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LostInParadise's avatar

Did the ancient Romans know that their empire was in decline?

Asked by LostInParadise (17811 points ) May 17th, 2011

I do not want to enter into a discussion as to why the Roman empire fell. I am just curious to know if it was apparent to the Romans that something was wrong, and if anyone foresaw the end of Roman rule.

America has been compared to the Roman Empire, and the consensus seems to be that we are in decline. I am curious to see if there is any parallel to this attitude among the Romans.

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10 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Yes, it was a slow process lasting hundreds of years. They knew.

Seelix's avatar

Of course they knew. Like @marinelife said, it was a slow and gradual decline. The Romans were quite aware of it.

cazzie's avatar

They lost masses of territory and had to leave Great Britain. Without land, taxes and huge trade advantages, their money and power ran out and it was very noticeable. Of course, they replaced it in the ensuing centuries with the Roman Catholic Church.

tedd's avatar

The collapse of the Roman Empire is not really comparable to the US, and furthermore there’s not even really a set “date” that the Roman Empire fell, so its hard to say the people saw it coming. The Empire was split East and West, and each side had an emperor, and then two more emperors who served beneath him. The western side shrank its military and hired the subjugated peoples in its territories to defend it. Eventually (in the 5th century) those people started to revolt, but more or less they were already independent and simply officially regained it. In fact the leader of the revolt that toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, was recognized by the Eastern Roman Emperor of the time as the new emperor of Western Rome.

Then there’s the Eastern Roman Empire, which would effectively rule until well into the 15th century. They eventually changed their name to the Byzantine Empire, but trace their lineage and roots right back to Julius Ceaser and beyond.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Yes, their czechs started bouncing.

WasCy's avatar

Those who studied history probably did.

Those who grow old (in any society) apparently and maybe inevitably see their societies as crumbling and decaying, either physically or morally or both because of the unwanted changes that occur in their homes, towns, friends and families. That may or may not be a “correct” impression, but it seems to be pretty universal.

Finally, whenever I come down with a cold I feel like I am “in decline”, which at that moment in time, or for the next week to ten days, seems true enough to me. I don’t think that the United States is in a real decline except in that ephemeral sense. The rest of the world is getting better and catching up; I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Our economy has suffered a cold; in a week to ten days (metaphorically speaking) we’ll be tearing around again as usual. It would make sense for us also to metaphorically exercise a bit more, catch up on our sleep, do our homework and listen to our parents a bit more, read and write more and be kind to strangers instead of eating and drinking so much and partying so late, and all…

LostInParadise's avatar

Assuming that the Romans were aware that they were in decline, did they do anything to try to reverse course? The Romans were the only significant power in the local vicinity (I don’t think any of them knew about China), so they did not have anyone competing with them economically. This may have lulled them into a false sense of security. All the various tribes that were pestering them were relatively small in size.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I’m not sure if the majority of citizens did and the slaves certainly didn’t unless they were privy to the elite ruling class, but I’m sure the ruling class did. They had their eyes on the budget just as our congress does today: expenditures overwhelmed revenues for at least a century before they could no longer support their imperial forces abroad. As they lost control of their colonies, revenues shrank even more and taxation became an issue within Rome itself. Many of the wealthiest Romans were of foreign birth after the time of Augustus and their alegiance to Roman laws and customs can be questioned today by their actions. Corruption in all it’s forms took hold in the ruling class and patriotism took a back seat to personal gain. When even the Senate stopped taking Roman Law seriously, all hope was lost. Sound familiar? Sure they knew, but they were unwilling to do what it took to preserve the empire.

YARNLADY's avatar

I suspect most of the common citizens, the merchants, farmers and free workers just went about business as usual, and maybe gossiped about the actions of their rulers. They had their circuses, their dawn to dusk work, and their daughter’s weddings to worry about, so the “Empire” was not really at the top of their list.

Their affairs were conducted by their extended families, and the rulers had very little influence in the day to day lives of the people. The fall of the rulers lead to the formation of local rule for the most part.

Wikipedia has a couple of good articles with an overview summary of events.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@tedd The Eastern Roman Empire didn’t change it’s name to the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine is a name tacked on by historians now to make it easier to distinguish which Roman Empire we’re talking about. But at the time, contemporaries totally just saw themselves as The Roman Empire.

@LostInParadise The decline and fall of the Roman Empire really took hundreds of years. When exactly the decline started is up for sooooo much debate – you can kinda point to it really early if you like, or really late. And people can’t see the future – I have no doubt that some elites of the time thought that Rome as ending during 180–284, when there were 26 emperors, all of whom were murdered. Towards the end of that period, we have the Imperial Crisis, and things really didn’t look good. But then they picked up again. And then they got worse, and then the empire split (285 AD), was put back together (324 AD), became totally Christian (324), the capitol is moved from Rome to Istanbul and the name changed to Constantinople (324), split again (395 AD), gets its butt handed to it for the first time by an outside force (c. 376, Battle of Adrianople), and then gets sacked, repeatedly (410, 455, 546). You could also put the sort of “official end”, as it were, when Odovacer, a Germanic king, invades in 476 AD and takes the Emperor’s throne. But it takes hundreds and hundreds of years.

And really, don’t we kinda always think things are in decline, that this is the end? It’s kinda the atheist’s version of constantly having an End Of Times be near.

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