It’s self-evident, right? We’re not Romans so at some point or other the Roman Empire must have fallen. I mean people don’t speak Latin anymore – well, not outside of law, medicine, biology, classics, the Catholic clergy and students of Roman history anyway – and they don’t have Roman baths anymore – well, outside of ‘Turkish’ baths that are basically the same as Roman baths – and we don’t organise ourselves into corrupt republics ruled mostly by wealthy elites and power dynasties – well, outside of every major so-called ‘democracy’ on the planet, especially the United States – and they don’t…
You get my point, right? You see there’s a myth of the ‘decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ but if it fell so hard how come we still have its institutions? How come we inherited so much from Rome? Did it ever really fall?
Scholars argue about this, like they do about every stupid little detail. The thing is it’s muddy, blurred, grey and not so classifiable. It’s a matter of opinion, and the only thing scholars hate more than not having answers is having an answer that leaves it up to subjectivity. People, in general, don’t like doubt and uncertainty and one of my missions here at We Lack Discipline is to teach people that chaos is good. There’s shit in this world where we can never ‘know’ and that’s cool, that’s fine. We’re all Curious Idiots™ here and if we knew everything not only is there no need for curiosity, but there’d be no idiots.
Somewhere along the line, around the 5th century, the power in what we call the Western Roman empire shifted from Roman hands into the hands of members of the Germanic tribes – often obnoxiously called ‘barbarians’. This is generally perceived as the ‘end’ of the Roman Empire and is usually dated to the end of the reign of Romulus Augustulus. This is itself a contentious issue with many thinking Julius Nepos, Romulus Augustulus’ dad, was the last emperor. Frankly this does a disservice to their successor Flavius Odoacer – a ‘barbarian’ of Germanic descent who was a leader of what was called the Foederati (the federates, non-Roman military groups acting as mercenaries for the Roman state) who overthrew Augustulus but gets called the King of Italy rather than the Roman Emperor. Are you confused yet? Because it seems almost like a bunch of people, in this case classical historians, who can’t tolerate uncertainty in their timelines want an arbitrary point for the death of Rome and so arbitrarily define one person as one thing, even though they replaced someone whose powers were nearly identical.
To make it more confusing the Roman Empire actually moved east. What some people call the ‘Byzantine’ empire was actually the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital based in Constantinople – modern day Istanbul – as established by the Roman Emperor Constantine. This empire didn’t ‘fall’ until 1453 when the Ottomans, under Sultan Mehmed, besieged Constantinople and overthrew the so-called last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos. So the Roman Empire actually continued until 1453? Well, hold your confused horses.
You see, Mehmed and his successors, having deposed the emperor, did not declare Rome dead. They inherited the titles and considered themselves the heirs – and who are we to disagree? There are many Roman Emperors who didn’t earn their title democratically, or by popularity, or through some other peaceful means. They stole it with military might, just as Mehmed did. Well some history scholars think their opinions are more important than those of the conquering Ottoman Sultans, but these people conquered little besides leather patches on tweed jackets, so who cares. Say, then, that we take Mehmed and the Ottomans’ opinions as truth. If that is the case the true fall of the empire occurred between 1918 and 1922 with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
But wait? Are there Roman established institutions that survive beyond that point? Well yes! The head of the Roman state religion held the title of Pontifex Maximus – which translates to the Greatest Pontiff – and a lot of important, powerful people held this title. One Gaius Julius Caesar, best known for being basically one of the most famous people to have ever existed, once held this title and the great Augustus was also Pontifex Maximus. It was a big deal but surely that’s a title that doesn’t exist today, right? Wrong. The head of Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, has the official title ‘Pontifex Maximus’. It had a break in usage in the Catholic tradition, being revived during the Renaissance after renewed interest in classical Roman values, but who are we to deny the lineage of such a title? If we take the Roman Catholic Church as a vital institution inherited from the Roman state then, well, that aspect of the empire is alive to this day.
Roman thought, Roman organisation, Roman institutions, Roman language – it is all still in use today, to some extent. In that regard they have passed on their culture. Meme is not just a term for a stupid online joke or some TikTok of a dancing ferret – in biology or anthropology a meme is a unit of inheritance of an idea. Just as genes are used as instructions for building bodies and life, memes are used for building ideas and cultures. The Roman memes are deeply embedded in all Western cultures. The state may have dissolved, but the ideas that were Rome have remained.
So what about ‘the fall’? The thing is it’s not like all of sudden all Romans and Romanised peoples across their empire, everywhere, suddenly dropped dead at midnight the day Odoacer took over. If the Roman Empire fell it was not in the shock and awe sense we would imagine these days. Many modern historians instead talk of a transition, of things changing and being different. Fuck them, too. One minute people across Europe had running water, leisure time and specialised bath and exercise centres and then two hundred years later they’re living with their pigs and throwing their buckets of shit into the mud outside every day. To deny any aspect of ‘decline’ is to deny the fact that technologies that improved many humans’ quality of life disappeared, lowering that quality of life.
The problem I have is not with the narrative of Rome, its fall and its decline, my issue is with the order of those things. Whether there was a decline before the fall is debated, whether there was a decline after the fall is fact.
Most people want to point to a decline, usually in morals, as being responsible for the fall. Those people are generally conservative dicks and/or Christian dicks, following the nonsensical ramblings of their own cesspit of a church which follows the teachings of Augustine. He was a Christian nutjob who trampled the empire moralising and preaching and heavily influencing Christian thought for centuries. He eventually settled in Britain and we’re sorry for giving him a home. Most of the ideas of the decline are drivel. The factors leading to the loss of Romanhood in the Western empire are many, from the massive to the tiny and it is too chaotic a web to unweave right now. Remember what I said earlier, a little bit of uncertainty is okay, that chaos is good. If we could say for certain what happened and why there’d be little point studying it. Augustine wants to point to all of the aspects that had built Rome into greatness – the selfishness, the expansionism, the exploitation, the profiteering – as also responsible for its demise. In a way he may be right, but he thinks it’s because that’s ungodly. So ungodly it worked more-or-less fine for a millennium before failing.
What happened after, however, should be noted. Big social shifts cause big social losses. I can’t imagine every Roman suddenly forgot how to build sewer systems, maintain their baths, repair their aqueducts, utilise their water wheels, maintain their personal hygiene and many other Roman fundamentals. Again, there may not have been a decline that caused the fall of Rome but there sure as shit was one that followed. Outside of a few select groups and communities life got harder, less fair, less healthy, less warm and less comfortable. Technologies were lost, aqueducts fell into disrepair and building techniques changed. The fact that Western Europe can go from technologically advanced to relatively technologically ignorant in only a couple of centuries is alarming from a modern perspective. What political changes, what shifts in ideas and beliefs, what chaotic mess of decisions that we’re currently too ignorant to unravel could occur that could lead us down the same path? We are even more reliant on our technology than the Romans were.
I have seen the pipes at Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Romans used water tanks, raised above the level of the local houses, to provide piped water, at a local level, within their towns and cities, to homes and businesses. The water was pressurised by the height such that a tap or faucet at street level would have sufficient water pressure. Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Western Europe would not see a domestic, plumbed water supply until at least the 19th century! Either the Romans were wildly ahead of their time or else techniques and ideas got lost that were not prioritised again until much later. I have to believe more in the latter.
It is easy to look at decline and fall myths, point fingers at our own institutions and say “It’s just like Rome!” but I’m not fussed about what is. What is happening right now is happening and I can influence it directly. There’s no point worrying about it, I just have to choose whether or not to act. The chain of events leading up to now has happened and I can’t do a damn thing about that.
I can worry about what will be, though. I don’t want to lose my running water because politicians fuck it up.
The thing about histories, cultures and ideas is they never ‘fall’. So long as we use Turkish baths, Latin words, and elect representatives to republics Rome will never ‘fall’. There is a continuum. Much of our Western culture – and, due to its impact and dissemination, much of all culture – carries Roman memes just as our cells carry Roman genes. These only fall with total extinction. Rome doesn’t fall until we all do.