Sceptical thoughts

Why did the Romans decline and fall? Well, there’s an easy answer to begin with. The Romans declined because they spoke an inflected language. They declined because they had nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. They also conjugated, but we won’t go there. Ablatives and “locatives” were challenge enough (they promised me sex, but here was a seventh declension), and while I can hardly speak for gentle reader, the irregular nouns used to drive me squirrelly. Still do.

But why did they fall?

For the same reason everybody falls, is the easy answer. No one is biologically immortal, and nations, empires, are just like them. Sooner or later something fatal hits them. Some, like the Egyptians, live to a very great age, and some, like the European Union, are stillborn. Wipe your tears.

Lead plumbing can be a killer, it is said: people might hit each other over the head with the pipes. A number of other “environmental” causes have been adduced on the Internet. Decadence is often cited. The possibility that there was no single cause has yet to be examined; for it would complicate the question. Whether the Romans should be defined as an Empire, or a Notion, might be spilled across the table. The Empire is almost certainly gone, but the Notion survives in the world of Notions, vaguely mixed with other ones. For years now, I have been living in the Roman Church, which has been in ruins. But she is used to that.

It was the Empire that went, because Empires go. One dynasty succeeds another, until we get to the last. Then we have new management, usually savage. I am, as it were, a fan of empires, for within their territories there is often peace, and a desire for order. Those who have experienced the contrary, savage arrangements, may pine for the old imperialist days. A little nation may be safe within an empire; on its own it is likely to be eaten. Whereas, semi-voluntary assimilation is a less painful fate.

My own theory, presented in public bars, is that the pagan Romans fell because of rationalism. They had too much, and it gradually poisoned them. Glibness is lethal, according to me, and it sneaks up on you. Confidence in “reason” leads to taking things for granted. Eventually, even the irrational have to pay. The Romans thought anyone in his right mind would want to be a Roman; the Americans get like that sometimes. They didn’t realize that most people are in their wrong minds, including them.

Take, for example, the old pagan Roman religion. A cliché tells us that they were legalistic. In their worship, they made elaborate contractual arrangements with the gods. “We do this” (worship the gods correctly, down to the most tedious and finical details), “and you do that” (bring a fine harvest, or whatever). But all societies are legalistic in this way, from the least to the most sophisticated. It is one of those things hard-wired into the human brain. We all hope to control what is beyond our control, except a tiny minority of the wise. The worst fools believe in technology.

What made the Romans special was that they believed in law. They did not follow formulae irrationally, and blindly out of stubborn tradition; but rationally, out of calculation. Rationalism makes madness really stand out.

You wouldn’t have caught the Greeks doing this. They always knew they were done for, no matter how clever they happened to be. Unconscious prejudice was good enough for them. For the Romans, the end came more as a surprise.

Was this why the (western) Roman Empire collapsed? Partly, I think: a certain cocky over-confidence in their ability to handle and regulate things, that they should leave alone; an incipient quasi-socialist powerlust. A lot of empires went down that way, and the more rational, the quicker.

The other reason was snapping turtles.

Now granted, all European snapping turtles were extinct long before the Romans, but you know what I mean. For as a child hiking along the western branch of the Credit River, I learnt not to mess with them. So maybe it wasn’t snapping turtles, precisely, but the Romans liked to mess.