As a republic, Rome experienced enormous success and expansion, but in 27 B.C., the republic became an empire ruled by emperors. The empire lasted five centuries and eventually went through stagnation and decline. Finally, it collapsed in A.D. 476. The modern world has much to learn from how Rome fell.
The Fall of the Republic
The Roman republic was tremendously successful, both on the battlefield and in economics. Thousands of slaves were captured and sent to Rome to work as cheap labor whenever it conquered new territories. The rich and powerful elites liked this because it greatly benefitted them financially. However, ordinary citizens suffered from the influx of slaves. It led to unemployment among the working people. Unsurprisingly, there was also unrest among the slaves – the most famous slave today is probably Spartacus, who is thought to be a Thracian captured and forced to fight as a gladiator – until he escaped and lead a slave uprising in around 72 B.C., though it was ultimately unsuccessful. Slavery in the Roman Empire was nothing to do with a person’s race. Slaves were often people captured as prisoners of war when the Romans took over new territory.
Conflict among the city’s elite leaders was exacerbated by the wealth gap because the poor and unemployed would flood their support behind any who promised them free things and money. Added to military failures and class instability, internal struggles finally led to the fall of the Roman Republic. In 27 B.C., the Senate granted extraordinary powers to Augustus, who then became the first emperor of Rome.
Bread and Circuses
The Roman poet Juvenal, who lived at the end of Pax Romana, described it as follows:
“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
To appease the people, the emperors handed out free bread to the Roman citizens and built the colosseum for entertainment. It is a circular stadium, which in Latin is called a “circus.”
Juvenal decried that the people had given away their sovereignty in exchange for the welfare state financed by conquest and taxes.
He also observed that the peaceful period of entertainment and consumerism had created decadence, weakness, and small-mindedness in society. He summarized this in the following famous quote:
“Now we suffer the evils of a long peace; luxury crueler than war broods over us and avenges a conquered world.”
When people became focused on entertainment and luxury, the Roman birth rates plummeted. Rome was unable to maintain its power, and the long peace was interrupted by centuries of civil war and unrest. Rome finally collapsed in A.D. 476.
Christianity injected new energy and people into the Mediterranean civilization, but it was too late to save Rome.
However, the eastern part of the Roman Empire survived the collapse. Historians today call it the Byzantine Empire. This Christian civilization had the city of Constantinople as its capital. The Empire prospered and sustained itself for another 1,000 years until its fall in 1453 to the Ottoman Empire.