When an Empire Has an Identity Crisis
It was clearly the end. The seemingly immortal empire was divided. It had suffered almost every imaginable humiliation. Barbarians attacked from every side. One emperor and his son had been killed by Goths, another had been captured alive—tortured to entertain foreign princes. Italy, the heartland of the empire, was invaded. Famine, plague, inflation and economic collapse were all undermining the empire. The problems seemed unsolvable.
Though the fall of Rome in the fifth century is familiar, this actually describes Rome in the a.d. 260s. It may have looked like the end, but Rome would endure for another 200 years.
Understanding Rome’s fall must go beyond cataloging crises like barbarians, inflation and military defeat. Rome had suffered them all before and survived. Why did Rome survive them before but fail at the end?
To understand collapse, it is not enough to look at physical factors. A number of overlapping intangibles—identity, vision, patriotism—make all the difference.
These intangibles don’t show up as clearly in the historical record as a horde of Huns. But understanding them is critical. It would have been easy for fifth-century Romans to draw false comfort from the crises of the past: We survived problems then—we can do so again. That’s a common view in America: Yes, we’re divided—but it was worse in the Civil War. Yes, we have enemies—but Pearl Harbor was more dangerous. Yes, the economy is struggling, but America survived the Great Depression. We did it then, we can do it again.
But can we be sure? What makes the difference between successfully navigating stormy times or smashing on the rocks?
Restorer of the World
In the third century, a series of capable men turned the situation around. In a.d. 270, Aurelian became emperor. He drove back the barbarians, rethought Rome’s military strategy, reformed its coinage, and reunited an empire that had been split in three for over a decade. No wonder the Senate voted him the title Restitutor Orbis—Restorer of the World.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Aurelian, though, is that he was not Roman.
Nor was his predecessor, Claudius Gothicus, who earned his name by turning back the Gothic horde. Nor was his successor, Probus, who finally brought peace to the empire. Nor was Diocletian, who restructured Roman government, creating a new system of four co-ruling emperors to try and manage the new dangers. All these men were from the western Balkans.
For centuries, great Romans stepped forward and saved the nation from crises. When they dried up, its conquered peoples filled that role. This is extraordinary. Because in nearly every other empire in history, the best and the brightest of the conquered have striven for their independence. Imagine John Paul ii propping up the Soviet Union, or Charles de Gaulle saving the Nazis, or Gandhi protecting the British Raj. Yet this is what these leaders who had been subjugated by Rome did.
If Rome had a single special power that contributed to its epic lifespan, you could say it was its ability to convince the people it conquered that they were Romans.
There was a vision and confidence behind it that motivated first Romans and then non-Romans to keep Rome alive.
The Envy of the World
Rome believed itself to be the best—and surprisingly, others agreed. Writing in the second century b.c., Greek scholar Polybius concluded that Rome’s system of government was the best that man had ever invented. In 91 b.c., in what was called the Social War, an alliance of Italian cities revolted from Roman rule. Why? They were outraged that Rome was denying them full Roman citizenship, with all its rights and duties. People were actually fighting to be included in this political system!
Roman citizenship was a status symbol. But it also came with political rights: protection from the worst injustices; participation in representative government.
The foundation of the constitution was that it was every Roman’s duty to kill any man who would set himself up as king. The result was more like rule by aristocratic landowners than a modern democracy, but for the ancient world, this was heady freedom. Rome stood for self-reliance, freedom, good order and justice. And others wanted in.
But the same Social War was the beginning of the end of this vision. The top Roman generals, Sulla and Marius, vied to smash the relatively democratic system and set themselves up as dictators. Within a few decades, the whole republican structure had fallen apart.
In time, this would raise a new question: If Romans weren’t free, what was the point in being Roman?
At first, Rome got by, by ignoring the change. Augustus Caesar remade Rome into an empire, but he didn’t call himself emperor. He preferred “Princeps”—first among equals. The Senate was still consulted. Augustus decided that the best way to rule independent-minded Romans was to pretend that you didn’t rule them. At that time, being Roman still gave a man political influence.
In a.d. 48, Emperor Claudius decided that Gauls could become Roman citizens, hold office, and even sit in the Senate. Rome would conquer and Romanize a place, and once their culture and way of life had been sufficiently adopted, those people would share in, and even govern, the empire.
Even those outside the empire had a path to Romanness. Barbarians knocking on the doors could be admitted, provided they disarmed, allowed themselves to be divided into small groups, and spread throughout the empire.
But over time, the reason for being Roman, and the motivation for the empire, weakened. The political rights vanished. When Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to all free men in a.d. 212, it mostly meant freedom to pay taxes.
Rome had once been a grand political experiment. But Aurelian was clearly not fighting for freedom. Instead, at best, this was about security and order: keeping Rome alive because Rome would keep you safe.
At the same time, the actual city of Rome faded into irrelevance. Aurelian closed down its mint. Diocletian didn’t even bother to visit the city for the first 19 years of his reign.
In fact, historians consider Diocletian’s reign the turning point, a shift away from the “Principate” of Augustus, where the emperor hid his power. This new phase was the “Dominate.” This kept people fighting. But with no deeper vision, the process of converting others into Romans stopped.
Claudius Gothicus admitted large numbers of defeated Goths into the empire. Instead of spreading them out, he kept them pretty much intact. Aurelian brought large numbers of Germans directly into the Roman army.
It helped buy the empire 100 years of peace. But Germans were being invited in larger and larger numbers, with fewer and fewer conditions. At one time, the empire had tried to break all bonds of loyalty to their old tribes and bring them in as individuals or families. Now, they didn’t have time.
There were many causes for the fall: the arrival of Germanic tribes in numbers 10 times larger than anything Rome had experienced before; economic collapse; declining birthrates.
In a.d. 376, the first disaster struck. Goths, fleeing the Huns, begged admittance to the empire. They were let in, in huge numbers. Yet rather than spreading out and resettling them, corrupt officials fleeced them and left them to starve. The Goths rebelled. Emperor Valens gave battle in a.d. 378 at Adrianople and lost. The barbarians were free inside the empire, and Rome lacked the soldiers to stop them. The Goths were then bought off by being allowed to settle in the empire—but not as Romans. They were allowed to keep their own military and political units, essentially becoming a Gothic nation inside the Roman Empire.
From then on, the attacks barely let up. Britain formerly requested to leave. There was a 100-year drought of great leaders. No one even seemed to see the need or purpose of Romanizing the Goths. Rome was no longer a superpower.
So what caused the fall of Rome? You can focus on the military weakness, the Germanic invasions and economic turmoil. All of that is true and accurate. But it’s not the whole story.
Why weren’t these barbarians turned into Romans like the Gauls, Illyrans, Dacians and Greeks? Why were they antagonized by widespread corruption, instead of austere ideals of earlier Rome? Why were there no Aurelians to win the impossible battles, no Diocletians to reorganize the government system to deal with new threats?
Leo Tolstoy described an unknown factor “X,” which—along with all the material components of an army—made for success. “X,” he wrote, “is the spirit of the army, the greater or lesser desire to fight and to face dangers on the part of all men composing the army.” And often in war, it is this “X” that makes all the difference.
Empires also have their “X” factor. It lies in foundational questions. Is the empire worth dying for? Are its values worth imparting to the next generation and teaching to new immigrants? Is it worth setting aside individual ambitions in the name of the greater good? Will it succeed, and are bets on its future sure? When the answer to these questions is yes, the empire thrives. When it becomes no, it dies.
The Bible recognizes a similar “X” factor critical to national success. When warning of America’s failings, Herbert W. Armstrong referenced one brief passage perhaps more than any other—the first half of Leviticus 26:19: “… I will break the pride of your power ….” A nation needs some form of self-belief—that it can and should. Pride is usually a negative. But in Leviticus 26, this kind of pride is listed alongside things like food supplies, military victories and freedom from diseases—things a nation needs for success.
Proverbs 29:18 confirms, “Where there is no vision, the people perish ….” The wording is significant: It does not say “the person perishes.” It is referring to people en masse—the tribe, nation or empire. For any of these to survive, the people must have vision. They must see why they are there, and what makes them unique and worthwhile.
America began as the “shining city on a hill.” How many Americans still believe in that vision today? A large number actually believe America’s historic impact on the world has been for evil.
Do America’s young people have pride in their power? Will they sacrifice for the country? Do they have a vision of why it should be preserved—beyond because we all benefit? Are immigrants brought in in manageable numbers, such that they can have instilled in them the nation’s core values? Are we raising leaders who can bring success?
Rome’s history shows us how much these questions matter. Failures of vision, purpose and identity can be fatal.
Epilogue: A Counterfeit Empire
The Bible outlines general principles that dictate the success or failure of nations. But it is also specific: It tells us the spiritual forces acting on this world and how these will play out in the future.
It reveals God’s plan for this world. And it reveals the great adversary’s attempts to defeat them.
God, you could say, has an empire (read “The Glory of Empire” at theTrumpet.com/26220). This is an empire that people of all races and nationalities can enter into and even play leading roles within. And Diocletian was right: An empire over a certain size requires more than one ruler.
But Satan has his own empires. The Bible reveals that ancient Rome was one of these. It exercised a satanic, iron brutality such that God calls it a “beast” (Revelation 13).
Aurelian seemed to understand the large-scale problem that confronted Rome in his time: What moral vision could unify such a disparate empire, beyond merely so we can all keep benefitting from it?
His solution was religion. He attributed his victories to Sol Invictus—the unconquered sun. Himself an immigrant from Syria, Aurelian insisted that Sol Invictus was the one true god. Worshiping all the other many pagan deities in Rome was fine, but these were all merely aspects of Sol.
Aurelian died soon after and his religion never took root. But Constantine the Great took up the idea 50 years later. In a.d. 313, he began pushing Christianity as the empire’s unifying religion. Conveniently, Constantine’s Jesus shared a birthday with Aurelian’s Sol Invictus. In fact, many were taught that Jesus was Sol.
This religion would infuse meaning to the Roman Empire. But it would also fundamentally change it.
Ancient Rome had no global vision. Yes, its conquests were wide-ranging, but Romans believed their spread had limits. Diocletian himself ascended to the throne after one emperor was reportedly struck by lightning while campaigning against Persia—the apparent victim of divine punishment for straying beyond Rome’s pre-ordained borders.
Perhaps without realizing it, Constantine introduced a vision of conquest without bounds. Spreading religion gave Rome a defining purpose, and also reason to conquer Persia and far beyond. More powerfully, it gave people a reason to be Roman and resurrect Rome, even if they had never set foot in the eternal city, never worn a toga, never chatted with friends at the bath. Christians began to believe this empire was the Kingdom of God on Earth.
This new vision of Romanness was, perhaps, not practical or grounded enough to prevent Rome’s fall. But when it fell, resurrecting it became an effort not merely to restore peace and order on Earth; it became a divine mission. The Roman Empire was now the Holy Roman Empire. And in that sense, it survived. In fact, that is an empire rising again right now!
Rome was an ugly, evil empire. The stories of its origin are replete with rape and murder. It committed genocide and massacred with an organized brutality almost unparalleled in history. Perhaps only Nazis ever killed innocents with quite the same industrialized detachment of Rome. Yet there is something admirable about the way men would sacrifice for an institution that at least brought a form of peace to the Mediterranean.
The final rise and fall of the Holy Roman Empire is on the horizon. But it is leading to something far grander, longer lasting and more peaceful than the Roman Empire could ever be.
The Holy Roman Empire was something Aurelian would have instantly recognized: a counterfeit. It is hollow, a fraud, a sham. Its best aspects are dramatically inferior imitations of something far greater.
So many of the aspects of this Holy Roman Empire are a counterfeit of God’s. Its limitless ambition. Its desire to include people from other nations. Everything that was, or could, be noble about Rome is about to be realized on a far grander scale, in the God Family Empire.