Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.
The broad and unsentimental sweep of history gives ample evidence that nations great and small arise, thrive to some degree and for a time, and then decline and come apart.
History offers no exceptions.
Twenty-five centuries ago, a small but unusually vigorous and energetic city-state calling itself “Roma” in the Latium region of the Italian peninsula began to feel its oats, and over the next six centuries conquered everything in antiquity that mattered. Rome’s home region of Latium gave its name to the language spoken by Romans – “Latin” – which became first the standard language of the Italian peninsula, and eventually the ordinary language of education, business and government throughout the entire western world. The Mediterranean was a Roman lake; Roman troops garrisoned fortresses and outposts from northern Britannia (modern day England) to modern-day Iran, from the Rhine in the north to the Arabian peninsula in the south; and any army foolish enough to face Roman forces in a pitched battle was usually annihilated.
An important foundation of Rome’s power was that a majority of the population had an abiding belief that Roman civilization was worth saving, and acted accordingly.
And yet, the western half of the Roman Empire fell apart in the second half of the fifth century, and the population of the city of Rome itself declined from perhaps a million residents in the late fourth century to around 100,000 by the end of the fifth. Much has been written about the dissolution of Roman civilization, with no consensus among historians even now, 1,500 years later, on the reasons for its precipitous collapse. I would argue that a significant factor was a lack of that previously mentioned belief — that Roman civilization was ‘worth saving.’
In the days of the Roman Republic, Romans had a perception that Rome was governed for the benefit of all citizens. Over the centuries, as Roman elites retreated into gated compounds and lost touch with the concerns of the plebeian masses, the belief in the primacy of Roman civilization gradually eroded. By the time of the final collapse of the Western Empire in 476, the majority of its citizens, assailed by unending waves of barbarians and trapped in crushing poverty, could not be bothered to put up much of a fight.
So after almost a thousand years, the western half of the Roman Empire fell apart, and the city of Rome itself was substantially depopulated in the wake of the devastating Gothic War in the mid-sixth century.
The description of Rome as the Eternal City has more to do with sentimental affection than historical description. According to the Wikipedia article on the city, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city was “reduc(ed) …to groups of inhabited buildings interspersed among large areas of ruins, vegetation, vineyards and market gardens.”
Rome did not surpass its ancient population until the early 20th century.
I have walked the streets of modern-day Rome, and visited the impressive ruins of that long-dead ancient civilization.
As I walked amid the crumbled grandeur and toppled columns of the ancient forum, I felt an emotion very much like my middle-aged reckoning with death – seeing the ruins of that once-thriving place, I realized that America will, at some point, cease to be what it was.
I imagined schoolchildren centuries from now, walking among grand and weedy ruins of our nation’s capital, their teacher translating the inscriptions into whatever language is then current.
I wondered what the judgment of their historians will be – did the America of their future history leave a legacy of generosity and civic virtue, or did it offer instead a cautionary tale of the tragic dangers of hubris and selfish hedonism? Did it validate the principles of democratic self-government, or did it undermine and betray them?
We Americans of the current moment have no idea how that will turn out, but it is also true that we are, by our actions and choices, writing a piece of that history in our present.