Rome: the greatest Western civilization of all time? The civilization all others look up to. Its military conquests, engineering feats, and cultural contributions continue to shape our world today. After all, there’s a reason the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., or the Bank of England wouldn’t look out of place in 1st Century Rome.
But as spectacular as its rise was, its collapse was equally devastating. Generations of historians have dissected every document and fragment to decipher precisely what went wrong. To understand that most troubling lesson: that everything that rises must fall.
So, why did Rome collapse? How did the largest empire the world had ever seen fragment? And will it happen to us? These questions have been debated for centuries, and the answers are not always clear-cut. In this article, we’ll explore the rise and fall of Rome, and consider whether there are any lessons we can learn from its collapse that might be applicable to our own society.
The Collapse of Rome
From the Colosseum to the Pantheon, the legacy of the Roman Empire can still be seen and felt in the world today. The date given for Rome’s collapse is normally 476 AD, when the Germanic king of the Torcilingi deposed Romulus Augustulus. In reality, the Fall of Rome was not a single event. Rome suffered endless crises in the 3rd Century. In response, they gradually debased the currency until, by 265 AD, there was only 0.5% silver in a denarius compared to pure silver in the early days of the Empire. Logistical and administrative costs of managing such a colossal empire mounted, eventually causing collapse.
Furthermore, from 250 AD, a 300-year period of climate variability began leading to wild shifts in precipitation and temperature. These climate upheavals also affected the Gauls and Germanic barbarians who raided and sacked the city. It was death by a thousand cuts.
The Collapse of Complex Societies
The idea of a society collapsing is not a new one, and many historians and scholars have studied the factors that contribute to societal collapse. In his 1988 book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” anthropologist Joseph Tainter suggests that as civilizations expand, they must become more complex in order to deal with the various problems that arise. However, complexity requires energy. As the society expends more and more energy to maintain its complexity, the returns diminish over time. Eventually, a part of the system breaks, or the environment shifts, and the complex system is unable to respond rapidly enough, leading to total collapse.
The Roman Empire was not alone in its collapse due to its complexity. The Maya civilization also faced a similar fate. They built complex agriculture, irrigation, and trade systems, but their success ultimately led to their downfall. As their population grew, they cleared more and more land, but eventually, they had to clear too much. Deforestation led to soil erosion, which destroyed their ability to produce food. Without sufficient food, the population declined, and the complex society collapsed.
It’s not just environmental factors that can contribute to societal collapse. Tainter argues that as societies become increasingly complex, the benefits become smaller and smaller. The resources needed to sustain the complexity become more and more significant while the benefits diminish. Eventually, the society reaches a point where it can no longer sustain its complexity, and the system collapses.
The Challenges We Face
So, are we like Rome? There are definite parallels between our own society and that of ancient Rome. In some ways, our society is even more precarious, relying on a vast number of inputs, each of which functions as a limiting factor. If we did not have one, everything would stop. The pandemic exposed some of these limitations, as just-in-time supply chains and global manufacturing left many nations vulnerable. Yet, COVID-19 had a death rate below 1%. What if the next catastrophe is even worse?
As we continue to expand and develop our own civilization, we must be aware of the risks of complexity and the challenges of maintaining our systems over time. We may need to choose between ever-increasing complexity and longevity. If we wish to survive, a simpler life may be the only solution.
My point is that we have important lessons to learn from the collapse of ancient civilizations. Simplifying our society or learning to better manage the complexity of systems? This is a huge question… As we search for its answer, we could learn to better predict the development and behavior of systems so that we are able to act preventively and proactively.
Thanks for the great topic for thought!