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,” Counter-Currents.com, January 18, 2018. https://www.counter-currents.com/2018/01/religious-piety-in-sparta-rome/

12 replies
  1. T
    T says:

    Excellent article regarding the ever so powerful meme of Rome within the European mind. Though those Euro elites whom have expressed this admirarion for Rome publically in the past in one form or another would no doubt say it is the pre Roman emperor republic they have aspired to recreate it seems the reality is that Europe as well as the Anglosphere and the remainder of the world is going to get something like the Roman dictatorship instead…ie the representative body, the Roman senate still remaining in place but with no power and Rome still called officially a republic but being one in name only.

    The United States since its founding in 1776 has been at the very forefront of building this global Roman ‘republic’, this ‘New Rome’, 1776 being the same year that saw the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire as well as Capitalism’s bible, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, all of which taking place the same year shouldn’t be seen as coincidence.

    Some might say Europe at present is taking this Roman dictatorship road freely, but how can that be as the economic power house of Europe, Germany, is under US and British military occupation? And while its true that Hitler’s Germany and Napoleon’s France each had their own strong Roman meme at work they were both attempting to do so in their respective nation’s own image independently of the British Empire, something which could not be tolerated and required that both nations be crushed.

    You see, as described in the excerpt and links below, the Anglo-Saxon elites of the United States and the United Kingdom and their hangers on have had their own vision of this newly reconstructed Roman Empire, the global New Rome, this direct continuation of the British Empire which they have historically believed they are to dominate and control. As for myself, I’ve begun to think the little Swiss (or should I say the mighty Swiss?) with their cantons may have all along had the better idea about how to go about preserving peoplehood and identity.

    Study of the ideas of the leaders of these forces within Freemasonry reveals that their dream, intention and plan was to create out of Britain and America a New Rome, a new World Empire, a new uniformity of thought and lifestyle that would embrace the whole world. To this end, a new state, the United States of America, was established, the first “world state”…

    ‘Both in Britain and in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries, aristocratic, oligarchical and anti-democratic forces working within the hierarchical structure of Freemasonry ensconced themselves within the political establishments of those countries – to what end? Study of the ideas of the leaders of these forces within Freemasonry reveals that their dream, intention and plan was to create out of Britain and America a New Rome, a new World Empire, a new uniformity of thought and lifestyle that would embrace the whole world. To this end, a new state, the United States of America, was established, the first “world state”, made up of immigrants from all over the world rather than just from one ethnic community – a New Atlantis as intended by the British Elizabethan occultist John Dee, adviser to the Virgin Queen, and by Francis Bacon, James I’s Chancellor, and ruled by a scientific priestly elite. This is how the Freemasons of the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary generations saw themselves…’

    This is, like many things, multifaceted. Reflective of the dysfunctional relationship that has long existed between the Anglo-Saxon and Jewish peoples, the writer goes on…

    Today we see again an alliance between those forces that lead the Jewish people and those that lead the New Rome…

    ‘The Jerusalem Temple and Imperial Rome: these are what have linked Freemasonry with the New Rome of the New World Order since the days of the Templars, who based their esotericism on the symbology of the Temple of Solomon which they had learned in the Crusades. Their very name was associated with the Temple, and many of Freemasonry’s rites too are based on the Temple of Solomon. The god-given esotericism of ancient Israel was thus conjoined with what was essentially an imperial Roman will to power. Today we see again an alliance between those forces that lead the Jewish people and those that lead the New Rome; indeed the State of Israel today, just as in Herod’s day, is a client state of an Imperial Rome, the only difference being that, unlike Herod’s kingdom, without the aid of the New Rome, the modern State of Israel would very likely not have survived.’

    An excerpt from the 1853 book The New Rome, which is linked below, in reference to the US flag, the flag which for the first two years of the Revolution (ie 1775 -1777) in the form of the Grand Union flag was identical to the corporate flag of the multi-national British East India Company. That the nascent US Grand Union/British East India Company flag had the Union Jack stamped prominently across its face might have been a subtle hint that the United States itself would be the future direct continuation of the British Empire, more powerful than ever, a premise of the 1853 book.

    ‘In hoc signo vincent!’ translates roughly from Latin as ‘In this sign you shall conquer!’

    From pg 119 of The New Rome …

    ‘The signs of the times are clear and unmistakable, and ”The New Rome” awakens to her task, and is resolved upon its execution. Let her raise her banner of stars over land and sea, the token of perdition to the despots and redemption to the peoples, who may be convinced: In hoc signo vincent!’

    ‘…In the fusion of nationalities, we find the integration of humanity. The time is past for comparing man to the vermin on the leaf, of which each species can only infest its particular plant. History now advances with great strides, to hasten on the day when all the nations of the earth shall be one people, united in a single state. No longer a circumscribed portion of lands, the new ”orbis terrarum” shall encircle the globe; and as ancient Rome assembled all the gods of her empire in a single Pantheon, so shall the ideas of all nations be marshalled into unity. The signs of the times are clear and unmistakable, and ”The New Rome” awakens to her task, and is resolved upon its execution. Let her raise her banner of stars over land and sea, the token of perdition to the despots and redemption to the peoples, who may be convinced : In hoc signo vincent!’

    https://majorityrights.com/weblog/comments/the_new_rome_or_the_united_states_of_the_world_1853

    https://archive.org/details/newrome00poes

    https://archive.org/details/politicalprophec00goeb

  2. T
    T says:

    At this very moment Trump is in England visiting with Queen Elizabeth. While Trump most likely has at least some familiarity with the ideology of the New Rome as it pertains to the United States and the United Kingdom, with the present long term queen that she is quite knowledgeable on this subject is an almost certainty.

    Just as the ancient Romans had their hordes of slaves so to do the Anglo-Saxon elites and their hangers on whom have historically wished to emulate these ancients. This manifest itself in the form of chattel slavery and its trade’s monetization, ie the cheap labor/mass immigration system introduced by the British Empire in the 19th century and which forms the economic and political basis of the multi-cultural society. One would have thought all Europe (and the rest of the world watching on the periphery besides) would have learned the utter folly of importing slaves into your country, whether they be chattel or wage (the latter aka so-called ‘cheap laborers’) not making a difference, with what transpired with the Spartacus slave revolt. It will be recalled that until finally being crushed that the seemingly unbeatable Spartacus led slave army on the Italian peninsula came close to gutting the core of the Roman republic and empire and bringing about its potential demise, not dissimilar in manner to the creature in the Alien movies that would burst out of a person’s chest at the most inopurtune and unexpected of times with the most terrible of results.

    Alas, people don’t seem to learn.

  3. bruno
    bruno says:

    And How lucky we are. If it were not for Kmac how many of us would have known about this great man and his pen? For several years now I have been singing the praises KMac. To me, he is the Wilmont Roberson (not his real name) of our era. He is very diplomatic and a giant within the intelligentsia. Not long ago I would lie in bed thinking about how moral and wonderful it would be if monuments we’re constructed and on or off Wilmont Robertson and KMac.

    In discussions pertaining to former EuroAm municipalities I would recall former churches, manicured lawns, well-maintained houses and every day civilized communications. Today, all over the USA, Canada in much of western Europe there’s nothing but turmoil in the evaporation of one’s great cities. The corporatists and individuals, such as George Soros, have been more than predatory against the entire structure of EuroMan. Giants such as KMac and Dr. Engel not only deserve our praise, but also our admiration, respect and efforts at propagating knowledge about them to those who don’t wish to see the disposition EuroMan’s civilization. This article should be emailed to others.

  4. bruno
    bruno says:

    Correction-

    And How lucky we are. If it were not for Kmac how many of us would have known about this great man and his pen? For several years now I have been singing the praises of KMac. To me, he is the Wilmont Roberson (not his real name) of our era. He is very diplomatic and a giant within the intelligentsia. Not long ago I would lie in bed thinking about how moral and wonderful it would be if monuments were constructed for Wilmont Robertson and KMac.

    In discussions pertaining to former EuroAm municipalities I would recall former churches, manicured lawns, well-maintained houses and every day civilized communications. Today, all over the USA, Canada in much of western Europe there’s nothing but turmoil in the evaporation of one’s great cities. The corporatists and individuals, such as George Soros, have been more than predatory against the entire structure of EuroMan. Giants such as KMac and Dr. Engel not only deserve our praise, but also our admiration, respect and efforts at propagating knowledge about them to those who don’t wish to see the disposition EuroMan’s civilization. This article should be emailed to others.

  5. T
    T says:

    G Durocher writes: ‘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’

    The brilliant Gibbon had something to say in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) about the decline of public virtue, both amongst the political elite and the military, in addition to the effects of ‘the waves of uncontrolled mass immigration’.

    …the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians

    ‘The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and, instead of inquiring why the Roman empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long. The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of Barbarians.’

    — Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West”, Chapter 38

    Something that one might think was only in the world of fiction or would appear in a movie like Idiocracy (but didn’t) was something which did actually take place historically…the phenomena of ‘barbarian imitation’ coins. As the Roman empire declined the invading barbarian tribes in the fourth and fifth centuries AD began to issue their own coinage, copies of Roman designs, as this is what civilized states are supposed to do. The barbarians knew there was supposed to be this thing known as writing on the coins too but as they themselves were typically illiterate this ‘writing’ often consisted of only meaningless wavy lines as the amateur artifact hunter discovered and describes below.

    It was complete gibberish.

    ‘The obverse (front) of the coin should have been the bust of Constantine, and the legend “IMP CONSTANTINVS AVG”. But the very first letter at the far left side, which should have been the letter “I” was instead a backwards “S”! The second letter was an “I” but I couldn’t figure out the third letter. It seemed to be a double-strike. Then it got worse from there.. just a random collection of letters, and other strange characters. It was complete gibberish.’

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_the_Decline_and_Fall_of_the_Roman_Empire

    https://metaldetectingforum.com/showthread.php?t=221752

    • Trenchant
      Trenchant says:

      I’d cut the “barbarians” a bit of slack here. Rome’s monetary impropriety was just as egregious, if more cunning. Let’s not forget that the legal tender laws allowed the authorities to systematically to debase the coin, reducing its precious metal content, to enjoy the transfer of purchasing power. Persistent debasement of the currency was the distinguishing characteristic of the Empire’s decline.

      • T
        T says:

        Hi Trenchant. Yes, I was a having a bit of fun there at the Germanic and Celtic tribes (the ‘barbarians’) expense. I had thought to add in that entry, but didn’t, that the ‘imitation coins’ existance shouldn’t be the ultimate yard stick to determine the intelligence or lack of the same regarding those tribes. One account I’ve come across describes these tribes as seeing the Latin script on the Roman coins as only having a decorative/artistic function, a misinterpretation on their part, and not having the function of conveying a specific message. If they had fully grasped that aspect of the coins they were copying, and providing that was the case, they might well have been a bit more careful with the coins they were producing. Besides that, the Celtic tribes before Rome invaded Gaul and Britain did have their own coinage -albeit sans lettering though people understood the coins purpose all the same- which were quite well made and beautiful in design. The Germanic tribes coinage of their own design in Italy for instance was in general considered superior in their sharpness of detail and relief in conparison to coins being produced concurrently in 6th century Byzantium. The quality of Rome’s coinage as you allude had as the centuries had gone by become more and more debased, and not just in their silver and gold content.

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