Decline and Empire in Ancient Rome and the Modern West: A Review of David Engels’ Le Déclin, Part 1

David Engels, Le Déclin: La crise de l’Union européenne et la chute de la République romaine—quelques analogies historiques
Paris: Éditions du Toucan, 2016, 3rd ed.

David Engels is a professor of classics at the French-speaking Free University of Brussels (ULB). While most academics and their works languish in relative obscurity, the 38-year-old Engels has already made a name for himself as a conservative cultural critic, known for his op-eds and interviews in the mainstream media, as well as for his best-seller comparing the decadence of ancient Rome and modern Europe: Decline: The Crisis of the European Union and the Fall of the Roman Republic—A Few Historical Analogies.[1]

Hailing from Belgium’s small German-speaking community, Engels writes about Europe from a refreshingly multinational perspective, drawing from English-language, French, and especially German sources, as well as, of course, the vast body of surviving Greek and Roman literature. With over 600 endnotes and numerous graphs and statistics, Engels’ book has been written with Teutonic scrupulousness.

Engels’ thesis is simple and compelling: there are many parallels between the late Roman Republic (the period roughly from the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. to Augustus’ founding of the Principate in 27 B.C.) and today’s European Union: There is above all a general ethno-cultural decline, which makes a shift towards autocratic politics inevitable. Engels frames his provocative thesis in just such a way as to still be considered respectable enough by academia and the media, and thus be treated as a responsible but critical interlocutor.

The parallel between the late Roman Republic and today’s European Union is somewhat forced in places, but really serves as a useful framing device for comparing and discussing the social trends in these two very different societies. Specifically, Engels structures the work by comparing European public opinion on various topics (identity, family, democracy…) as expressed in Eurobarometer polls with Roman developments as expressed in the surviving sources. This somewhat strange structure nonetheless works, and I would say Le Déclin is a fine introduction to late Roman republican history. Engels furthermore recognizes that many of Europe’s symptoms of decadence are also evident across the West in general (255).

Engels’ observations on contemporary EU politics—the hollowing out of democratic processes and civil rights, economic reductionism, a growing chasm between the elite and the people, rising ideological intolerance, and so on—are all on point, and have since almost become received opinion. I will then focus especially on Engels’ analysis of Roman decadence. As will become quite apparent, the Roman experience, one of the truly epic achievements of Western political history, offers many lessons for us today.

Roman Multiculturalism and Decadence

Expansion of the Roman Empire up to Caesar’s Death in 44 B.C.

Of particular interest to me was Engels’ collecting of a substantial amount of evidence on the Romans’ own perceptions of their declining traditional culture and identity in the face of rising libertinism, skepticism, and multiculturalism. Engels persuasively shows that the collapse in the native citizen body and civic solidarity were crucial to the fall of the Republic and the rise of the autocratic Empire. The little Roman martial republic was destroyed by its very success—a recurring feature of Western history—its great empire gnawing at the foundations of its civic way of life.

Engels begins with the observation that Europe today faces a crisis of identity, which he rightly points out is fundamental to social solidarity. The fact that the minuscule Greek city-states were able to fight off the enormous Persian Empire thanks to of their intense patriotism “proves that a political body’s cohesion and value resides in the strength of their identity, and not in its wealth and territories” (14).

Already in the first recorded flickers of Hellenic consciousness, Homer had contrasted the conquering, vigorous, and monoethnic Achaean chiefdoms with the settled, decadent, and multiethnic Trojan state. Following his tremendous conquests, Alexander the Great’s generals replaced the ethnically-exclusive city-state with the culturally syncretic and multiethnic Hellenistic monarchies. Engels writes on the numerous ethnic conflicts of that era:

Thus, even small cities now had the a far more cosmopolitan character than the old Greek poleis, hence the difficulties in creating a genuine civic cohesion. This result was also legitimated by the new cosmopolitan ideal of the Stoics and the Cynics, for whom the educated Greek was first a citizen of the world before being a citizen of one city. As a result, the cultural mixing was by no means harmonious: witness the numerous armed internal conflicts marking daily life in Alexandria, the assassination of Greek citizens by their oriental fellow-residents in the Parthian Empire, endless struggles between Jews and Hellenes in Palestine. [The Greco-Roman historian] Polybius is said [by Strabo] to have criticized the lamentable state of Alexandria, distinguishing a “lively and irritable” Egyptian component, a heavy-handed, crude, and undisciplined mercenary component, and an Alexandrine component, almost as ungovernable although “superior” to the other two by its Greek origins. … This sort of ethnic argumentation would become common currency in Hellenistic Antiquity as the explanation for the emergence of civic tensions. It was generally shared by many non-Greeks reluctant to Hellenize themselves, seeing in the new [Greek] elite the cause of all their problems. This is shown in the famous Potter’s Oracle, announcing in apocalyptic terms the reign and imminent fall of the Greeks as well as the destruction and desolation of Alexandria. (67–68)

The Western Mediterranean underwent a similar transformation with the Roman Republic’s conquests of Italy and the wider Mediterranean from the fourth century B.C. onward. Rome, in contrast with the Greek city-states, had always had an assimilationist tradition going as far back as their founding myths. This tradition however was stretched past the breaking point, the incoming migrants being too numerous and diverse. Engels writes that mass immigration worsened class divisions and broke civic solidarity in Roman society:

The massive arrival of impoverished Italics [Italic-speakers in Italy] and the gradual impoverishment of the Romans further increased the chasm between the lower classes and the governmental and economic elite of senators and equestrians. This gap led to such a lack of homogeneity and concord that, instead of a body of citizens, Rome was peopled by a multitude apparently without any cohesion or any ideal. (69)

The problem was so severe that in 65 B.C. the lex Papia peregrenis was passed, banning non-Italics from settling in Rome and apparently evicting as many as possible, at the instigation of a representative of the people:

Meanwhile all those who were resident aliens in Rome, except inhabitants of what is now Italy, were banished on the motion of one Gaius Papius, a tribune, because they were coming to be too numerous and were not thought fit persons to dwell with the citizens. (Cassius Dio, 37.9.5)

This short-lived measure was later harshly condemned by the politician Cicero: “It is reasonable, of course, that non-citizens should not have citizen-rights. … But it is utterly inhuman to debar foreigners from the enjoyment of city life” (On Duties, 3.47). Engels describes mass Middle-Eastern immigration to Rome and opposition to it as follows:

But immigration was not restricted to Italics. More and more, the massive arrival of “barbarian” slaves, of prisoners of war, of simple traders, or immigrants from all parts transformed Rome’s ethnic composition, as well as that of the entire peninsula. The overwhelming presence foreigners from the Syrian Orient—one finds the trace of this in the famous bilingual inscriptions in the Capitol Museum—provoked xenophobic complaints from many natives. If Athenaeus called Rome “a summary of the world” and described its cosmopolitan and multicultural character in laudatory terms, Juvenal in contrast was one of its principal critics. Hence, in his famous Third Satire, he describes life in the megalopolis by listing the fires, collapsing buildings, traffic jams, accidents, crowds, crime, and disputes. But he stressed especially the most unbearable reason for all this: the presence of numerous foreigners. Sometimes approaching racism, he speaks of Rome as an intolerable Graeca urbs [Greek city], in which the Greeks are no longer genuine Achaeans, but dubious Hellenized Orientals (71, see Juvenal, Satires, 3.58–65).

Juvenal was not alone in criticizing the ethnic changes in Rome or in being critical of other ethnic groups. Cicero considered that “the Jewish and Syrian nations are born for slavery” (On the Consular Provinces, 10). The historian Livy agreed with this assessment of the Syrians, deeming them “the meanest of mankind, and born only for slavery” (Livy, 36.17.5). Such opinions were widespread. Rome attempted several times, ostensibly for religious reasons, to expel Jewish and Chaldean immigrants from the Middle East, without lasting success (71). Cassius Dio wrote of the Jews: “This class exists even among the Romans, and though often repressed has increased to a very great extent and has won its way to the right of freedom in its observances. They are distinguished from the rest of mankind in practically every detail of life. … They worship [their God] in the most extravagant fashion on earth” (Cassius Dio, 37.17). In contrast with the Gauls and Spaniards following their conquest and assimilation, the Romans seem to have always considered Syrians, Egyptians, and Jews as “other”[2] and were always deeply struck by the extraordinary ethno-religious fanaticism of the Jews. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus complained that the Roman population was also being changed by the emancipation of numerous slaves, many of whom apparently were criminals, saying: “it as unseemly that a dominant city which aspires to rule the whole world should make such men citizens” (Roman Antiquities, 4.24.5–6).

This immigration led to a complete transformation of the city of Rome, so that by the first century A.D., the philosopher Seneca wrote that the majority of the population was of foreign origin and that similar trends were evident in all the empire’s major cities:

Consider this throng of people [in Rome], for whom the houses of our vast city are scarcely enough: most of this number are deprived of their country. They have flocked here from their townships and colonies, in short from every part of the world: some have been drawn by ambition, some by the obligation of a public service, some by the office of envoy entrusted to them, some by luxury seeking a suitable and rich field for vice, some by desire for higher studies, some by public shows; some have been attracted by friendship, some by an appetite for work, seeing the generous scope for displaying energy; some have brought their looks for sale, some their eloquence. There is no class of person that has not swarmed into the city with its high prizes set for virtue and vice alike. Have them all summoned to answer their name and ask each one of them, “Where do you call home?”: You will see that more than half of them have quit their own homes and come to this city, which is indeed of great size and beauty, but not their own. Then leave this city, which can be described, in a sense, as belonging to all, and travel from one city to another: every one of them contains a large number of inhabitants from foreign parts. (Consolation to Helvia, 6).

The old poet Ennius had famously said: “Moribus antiquis res stat Romania uirisque” (The Roman state survives by its ancient customs and manhood), rightly emphasizing the essential role of culture in determining a nation and a state’s success. Roman culture had been defined by a hyper-masculine ethic of service and honor, including authoritarian families under the paterfamilias, a glorification of military service (10 years of military service were supposed to be necessary to hold political office), and great religiosity.

Engels presents considerable evidence that the decline of traditional mores contributed to falling fertility and patriotism in the Roman population. At both Greece and Rome, individualism, divorce, celibacy, and childlessness rose, at least among the elites, according to observers as diverse as Polybius, Tacitus, Varro, Seneca, and Propetius. Petronius tellingly writes that children became an unfashionable impediment to one’s career:

In this city no one brings up children, because anyone who has heirs of his own stock is never invited to dinner or the theater; he is deprived of all advantages, and lies in obscurity among the base-born. But those who have never married, and have no near relations, reach the highest positions; they alone, that is, are considered soldierly, gallant, or even good. (Satyricon, 116).

An observation which still resonates, given the prevalence of Western yuppies working away in the cities during their most fertile years and the incredible predominance of childless political leaders across Europe today.

While such conservative criticism of declining familial virtue is no doubt common to every era, Engels reports that “this demographic decline, at least concerning the upper classes, is confirmed by epigraphic evidence” (80). Furthermore, according to official censuses, between 164 and 131 B.C. the population of free citizens declined from 337,022 to 318,823, in stark contrast with the steadily-rising immigrant population.

The decline in traditional Roman culture was also evident in the sphere of religion. The Romans had proudly called their ancestors religiosissumi mortales (the most religious of mortals) and Polybius had, tellingly, attributed the Roman state’s excellence above all to the Romans’ exceptional piety.[3] Here too, religiosity declined with the spread of skeptical Hellenistic philosophies and awareness of the political manipulation of oracles (which Cicero, himself an augur, discusses) and the implausibility of traditional myths.

Go to Part 2.

[1]The book was first published in German under the title On the Way to Empire in 2014, but I have reviewed the augmented 2016 French edition, translated by the author himself. David Engels, Auf dem Weg ins Imperium. Die Krise der Europäischen Union und der Untergang der römischen Republik. Historische Parallelen (Berlin/Munich: Europa Verlag Berlin, 2014).

[2]For instance, the philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–135 A.D.) repeatedly contrasts in his lectures the Jews, Syrians, and Egyptians on the one hand, with the Romans and/or Greeks on the other (Discourses, 1.11.12-13, 1.22.4, 2.9.20, 2.11.15).

[3]Guillaume Durocher, “Religious Piety in Sparta & Rome,”, January 18, 2018.

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