Edward Gibbon’s great work – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire – was published between 1776 (that date seems to ring a bell) and 1788.
His thesis is a powerful one. That the Roman Empire declined from within: its very success led to a love of luxury that softened up the Roman citizenry. Christianity had a part to play too.
Subsequent historians have tended to focus on those legacies of Rome that survived long after the end of the imperial age. You don’t have to look hard to find them: so-called Romance languages, the Roman Catholic church and senators are a few. It’s possible to see subsequent European history as a series of attempts to recreate the Roman Empire (the Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community being only the latest of them).
But here’s another way to look at this question. What’s so wrong with decline? Hadrian is celebrated as the emperor who defined the boundaries of the empire, which meant in some cases a retreat from earlier expeditions. (Hadrian’s Wall divided the occupied part of Britain from the wilder land to the north, now Scotland). Hadrian lived three centuries before the collapse of the western empire.
Europe faces many problems at the start of the twenty-first century: slow growth, ageing populations, government debts, problems of immigration and assimilation – but quality of life surveys still show European cities as desirable places to live. Migration statistics show just how desirable entry into Europe is for many from outside the continent.
Edward Gibbon would surely have condemned the Italians for their preference for La Dolce Vita over austerity. Europe seems a happier place now than a century ago when many different nations competed to build and consolidate their empires – a competition that was about trigger the first of two world wars.
We humans reach our physical peaks at a young age – and so we spend most of our lives in decline. Yet few adults would surely choose to return to their adolescent selves.
Even declining industries can enjoy a ‘long tail’. In place of excitement and growth, they can offer assets and good dividends for shareholders.
Is decline necessarily so bad?
Photo by vincent0923 on Flickr (Creative Commons licence)