The Bear’s Lair: It’s a long time since the Age of the Antonines

Genseric Sacking Rome

Imagine being a citizen of the Western Roman Empire early in the reign of the Emperor Honorius (ruled 395 to 423). You would know that the Emperor was not very good, and that the Empire was fighting off the barbarians only through the efforts of General Stilcho (c.359-408). Yet you would look back for better rule only to the Emperor Theodosius (ruled 379 to 395) and believe that with another Theodosius, all would be well. However, the Empire had by Honorius’ time been in severe decay for two centuries, since the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Antonine Emperors in 180, and only the Sack of Rome and disintegration lay ahead. Like Honorius’ subjects, we too delude ourselves through looking back only to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, not to our truly successful and creative earlier past.

As Edward Gibbon told us, the eventual decline of the Western Roman Empire occurred through the adoption of a destructive new religious belief: Christianity. In addition, the Edict of Caracalla, passed in 212, granted Roman citizenship to all free men living within the Empire, thus providing incentive for mass barbarian incursions of people who proved only intermittently loyal to Rome, and useless to defend against the hordes of less “civilized” barbarians who pressed against its borders. As a result of the greater diversity within the legions, their quality and discipline went to hell, since communication between different units was affected by the legionnaires’ lack of fluency in the Empire’s working language of Latin.

The Emperor Julian the Apostate (362-63) had warned against Christianity and fought valiantly against the encroaching hordes, with some success, but he was dispatched, probably murdered by Christians in his entourage, and after him the barbarian advance was more or less continuous. Even a relatively strong Emperor like Theodosius could do no more than temporarily slow the barbarians’ advance.

There were additional factors involved, which would have been unknown to the citizen of Honorius’s Rome. The Mediterranean climate had been exceptionally favorable during the Antonine period, but had subsequently deteriorated, so that crop yields were well down throughout the Empire, but especially in Egypt, where a drier climate had decimated yields and ended the agricultural safety net that Egypt had provided to Rome as the Empire’s breadbasket.

Overall, Honorius’ subjects, being devoutly Christian, believed that Christianity had improved the Empire’s governance and strengthened it against its enemies. They were unaware of the extent to which decay in the Empire’s principal measures of civilization had proceeded since the Antonines, and therefore unaware of how vulnerable the Empire had become.

In returning to Theodosius’ governance, even had it been possible, the Western Roman citizens would only have postponed the inevitable, not reversed it. Under Theodosius, rampaging Athanasian bishops had already destroyed the central institutions that had held the Empire together, with paganism abolished in 391 and the last Olympic Games held in 394. The Library of Alexandria had already been sacked by Diocletian in 297, and its daughter library the Serapium was demolished by order of a Christian bishop in 391. Diocletian had also destroyed confidence in the currency through debasing it, causing rampant inflation – by Honorius’ time the coinage was fully debased and limited in quantity and much of the economy had reverted to barter.

Our own situation is not dissimilar. The new religion is environmentalism, at least as all-encompassing as Christianity, and at least as liable to escalate its demands incessantly and allow no space for traditional civilizational norms. This column has been like Julian the Apostate, fighting against the dying of our civilizational light over the last two decades, but since nobody will make this column Emperor, it is unable to win even a short-lived roll-back of the new religion’s destruction.

The new environmentalist religion first produced a morass of damaging regulation in the 1970s that went far to killing the goose of productivity growth that had laid the golden eggs of the Industrial Revolution. That regulation produced a modest atmospheric warming, since it caused mankind to stop burning sulfate-emitting coal, which had marginally cooled the atmosphere. The environmentalists then through misleading and manipulated computer projections, inflated that modest warming into a civilization-threatening Apocalypse supposed to hit us in 2100 – or 2015, in some of Vice President Al Gore’s more excitable moments.

Like Julian confronting Athanasius (298-373, Pope of Alexandria, 328-373), this column has been appalled at the aggression of this new religion and at the destruction that it is causing to everything that our civilization has built. It has impoverished ordinary people, and promises to impoverish them further, it will make our electric utilities appallingly subject to catastrophic failure, often when we are in most need of them, and it is giving a chokehold over our economy to hostile absolutist regimes in China and elsewhere.

As for the barbarian hordes, those come not from any particular group, but from the explosion of global population since I was born in 1950, from 2.5 billion to 8 billion. Not only has this trebled the mostly imaginary threat from environmental doom, it has also bloated the world’s cities, producing in them a seething morass of infantile leftism and skyrocketing crime. Given the effect of this increase, reparations should be paid, not by the technology-inventing West to the poor South, as the COP27 conference malignantly dictated, but the other way around. The population-restrained, civilization-preserving West (including some non-Western nations such as Japan) deserves reparations from the nameless hordes that have endangered the globe by breeding like rabbits. Even without environmentalism, sheer numbers, not the refinements of future technology-driven growth in living standards, will make our planetary future nasty, brutish and short.

In seeking to return to the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, we are like the citizens of Honorius’ Rome, not being anything like ambitious enough in our longing for the past. Thatcher and Reagan were mere preservers of our industrial civilization, and as the developments of succeeding decades have shown, they did not preserve it very successfully. Indeed, Thatcher with her Oxford Chemistry degree gave an entirely spurious credibility to the early maunderings of the “climate change” fanatics.

A side-effect of the new religion is wokery, which is producing a level of obscurantism and bigotry worthy of Athanasius himself. That wokery is causing the closing of worthwhile museums such as that of the Wellcome Trust, which had a display of medical advances that apparently must now not be celebrated, according to the leftist priesthood. Wokery has infected our universities, so that soon the painfully-won learning of thousands of years of our civilization will go the way of the Library of Alexandria. Even our modern albeit degraded Olympic Games are threatened, by an infiltration of transgender athletes that promises to make a laughing-stock out of all the women’s events.

The damage done to Rome’s monetary system by Diocletian has been done to ours by Ben Bernanke and his peers. Inflation has been allowed to return as it did under Diocletian, and any attempts to address it properly will be met by screams of rage from those whose asset prices have been artificially raised by the bubbles of zero interest rates and endless money printing. The result will be the same as in the late Roman Empire, only more rapid if digital currency is introduced: a loss of confidence by the populace that will force the great mass of transactions to return to barter. Fortunately, with modern technology, barter can be instantaneous and worldwide, far more efficient than it was in the crumbling ruins of a depopulating Rome. Until the electricity is cut off, of course.

If we are to avoid the collapse of our civilization and the millennia of barbarism that will follow, it will not be enough to return to the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, any more than Theodosius’ policies could have provided a solution for the citizens of Honorius’ Rome. Instead, we must return to our Antonines. In Britain we must recall the statesmen of the eighteenth-century British Tory party, whose economic and constitutional policies were such an enormous improvement on those before and those since that they brought us the incomparable blessings of the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, the Founding Fathers were Whiggish, ambivalent on slavery and defined themselves partly against Britain; the U.S. Antonines are the much-maligned Republicans James Garfield, William McKinley and Calvin Coolidge.

It is time for the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius Jenkinson!

(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.)