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Did Rome Really Fall?

ancient rome

ANNOUNCER: Think Tank is made possible by AMGEN, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. AMGEN, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology. Improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theLilly Endowment, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.


MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Chariot wheelssparking, it rings out across history the decline and fall ofImperial Rome, the only super-power of its time. The fall of Rome issaid by some to be a plausible model for any super-power, includingAmerica. But did Rome fall?


Joining us on the Rome Campus of Trinity College, not ajavelin's throw from the Circus Maximus are Elizabeth Fentress,Mellon Professor in charge of the American academy in Rome, and JanGadeyne, a professor on the Rome campuses of both Temple Universityand Trinity College.


The question before this house: Did Rome fall? This week onThink Tank.


Modern Rome is a modern European city, but in, on, under andaround Rome are reminders of an empire that once ruled the world. Ancient Rome was not built in a day, it was built over the betterpart of a thousand years. At its height, the Roman Empire stretchedfrom England in the west to Turkey in the east, to Egypt in thesouth. Rome today is filled with the spoils of empire, 10,000 yearold obelisks that came from Cleopatra's Egypt to Caesar's Rome. Thisarch built by the Emperor Titus commemorates the conquest ofJerusalem and Palestine by Titus' father Vespasian. It sits abovethe Roman Forum, which contained many of the sacred temples andbuildings in Rome. The ancient Via Sacerra or Sacred Road still runsthrough the center of these temples. The bigger columns are from theTemple of Saturn.


Romans were as famous for their engineering as they were forconquest. Aqueducts carried fresh water from miles away into Romanvillas and palaces. The Colosseum could seat over 50,000 spectators.The Circus Maximus was the site of chariot races and could seathundreds of thousands of spectators around the oval where modern dayRomans now relax. Above it are the remains of the Palatine Hillwhere Roman emperors lived, and from where they could watch thefestivities below.


Paved Roman roads stretched all over Italy and many of thepaving stones still survive. But like all dominant super-powers,Rome eventually declined. Popular history tells us Rome fell becauseof overexpansion or the rise of rival powers, or because of decadenceand an erosion of values. But did Rome ever really fall?


Elizabeth Fentress, Jan Gadeyne, thank you for joining us onThink Tank. When does the Roman Empire officially being?


MS. FENTRESS: Well, I think probably best with the EmperorAugustus in 31 BC. He has a very, very long reign, and from them onit is no longer the Roman Republic. And until 14 AD he is the soleperson in charge of the Empire.


MR. WATTENBERG: So it's a 45-year reign of Augustus. And whathappens during that period that makes it into an empire? It had beena city state basically, is that --


MS. FENTRESS: No. Rome had been conquering the rest of theMediterranean busily for a very long time at that point. They hadachieved military political domination over, and would continue toexpand their hegemony over various bits get brought in at differenttimes, like Britain, but they had already gone outside the boundariesof their own city state by the 4th Century BC.


MR. WATTENBERG: So what does Augustus bring to this that isnew and different that scholars like yourself say, well, that's whenthe empire began?


MR. GADEYNE: Well, one of the things is that using the word'empire' can mean that you use it in a geographical way, and when wethink of an empire, we think of it often in a geographical way, andthat is exactly what Elizabeth was referring to, Rome goes outsideits boundaries already in the 4th Century BC. And you can use theterm 'empire' also in a chronological way in the sense that we oftensay, as we have said here, the empire starts with Augustus, becausethat empire also has an, let's call it, almost constitutionalpolitical connotation. He lays, Augustus, the foundation for animperial rule that -- an imperial empire, there the link is obvious-- that is a new rule whereby one man has all the power accumulatedin his own person on the basis of a, let's say, legal -- legallyvoted or accepted constitution, basically.


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, what was the geographical extent of Romeat the time of Augustus? How far does its reign go?


MS. FENTRESS: Well, a long way. I mean, you have -- by thatpoint you have Gaul, Spain, North Africa, Egypt which is of courseAugustus' great start is the defeat of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Youhave a lot of the Eastern Mediterranean. You're extending as far asthe boundaries of Persia. You have Greece, of course. There is anabsolutely -- it is a world system by Augustus. And some boundaries,as I say, it extended like Britain and the -- questions as to theDanube, but it's almost all in place, and will be completely in placeby the Emperor Trajan.


MR. WATTENBERG: Which is in what year, Trajan?


MS. FENTRESS: What would you say, I think that we would stopthe empire with Hadrian in the first quarter of the 2nd Century AD.


MR. WATTENBERG: And that's the --


MS. FENTRESS: Well, but there is a moment when --


MR. WATTENBERG: Hadrian is the peak of it.


MR. GADEYNE: Of expansion.


MR. WATTENBERG: Of expansion.




MS. FENTRESS: Hadrian draws the limits. He says, okay, thisis, in effect, enough, and starts creating permanent frontiers. Before then, it's always really very fluid, and the last of the greatconquests --


MR. WATTENBERG: Is it fair to say that Rome was the solesuper-power of the world at that time?


MS. FENTRESS: Yes I think that's fair enough. There arethings going on in the rest of the --


MR. GADEYNE: Exactly, yes. In this part of the world.


MS. FENTRESS: In this part of the world.


MR. GADEYNE: Which is the Mediterranean, the European, NearEastern, of course.


MS. FENTRESS: This is absolutely true. I mean, we're ignoringChina, and we're ignoring --


MR. GADEYNE: We're ignoring China, exactly. On the globe no,but at that part of the world for sure.


MS. FENTRESS: There's no competition in Rome's world.


MR. WATTENBERG: Now, what does SPQR stand for? Isn't thatsort of a democratic motto, in theory? In theory?


MR. GADEYNE: No. Precisely because it stands for SenatusPopulus Quae Romanus, and again that --


MR. WATTENBERG: What does that mean?


MR. GADEYNE: The Senate and the People of Rome. But by peoplewe only mean the citizens, the male adult free-born citizens.


MR. WATTENBERG: Who did not vote?


MR. GADEYNE: Who voted, but only as part of a voting groupthat was controlled by the upper class.


MS. FENTRESS: But still, even on the Arches of SeptimusSeverus, you have in the coda and at the end of the inscription youput SPQR, sort of casually as if these matters still existed, they'vebecome simply a form.


MR. WATTENBERG: And they still use it today as sort of thelink to the past?


MR. GADEYNE: Well, today it's just a logo. No, it is a logothat is the link with the past. I mean, to show the continuity ofthe city antecedent.


MS. FENTRESS: Which indeed it was under Septimus Saverus. Imean, it's a formal thing.


MR. GADEYNE: Oh, yes. It's beautiful.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Now, so you have this incrediblesuper-power of the Western world, which rules what it considers theknown world at that time, I guess. And then, something happens,which I gather is of great contention. We are told that Rome 'fell.' We talk about the fall of Rome, and we ascribe reasons to it. Whatare we talking about, or what are people talking about when the saythe fall of Rome? What actually happens?


MS. FENTRESS: I think that, you know, the traditional date,when people say, the fall of Rome, what Gibbon is talking about,they're talking about 476 AD, you have the last Roman empire, EmperorRomulus, and they give him the nickname of Augustus, and he isdeposed by a gentleman called Odacer, and says, that's it, we're nothaving any more emperors, and I will be king. And so this is thetraditional moment. And like all these traditional moments, itdoesn't really mean a lot by the time it happens, it just become asymbolic event.


When this sort of thing is talked about now, we are talkingabout a world system. As I said, in the beginning, where you havesystems of administration, systems of law, culture, art and soul,which in various times, in various ways, are still continuing. Andif Rome, itself, is no longer the capital of what's happening, we cannever forget that Constantinople lives on until 1453.


MR. GADEYNE: Which called itself Nova Urbs, which meant theNew City, city meaning Rome, so it was also implied, so to say, inthe official denomination that this was just a continuation ancientRome. Rome, as a city, already in 285 is no longer a capital. A lotof people forget that, but in 285, when there is the big state reformby the Emperor Diocletian, who in a certain way divides the empire infour parts that are ruled by four people, the three others, ofcourse, in one way or another responding to Diocletian, the part herein the West with Italy has, as a capital, Milan, and no longer Rome. And then that shifts from Milan to Ravenna. So these are thingswhich -- nominally, these things change on the one hand, but thenculturally, administratively, these are things that continue only ina different place. That's what we now think is that rather than totalk about a fall of the Roman Empire, with a symbolical date of 476AD, there are the systems, the processes on the various levels ofculture in the broad sense of the word --


MR. WATTENBERG: But it doesn't continue as a unitary politicalforce with an empire, with an emperor, with a far-flung --


MS. FENTRESS: Well, it continues to have an emperor elsewhere. What happens is, you get bits chopped off in a very fixed, formalway.


MR. WATTENBERG: For example?


MS. FENTRESS: Britain, for example, there's a moment when theEmperor Honorius says, look after yourselves people, because we can'thelp you anymore. I think that the most emblematic case is NorthAfrica. As today we think of the Mediterranean as seriouslyseparated between north and south, and of course it really wasn'tthen. There was, as you say, an east and west division, rather thannorth and south. And Rome depended extremely heavily on North Africafor all of its grain, most of its oil, and oddly enough there aremore piece of African pottery in your average field than there areCoke bottles. I mean --


MR. GADEYNE: Cultural art, artistically.


MS. FENTRESS: Artistically. North Africa was very much themotor of the western empire. Remember that Roman citizens in the cityof Rome are entitled to have an entitlement program called the Enonawhich is where they get free grain, free oil, by the end of theperiod you have free pork. You know, they are entitled to theirbasic food, and the state has to keep on providing this stuff. Sothat, you know, Africa, which provides it is extremely key.


Now, what happens is that a group of Germans called the Vandalscome down through Spain cross into North Africa, and just remove itso that as you have this very moving moment that when St. Augustineis dying in his seat in Hippo and the Vandals are besieging the placeoutside the wall --


MR. WATTENBERG: What year is this?


MS. FENTRESS: This is 429, and the -- you know, that hisbiographer gives this very moving passage about how he spends thelast days in tears, which becomes a very symbolic thing. But reallythat is a very, very bad moment for North Africa, and a terriblemoment for Rome itself because all of a sudden they see their foodsupplies cut off.


MR. WATTENBERG: The legend, as we laymen get it, is that therewas this great muscular, idealistic Roman Empire and then itgradually becomes decadent, and you have orgies, and you have theNero fiddling, and Rome gets 'sacked,' whatever that means, but thelegend is that there is sort of a root of some sort of psychologicaldecay that erodes and destroys this incredible political entity. Isthat a -- do scholars regard that as a valid thought?


MS. FENTRESS: Nero is fiddling as Rome is continuing toconquer. The empire is in plain, full expansion. I mean, Nero isvery, very early on in the story. And I don't think it's --


MR. WATTENBERG: What year is Nero?


MR. GADEYNE: We're talking 54-68 AD.


MS. FENTRESS: The fire is -- you know, this is not -- this isnot a serious problem. The fire allows Nero to rebuild half thecity, to, you know, take over most of it for his own palace, but itdoesn't have a negative effect on --


MR. GADEYNE: No, the decadence is a Hollywood product.


MS. FENTRESS: The moral business is not an issue.


MR. WATTENBERG: That's a Hollywood product?




MR. WATTENBERG: What is --


MR. GADEYNE: I mean, that's Spartacus, the Caligula, that's --what is it, the last --


MS. FENTRESS: We have all kinds of yucky people, but itdoesn't make any difference.


MR. WATTENBERG: No, but what does Gibbon say, isn't that hisview also?


MS. FENTRESS: You've got -- the problem is that if you lookfor any single cause and, in fact, there was a recent book in whichman got together and looked at all the mono-causal explanations. There's another chestnut about lead. And so --


MR. WATTENBERG: Right, lead in the water, right. That's theenvironmentalist's.


MS. FENTRESS: The amount of mono-causal and, therefore, sillyexplanations that there have been --


MR. WATTENBERG: Mono-causal, you're saying, this is notmono-causal?

MS. FENTRESS: You cannot pin it on a single cause. And, youknow, the collapse of the Western Empire has an awful lot of factorsinvolved. I mean, in a sense, chaos theory. It's not that we can'tsort of make a model and say, well, this is what caused the collapse,you know. Vandal A worked out which boat to take.


MR. WATTENBERG: What year did Gibbon write?


MR. GADEYNE: Middle of the 18th Century, or the second half ofthe 18th Century, 1764 or something like that.


MR. WATTENBERG: And his book, the Decline and Fall of theRoman Empire is the one that sort of sets the model of this idea ofdecay?


MR. GADEYNE: It was --


MS. FENTRESS: Actually, it's a very long and complex book. Hedoesn't pull mono-causal stunts either, you know.


MR. GADEYNE: No. Although, in the end, he traces it back alittle bit to the Christianization then of the Roman Empire. So, forhim, the final process of Christianization, upcoming and thenChristianization of Rome, was the cause for its decline. But that'sa book of like ten volumes.


MR. WATTENBERG: No, I understand.


MR. GADEYNE: And so it doesn't make -- he treats -- but it'sthe first modern study.


MR. WATTENBERG: Does Gibbon stand up pretty well?


MS. FENTRESS: Yeah. There are bits. But, you know, it's anextraordinary work of learning. Remember that a lot of -- well, thereal extraordinary boom in Roman history is 19th Century. But,Gibbon is no fool. He had a good classical education.


MR. WATTENBERG: Is it correct to think of America today in thesame context that Rome was considered at that time? In other words,the geo-politicians say we live now, post-Cold War, in a unipolarworld, the sole surviving super-power idea. Is there some merit inthat view?


MS. FENTRESS: You know, one thing that's interesting, if youtake that another way, I mean this is something Jan touched on, butthe economic, the actual production very quickly slips away fromItaly, and starts with the sort of boom economies are in theprovinces, in Gaul and North Africa and Spain. You get tremendoustake-off of productivity, while Italian agriculture really very earlyon, in say the 1st Century AD, 2nd Century AD, is falling to bits. It's really collapsing. And while Rome continues to control these aspart of the empire, the actual places that are producing are quitedifferent. And the wealth is being made elsewhere. I mean, this isinteresting in terms of the economic take-off, Pacific Rim, thesekinds of areas. It's quite separate from the military hegemony.


MR. WATTENBERG: Well, the American hegemony today is, it seemsto me, less military than it is cultural, I mean, in terms oflanguage and arts. I mean, for good or for ill.


MR. GADEYNE: I don't know. I don't agree on the military. Ithink the United States, precisely because of their military, canmaintain a leading role in the world. Whereas, economicallyspeaking, the Far Eastern countries, of the last years, have shown anincrease in production in wealth that goes way beyond that of, let'ssay, the States and Western Europe. I was thinking of a littlearticle that I read, I think, in the New York Times a couple ofmonths ago about architecture as an expression of the growingimportance of an area throughout the centuries, and starting fromRome with its monumental architecture which we all recognize verywell because also it's very standardized. We go to the Middle Ages,where is the gravity point. It's at, say, south but perhaps evenmore Northwestern Europe with its cathedrals. We get into the modernage, and we are in the time of the skyscrapers in the United States,higher, things get always higher. Now the highest skyscrapers arebeing built in the Far East. The highest one I think right now beingcompleted in Kuala Lumpur, another one is getting -- is a little bitshorter in Singapore, and how these are also --


MS. FENTRESS: They could claim it as our cultural form, Isuppose. But I mean, you know --


MR. WATTENBERG: I could, and I probably would. I mean, I findit a little difficult to envision a great age of Kuala Lumpurianculture coming upon us.


MR. GADEYNE: No, we're talking about a concentration ofeconomic sources, or at least the capitals of finance, or a financialissue.


MR. WATTENBERG: Is there a lesson for Americans in Romanhistory? Is there something we should think about?


MR. GADEYNE: I'm not an American. I can't answer that.


MR. WATTENBERG: That's okay. That's okay. Elizabeth?


MS. FENTRESS: I think there are many. I think, it's ratherlike the mono-causal explanations. I don't think we can pick a singlelesson, and I don't -- I'm afraid I don't feel like offering one.


MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Last question, you are botharchaeologists; is that right?




MR. WATTENBERG: Now, how much more do you keep learning aboutthe Rome of this period? Are you constantly learning more, or areyou --


MS. FENTRESS: I must say the last decade of excavations hasbeen -- even inside Rome itself has been so exciting and so -- it haschanged things. It's changed enormously. The Soprintenza, the StateArcheological Service and the university have recently combined overthe last two years to excavate part of the Forum of Nerva, and theyfound everything. They found republican houses on the Forum, whichwe didn't know existed. They found a house of the period ofCharlemagne, or houses of aristocratic Romans. It really is acompletely different world than it was even five years ago.


I mean, one of the things, of course, is the actual pottery. Imean, quite apart from the structures, the excavations in the CryptaBambi, which finished a while ago, a few years ago, but are stillbeing studied have given us extraordinary data on the amount thatcommerce and, you know, international exchange was still alive in the7th Century AD, which really nobody expected, and has been atremendous surprise, that Rome was still importing 90 percent of itspottery.


MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you very much, Jan Gadeyne, ElizabethFentress.


Thank you all for joining us at Think Tank. I'm BenWattenberg.


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Think Tank is made possible by AMGEN, recipient of thePresidential National Medal of Technology. AMGEN, helping cancerpatients through cellular and molecular biology. Improving livestoday and bringing hope for tomorrow.


Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation,Lilly Endowment, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.



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