Montaigne, Goethe and Edward Gibbon were the first to question the reasons that led the greatest empire in history, Rome, to its rapid decline and agony. An English historian, Michael Grant, spotted the similarities between Rome and the West: the rich, enormously rich, who were detached from the social fabric; the middle class that lost the capacity of resistance; the bureaucracy that extended uncontrollably; the political class that isolated itself from the feelings of the masses.
After the First World War, a German teacher named Oswald Spengler published the first volume of one of the most influential books of the century, “Der Untergang des Abendlandes,” translated as “The Decline of the West”. However, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians focused on what British historian J. M. Roberts called “The triumph of the West” in a book published in 1985. There was also the liberal tradition expressed by Gore Vidal’s “Decline and fall of the American Empire”, the risk that the United States could suffer the end of Rome, the fear that the republican institutions could suffer under an imperial presidency.
Depopulation was not only the consequence of the crisis of the empire, “but it was also the result of a materialism that led them to see the family as a form of slavery.
Now Roger-Pol Droit (1949), a French academic and philosopher of international reputation, is tackling the subject on a fabulous cover of the French magazine Le Point. “The impotence and fragility of our civilization haunts us”, writer the French intellectual. Everywhere there are signs of fracture: “The jihadists led the assault against freedom of secular democracies. Our fears are countless: pandemics, invasions, climate change, food poisons, extinction of species ... Chaos and tears occupy the collective imagination, saturated with symbolic confrontation”.
Roger-Pol Droit gives the example of 8 lost civilizations. Like Crete, the island of King Minos, which “has seen a flourishing civilization whose palaces, scriptures, metallurgy, ceramics and pottery, frescoes and refinement have not ceased to fascinate us. The reasons for its death are controversial, and earthquakes are no longer considered a sufficient explanation”. There are the Olmecs of Mexico: “The causes of their disappearance remain unknown,” the Nabataeans of Petra, the capital carved into the rock, and the Anasazis in America (“we only know that their villages were abandoned long before the arrival of Europeans”).
Do civilizations die from the outside or the inside? This is a most fascinating question, and it is also related to the contemporary West. “Their disappearance is the result of external aggression (war, natural disasters, epidemics) or the consequence of an internal erosion (decay, incompetence, disastrous choice).” Arnold Toynbee was adamant: “Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder”. This formula of the British historian, author of a monumental study of history in twelve volumes, published from 1934 to 1961, has become famous. The French scholar Rene Grousset has developed the same idea.
There are those who, like the American Joseph Tainter, author of the celebrated essay “The fall of complex societies”, who argue that to cause the collapse of civilization, such as Rome, one needs increasingly expensive institutions, public debt, taxation and excessive regulation.
A French historian, Michel De Jaeghere, editor of Le Figaro Histoire, in his book of 600 pages titled “Les derniers jours”, the last days, explains that the real cause of Rome’s fall was the demographic implosion and the loss of piety.
There was not only the “Antonine plague”, which raged under Marcus Aurelius and Commodus. Economic crisis, insecurity, banditry, all these discouraged the birth rate, which stopped ensuring even the simple replacement of Roman generations. “Families were fragile and not very fruitful”, writes De Jaeghere. Concubinage remained the norm, divorce was common, as was high mortality.
The loss of piety was epidemic after the apogee of the High Empire resulting in a depopulation that would have a great weight on the fate of the Roman world. If Rome arrived to recruit the barbarians into the army, to expropriate their land, to imprison the peoples under the yoke of tax, it was in large part because the census every five years forced the authorities to realize that the Roman population had decreased continuously, even in the provinces unexposed to invasion and war. Archeology would have uncovered cemeteries in places where two centuries before there were some of the most prestigious buildings of urban life. Augustus legislated against the celibate because selfish materialism was rampant. Lucan described, under Nero, the desolation of Italy in which “few people were wandering through deserted streets of ancient cities”.
The demographic crisis caused the Empire to collapse in the first two centuries of our era: “In the golden age of the High Empire, the apogee of civilization. divorce had become a common practice among the elites under the influence of Hellenistic customs”. Contraception was practiced throughout the entire social scale: “Galla - Martial wrote in one of his epigrams - wants to be satisfied but does not want children”.
In the second century, abortion, which until then was practiced only to get rid of children born to illegal loves, had spread on a large scale in high society. “Homosexuality was widespread”. Depopulation was not only the consequence of the crisis of the empire, “but it was also the result of a materialism that led them to see the family as a form of slavery, the common good as a chimera and the happiness of living without obligations, however, as the supreme goal of existence.” Michel De Jaeghere explains that “the privileged class practiced Malthusianism”.
It is estimated that the fertility rate of the aristocratic families did not exceed 1.8 children per woman, just a little better than that of Europe today (1.5). Michel De Jaeghere concludes, pointing out Rome as a warning for the West: “We can rest easy at the sight of our unprecedented prosperity, of our increasingly sophisticated technologies, a world whose virtual connections give the illusion of omnipotence. We can convince ourselves of the fact that the symptoms announcing the fall of the Empire of the West had once been clearly obvious to their contemporaries. We will not suffer any harm as long as we do not notice any of the signs that hinted at their disaster. Not so fast, however. Rome serves us as a warning”.
Edward Gibbon in his masterpiece on the Roman Empire’s collapse also points to the decisive role played by Islam, which previously a death blow to the western branch of the Empire by advancing to Poitiers in France (732), and then brought down the Eastern Empire with the capture of Constantinople (1453).
Is Europe, engulfed in the same lack of piety, materialism, culture of death, hedonism, Malthusianism and ultimately Islamization, living the third chapter of this millennial saga?