I figured that subscribing to Audible would give me an opportunity to get back into 'reading' fiction again, but this deosn't seem to be the case. I'm not exactly sure why, but for the past several years I've found myself getting bored very quickly whenever I read something that's not at least somewhat educational1. So, when my audible credit came along I took advantage of a 2-for-1 sale to pick up The Modern Scholar: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is actually a series of 14 lectures by Prof. Thomas F. Madden of Saint Louis University.
I was quite pleasantly surprised by the quality and contents of the series - they're like interesting university lectures if your prof took more time to prepare and had all rambling edited out.
Prof. Madden begins the series with a discussion about what we mean by the 'fall' of Rome. The Roman Republic itself fell during the 1st century BC and became an empire, primarily because total concentration of power into the hands of one clear dictator ended decades of civil war among various Roman generals out to seize said power for themselves. This is only a preamble, as the lectures are more concerned with the decline of the Empire, traditionally dated to have lasted from 27 BC to 476 AD, when the final Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, abdicated the title. The Eastern Roman Empire, referred to as the 'Byzantine Empire', continued for another thousand years until the fall of Constantinople in 1,453 AD.
One aspect of Roman history that the lectures attempt to emphasize is that there wasn't a single 'ultimate cause' that precipitated the fall of Rome. Rather there were a series of issues, each playing varyingly important roles that served to strengthen or weaken Rome's influence in the known world.
One major problem that Prof. Madden identifies is that Rome tended (though not always) to do better when Emperors were chosen from capable military leaders - such as when a seated Emperor would define a clear successor who was popular with the citizenry. Far more problems seemed to be created during periods of dynasty, or when spoiled sons succeeded their fathers and ran the Empire like their own personal playgrounds (check out Elagabalus as an example of a particularly weak, somewhat insane Emperor who was put into power by his grandmother).
When Emperors died without heirs, or were assassinated after weak rule, power vacuums would lead to massive civil wars. In fact the third century AD saw one such war after another. As civil wars and political assassinations became more frequent, leaders realized that the key to holding power was maintaining a very loyal military. Over a period of many consecutive short-lived reigns, Emperors raised taxes in order to increase the pay of their troops and buy their loyalty. The problem was that the military quickly realized that the more often their leaders changed, the faster their pay rose, leading to a period of extreme taxation and terrible political unrest.
In the 'end' (no actual Roman at the time thought that the Empire 'fell' in 476, though the sacking of Rome in 410 AD by the Visigoths did change perceptions considerably) Rome was laid low by the culmination of very poor leadership, population pressures pushing Germanic tribes into Imperial lands, the arrival of the Huns from the far East, and Persian incursion into the Eastern Empire preventing them from aiding the struggling West.
It's almost impossible to overstate the significance of the Roman state on Western thought and culture. Almost every subsequent 'Empire' has billed itself as reclaiming the 'glory of Rome'. The US Congress doesn't have a 'Senate' for nothing, and the relationship between religious power and the state among Christian nations was largely established during the waning years of the Empire.
I've said it before in previous posts, but I feel the need to reemphasize the sophistication with which classical figures acted and wrote. We have a tendency to view people in the past as 'inferior', but they were only so in terms of their understanding of the world, not in their interpretation. Some Roman figure-heads made brilliant decisions and hatched impressive plans given the lack of rapid transportation or communication. Furthermore, Roman law (and even more so subsequent Byzantine law) was surprisingly effective and progressive compared to many contemporary and subsequent tyrannies.
There's always value in revisiting the past in order to understand what we can learn from it in its own context and not in order to interpret it through the lens of current events. As Prof Madden bookends the entire lecture series: Rome is not a metaphor for modern day America, even though some of its successes and failures can help to inform modern politics.
1Incidentally, I've found myself pretty much only wanting to watch documentaries when it comes to films.