The Roman Empire is primarily interesting these days because of its disputed and widely claimed history and heritage. For some, it’s a cautionary tale. For others, and inspiration. For other’s an identity to be claimed, and for some a story to be told.
We might take it for granted that the Roman Empire did indeed decline and then fell, usually said to be in the year 476 AD. But this is has not always been the case. And the story you tell about what happen to the Roman Empire says a lot about what you believe about your identity and how you see your society.
The initial problem in Roman history is the problem of ‘freedom and empire.’ There are two basic competing narratives. The first goes like this: the Roman Republic was full of civic virtue. Through this this virtue an empire was acquired. This encouraged vice, known as ‘decadence’ which inevitably led to the decline and fall of the empire. The idea is that the loss of freedom is what is battled over. Was freedom the source of empire, or our freedoms and republics incapable of running empire? By establishing an empire, the Roman Republic, the city of Rome lost itself.
The interesting thing about the Roman Empire is that for a very long time, people didn’t think it had fallen at all. This is know as ‘translation.’ The idea is that through Christianity, the Roman Empire ceased to be a political/military unit, and turned into the universal, Pope-led Christian republic. So while political power devolved on a patchwork of barbarian kings and chieftains, this did not matter because this was the rule of the Church and the Pope. In this sense, the Pope crowning Charlemagne as “Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 AD was more than act of political theater and hyperbole; the Pope actually felt that it this was a title that was his to give, and that Charlemagne was legitimate Roman emperor.
Edward Gibbon, writing at the end of the 18th century, titled his great tome on the Roman Empire, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It may not be readily apparent, but he is grinding an axe here. The story he is telling – decline and fall – was a complex commentary on his own contemporary events and controversies. For Gibbon, the rise of Christianity, and the decline in the republican virtues of the Romans sealed the fate of the Empire. Even at the height of the Empire, amidst the martial splendor, there is a sickness. It is the sickness of hypocrisy, militarism, and the homicidal consequences of absolute power.