You don’t need to read all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” – Gore Vidal’s “Julian” will do. From AD 361 to 363 (AUC 1114 to 1116, to use the calendar Julian would undoubtedly have preferred) he was a popular and successful Roman Emperor, attempting to reverse novel elite beliefs that he thought destructive and “Make Rome Great Again.” He was killed unexpectedly, and Rome’s decline followed quickly and inexorably, although the destructive beliefs he opposed survived for millennia. Does the obvious analogy to Donald Trump hold water?
Julian was brought up in an era when Christianity was newly dominant among the elite of the Roman Empire. His uncle Constantine I had seen a cross above the sun before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 and painted the Christian symbols (“Chi-rho”) on his soldiers’ shields, winning a famous victory over his rival Maxentius. In the half-century since then Constantine’s own conversion had been followed by that of the entire Imperial power-structure. Naturally, the Roman people had only partly followed the fashion-seeking elite, so the majority of ordinary people, particularly in the Army, agreed with Julian that the old Roman religion and ways were better.
There were several problems with the mass conversion of the imperial elite, beyond the partial alienation of ordinary people. Impressive churches were established, notably St. Peter’s in Rome and the Church of the Holy Apostles in the new capital of Constantinople, and heavy tithes were imposed on the populace to pay for them, depressing the economy (it was already operating at considerably lower living standards than in the Age of the Antonines, two centuries before). Constantine debased the coinage, while at the same time confiscating all gold, silver and bronze statues in the temples of the traditional religion. Fanatical Imperially-supported Bishops of various Church denominations led vicious campaigns against the old religion and its believers, turning the majority of the Roman people into “deplorables.”
A more important long-term problem was that the Christianization of the Empire blocked the possibility of Roman citizenship for “barbarian” tribes around Rome’s borders who had not converted. The Edict of Caracalla in 212 had granted citizenship to all residents of the Empire; the inability to extend this to the Goths who were pressing on the Empire’s borders in the late 4th Century was to turn the Goths into a hostile invading force, leading eventually to the Sack of Rome by Alaric in 410.
Julian made his name by successful campaigns against the Germanic kingdoms, which had invaded Roman-occupied Gaul. Although the Emperor Constantius II, Julian’s cousin and predecessor, had regarded Julian with suspicion, he succeeded Constantius peacefully on the latter’s death in 361. Julian then attempted to return to the governance structure of Trajan and Hadrian, 200 years before, slashing the size of the court and Imperial bureaucracy, making a bonfire of centralized regulations and returning power to self-governing cities.
Since Christian monks controlled the vast majority of written media, Julian was vilified, both at the time and later. He combated this by making a series of speeches explaining his policies and attempting to interact with ordinary people – something post-Antonine Emperors had generally not done. He then launched a successful campaign against the threatening Persian army. Alas, he was wounded in battle, his wound festered (or he was poisoned), and he died three days later. Since he was succeeded by none but Christian Emperors, and monks continued to dominate the media, he was vilified for centuries after his death, until being rehabilitated by Gibbon – Pedro Mejia’s “History of All the Roman Emperors” (the 1604 English translation, which I own, which runs up to Rudolf II) said “In truth it was great pitie that there should be such accursed blindness in a man, in whom there was so great valour and so many good and virtuous qualities.”
Julian differed from President Trump in one respect: he was a graceful loser. “Thou hast conquered, Galilean” were his dying words.
Following Julian’s death, all subsequent Emperors were Christian, leading to the triumph of the new and damaging ideology. Economic and social decay followed, the bureaucracy bloated, the military became even more disaffected and the Empire’s final decline became inevitable after the great Gothic victory at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The Dark Ages inexorably followed, and Christian monks wrote the history, so Christianity’s responsibility for the collapse of Roman power was carefully glossed over.
The analogy between Julian the Apostate and President Trump is not perfect – Julian was a fairly major philosopher and appears to have had a different personality from the President. But the analogy between their periods in office and positions in history may be much closer. Both came to power after a new ideology had swept through the elites of a previously stable society – in Trump’s case, the ideology of “climate change crisis” and wokeness in general. In both cases, the new ideology was thoroughly destructive to the existing social order, although the economic damage of Christianity was less direct than that of “climate change crisis” hyper-regulation.
This is not at all to dispute the truth or beauty of the new ideologies. To my mind, Christianity is more convincing than “climate change” let alone wokeness in general, but I entirely accept that other people’s views may differ. Nevertheless, the enormous damage that both new ideologies made to existing arrangements throughout the society cannot be denied.
The effect on ordinary people also cannot be denied, even though records for the 4th century are so limited and heavily biased towards the Christian viewpoint (of course, this may also be true for our own century in 1700 years’ time)! One can imagine ordinary Romans looking back nostalgically to the time of Diocletian (Emperor 284-305) when the currency had been stabilized, inflation had been tamed and living conditions improved. Diocletian was something of a socialist, but at least he wasn’t a Christian, and in retrospect his rule like President Reagan’s was doubtless rose-tinted in memory by those who resented the new ways.
The way forward would also appear similar to that at Julian’s fall. President Trump is of course still alive, and will hopefully be with us for many years, but the chances of a Trumpist revival must be slim. Without such a revival, the U.S. will become more and more “woke” and its economy will be hobbled by ever more draconian environmental legislation, designed to combat a “climate change” that like the Holy Spirit may or may not actually exist. There can be little doubt that the result will be economic decline. Furthermore China, with four times the U.S. population, is poised to take advantage of U.S. weakness, just as were the relatively benign Goths of various types and the much more sinister Huns in the late 4th Century.
A new Dark Ages surely cannot be ruled out. Should it occur, the “climate changeists” will doubtless continue to dominate the media, and Trump will be portrayed as a renegade, destructive force for a millennium or more. For the rest of us, that really will not matter; we will be busy struggling to survive in the ruins of our ancient civilization.
On January 20th, President Trump will likely leave office. It is however fairly unlikely that he will murmur as he goes: “Thou has triumphed, Scrantonian.” A century from now, the last U.S. President, Georgius Washingtonulus, will witness the collapse of the Capitol dome.
(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)