Friday April 19, 2024

The crumbling empire

By Mubarak Ali
May 16, 2018

The history of the Roman Empire tends to fascinate European nations. They highly admire emperors and generals who defeated the so-called barbarian tribes, slaughtered and enslaved them, and plundered their wealth to built large palaces, temples, and mausoleums.

The irony of the history is that the tribes that were living peacefully on the basis of their customs and traditions were referred to as barbarians – ie, uncivilised and uncultured – while those Romans who invaded their territories without any provocation are billed as civilised people even though they were aggressors.

Most European nations were so deeply inspired by the Roman Empire that they borrowed some of its political institutions and practices. These structures and institutions include the senate, assemblies, laws, voting systems and the power of veto. To keep the memory of the Roman Empire alive, they screened thousands of films on various aspects of Roman society and culture. A diverse range of books has been published that are based on archeological evidence. Fictionalised history was popularised among the people. A large number of plays were staged about the Roman Empire and several paintings and sculptures were made to immortalise its memory.

In the year 800, when Charlemagne became the emperor of the Carolingian Dynasty, he was crowned by the Pope as the Holy Roman Emperor. This was an attempt to restore the memories of the Roman Empire. The title of the Holy Roman Emperor continued throughout European history and retained its original significance despite political weaknesses. The title was satirised by Voltaire, who believed that it was neither holy nor Roman in nature. This title was finally abolished in 1806 by Napoleon.

The people of Europe were so impressed by the power and glory of the Roman Empire that they found it difficult to believe how such a great power was defeated by the so-called barbarian tribes and divided into the eastern and western empires. The western part was ruled by the Pope and the Catholic religion while the eastern part became Byzantinian and observed Orthodox Christianity.

After discussing the rise of the Roman Empire, historians have automatically turned their attention towards analysing the reasons for its decline. The first historian who discussed the breakdown of the Roman Empire was Montesquieu. He attributed the decline of the Roman Empire to political instability and the emergence of feudal states that caused social and economic crises. The second historian was Edward Gibbon who was inspired by the ruins of Rome and decided to write about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. He did not discuss the earlier period when the Roman Empire was at its glorious heights. Instead, he tried to trace its evolutionary decay.

He examined the the general causes of the Roman Empire’s decline such as the army’s rule; the assassination of emperors; the ever-increasing number of slaves; the destruction of agriculture; and the failure to defend its borders against the so-called barbarians. Gibbon also shifted his focus to the internal factors within the empire that led to its downfall. These included urbanisation and the migration of peasants from villages to cities; the differences of class division; the management of sanitation in the cities; and attempts to cure of diseases and control of mob riots. In addition to these causes, Gibbon heavily criticised the Christianisation of the Roman Empire.

When the pagan culture was prevalent, the Romans had the spirit to fight and its army displayed valour in the battlefield. Owing to the Christianisation of the empire, the spirit of war diminished because religious precepts highlighted the importance of peace. This weakened the Roman Army and strengthened the pagan barbarian tribes, who invaded and defeated the once-mighty Romans.

Gibbon also drew attention to the fact that monasteries were established throughout the Roman Empire. These monasteries encouraged young people to become monks and devote their lives to serve their religion. This posed a financial burden for the state.

Rome had once produced philosophy, literature and art that enlightened society. However, the Christian Roman society banned philosophy, art and literature. It persecuted philosophers and closed down institutions that were centres of liberal art. Consequently, society became intellectually barren and bankrupt. It lost, on the one hand, its pagan heritage and, on the other, its military no longer remained in a position to defend itself against the Sassanids of the Persian Empire and the emerging Arab powers. The city of Rome was conquered by the Visigoths in 410. Meanwhile, the eastern part of the Roman Empire continued until 1453, when it finally surrendered to the Ottomans. This marked the complete breakdown of the Roman Empire. The downfall of the Roman Empire afforded a number of lessons to imperial powers that occupied the Asian and African countries in the name of civilisation.

We must change our concept of history. We must realise that those who attacked the Asian and African countries committed a series of war crimes while those who were persecuted were, in fact, champions of peace and only endured discrimination because of their military weakness. Therefore, invaders should be condemned and their crime ought to be exposed to the world. This will ensure that people are aware of their brutality.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.