History teaches a hard lesson about empires – they eventually fall. So far, none of the mighty civilizations in the history of our planet have circumvented this fact.
While some may claim that a particular empire overcame obstacles of their time and prevailed, a closer look will often indicate that such an empire was significantly modified to the point it wasn’t the same anymore.
Whether it’s by destruction or corruption – or both – it will happen.
This is precisely how Rome went down – more or less. But the wake of Rome’s destruction would send Europe spiraling into the dark ages, and it would take centuries to recover.
Seven lessons from the Ancient Roman Empire
Perhaps the frightening aspect of how the Roman Empire collapsed is that we’re witnessing many troubling parallels with society today. It is easy to forget how remarkably advanced the Romans were for their time.
Ancient Rome had actually reached a population of over one million citizens. After the empire collapsed, it wasn’t until London in 1810 that a city ever reached that population level again.
Printing money doesn’t save an economy
Oddly enough, an official from China warned that the United States’ national debt is spiraling out of control. That official pointed out America was selling way too many Treasury bonds, and they were increasing the national debt so rapidly that will the US economy will surely collapse one day.
The official also emphasized that the US was not selling bonds as they think – they were “printing money.”
This same kind of thinking is one of the factors that led to the unraveling of Rome. As the empire got more massive and along with its soaring cost, Emperor Nero decided to use a smaller amount of silver in minting Roman coins.
His reasoning followed that Rome would be able to print more money. And when Nero prints more money, he’d become wealthier and build the palace of his dreams.
Unfortunately for the Romans, the damage didn’t take place overnight – as that would have been more merciful. The problem was that Nero set precedence for his successors who followed suit. Eventually, inflation went out of control.
Over the next two centuries, the price of Roman wheat increased 200-fold, and their coins became almost worthless.
Whether or not the US is printing money is heavily debated. But there’s no doubt that they’re content to let future generations address their current debts. Despite having one of the world’s highest GDPs, the US also has the highest external debt in the world.
The European Union has the second-highest amount of external debt in the world. And this is the total debt of a combined 28 countries – yet all of them together have less debt than the United States.
Overseas cheap labor will not make your goods indefinitely
During its heyday, money was gushing into Rome. Each emperor and every government official was basking in a deluge of wealth that allowed them to control most of the known world. However, this didn’t mean that Roman citizens were getting rich.
Rather than hire their own citizens, Romans leaders and elites got foreign slaves to do the lion’s share of their labor. A considerable portion of their production was courtesy of foreign slaves – for little or no cost. Roman citizens became unemployed and relied on government subsidies to survive.
While companies today could not get away with hiring slaves nowadays, they can come uncomfortably close. As with Rome, Western countries today outsource most labor they need to sweatshops for sometimes less than a dollar an hour.
Around 60% of products that American citizens buy are manufactured overseas. However, the US is not the only nation that uses this cheap labor source. Today China makes around 50% of the world’s clothing and 70% of its mobile phones.
The lesson that Rome provides is that this cheap labor didn’t last forever. Eventually, slaves got wise and demanded more, and finally revolted. Then came the spread of Christian ethics as citizens of Rome began to disapprove of using slaves.
Unfortunately, slave labor had become a backbone holding up their entire Roman economy, so when the labor left, everything began tumbling down.
Indebted people can be easily controlled
After Rome got sacked by the Gauls, the republic was forced to pump a fortune into national defense. Taxes increased wildly, most poor citizens went bankrupt, and the Roman populous became so overwhelmed with debt that they could not see a clear path to resolve it.
This story is painfully familiar to what Americans experience today – in regards to college debt. For instance, the average college grad in the US is saddled with debt that exceeds $37,000 from their student loans alone. Believe it or not, this is not the worst case.
Debt is much worse in countries like Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. In those countries, a person’s debt exceeds twice their annual income level – on average.
As with what we hear from people today, the plebes of Rome begged their government to forgive their debt and relieve their financial burdens. When the lower classes became politically equal, the Roman government began listening to their cries – and started pandering to them.
Political leaders that wished to attract the populous promised “bread and circuses”—which meant food, entertainment, and debt relief.
Roman citizens had become so desperate that they no longer cared what politicians did so long as their debts were canceled. Even after the elections stopped, they didn’t care because the bread and circuses kept coming.
Don’t underestimate the barbarians
Perhaps one of the biggest ironies of Rome were the barbarians they faced on the battlefield. They were always able to stand their ground against other powerful empires. The Romans had battled both Egypt and Greece and won. Even though the world’s most advanced societies had fallen at their feet, Rome somehow got crushed by barbarians.
It seemed that things began to go amiss when Attila the Hun trampled through the Western region of the Roman Empire. The mighty Romans saw them as a primitive culture. One Roman even wrote that the Huns had not even learned how to use fire; they were so ill-advanced – it was like fighting cave dwellers.
Regarding modern times, the US attitude toward terrorists has been eerily similar. Not that long ago, the most prominent terrorist organization globally was referred to as “the JV team” by a US president.
On one side is the most powerful nation on the planet full of arrogance, and on the other side was a horde of vicious warriors who didn’t care whether they died or not.
The Romans paid a massive price for their hubris, as they lost to the Huns. For his victory, Attila demanded over half of their kingdom. When the Romans refused, the Huns ran rampant across their country – stealing Rome’s most advanced technology and their latest siege weapons.
Finally, the Romans had no choice but to meet his demands. From that point on, they regularly paid the Huns a massive tribute in exchange for not attacking Rome again.
Big military budgets eventually bankrupt big nations
There is one huge problem when you are the world’s superpower; you end up being the world’s biggest target too. The Romans found this out the hard way. As they grew and got bigger, their enemies and threats also grew bigger.
Because they had such a massive amount of territory to defend, they were forced to pour a considerable portion of their wealth into the military. There was no getting around this fact.
America has been learning this lesson as well. Even though US military spending has gone through the roof because of September 11, 2001, the nation still isn’t safe.
Americans are pouring around $600 billion annually into their military. To put this in perspective, the US accounts for over one-third of the entire world’s military spending.
As the Romans discovered, the only way to deal with an ever-growing military was by raising taxes. However, over time, crippling taxes only make things worse because it creates more poverty and more unemployment, leading to more crime.
They grew to despise Rome – now doesn’t that sound familiar?
Beware of empires rising in the Far East
As it turns out, Rome’s biggest threat might not have been from those who were trying to burn it to the ground. Perhaps their biggest threat was the nation that was leaving them alone. This was none other than Parthia, the empire from the east that the Ancient Romans couldn’t defeat.
During the earlier days of Roman history, the Romans battled the Parthians as the two powerful nations tried to destroy one another – but neither could succeed. They humbly realized that they would only demolish one another, and it really wasn’t worth the price. So, they wisely agreed on a peace treaty and left each other alone.
Even though they parted in peace, there was friction between them. They became trade partners but didn’t trust each other. They were always competing against each other in various ways – much like America and China are doing today. And over time, just like with the US and China, this friction began to change everything.
The Parthians intervened between Rome and other nations from the Far East – preventing them from establishing relations so they could control Roman trade – much like the Chinese are doing today regarding countries like Taiwan.
Empires don’t collapse overnight
The thing is that the Roman Empire didn’t collapse in one single blow into fire and ruble. It took many years and hundreds of poor decisions to cause the inevitable event. Sadly, many of the decisions that inflicted long-term damage were often considered to be great ideas at the moment.
Rome was controlling a massive amount of territory, and within that empire were peoples from a variety of cultures. While having many cultures reside together can be a rich and vibrant experience, if not carefully orchestrated politically, it can also lead to conflict and strife.
Over time, economic problems and religious differences became too problematic for the government of Rome to control. There were several splits before it officially became two empires in 364 AD.
Eventually, the Western region became the property of the barbarians – setting Europe back many generations. The Eastern region became the Byzantine Empire which survived for many years after the split. Finally, after surviving the Muslim conquests, the Sasanian War, and the Crusades – they were overtaken by the Ottoman Empire.
But the Roman Empire died likes most empires – in a gradual process. It usually starts by fighting wars that they can no longer win, and they struggle with an economy that they can no longer handle.
Such things signify the beginning of the end.