The Roots and Persistence of the Idea of Decline A provocative new book explains how the idea of the decline of Rome has caused more harm than it has prevented.

The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea

By Edward J. Watts (2021, Oxford University Press) xiv + 301 pages with index, endnotes, photos, and a map.

This book is as much a manifesto as a work of history. The manifesto is timely, important, and utterly persuasive. The history is a bit more complicated, but nevertheless offers an eloquent explanation of much that happened in the long history of Rome and its empire.

Watts follows a long series of modern thinkers in using the history of Rome, especially the end of its empire, to demonstrate an understanding of politics (see Watts’s excellent assessments of Bruni, Biondo, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Gibbon [227-233]). Responding explicitly to the rhetoric of decline and renewal used by contemporary conservatives, Watts argues that from the second century BCE through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, and even beyond, Roman rhetoric of decline and restoration caused massive suffering and often brought about the very decline it professed to combat; for the attempts at restoration almost always brought victims, as the alleged restorers blamed others for the alleged decline. In responding to crises and challenges, Watts argues, states need not to seek scapegoats, but rather to “take credit for what we restore as part of a collaborative process that rebuilds and renews, bringing society together rather than tearing it apart through recrimination and violence.” (242)

Watts’s “dangerous idea” begins with Cato the Elder who argued in the first half of the second century BCE that Rome was suffering a decline caused by the wealth and luxury brought by its conquests and by increasing Greek influence on Roman culture. Cato, Watts observes, found this rhetoric of decline a useful tool in combating his political enemies, and he set the pattern for countless Roman politicians of the next 1600 years whose manufactured notions of decline supported their own policies and power at the expense of those they blamed for the decline. This “dangerous idea” continued beyond the end of the Roman state in the fifteenth century CE with similar destructiveness, as some (most notably and insidiously Mussolini) sought to recreate the Roman Empire, and as others used the story of Rome’s decline, crystalized by Edward Gibbon’s magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), to draw analogies in support of their claims that they would restore lost values in their own societies.

Responding explicitly to the rhetoric of decline and renewal used by contemporary conservatives, Watts argues that from the second century BCE through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, and even beyond, Roman rhetoric of decline and restoration caused massive suffering and often brought about the very decline it professed to combat; for the attempts at restoration almost always brought victims, as the alleged restorers blamed others for the alleged decline.

The change in focus from decline to the rhetoric of decline and its consequences brings valuable perspectives. Particularly stimulating are Watts’s explanations of two great “falls”: the end of the Roman Republic and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The land reforms of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE and the violent reaction they brought from Roman aristocrats (Tiberius and his brother Gaius were both assassinated, along with thousands of their supporters) are often considered the beginning of the violence that led to the replacement of Rome’s republican government with monarchy in the late first century BCE. Watts’s proposal that Gracchus was following Cato’s lead in manufacturing decline for his own political ends is most intriguing. Such analysis of Gracchus’s motivation is inevitably speculative, and I would be inclined to attribute more noble motives to the reformer. The case against the emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565 CE), however, is undeniable. Arguing that he was regaining what had been the Western Roman Empire, Justinian not only killed hundreds of thousands of people, but he also destroyed whatever vestige of the western empire remained.

Watts’s villains sought restoration at the expense of vilified others: Cato’s and Tiberius’s political enemies, the Germanic rulers who became emperors in the Roman West in the late fifth century CE, the Ethiopians, and others attacked by Mussolini. The book’s very few heroes sought cooperation instead of scapegoats. Most notable among these is Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180 CE), who responded to serious crises (plague, attacks by Germanic peoples, depopulation) by recruiting soldiers and civic leaders from groups previously ineligible and by incorporating new peoples into the empire.

Watts’s approach brings a better understanding to numerous moments in the history of Rome. The approach does have its limitations. One would wish for clearer definitions and distinctions. Occasionally theory drives description in tendentious ways. Elsewhere Watts’s central theme gets lost in descriptions of complex events.

Watts’s concentration on the rhetoric of decline and renewal combines various kinds of phenomena: political leaders who genuinely believe in decline and those who cynically claim decline to gain power; “decline” and “restoration” of various types; earnest attempts at “restoration” and empty rhetoric about renewal. It is admittedly often impossible to distinguish between these categories. Nevertheless, one could wish that Watts had worked harder to make such distinctions. Because notions of “decline” are different, and because rhetoric of restoration sometimes seems tangential rather than central to the historical characters Watts discusses, Watts’s emphasis on his “dangerous idea” as the source of so much of the suffering in Roman history sometimes appears an oversimplification. Augustus, for example, the first Roman emperor (ruled 27 BCE -14 CE), famously professed to have restored the Republic when he created his autocracy. The brutal wars that led to Augustus’s rule, however, are far more about political factions than about claims of decline and restoration.

Sometimes Watts’s determination to underline the tendentiousness of the rhetoric of decline and renewal leads him to some tendentiousness of his own. One of Watts’s most interesting and provocative chapters is that entitled “Manufacturing the Golden Age of Trajan,” in which Watts argues that what has been called the era of the five good emperors (96-180 CE) was not nearly as glorious as Gibbon and others have claimed, and that the alleged periods of decline before and after that era were manufactured by self-serving authors. This is a healthy corrective to the standard understanding of Roman imperial history, but it is not without its problems. There can be no doubt that Roman authors writing under Trajan (ruled 98-117 CE) exaggerated the crimes of his predecessor Domitian (ruled 81-96 CE), but in explaining this rhetoric merely as manufactured periods of decline and renewal, Watts misses the reality behind the rhetoric: however successful he may have been as emperor, Domitian had a troubled relationship with Rome’s senatorial class, the authors of history in Rome. Hence authors like Tacitus and Pliny speak more about the fear inherent in Domitian’s reign—relieved by Trajan and his colleagues, who generally interacted well with the Senate—than about decline in general. Watts is certainly justified in denying Gibbon’s claim that the period from Nerva (ruled 96-98 CE) through Marcus Aurelius was the happiest period humankind had ever experienced. Equally persuasive is his rebuttal of the common assumption that the Severan dynasty (193-235 CE), which succeeded the “five good emperors,” was a period of decline. But Watts goes too far in trying to equate the miseries of the second century CE with those of the third. Yes, the period of the “five good emperors” was hardly idyllic; but its stability, in contrast to the repeated civil wars of the third century CE, should not be underestimated. And in concentrating entirely on rhetoric, Watts ignores some real institutional changes, such as the Severans’ elevation of the military.

Because notions of “decline” are different, and because rhetoric of restoration sometimes seems tangential rather than central to the historical characters Watts discusses, Watts’s emphasis on his “dangerous idea” as the source of so much of the suffering in Roman history sometimes appears an oversimplification.

In later chapters one sometimes senses not that the theory is getting in the way of the history, but that the history is obscuring the theory. As Watts points out, the conversion of the emperor Constantine (ruled 306-337 CE) to Christianity brought complications to the rhetoric of decline and renewal. For the next century, Christian notions of progress competed with pagan rhetoric of decline. Once the empire had become comfortably Christian, however, the rhetoric of decline and renewal combined with Christian concepts of sin and repentance to create an even more powerful ideology of decline and restoration, which pervaded the Byzantine period. This is a compelling explanatory tool, but it tends to get lost in the exceedingly complex history described in the four chapters dedicated to Byzantium. These chapters provide a valuable service: a succinct account of who did what in the years between Justinian and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, for those unwilling or unable to wade through Gibbon’s two large volumes on the period. Watts refreshingly avoids the ethnocentrism and anticlericalism that led Gibbon to assume that the entire Byzantine period was a time of decline. Yet the long series of dynastic and doctrinal conflicts and territorial contraction still makes pretty dreary reading, and it is sometimes hard to see just what role the rhetoric of decline and restoration is playing.

In later chapters one sometimes senses not that the theory is getting in the way of the history, but that the history is obscuring the theory.

My qualms with some of the details of Watts’s history do not detract from the value of the lessons he draws from Rome’s continuous obsession with decline and restoration and its consequences. Particularly useful is Watts’s explanation of why the trope remained (and remains) so powerful even as it caused such suffering. Much of the answer, Watts notes, lies in Roman education, where children were taught to imitate the successful figures of the past, disdain those associated with alleged decline, and ignore the victims of alleged renewals. Such triumphalist history is, of course, at the center of many other curricula, including that of the contemporary United States. George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”¹ Watts’s lucid history of Rome’s “dangerous idea” makes clear that the problem is not so much that we do not remember the past, but that we remember the wrong things.

One egregious error (almost certainly not Watts’s fault) should not go unremarked: it is not only bizarre, but dangerously misleading that the “map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent” (xiii) contains only the western half of the empire. Oxford University Press can do better.

¹ Reason in Common Sense (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1905) 284.

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