Are there lessons that can be learned from history or is this just a saying to get people to study a dull subject?
First off, history isn’t dull, at least I don’t think so. Second, context is important and without enough accurate information, this is probably the most difficult task. Let’s use Rome in the context of ancient history of Britain for comparison.
“And the barbarians from beyond the Rhine, ravaging everything at their pleasure, put both the Britons and some of the Gauls to the necessity of making defection from the Roman empire, and of setting up for themselves, no longer obeying Roman laws. The Britons therefore took up arms, and engaged in many dangerous enterprises for their own protection, until they had freed their cities from the barbarians who besieged them.” – Zosimus
“Conquered for vanity, half-heartedly Romanized and eventually abandoned to its fate, Roman Britain represents a fascinating microcosm of the rise and fall of an empire.” – BBC History, Roman Britain, 43 – 410 AD
The Romans had been severely beaten in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest by rebellious German tribesmen in 9 AD. After several Roman leaders had come and gone, Claudius determined he needed to look strong and decisive, so he decided a quick victory somewhere was the right choice. That choice came down hard on Briton.
When first attempted a century before, the battles were indecisive. The mystery island of painted and tattooed people weren’t exactly push overs and the land of mist and forest remained in native hands. A Claudian invasion force was to go in strong and claim the land for Rome. They battled their way in, but Wales took decades to capitulate and the Scots never gave in, reaching the high water mark of the Roman empire at what is now called the Moray Firth in 84 AD. The east of Briton exploded in 60-61 AD. Bitterness against Roman oppression had driven Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, into a revolt that came close to expelling the invaders.
Roman frontiers were under attack elsewhere. Reinforcements were needed so a phased withdrawal became necessary in Briton. The Roman army created a fortified line stretching from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Carlisle on the Solway. This became a 73 mile fortified line known as Hadrian’s Wall which was constructed in 120s and 130s AD. North of that fortification were the barbarians, while south lay civilization.
Civilization was more than just words, it meant straight paved roads, towns and villages, linked trading routes, public use facilities, none of which were available to those north of that line. For 350 years of Roman occupation, the army remained in control. Craftsmen and traders grew up around the forts, sustained by army contracts and soldiers’ pay. Local farms supplied grain, meat, leather, wool, beer, and other essentials but it wasn’t anything as glamorous or robust as Rome itself.
The local culture changed and became more Romanized, dropping the blue war paint for ’empire fashion’. It was good business for all to participate because the skirmishes and conflicts among the locals were suppressed by the occupying army. Town houses and country villas were in, stone or mud hill forts were out. Painters, potters, mosaic layers and musicians found work among the landed gentry. Imports from Spain, Rhineland and Pompeii filled the shops.
Over the centuries, the extended conquests and paying remote overlords to cooperate along with conscripts from conquered armies took its toll on the empire. New luxuries became scarcity as taxes increased along with conscripted (immigrant) labor. Rome’s enemies were getting stronger, especially the Germans and Goths, who threatened the Rhine and Danube frontiers.
By the mid-third century AD, the great boom was over, and more money was required for defense. Defensive structures with observers (surveillance) sprang up around towns. Inside the cities, a slow decline had begun. Old mansions were in decline as well as many public services. Many towns were becoming over-run with weeds and boarded up structures.
In the later years of decline, political leaders became more dictatorial and ruthless, aiming to centralize and streamline administration, passing new laws and revenue schemes. All of this was set in place to bolster the decline and give the public the impression that everything was being carefully managed. The state found religion (Christianity) and attempted to disseminate this to the masses, however new government policy generated little enthusiasm. Society became apathetic, civic spirit dwindled, the towns and villas continued to decline.
Numerous hostile invasions began – by Anglo-Saxons in the south-east, Irish in the west, and Pict’s in the north. New coastal fortifications were built to meet the threat, but the troops were stretched too thin to hold the line.
Then, when the homeland itself was under attack, more troops were withdrawn from the outposts of the empire. Britain soon found itself like other occupied territory, on their own. Towns and villas became abandoned. No clear message was given to the occupiers. Over a generation, the remnant were cast adrift to fend for themselves.
Army pay ceased to arrive. The soldiers were left to make independent decisions, living off the land as farmers, make a living as outlaws, mercenaries, or laborers. The Roman élite lost whatever residual control they still retained over the land and the people.
Britain began a new age outside the empire, defined by geography separate from the continent, no government tax collectors and landlords, and no services. An age of turmoil and uncertainty in which new leadership and alliances were forged. It took several centuries and a multitude of invasions to settle a land previously gentrified which had become unruly and dissolute.
Perhaps, you’re like me and see many parallels between this surge and decline in Roman empire to the United States. Maybe you think there’s little to compare as we are modern and they were ancient. Things change and this isn’t quite the same as the conditions which we live in. Remember, these changes occurred slowly over the centuries. Generation after generation came and went without a lot of significant societal upheaval — until near the fall.