Monday, November 15, 2021

The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Edward J. Watts)

 The discussion of Rome’s decline and renewal has been a part of the conversation in society for over 2000 years. Starting in the late Roman Republic during the 3rd Century BC and continuing on through recent times, politicians, philosophers, theologians, and pundits have all used this narrative to show negative consequences of events going on in the world. In the 1960s, Ronald Reagan harkened the need to counter the counterculture movement and Hippies of the late 1960’s as a way to prevent decline, using Rome as a reference in several speeches he gave. Yes, Rome eventually declined, split up, and then fell.

Edward J. Watts’s The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: A Dangerous Idea talks less about the causes and effects of the decline and more about those who promised Roman renewal and those who were blamed for Roman decline. Seventeen hundred years of Roman and Byzantine (the eastern half of the Roman Empire that split off in the 4th Century) history is hard to weave into 230 pages. While this book does a good job of highlighting the major events and causes that fed the constant state of discussion about Roman renewal and fighting off Roman decline, it does so at a high level and does not provide a ton of in-depth analysis of those events. 

The author’s intent, it seems, is more to feed the idea that the rhetoric of decline and renewal can have disastrous consequences and knock-on effects that ultimately did not help the Roman state, especially when its leaders were corrupt or incompetent. On that point, he does succeed in showing some connection between the two. Ultimately, I wish the book had more depth and insight to help further explain the author’s point. It is a concise summary of a concept that arguably could have been in a book twice its size.