‘After the Fall’: What Rome Means for America

A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington
A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington (Library of Congress)

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The new issue of the print magazine contains a story by me called “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.”

The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.

For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?

You can read the whole thing yourself—and it isn’t even very long.

Readers have weighed in with a range of views.

In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.

Let’s begin:

  1. Not “transition” but “collapse.” From a reader in an academic post:

Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an  interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”

A few things to keep in mind—and on these no one debates:

  • Population fell. That is a vaguely neutral sounding term, but that is shorthand for murder, rape, starvation, and disease.
  • Literacy diminished dramatically or was largely lost.
  • Material possessions diminished in quality and quantity. People were poorer.

I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.

Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.

  1. “The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.”  From another reader, who in his day job is a successful software designer. (This is Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate, designer of the program Tinderbox and long-ago guest blogger on this site, when “guest blogging” was a thing.)

The indispensable book on the end of Rome in the West is Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall Of Rome and the End of Civilization.  It’s a very short book, it’s important, and it’s fun to read.

One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.

In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size.  It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy.  And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.

A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.

To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.

I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/):

These wall-stones are wondrous—

calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants corrupted.

The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.

  1. More like Mad Max than Renaissance Italy.” From another reader:

I enjoyed reading your recent article “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad”, but if I may suggest, I think you are seriously conflating the outcome (modern society) with the experience of the people actually living through that time.

The relative paucity of written history and literature from the time shortly after the end of the Roman Empire or the general loss of Roman control in the outlying territories such as Britain and North Africa doesn’t leave us a lot of descriptions of what life was like in the 400s, 500s, or 600s, but what we do know is that populations dropped sharply, the quality of building and art decreased substantially, and there was the aforementioned almost complete absence of writing, excepting perhaps a few monasteries.

Since presumably people don’t actually vanish, this suggests strongly that there was a period of starvation, disease, and generalized violence that caused the decline in population and the local populaces to simply focus on staying alive, rather than having a relatively rich society able to indulge in luxuries like the theater, writing, and grand monument construction.

17th century etching of Roman ruins, by Stefano della Bella (Library of Congress)

Consider that Rome, a city of probably around a million people at its height, had declined to around 5,000 people by the time of Justinian’s attempt to reconquer Italy in the 500s and at one point in these conflicts may have been completely deserted. The territories of the former Roman empire had transformed from a sophisticated trading network where massive (for the time) cities could be supported by farms hundreds of miles away, to one where people were literally farming and grazing cattle in the ruins of the Roman Forum. You don’t get to this kind of population reduction without a lot suffering along the way.

I’d suggest that rather than being “not that bad”, the conditions for the average Roman citizen and their immediate descendants in the centuries after the collapse of Roman rule were apocalyptic; more like Mad Max than Renaissance Italy. Consider that people were literally living in the ruins of a civilization far more sophisticated than their own, with no idea or knowledge of how these structures could have been built, with lives that were likely shorter and more subject to disease and starvation.

It may be true that viewed a thousand years from now, the breakup of America might be viewed as a positive thing by historians of the time.  When we look back at Rome, it’s relatively easy to leap from 476 AD to Michelangelo and Leonardo, buzzing by the intervening hundreds of years. But I’d suggest, that the immediate aftermath of a collapse of American government would be a period of starvation, of poverty, and of violence as the successor states fought over who got to control the remnants of the American military machine.

Imagine a number of chaotic, starving, impoverished nuclear armed states, not necessarily friendly to each other, with the remnants of the world’s most powerful military, and its hard to conceive that it would end well for the people living through that time.

  1. Pax Romana vs Pax Americana. Another reader, with a list:

I enjoyed your seeds-sprout-in-the-ruins piece about the possible upsides of declining federal capacity. A few thoughts/caveats:

1. My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so.  If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses …

2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital …

4. Someone in the last couple of years wrote up a vision of a kind of soft U.S. breakup via extended regional pacts. Ah, Google … it was Sasha Issenberg, more recently than I guessed.

5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation, court packing. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.

6. The Pax Romana was also real (or was it?), and the end of Pax Americana may prove very dangerous.

7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.

I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.

But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for a functioning federal government.

  1. Filling the vacuum. Finally for today, from a reader who, it’s relevant to point out, has a Chinese family name:

The end of the Roman Empire might have created a vacuum in which new ideas could grow, leading to the development of modern western civilization. But who’s to say the next vacuum won’t lead to the proliferation of Chinese-style authoritarianism?

More mail ahead, with a different range of views. To respond very briefly:

  • Thanks again for the erudition and tone of these letters;
  • A lot of  the reaction is to the headline itself—“Wasn’t That Bad.” A minor point about headlines is that article-writers, including me, usually don’t write them and often have no idea what they’re going to be. (I think my idea for a headline was the one you see at the top of this item: “After the Fall.”)
    The major point is that the editors who do write them are trying to present the main idea in way true enough to the subtleties of the piece—a few words, representing a few thousand words—to pass muster, but crisp and clever enough to entice the reader to spend time with the extended version of the case.
Often titles are intentionally overstated, with the idea that the reader will be in on the joke. (E.g. “Why I Hope to Die at Age 75.”) And these are often “thought-experiment” pieces, designed to explore a possibility rather than to make a definitive case.
As with this piece: Everyone has heard the Decline and Fall version of the Roman saga. Not as many are familiar with another line from historians, saying “Now, wait a minute ….”  And if we talk about this other perspective, where might it lead?
  • On the details of exactly how bad The Fall was, for which people, and where, and for how long, I promise to read  the Ward-Perkins book. I encourage these correspondents (and others) to read Walter Scheidel’s new book, which goes into very great detail on the economic and cultural indicators of “decline” and “recovery.”
  • On the American side, as stated in this article and over the decades, I would prefer a functioning national government! But that is not in prospect right now. The purpose of this piece (like some others I’ve written over the years—like “Countdown to a Meltdown” or “Declaring Victory” [a headline I actually did write] or  “Bush’s Lost Year”) was to ask, What if??? More ahead on the ramifications of “What if,” in future installments.

Thanks to these readers to engaging, and to them and others for considering, what if? More to come.