My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! In 1818, Percy Shelley wrote one of his most famous sonnets after he marveled at the recently bought colossal bust of Ramesses the II. The poem has become a symbol of the decadence of societies and states, something that would likely had been in Shelley’s mind at the time, as the first French empire had just fallen. Indeed, the related concepts of stagnation, decay and collapse have always fascinated humans, so it is not strange that historians of all eras have written extensively about it. Here I will compare and contrast the historiography of eras when science and technology were in regression (which normally are tied to periods of societal collapse), and I will analyze how the circumstances of the periods in which the history of past declines was being written may have influenced the histories themselves, starting with Edward Gibbon and finishing with Jared Diamond. Even when nothing beside remains, the memories of the past glories survive in mankind minds.
One of the most influential history books ever written is Edward Gibbon’s History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Published in a series of volumes between 1776 and 1784, it is placed among the first serious historical treaties, to the extent that Gibbon has been referred as the “first modern historian of ancient Rome”. Gibbon is considered a pioneer in his use of primary sources, going as far as travelling to the ancient Roman ruins in Italy during his Grand Tour, and History has been regarded as a classic by successive historians and history writers, from Winston Churchill to Isaac Asimov. Nonetheless, its main thesis has long been thoroughly disproved.
Gibbon’s paramount reason for the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the barbarians was the irreversible decline in virtuousness of the Roman citizenry. By abandoning its pagan traditions and embracing the soaring Christian faith, Romans had allowed an alien religion to pervert their ways. Christianity is prone to splits, he argued, especially in such early days, and the religious schisms and intolerance of the faith had made the empire weaker, a juicy prey for the Germanic chieftains beyond the Rhine. This interpretation has been challenged by later historians like J. B. Bury, who refuted the premise by pointing the survival of the Eastern Empire, much more Christianized and equally affected by intra-religious fighting. It should be noted that Gibbon had a tumultuous relationship with religion, having converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism, back to Protestantism and finally settling down in an agnostic atheism that was very much in vogue during the period. Gibbon’s magnum opus is full of accurate data, reliable dates and references to primary sources, but suffers two flaws that make it an incomplete explanation treaty on the fall of empires: it fails to take into account non-human provoked causes (analysis of climatic factors that are beyond the reach of human intervention) and it is too contaminated by the contemporary zeitgeist of anti-religious thinking. The former can be excused, as the field of paleoclimatology appeared in the 20th century. The latter is, in my opinion, a direct consequence of the analysis of history, and something that can be extremely hard to avoid even by professional historians.
The relationship between history and politics goes both ways. One of the most influential schools of thought of the last two centuries, Marxism, has its basis in the idea that the history of humankind is
essentially a struggle between the producing proletariat and the economic elites that rule all polities. Thousands of studies have been written on postindustrial societies taking a Marxist approach, and their influence has shaped the world we live in. However, I shall focus of Marxism thought applied to the decadent stage of classical civilizations, specifically the closing centuries of the Roman Empire. One of the several works that use this analysis is The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, by G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, which (title aside) is focused on the Classical period of the entire Mediterranean basin. Ste. Croix blames the mistreatment of the lower classes of the empire (slaves and poor freemen) by the patricians as the main reason behind the collapse of it. When the barbarians invaded, he argued, the bulk of the population of the Roman state saw the take over as a mere transfer of power between elites, and dome even went as far as identifying the newcomers as possible liberators. Therefore, the state did not a have a population motivated enough to defend its borders, ultimately damning its survival. As with the Whiggism of Gibbon, this interpretation also has its detractors, which again argue that the Eastern Empire was afflicted by the same socioeconomic circumstances. Not only that; several crises had affected the empire as early as the republican period, when arguably the system was more oppressive due to the larger amount of non-citizen subjects, but the Roman civilization not only was able to defeat these challenges, being able to expand its territories once normalcy returned. Again, it seems that applying only ideological causes to the problem of the decadence of societies cannot fully provide the reasons that explain said process.
Here ends the first part of the essay. Next, I will explore the issue of decadence as seen by two contemporary works which differ with the aforementioned historians both in the approach taken and in the conclusions reached.
Bury, J. (1970). History of the later Roman empire. New York: Dover.
Bmcreview.org. (2018). Bryn Mawr Classical Review: 2015.08.37. [online] Available at: http://www.bmcreview.org/2015/08/20150837.html [Accessed 11 Jan. 2018].
Brunt, P. (1982). A Marxist View of Roman History. The Journal of Roman Studies, 72. doi:10.2307/299121
De Ste. Croix, G. (2001). The class struggle in the ancient Greek world. London: Duckworth.
Juan Gorrochategui is studying for a BSc in Chemistry at Imperial College London
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