeat in India, it is more accurate to say that India itself and the concept of Sanatana Dharma governed from Persia, throughout Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and most of Southeast and East Asia. The fact that India governed an area more than twice the size of the Roman Empire is an inconvenient truth to the domineering Western mind so consequently, it is rarely mentioned in any history books.

We know that in the Roman story, the empire expanded to the point where it became unmanageable over the space of a few hundred years and collapsed. Under the Roman system every citizen had to swear allegiance to Rome meaning that the allegiance was to whoever happened to rule over the empire. In contrast, the citizens of the Indian Empire (an unfair description) retained their autonomy as human beings and collectively sought to create a way of living that supported the drive towards the collective well-being of every citizen.

The Roman Empire only endured for a few hundreds of years whereas the Indian Empire although badly mauled by the Roman legacy of Empire followed by the Europeans, Islam, Christianity and now the USA under capitalism continues to survive although it is suffering greatly.

Underpinning the growth of the Roman Empire was the idea of money as a tool for trade but this soon became a tool for acquiring power and not only controlling trade, but populations and small empires that we would call corporations today within the larger empire. Given that the Roman Empire collapsed and like communism, capitalism has also proved to be a failure yet we are still governed by capitalism and the delusion of democracy.

Underpinning the Indian Empire there was spiritual wealth instead of economic wealth. It's not that the Indian Empire was economically poor, estimates put the British theft from India in the region of 30+ trillion dollars in today's currency. Because the Indian Empire was more interested in human well-being than economic power and control, it had not developed its military capacity to defend against the likes of the British who arrived on India's shores with a modern well-equipped army.

Today in 2017 the civilisation that has taken over the world based on the Roman model that gave birth to modern capitalism is crumbling to the point where the species we call human is at risk of total extinction, the essence of Hindu civilisation continues to permeate the world providing hope and indeed sanity for perhaps a third of the worlds population in a civilisation gone mad.

From the early Middle Ages until just a few decades ago, every person had to study the history of Greece and Rome to consider themselves educated. There's a reason for that, and it's a shame we no longer do so because we fail to learn from past mistakes. Unfortunately while we keep repeating the same mistakes of the Roman heritage embodied in modern day capitalism and systems of governance leading to failure, we completely ignore the greater possibilities contained within Hinduism and instead we are deluded into believing that democracy works.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes on the US:

A short history on the downfall of Rome

"It's not just that history holds important lessons. It's that we live in a time built by dead men who preceded us. America is a constitutional republic. Its governing institutions were imagined and bequeathed to us by a number of men, and all those men studied the history of Greece and Rome, as did the philosophers and writers and statesmen they took inspiration from, and those that these men took inspiration from. This democracy we live in is like a piece of foreign machinery we are supposed to operate. If you're not a mechanic, you wouldn't try to fix your car without first trying to read some sort of instructions. In order to understand how our republic works, we need to understand the thoughts of the people who built it. We have to understand where they were coming from.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, and the Enlightenment philosophers they learned from — again, the people whose machine we are supposed to keep running — were obsessed with Greece and Rome. The reason why speeches from politicians keep referring to America as an "experiment" in democracy, why there is this sense that they were trying something daring and precarious, is because they lived under the shadow of Rome.

The common belief until the American founding was that democracy was destined to fail. A political system that promises formal equality can't bear the strain of a system that will always have inequalities of status, however you try to legitimize them. In a true democracy, demagogues will win over the people with fatuous promises and showy acrobatics, and accrue enough power to destroy the very democracy that is the source of their power. (Stop me if that sounds familiar.) The reason why they believed this was because that's exactly what happened with Rome. Hence the saying "A Republic, if you can keep it."

If we know something about the fall of the Roman Republic, we know vaguely about Julius Caesar, about how he was a popular general who used his support within the military to effect a coup. The coup then led to a civil war in which the strongman who prevailed, Augustus, thought he would do very well with the powers Caesar had claimed for himself.

If we know a little more, we know that Caesar was not just a successful general, but a canny politician, who used his political victories not just to command the personal allegiance of the legions, but to build a populist political power base at home. We might also be faintly aware that by the time Caesar could attempt his coup, the Roman Republic was already exhausted, with a complacent elite fattened by centuries of military victory and the attendant spoils.

But what historians now refer to as the crisis of the Roman Republic had a deeper, class-based component. Like all republics, Rome understood itself through the prism of the myth of its own overthrow of tyrannic rulers and the establishment of a, ahem, more perfect union. Like all national myths, this was only partly true.

In reality, Roman society was divided into two classes, the patricians and the plebeians (words that still carry meaning today, although more faintly so); three if you count slaves, which you obviously should, although they were less active politically than the other two classes.

The patricians were the aristocracy. They were large landowners, in an era where the source of economic power was land. What's more, while much of Italy was in theory public land, in practice patricians could farm those lands and keep the proceeds as if it was their own property. The fact that the patricians could rely on slave labour to farm this land made it even more profitable for them, even as it squeezed the plebeians out of the jobs they might have had farming. This fundamental equality between a landowning patrician class and the economically insecure plebeians is the most important thing to keep in mind about the history of the late Roman Republic.

What about the political system? Well, as is well known, Rome was run by a Senate, but the Senate was actually made up of patricians. To oversimplify, the Senate was like a legislative branch, which nominated the consuls who ran the executive. Did the plebeians not have a voice? The plebeians were represented by elected officials called tribunes, whose main power was the ability to propose legislation and to veto the Senate. The plebeians were most often wealthy patricians themselves, since it was the only way to be active in politics, but they were patricians with the common touch, and good tribunes, like good politicians, knew how to appeal to their constituencies.

In the late second century BC — decades before Caesar actually rolled around — this crushing inequality gave birth to a political crisis. Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, tried to implement various reforms to rebalance the inequality, including redistributing land and distributing grain to the Roman poor. How did it go? Well, to put a long story short, Gracchus eventually committed suicide rather than fall prey to lynching by a mob raised up by a patrician consul to stomp him down by force.

The failure of the Gracchi (plural of Gracchus) did two things: The first was to re-establish the precedent of using force to settle political disputes. And the second was to entrench the class divisions at the heart of Roman society, since Rome's complex system of checks and balances (plus the sheer obdurateness of the aristocratic class) couldn't fix the problem. Of course, Rome's aristocrats did not believe themselves to simply be defending their pocketbooks. Rome, after all, was one of the world's most sophisticated civilizations, and its aristocracy was highly educated. It believed that in defending its privileges, it was defending itself from a, well, plebe, that was without a doubt uneducated and coarse, and held beliefs contrary to what it believed to be the values of Rome. In this background, Rome's government, increasingly implicated in foreign wars and maintaining an empire, had to become more and more militarized and to raise taxes to keep up its expenses.

Because those conflicts were so deeply entrenched, Rome kept lurching from social to political to constitutional crisis year after year, decade after decade, so that by the time a popular strongman came along, the Republic was like a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked.

All of which brings me to our current situation. Have you noticed that millions have left the labor force? That people without college degrees are increasingly locked out of the economy? That the globalized, meritocratic system rewards a small elite while leaving everybody else behind?

Now, it is not yet the time for a Caesar. It is not even yet time for the Gracchi, I don't think. Although there has been an increase in political violence, it is nowhere near the level of the 1960s. And while America's economy could certainly be doing a lot better, it could also be doing a lot worse — indeed, it has done best out of the global recession than practically any other major economy.

But the parallels are there, aren't they? There may not be grain riots, or large landholds, but there is definitely a patrician class, and a plebeian class, and they are definitely at loggerheads. And the inability of the political and economic system to deliver an outcome that leaves both classes doing well keeps intensifying the conflict."

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry


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