Lucius Flavius Silva and the Roman war machine. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

August 10, 2023   6 mins

On both sides of the Atlantic, hysterical comparisons between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the senile polities of the modern West have become the journalistic norm. Every major problem facing our society — from climate change to Covid to inflation — has received the Gibbon treatment.

There are, of course, regional variations. The British, tied by geography to Europe’s fortunes, tend to favour the definitive fall of the Western empire in AD 476. The Americans, ever fearful of an over-mighty executive, linger on the collapse of senatorial authority in 49 BC. And it is also more than a journalistic trope, with the unacknowledged legislators of our world also playing the same game. Elon Musk recently suggested that today’s baby drought is analogous to the low birth rates of Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Marc Andreessen has compared California to Rome circa AD 250. Joe Rogan, meanwhile, is beginning to suspect that all this gender business might have a worrying ancient precedent.

Such appeals to the past are only human. The fourth word in Virgil’s Aeneid is Troiam. This is the first fact that we learn about Aeneas: he is from Troy. Virgil does not even bother to tell us his hero’s name until the 92nd line. Doubtless, the poets of Ur and Hattusha had their own Troys. And perhaps the first men who placed one mud brick upon another sang of flooded valleys, choked caves and herds that no longer ran. But Rome has been our common loss since the early Middle Ages. As Virgil looked back to Priam, so we look back to Virgil. In 1951, it was perfectly natural for W. H. Auden to compare a dying Britain with a dead Rome: “Caesar’s double-bed is warm / As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form…”

But journalists and billionaires do not work in a poetic register. They deal in facts and lucre. When they say that Britain or America is following imperium Romanum down the dusty track to oblivion, they seem to be speaking literally. This is not a mistake that Virgil would have made. It is all very well to evoke Rome as an elegiac warning. But if we believe that there are concrete lessons to learn from the Roman Empire’s decline and fall, then we will have to examine the mother of cities as she really was. The results are surprising.

In AD 384, 400 years after Virgil composed his Aeneid, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus had a bridge problem. Symmachus was Urban Prefect of Rome, a role of huge responsibility. By the fourth century, the city of Rome was no longer the imperial capital of the western empire; it had been replaced in 286 by Mediolanum (modern Milan), which was a good deal closer to the empire’s febrile northern borders. But Rome remained the nation’s hearthstone. Her good governance was of the highest priority. The Urban Prefect dispensed justice, organised games, fed the mob and looked after the material fabric of the city. It was not an enviable position. One man had to keep the vast, turbulent metropolis ticking over with the minimum of rioting. Symmachus was well aware of the touchiness of the Roman pleb. His own father had been burned out of his house and chased from the city after making a catty remark of the “let them eat cake” variety during the wine shortage of 375.

The bridge problem went like this. Around 382, the emperor Gratian ordered that a new bridge be built across the Tiber. It soon became clear that construction was taking too long and costing too much. Two years later, as the project neared completion, one span collapsed. Such waste of public funds could not be ignored, and so an inquiry was launched. A specialist diver was engaged to examine the structure; he discovered that the job had been bodged. The engineers responsible for the project, Cyriades and Auxentius, were summoned to account for their failure. Each blamed the other, before Auxentius, who had been caught backfilling sections of the bridge with bales of hay, fled the city — pockets doubtless jingling with public gold.

On the face of it, this sounds like a very late Roman story: a nation once famous for its engineering prowess could no longer build a bridge across the Tiber without everything going horribly wrong. But I’m not sure that’s true. Problems arise all the time, and in themselves tell us very little about a society. What matters is the response to those problems. And Symmachus’s dispatches to the imperial court make it clear that his response was considered and comprehensive. The bridge was completed in the end, and stood for over 1,000 years until its demolition in 1484. Now think of 21st-century London: remember what happened the last time we tried to build a bridge across the Thames?

Peter Brown, in his excellent new autobiography Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History, identifies the kind of dogged, even cheerful resourcefulness exhibited by Symmachus as one of the hallmarks of the later Roman elite. Brown’s long historical education, which has taken him from Oxford to Berkeley to Princeton, began as a child in Forties Dublin. Born into a Protestant society unmoored by Irish independence, he observed “what it was like to face the end of empire on the ground — in the small world of the little big men of the provinces — and to do so with dignity and good nature”. Embattled but not embittered, Brown’s family taught him that “a lively and imaginative culture could coexist with constrained political and economic circumstances. It was, perhaps, a good start with which to approach the world of late antiquity…”

This is the lesson of Symmachus, who dealt uncomplainingly with his own constrained political circumstances. The governing class of his generation was under extraordinary pressure, and yet it managed to keep the show on the road, to hand its civilisation on to the next generation despite the dramatic changes wrought by increasing barbarian incursions and the transformations brought about by an insurgent Christianity. Gratian had ordered a bridge to be built and Symmachus was going to damn well see it done.

Indeed, spend a few hours reading his dispatches and you would agree that asking whether Britain is “declining like Rome” is nothing less than an insult to the Roman Empire. The city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410, by the Vandals in 455, and finally swallowed up by a new Gothic regime in 476. But while the legions held on the borders and the lawyers argued in the forum, while the tax revenues rolled into the treasury and the grain shipments cruised into Ostia, Symmachus and his friends do their duty to the patria. There had been crises before, after all, and Rome had always muddled through. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that men like Symmachus acquire the glamour of an endangered species.

Even after the disaster of 476, there were still men around to keep the cogs turning. Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus held multiple public offices during the early sixth century. His masters were Ostrogothic kings, not emperors, and the capital was no longer at Mediolanum, but at Ravenna. None could doubt that the western Roman Empire was at an end, especially when compared to the eastern empire centred on Constantinople, which was about to flourish anew under the reign of Justinian. And yet, what do we find Cassiodorus doing? He did not waste his time on elegies for a lost world. He was far too busy for that sort of thing. Many of the city’s great buildings were falling into disrepair, so he decreed that Rome’s main brick depot be refitted with a view to manufacturing 25,000 new roof tiles every year. He chased the Governor of Lucania for his region’s taxes. He ensured that teachers of Rhetoric were properly paid. When a Goth settler seized the land of two Italians and reduced them to slavery, Cassiodorus was there to intervene.

This is not to minimise the impact of Rome’s collapse. As Bryan Ward-Perkins has shown, the post-Roman West was a bit of a dump. Timber supplanted dressed stone, flagged floors gave way to beaten earth. Coinage vanished. Cows shrank. Honorific statuary disappeared, as did indoor plumbing. The Roman ceramics industry, which had pumped out vast numbers of high-quality, wheel-thrown vessels for centuries, ground to a halt. Britain’s decline was among the most dramatic. In one moving passage, Ward-Perkins draws attention to a small object excavated at the Sutton Hoo ship burial. This famous site, which yielded intricate gold jewellery and elaborate ceremonial armour, also contained a small pottery bottle. Even the humblest Roman family would have regarded such an item as an unremarkable piece of household clutter. In seventh-century Britain, that small bottle sat naturally among the exquisite grave goods of a celebrated man.

And this is revealing. When our journalists and billionaires ask whether Britain or America is “declining like Rome”, they are really thinking about the grim realities of the early Middle Ages — a time of deprivation rather than plenty. And perhaps they are right to do so. However terrible life was in the post-Roman West, it was nothing like as bad as a similar rupture would be today. Most of us lack both the land and the knowledge to grow our own food. The support structures provided by extended family networks and stable local communities — the mortar of the pre-industrial world — have been fatally weakened. Many people rely upon regular medical intervention simply to stay alive. Our most basic goods are imported from the other side of the planet, as is the fuel required to power the machines that make contemporary life possible. Above all, centuries of peace have left us ill-equipped for the return of a society in which war is commonplace and might makes right. A fourth-century Roman would regard modern Britons as laughably weak, ignorant and dependent.

If Rome’s fall still resonates today, it is only because we know so little about the subject. Popular images of Roman decadence — Caligula drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar; Nero’s Golden House — are largely drawn from the first century, when the empire was at its height. Later emperors had no time for such diversions. They were an overworked and harassed bunch who often died violent deaths, but they often got the job done. In a sense, to ask whether the modern West is “declining like Rome” is to ask whether we are governed by people with the grit of Symmachus and the tenacity of Cassiodorus. One might as well compare a woollen toga to a polyester T-shirt.