Lessons of History Ignored
Massive public works, striking architecture, cosmopolitan cities, masters of advanced warfare, bureaucratic institutions, a melting pot and much more!
These descriptions are as valid of Rome’s past achievements as they are of ours in our dizzyingly sophisticated modern Western world.
In its time in history, the Roman Empire occupied a position of power and influence very similar to that held by the United States in Western civilization in our time. We know more about the Romans than any other great civilization of antiquity. And, interestingly enough, the Roman Empire covered an area approximately the size of the United States.
The United States and the Rome of past glory both started out as struggling, insignificant colonies of people ruled over by a monarchy. Injustices led to revolution and the establishment of a republic. Still later, after extensive expansions, they both were torn apart by civil war. But then each settled down and rose to heights of undisputed world power and leadership.
The Roman superpower could boast, just like America, of their possession of a highly developed system of law and justice, government and order, and without doubt, production of goods and services. Western civilization, in fact, prides itself on its Roman legacy.
But Rome crumbled! Like all highly developed and powerful empires fallen into the dust of their times, rich, affluent ancient Rome left us another legacy all but forgotten in our hectic times: a chronicle of human social and political folly, of worsening economic and military events that virtually guaranteed Roman civilization, or any other civilization on a similar course, a destiny of growing troubles, decline and eventual collapse.
Certainly, history buffs could point out significant and valid differences between space-age Western civilization and the Rome of past centuries. Absolute parallelism is not the object of this article and future articles on this subject to come; giving a warning is!
Proud Romans became lulled by the belief in the seemingly “eternity” and “superiority” of their system, in their long chain of rarely broken military and economic successes, as if fate had determined they should always come out on top despite repeated challenges to their existence. They extolled their fabulous material-technological achievements and standard of living. They prided themselves on their liberalness and generosity to nations conquered in war.
When Seneca, the Roman statesman, warned that Rome would fall, the people snickered. “Rome fall?” It could lose a few battles, but not the Empire. “Rome,” mused the average citizen basking in the height of world power, “is impregnable.” Rome was the world, and the world was Rome.
To speculate for a moment, of unsurpassed material, economic and military achievements, that glorious Rome could collapse to inferior barbarians was unthinkable. What Roman Jeremiah could have prophesied that the ravages of wars, taxation, mounting crime, race problems, moral decay, subversion from within, political assassinations and public apathy, not to exclude natural disasters, would one day bring Rome prostrate before less-developed nations?
But the voices of the ancient Roman scoffers are now as still as the rubble of ancient Rome.
Christian in name at the end of the 5th century, the Empire in the West obviously didn’t have divine protection from the barbarian hordes that overran her. No nation that fails to fully respect and live by God’s true moral standards ever does!
Fortunately, Roman history is fairly well documented. The Romans built a highly advanced society for their time. To them, it was even a “Great Society.” They developed and used many techniques and achievements common to our modern way of life.
They were the Americans and Britons (and Canadians, Australians, South Africans and Western Europeans) of their day. They were the ones who had wealth, a high level of culture, fantastic buildings, bureaucratic institutions, and sprawling cities.
“Prodigious engineers – high-rise apartment houses, the cosmetic arts, spectator sports, sightseers and tourists.” These also are words used to describe Roman activity in the second century A.D. – the time when Rome was at the height of its power.
They constructed roads all over their vast empire, roads surpassed only in recent times. Some are still in use today. Roman engineers built a road network equal to ten times the circumference of the earth at the equator! And they didn’t hesitate to cut through hills, tunnel through mountains; build sturdy bridges over rivers and valleys. Their “freeways” ran as straight and flat as possible.
They used concrete hardly inferior to ours and just as durable. They even developed cement that would harden under water.
The Romans mastered the art of plumbing and built water-supply and sewer systems perhaps only slightly inferior to ours. Some of them still function. Sewer systems like the Cloaca Maxima in Rome were large enough to drive a wagon through. Some of the rich had furnaces under their houses with warm air circulating through pipes or ducts in the walls.
Water was everywhere, supplied by fantastic aqueducts over long distances. Hot and cold water public baths were a must to the Romans. There were over 800 public baths in the city of Rome itself.
Romans cherished body hygiene, physical culture and health. ‘Roman baths” with a country club atmosphere for the well-to-do are thoroughly documented, and the ruins are with us to this day. The well-to-do were travelers, inveterate sightseers and tourists. Nothing was quite so dear to the Roman heart as languid vacationing, health resorts, mountain spas, or seashore villas. One of the most obvious marks of affluence was the possession of one’s own personal vacation retreat.
But the cities became increasingly crowded, requiring the development of high-rise apartment complexes. Records show many of these became much like modern slums. Some buildings were so poorly constructed that, despite stringent Roman building codes, they menaced the health and safety of infuriated tenants, Rome, too, had its ghettos.
Street noises were unbearable, day or night, in Rome’s big cities. The rich fled to the countryside whenever possible.
Yes, long before us, the Romans managed to run into that giant headache called the “urban problem” – complete with the unbearable traffic congestion, drab city appearance, crowded and noisy living conditions, run-down tenements and slums, high rents, unemployment, racial tension, spiraling crime, a soaring cost of living and polluted air!
Various civic disturbances over some of these worsening conditions resulted in riots and conflagrations which literally destroyed whole towns! Rome had her “long, hot summers,” too!
And her economy? Rome’s economy crumbled under the crushing twin burdens of taxation and inflation. This steady deterioration of Rome’s currency was symptomatic of the increasingly serious financial situation of the Empire. Her morality? We shall soon see what happened to it and why the moral breakdown, and how it contributed to the downfall of a great, world-ruling empire.
But at the height of her power, everything looked different! “If, at any time in history, a people could have looked confidently to the future, it was the Roman people of the second century of our era,” wrote Dr. Robert Strausz-Hupe’, noted historian and international relations expert.
But Strausz-Hupe’ asks: “Why did this civilization decline at all? And why did it decline so rapidly that, within another 100 years, the Roman Empire was plunged irreversibly into anarchy and penury, ravaged by foreign aggressors and doomed to extinction?”
The same author says: “What can Roman experience teach us? Of course, it can teach us nothing if we are satisfied with the (notion) that the Romans of the second century were not Americans of the 21st century, and that, hence what happened to them could never happen to us.”
But striking parallels between much of our Western civilization today and the Romans of yesteryear make such complacency very dangerous.
What average pleasure-oriented Roman, living for the day, ever dreamed his proud nation would some day collapse into the hands of inferior barbarians?
There were those who warned the Romans of the inevitable end. Rome had its prophets, its seers, its political satirists. But their combined Jeremiad fell on deaf ears, Romans, as a whole, would not listen.
Will Americans, Britons, Canadians, Australians, Europeans, South Africans listen to the veritable torrent of shouts and warnings trumpeted by leads in all aspects of national life? And will these same people listen to the warning of the God they have forgotten? He has commissioned His servants: “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1).
We must listen if we are to survive. And in the following articles we will present the examples of Rome, its worsening internal problems and why it fell. More shockingly, we present parallel problems plaguing our Western world.
Said researcher of Roman history H. J. Haskell: “It required a century or more for the destructive forces in Rome to work out their efforts. The modern tempo is faster. The history of the later Roman Empire carries a warning to present-day Caesars” (The New Deal in Old Rome, p. 232).
Will we heed the lesson of history, the voice of experience? Will we mend our ways before it is too late? Watch for continuing articles to come regarding the parallel between modern America and ancient Rome! There is a serious lesson in this parallel for us today, will you take heed?