• Elliott Holley

How bad was the fall of the Roman Empire? Is the USA heading the same way?

The Roman Empire fell in 1453, an event that shocked (briefly) the Christian west but had little immediate global significance, beyond enabling the Ottomans to set up their capital in Istanbul. Symbolically, though, it has since entered popular culture as a major dividing point in world history.

At the time, the impact of this event on the rest of the world was virtually nil. The “Empire” had been of no real significance outside the walls of its own capital for more than half a century, and it had been over 120 years since the Empire even held any territory outside Greece/Thrace. The Empire had not mattered internationally since the late 13th century, about 170 years before its fall.

However, the demise of this last vestige of the old Roman Empire, did coincide with other changes that were of much greater historical significance. The age of discovery would soon get underway, leading to great changes in the Americas and beyond. Meanwhile in Europe, the Ottoman Empire was rising rapidly, and defence against Ottoman expansion became part of the foundation myth of several European countries, especially in Austria and Hungary, but also Russia, Poland and the Italian states.

Starting with Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottomans were able to start repopulating the city from the depopulated, burnt-out husk it had become after centuries of decline and misrule.

It was only under the Ottomans that the city became a capital worthy of an empire once again, for the first time in over 250 years.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire, in 476, did see civilisation regress in some areas, most notably Britain, where culture fell back to a more primitive level than that seen in the Celtic iron age, before the Romans, due to the total disruption and destruction of Roman British society. This is well documented in the 2006 book by Bryan Ward Perkins, provocatively titled The fall of Rome and the end of civilisation.

Gaul and Spain were also damaged by the fall of the empire, as was Italy. But some areas in the south were less affected than others. A gradual economic decline combined with the decline of trade did however mean western Europe became poorer, more rural, less urbanised and generally a backwater for about 600 years.

The fall of the Western Roman Empire was however of no significance outside western Europe. Here’s the Persian Empire and the rest of the world at the time:

The Gupta empire in India and the Qi Empire in China were doing just fine during this era, while North and South America were unknown to the “Old World” civilisations, and sub-Saharan Africa was likewise mostly unknown, along with Australia.

In Central America though, several civilisations had already existed, including the Olmecs, a thousand years earlier, as well as the Maya civilisation which was still alive at the time.

From the 7th century, the torch of human progress passed to the Umayyad Caliphate, which had effectively replaced Rome and Persia from that point onwards, bringing in the Golden Age of Arabic Science and advancement.

The later Abbasid Caliphate built upon this and took it further, with the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, philosophical debates about rationalism, Neo-Platonist philosophy and the quest for all the world’s knowledge.

The empire eventually fragmented, but the civilisation it represented dominated the world for the next several centuries, arguably right up until Europe finally overtook the three great gunpowder empires (Ottomans, Safavids, Mughals) in the 1750s.

It would be quite mistaken, therefore, to conclude that the entire world fell into some kind of 'Dark Age' after the fall of Rome - an empire which in any case fell at different times in different places over the course of more than a thousand years.

It has become popular, in the years since 2001, for authors to speculate about whether or not the modern USA is heading for its own decline and fall. One of the most notable examples of this phenomenon was the author and historian Niall Ferguson's 2004 book Colossus: the rise and fall of the American Empire. But there have been countless newspaper articles about the subject in the years since.

While comparing the Roman Empire to the USA is an interesting exercise, much of the discussion is speculative. The Roman Empire fell apart due to the erosion and decline of its institutional strengths over time, but also due to warfare and invasion. It is difficult to see a direct parallel with these events in the modern world (who would invade the USA?), although the discussion about institutions could be apt, and there is no doubt that many billions of dollars have been spent on military interventions in the Middle East.

Regardless, a reduction in US global influence over time would certainly lead to changes, but (barring some unforeseen catastrophe) it would hardly be the end of all world civilisation, as history shows.