Fallen Superpower, Superpower Falling
Flames consumed the city of Carthage. After months of bitter siege and six days of bloody combat, the Romans had finally conquered the citadel of the proud city. The 50,000 survivors were taken as slaves. Surveying the destruction, the Roman commander, Scipio the Younger, grabbed the hand of Polybius and in tears said, “It is glorious, but I have a dread foreboding that some time, the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”
At the time of this keen insight, 146 b.c., such a demise for Rome seemed unthinkable. Indeed, for the next five centuries, Rome dominated the known world. The nations trembled before the might of the Roman army. But in the end, Rome became a cemetery of past glory.
The ruins of Rome inspired Edward Gibbon to write his exhaustive The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. When the first volume was published in 1776, the lessons of the Roman Empire loomed large for Britain, an island nation that was about to become the greatest empire of all time, and its newly independent brother nation, America, which would eclipse all others in military power.
These lessons are even more relevant, in today’s era of imperial decline: that of the American superpower.
Among the five causes for Rome’s fall that Gibbon identified, one was unsustainable military spending and an erosion of the Roman military. Long-term decay resulted in eventual defeat. This same process is now playing out in modern Rome: the United States of America.
From the sixth century b.c., the city-state of Rome used military conquest to expand its territory over the entire Italian Peninsula. The Romans at first adopted the phalanx tactics of Alexander the Great—tightly packed formations of troops bristling with long spears. The Romans later created a more fluid military unit that became the legion.
The Roman legion combined rigid discipline, impressive tactics and engineering expertise to form the ancient world’s most formidable army. Under effectual organization and good generalship, Roman legions proved nearly unbeatable for five centuries.
Effective warfare was central to Rome’s rise to greatness. As historian Ramon Jiménez writes in Caesar Against the Celts, Rome was “a country bred to war and conquest, and nurtured on political intrigue.” The Romans worshiped military glory. Their legacy of military achievement was mingled with a legacy of cruelty.
This characteristic was prophesied in the Bible centuries before Rome rose to power. As Gerald Flurry writes (article, page 1), God gave the Prophet Daniel two prophetic visions in the sixth century b.c., at the same time Rome was beginning to rise. Recorded in Daniel 2 and 7, these visions revealed the sequence of world empires for the next 2,500 years. Four successive empires would rise: Babylon, Persian, the Greco-Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great, and then another power of note.
Daniel 7 uses the images of wild animals to depict the unique characteristics of each empire: a lion for Babylon, a bear for Persia, and Alexander’s Greek Empire as a four-headed leopard with wings. The fourth empire was represented by a unique beast that combined the strongest part of each of the three previous beasts.
This fourth great empire was Rome.
Herbert W. Armstrong explained this prophecy: “And the fourth kingdom, which, developing from Rome, spread out and gradually absorbed one after another of these four divisions—‘dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly,’ was the Roman Empire (31 b.c. to a.d. 476)” (Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?). The Roman Empire possessed the strengths of the previous three: the splendor of Babylon, the numerical superiority of the Persians, and the swiftness and cruelty of Alexander the Great’s war tactics. Mr. Armstrong continued: “It was the greatest war-making machine the world had ever seen …. It was stronger, greater, more terrible, than any.”
The Roman Empire— the most potent war machine in history—is described in the Bible as this dreadful, terrible beast!
The United States does not share the same legacy of cruelty and ferocity as the Roman military machine, but the “shock and awe” of the American superpower made its enemies tremble.
The Costs of Empire
The subjugation of Carthage in the Punic Wars, then of the Greek factions, the Persians, Parthians and Celts, brought about a period of peace and stability.
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” Gibbon wrote. Pax Romana (“Roman peace”) spanned nearly 200 years. Trade flourished, strong military outposts maintained order, and infrastructure expanded. Behind this golden peace was a military juggernaut as strong as iron, forged in a blast furnace of cruelty.
There are few recorded periods of peace in the violent history of man. One is Pax Romana. Another is Pax Britannica, which ended in World War i. The last is Pax Americana, which began with an Allied victory in World War ii. For both Rome and America, military spending gradually grew to astronomical levels.
By the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus in a.d. 14, the Roman army stood at 250,000 men, consisting of 25 legions and 250 auxiliaries (militias). The legionaries were paid 225 denarii a year. Higher-ranking officers received more; auxiliaries less. This pay remained consistent until a.d. 81, when Emperor Domitian raised the yearly pay to 300 denarii. Thus began a bidding war by subsequent emperors to keep the army’s loyalty. Severus (a.d. 193–211) raised the pay to 450 denarii, and Caracalla (a.d. 198–217) to an estimated 650 denarii.
As pay increased, so did the number of legions. Emperor Trajan increased it from 25 to 30. In the third and fourth centuries, the Romans experienced a recruitment crisis and began grafting in barbarian tribes. This swelled the number of legions from 33 under Severus (a.d. 211) to 64 under Constantine (a.d. 337).
These rising costs in the army bankrupted the Roman Empire. While it is difficult for historians to estimate Roman finances, the military budget was by far the largest expense: at least $1 billion a year. In the third century, emperors caused an inflation crisis and hiked taxes to pay the legions’ salaries (article, page 7). Eventually, the military budget became a millstone around the neck of this dreadful, terrible beast.
As the Roman army grew costlier, it became less effective. Cultural conflicts and declining morale destroyed the esprit de corps of the legions.
The United States is following this same pattern, but in an accelerated time frame. From the end of World War ii until the year 2000, the U.S. military budget varied between $100 and $300 billion (purchasing power changing with inflation over time). It has since increased to over $770 billion. Scientific American wrote, “By the Department of Defense’s own accounting, taxpayers spent $13.34 trillion on the U.S. military from 2000 through fiscal year 2019 in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars.” Weapons and research are becoming more expensive.
Despite spending far more than any other nation on Earth, the United States has not won a single war during this period. Mr. Armstrong declared after the Korean War that the United States had won its last war! And he was right.
Rome declined militarily and began losing battles at its peak of military spending in the third and fourth centuries. So has America in the 21st century. The Bible prophesied that the pride in America’s power would be broken (Leviticus 26:19) and “your strength shall be spent in vain” (verse 20). Despite its resources and power, the U.S. military will be unable to spare the nation from defeat.
The Praetorian ‘Deep State’
By the third century, the military, primarily the Praetorian Guard, was politicized to the point that it interfered with and even dictated at the point of a sword who would rule the state. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wrote in his book A History of Warfare, “To maintain his power, every emperor in the third century had to bribe and pamper the soldiers …. In the 60 years following the death of Commodus, no less than 21 emperors rose and fell. It was a period of anarchy and misery, during which the army terrorized the civil life of the empire while becoming demoralized and inefficient, and the security of the frontiers was lost forever. A disastrous inflation was largely caused by the continual increases in pay which the emperors had to give the army if they were to keep their thrones.”
The Praetorians were the emperor’s personal bodyguards and eventually controlled the ascension to power. The empire was auctioned off several times to the highest bidder: Whoever promised the most financial benefit usually became emperor. This component of the army decided who would hold executive office. They were essentially Rome’s “deep state.”
The U.S. currently has its own Praetorian “deep state.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security and other intelligence agencies have interfered in the 2016, 2020 and 2022 elections to place their preferred candidates into office. They were successful in the last two elections.
In both Rome and America, the rise of the deep state coincided with a decline in political leadership. Isaiah 3 prophesies that America will suffer a dearth of leadership in the highest offices. This has opened the door for fraud, corruption and strife.
Rome saw civil war between rivals with the military intervening in the transfer of power between leaders. The Bible prophesies a war over the succession of power in America (2 Kings 14:26-28). At the heart of this conflict is a deep state, a king and the usurper. (Read America Under Attack for the full explanation.)
While Rome was consumed with economic problems and internal division, security on the frontiers collapsed. Rome’s final act was betrayal by a military ally during a time of internal instability. America is prophesied to suffer the same fate.
Danger From the North
For all the Roman Empire’s military successes, there was one people it never conquered: the Germanic tribes. The shocking defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in a.d. 9 established the Rhine as the Roman border, leaving Rome wary to invest in a full-scale invasion against the tribes. As the empire declined, its border security became jeopardized.
As the population decreased in Italy, the Romans were forced to recruit Germanic tribes into their legions. By the second century, Italian Romans made up fewer than 1 percent of the legions. The western Roman Empire entered into a military alliance with various tribes to protect its northern border. Despite each tribe’s habitual switching of loyalties, Rome still pursued this policy. The leading tribes of the Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals fielded powerful armies of marauding horsemen who ransacked outlying provinces annually unless Rome paid large ransoms for their loyalty.
In the end, these Germanic tribes betrayed Rome. They delivered the killing blow to the western empire. In a.d. 434 the Huns, led by Attila, invaded Eastern Europe and began pushing the Germanic tribes into the bounds of the Roman Empire. Montgomery wrote, “The key events in the military collapse of Rome were the defeat of the emperor Valens by the Goths at Adrianople in 378, the first sack of Rome by Alaric the Visigoth in 410, the second sack by the Vandals under Geiseric in 455, and the deposition of the last western Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 by the Herul chieftain Odoacar. … As the different barbarian peoples (primarily Goths and Vandals) overran the provinces of the empire, lured by the civilization and wealth of Rome and driven from behind by the Huns, it became clear that the military power of Rome, upon which all else depended, was at an end—at any rate in the west.”
The Bible prophesies that the modern Romans will suffer a similar betrayal and defeat by the same enemy. The Assyrians described in the Bible migrated to Europe and are today the German people! After World War ii, the United States helped rebuild a defeated Germany, and they have been allies ever since. Ezekiel 23 is a warning to America that eventually their ally Assyria will betray them: “Wherefore I have delivered her into the hand of her lovers, into the hand of the Assyrians, upon whom she doted” (verse 9). Isaiah 10:5-7 warn that Germany will be used by God to correct a sinful America through military defeat. The Prophet Jeremiah also warned of a “boiling pot” in the north country that would overflow and destroy the modern nations of biblical Israel (Jeremiah 1:13-15).
Both the ancient archetypal and modern Roman empires come to their end through military defeat at the hands of Germany. They also share the same causes that contributed to their gradual decline: astronomical military spending, decline in military effectiveness, and politicization. Military decline is only one factor in the broad spectrum of a nation’s downfall. This history aligns with Bible prophecy, which explains in stunning detail events soon to unfold.
All Americans should have the same realization as Scipio the Younger, who stood weeping at the height of victory realizing that, one day, another conqueror would be razing and pillaging Rome. The vivid and tragic example is staring us in the face if we are willing to see it. Yet the ruin of the modern Romans actually leads to a future of hope. As Pax Americana comes to a violent end, the Bible prophesies that a new age of peace will begin that will never end. It is the age of Pax Regnum Dei—the peace of God’s Kingdom.