The late Roman Empire was not the twilight of popular myth

The ever excellent Ed West has this to say over at Telegraph blogs, while speaking about our current decline:

There are, of course, many other similarities between our age and the late Roman Empire: a declining birth rate, especially marked among upper-class women; a collapse in religious belief and the growth of a more vital and passionate monotheistic faith from the Middle East; a shrunken attachment to the ideal of the country – patriotism – and increased attachment to the state, a state which virtually all ambitious, educated people wished to work for.

It is perhaps something of a truism to compare our own age with the period of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Funnily enough, when researching my thesis, which had a chapter about Saint Augustine, I read quite a lot about what historians call Late Antiquity.

Late Antiquity is a fascinating period, and for two reasons. Firstly, it is full of surprises, and secondly it is full of excellent sources, chief of which to my mind is Augustine himself. We know more about Augustine than any other ancient person (with the possible exception of the Emperor Julian) and through him we find a point of entry into the world of Late Antiquity; it is only hundreds of years later that we have a similar insight into what people were thinking and feeling, when we reach the confessional writings of the seventeenth century.

So, what can we learn from the twilight of the Roman Empire?

For a start, it is a mistake to think of it as a twilight. The Empire was substantially intact at the death of Theodosius the Great in 395, and even after 410, when Rome had been sacked by Alaric the Goth, Augustine makes clear in The City of God that he thinks that Rome, though suffering a reverse, is by no means defeated. Indeed, contemporary historians now think that while the fall of the North African provinces was a huge blow, which occurred in the year of Augustine’s death, 430 AD, it was only the two subsequent failures to win them back, in 461 and 468, that doomed the West. So, even into the second half of the fifth century, people in the Roman Empire may well have been confident that the Empire was going to survive, just as it had survived the very difficult period in the third century before the accession of Diocletian.

What is very clear from reading Augustine, and even Jerome, is a strong sense of belief that these men had in the Roman idea, which was for them summed up in Virgil’s immortal line put into the mouth of Jupiter: Imperium sine fine dedi. “I grant them imperial rule without end.” Augustine and Jerome were Christians, but this idea made perfect sense to them. Rome was immortal, granted immorality not by Jupiter but by Divine Providence. Moreover, the other Virgilian tag about Rome’s role in the world, Parcere victis et debellare superbos – “to spare the vanquished and to conquer the proud” – would have made perfect sense to Christians as well.

So the world of Late Antiquity, it seems to me, had a very clear idea of itself and what it was for. This, it strikes me, is in marked contrast to our own world, which may talk of values, but rarely says what those values are.

But if that is the case, why did the Western Empire collapse, for collapse it undoubtedly did? The real reason, as far as I can judge from my reading, was internal weakness caused by incessant civil wars. Roman fought Roman until the Western Empire effectively ran out of troops. The Eastern Empire was much less prone to Emperor assassination, usurpation and civil strife. But the West was essentially destroyed by its own military rulers. Alaric, after all, was, though barbarian born, a Roman general, in the pay of the Roman Empire, who sacked the City because he had not been properly paid. One of the Western Empire’s last effective military leaders was Stilicho – half Vandal, but emphatically Roman – murdered by his own son-in-law the ineffectual Emperor Honorius. These people, Goths and Vandals, did not want to destroy the Empire, rather they wanted to take it over from within, and by the fifth century had more or less succeeded. Stilicho was a pretty good ruler and general, but internal divisions did for him. In the sixth century Italy was to be devastated not by Goths, but by Justinian’s Roman armies, trying to reconquer the peninsula for the government in Constantinople.

Jerome, incidentally, in one of his letters, laments the fact that the Empire trusted men like Stilicho; I think the Empire’s mistake was not in trusting Stilicho, but not in trusting him enough. He might just have saved the West.

But what are the lessons for us? Going back to Ed West’s concerns about immigration and asylum seekers, people who come to Europe from Afghanistan generally do so, I would have thought, because they want what Europe has, rather than because they wish to destroy Europe from within. Yes, there are Trojan horses in our midst, but these people are relatively few and far between; the vast majority of immigrants want to integrate, surely, as much as Alaric and Stilicho did.

I am reminded of something a lady who knew a great deal about the Middle East said to me at the time of Rowan Williams’s now famous Sharia Law speech. She told me she had had women ringing her up all day, all saying the same thing: “Doesn’t the Archbishop realise that we came to Britain in order to get away from the oppression of Sharia? And now the very person who should be resisting Sharia is trying to force us back into it.”

If you have read this far, you might agree with me that this is a long and rambling post. My conclusion is that like Augustine, we need to have confidence in our national myth; without it, we are lost. But we are not lost yet.