There are five reasons (among others) why the Roman Empire fell. The most important of the five have to do with the breakdown of religion, morality and the family. Everything else ripples from these three principles.
1. Family disintegration: Bachelors became more highly esteemed than husbands and fathers in society. In the second and third century of the Christian era, it had become a stigma for men to be “tied down” to families. Sexual liberation, especially among men, was lauded.
2. Low birth rate: During the centuries that followed Christ’s ascension into heaven, the Roman Empire had already experienced a precipitous drop in the birth rate. This trend started when Augustus, the Roman emperor, reigned. Even he tried to promulgate incentives for families to have more children; but it was too late. Before Augustus it wasn’t unusual for couples to have up to 12 children. In the decades which followed, couples, much like today, only had one or two children at the most.
Eventually the city of Rome went from a million inhabitants to less than 50,000. Depopulation had a devastating effect on both the Roman Empire as well as Ancient Greece.
3. Fragmentation of religion: There were so many gods for so many special causes and towns – especially because the Roman religion imported gods from the Hellenistic culture (Greek culture spread throughout the Roman Empire) – that the ancient pagans despaired of having any uniformity. And over the years, they increasingly found it difficult to find meaning in the rituals or even to believe the veracity of their own creeds.
4. Centralization and expansion of government: Take for instance the third century A.D. (200s) Ralph Martin Novak, author of "Christianity and the Roman Empire," provides a sobering statistic of third century Rome which serves as a warning to our U.S. government. "It is estimated that whereas at the start of the third century A.D. the Roman emperors employed only about 300 to 350 full-time individuals in administering the Empire, by 300 A.D. this number had grown to some 30,000 or 35,000 people.”
The central government of the Roman Empire had become so bureaucratic and top heavy that in order to sustain it the sources of wealth ran dry through heavy taxation. Caesar and the Roman Senate had ceased to be an instrument of service to the people. Instead, they made themselves an end in itself.
5. The culture of death was alive and well. Consider the following practices which had political, legal and social sanction:
a. Baby exposure: This practice of infanticide, back then called “baby exposure," couples would simply throw unwanted babies away. They would either kill them outright or take them out to the garbage. This was widely practiced. Seneca, a Roman philosopher, said this about killing babies: “We drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger, but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.”
b. Gladiator games: Gladiators, slaves and prisoners would be killed in these blood sports for the purpose of entertaining the unemployed mob. Seneca, the same Roman philosopher who approved of infanticide and who was later forced to commit suicide by the Emperor Nero, said this about a gladiator game he saw:
“I come home more greedy, more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a midday exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation…But it was quite the contrary…These noon fighters are sent out with no armor of any kind; they are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain…In the morning they throw men to the lions; at noon they throw them to the spectators.”
These five factors made the Roman Empire vulnerable to outside foreign forces starting in 410 A.D. St. Augustine witnessed the beginning of its collapse. And for several hundred years the Catholic Church had to pick up the pieces from what was left of pagan Rome and build a new Christian civilization. But it took blood, sweat and tears to do it.
Dr. Phil Jenkins, author of "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia- and How it Died," once wrote the following:
"Dechristianization is one of the least studied aspects of Christian history. Partly, the lack of interest in vanishing churches is a matter of practicality, in that dying organizations tend not to produce records of their own extinction." The fact is that if the Church goes down, the nation goes with it. This has been a recurring reality throughout world history. Dictators know this more than anyone. Joseph Stalin, former dictator of the Soviet Union, had this to say: "America is like a healthy body and its resistance is threefold: its patriotism, its morality and its spiritual life. If we can undermine these three areas, America will collapse from within."
Strange to say, that in 1948 Bishop Fulton Sheen warned of a similar fate for America if the Gospel would ever cease to serve as its moral compass. Even then he was concerned about this great nation. He said, “It is characteristic of any decaying civilization that the great masses of the people are unconscious of the tragedy...Men do not want to believe their own times are wicked, partly because it involves too much self-accusation and principally because they have no standards outside of themselves by which to measure their times. The basic reason for this false optimism he attributes to the fact that our civilization is mechanical rather than organic.”
The economy continues to be the American voter’s litmus test for elected officials. But the fate of this nation hinges on so much more than that.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.