It is August 24, 410. You are standing on the Aurelian Wall of Rome, grimly watching the armies of the Visigoths arrayed around the city, busy with their horses and camp duties. In an effort to distract yourself from the slow passage of time you start to count their numbers...but it is impossible, your heart sinks as you calculate that they must number into the tens of thousands. For the third time in two years they have returned to lay siege to the city, you wonder how long it will last and how many will die of hunger or disease this time. All your loved ones died in the first two sieges, leaving you alone and purposeless. Idly you begin to wonder if this time you will succumb and who will be left to honor your death.
You know that despite the dark times that Rome will never fall, you are proud to be a citizen of an empire that has known unparalleled power, prestige and military prowess; of governments and cities with advanced infrastructures; of wide, paved roads that connect all of Europa, Northern Africa, Britannia and the Levant; of banking, a monetary system and the pleasure of owning goods from exotic lands; of literature, beauty, architecture and art...who are these marauding barbarians? They cannot destroy an empire...no one can. Rome is eternal.
Lulled by your thoughts you realise there is new activity below. Urgent shouts from captains ripple through the encampments, prompting the hasty donning of armor and saddling of horses. The once-sedate camps have become frenzied cauldrons of activity. You see a surge of movement in the men below you, soldiers and horsemen alike are rushing toward the Salarian Gate, you press hard against the wall to see but whatever is happening is just out of your line of vision. You hear screams in the distance and strain your ears to make sense out of what is happening. The screams and anguished cries spread through the city like wildfire, the lament coming up from the streets below strike you numb with disbelief, 'The slaves have opened the gates! Rome has fallen!'
Witnessing the wave of carnage progressing towards you, you have no choice but to flee from the city, leaving all your possessions behind, panting with dim hope that you might live to see the end of the day. As you reach the safety of distance you find you are not alone, there are others who have fled, their eyes haunted as they turn to look at you. You force your eyes back to the city to watch, angrily scrubbing the tears away...everything you know is over. Your home is gone, the libraries, the market, the meeting places, your friends, you wonder what has happened to your beloved horse that you had bought after the last siege to occupy your time. You choke back tears at the thought of its fate. You are dispossessed, your city is in flames and struggling people are being flung from the walls, their garments a mocking flash of colour against the walls before the bloodied rocks below claim their lives.
Hours have passed and still you watch. The sun has gone down and the palace is burning so brightly that the flames light the skies as though it is still day. You are alone now, the others have long since melted away. You have nowhere to go. The world has been overrun by barbarians. Without Rome there is nothing, there is no empire. You finally tear your eyes away. You have accepted the truth. Today is the day civilization has ended. Slowly you get up, and turning away, you face the darkness before you.
Much scholarly ink has been spilled in documenting the demise of the western Roman empire, with the consensus being that it declined slowly, attacked from without by barbarians and weakened from within by political intrigue and ambition; by its over-reliance on slaves; and by the costs - both financial and human - of administering such a vast empire, without any technological advances apart from weapons and siege machines. In short, the empire's far-reaching agenda of conquest, political power plays and its dependance on an endless supply of slaves were vital factors in its eventual collapse.
With the fall of Rome, a dark age descended. An age of ignorance, superstition, filth, disease and deprivation that lasted for over one thousand years. Wars, plagues, famines and the control of an oppressive church which taught man to live in fear became the reality of millions. Whispers of scientific thought, philosophy, technology and knowledge were rooted out and systematically eradicated. Finally, in the 1500's with the onset of the Reformation, the newly liberated northern European countries attracted thinkers who gathered, shared and pioneered the shift out of church sanctioned dogma into a world of rationality, scientific enquiry, thought and freedom. After 1100 years of darkness, a new age of enlightenment had begun.
We now live in a world where religion has for the most part taken a back seat to scientific investigation and development. There are still pockets of theologically focussed types who strive their utmost to slow the progress of science and rational investigation, with an unfortunate number holding positions of power in some governments. They zealously push legislative agendas that will only hurt the future of mankind (such as the denial of climate change and blocking funding for agencies to monitor it). However, it will likely only be a matter of time before even these last proponents of fear, ignorance and control will be winnowed out in our technologically advancing world with its growing populations of intelligent, rational young men and women who are invested in the future of our planet. These will be our future leaders.
We have much to learn from the fall of Rome and its empire. Men fought amongst themselves for the short-term rewards of power and control. There were too many players, and too many agendas. There was rampant greed and self-centered ambition. Resources ran out, slaves died off and could not be replaced with new ones, yet the Romans continued to enjoy life at the highest level of luxury and excess. The barbarians that had been violently pushed back from their own lands were waiting in the wings for their revenge. Rome shares with us a lesson of hubris on a continental-wide scale.
Our modern western world is not so different in many ways from the Roman empire. We are vast, we are wealthy, we live in excess, our governments heavily invest in their militaries. We have people at the top grabbing at short-term personal profit at the expense of the long-term needs of civilization. We are not paying attention to the resources we are exhausting in our desire for momentary luxurious living.
However, unlike our Roman ancestors, there are those who are committed to developing technology and research that will not only benefit our short term goals but also prepare a foundation for man's future needs, such as the space exploration and research of NASA and the ESA; the facilities at CERN and ITER offering us tantalizing glimpses into the very fabric of reality, and those thousands of engineers who are working hard to design green cities with smart infrastructures. But in a world consumed by hate, fear, prejudice and violence, these shining lights of knowledge are in a tiny - and unfortunately with the changes in certain governments - even threatened minorities.
We have many challenges before us, but together we have the intelligence, creativity, resources and ability to turn our existing out-of-date civilization into a new and breathtaking one of ingenuity and technology.
The question is, will we?
Originally published on Paradigms Bend April 17 2012