During its thousand year history, the Roman empire increased to a point where it encompassed virtually all of the known world. The most fascinating thing about the Roman civilization? Not its imperialist expansion, but that tortuous, strung-out slide to ruin. Why Rome fell is one of the great questions of history. Although the Romans seemed motivated by an industrious, if tedious pragmatism, we can also discern a widespread fatalistic resignation.
After all, It was those ancient Romans who were most responsive to the bleak tolerance of the Greeks and who had the most to say about learning how to die. Furthermore, the state-sanctioned religion of Rome, derived from the Greeks, must have been ill-suited to the Roman disposition, for there is little evidence that it satisfied emotional needs or inspired enthusiasm.
Whatever the reasons for Rome’s collapse, by the 1st century BCE, it had reached its cultural apex and there was already evidence of failed resolve, growing disenchantment, and spiritual malaise.
Even Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid, purportedly written to celebrate Rome’s glory, communicates a wistful sadness over the inescapable tragedies that beset human beings.
Fewer than a hundred years later the empire’s decline had reached historic dimensions, and from this point forward, the story is one of accelerating deterioration. The historian Tacitus drew a graphic picture of Rome as a macabre circus of cruelty and unprecedented depravity, energized by a mad emperor’s reign of terror. Juvenal described Rome as a corrupt and vile city where “every street is thronged with gloomy faced debauchees.”
As order evaporated, a rage for order grew more obsessive and desperate. Several emperors, Diocletian, for example, tried unsuccessfully to check or at least to delay the disintegration by imposing draconian social controls. The masses, growing increasingly more desperate amid the chaos, tried to address existential needs with astrology, magic, and exotic cults, while those few who were philosophically-inclined revitalized the worldly philosophies of the Hellenistic period.
In the first century for instance, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things denounced religion as antithetical to existential tranquility. Instead, he said one must accept life’s insignificance and finality, and embrace an epicurean equanimity. Regardless of what tack the Romans took, whether social, religious or philosophical, their efforts to generate stability and meaning were doomed to failure.
Over the course of five long centuries of incessant civil wars, economic breakdown, disease, corruption, and the monstrous stunts of several nihilistic emperors, Rome weakened and slid into abject poverty. Finally, in 510 AD the Visigoths invaded Roman territory and sacked the once invincible city.
For the next hundred years, Rome was invaded repeatedly by other hordes, which looted, burned and massacred. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Roman empire was a crumbled husk, existing only in memory. The great city itself was reduced to a dinghy mosquito-infested borough where animals grazed in the ruins of the imperial forum.
*Nothing lasts forever