Selected Teachings on
The Decline of the Roman Empire

Spencer W. Kimball (President)

Had every Roman father been teaching his sons righteousness instead of war, and every mother making a home for her children; had all parents assembled their children in their homes instead of the circuses and public baths; had they taught them chastity and honor and integrity and cleanness; would Rome still be a world power? Certainly it was not the barbarians from the north but the insidious moral termites within that destroyed the Roman world empire....

The story of the civilizations of the world is a continued story of the same weaknesses that leave a country helpless and disintegrated.

In our own time on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific and in the north and the south, we seem to be following the same trends. Our successes bring us to extravagances, to our seeking for high amusement. We control childbirth and reduce our families. We divorce and break up our homes. Many of our children become orphans in one way or another. We become irreligious and practice evil ways. We indulge in the bestial satisfactions. We crave social activities at the expense of our family life and ... we lose our sense of rightness, of goodness, of devotion.

It is easy to see the resemblance between our modern-day situation and that of ancient Rome. According to Will Durant [an eminent writer and student of civilization], “Prostitution flourished. Homosexualism was stimulated by contact with Greece and Asia; many rich men paid a talent ($3,600) for a male favorite; Cato complained that a pretty boy cost more than a farm. But women did not yield the field to these Greek and Syrian invaders. They took eagerly to all those supports of beauty that wealth now put within their reach. Cosmetics became a necessity, and caustic soap imported from Gaul tinged graying hair into auburn locks.

“Women won the free administration of their dowries, divorced their husbands or occasionally poisoned them, and doubted the wisdom of bearing children in an age of urban congestion and imperialistic wars. Already by 160 Cato and Polybius had noted a decline of population and the inability of the state to raise such armies as had risen to meet Hannibal. The new generation, having inherited world mastery, had not time or inclination to defend it; that readiness for war which had characterized the Roman landowner disappeared now that ownership was being concentrated in a few families and a proletariat without stake in the country filled the slums of Rome. Men became brave by proxy; they crowded the amphitheater to see bloody games and hired gladiators to fight before them at their banquets.” (Will Durrant, The Story of Civilization, Caesar and Christ, pp. 89–90)

My brothers and sisters, I beg of you to study history—the history of the world. Look at Babylon in Assyria. Look at Jerusalem. Read about Sodom and Gomorrah. The story of Rome and its dissoluteness is in every library. Other cities likewise slipped from high plateaus to low marshes and defilement.

Rome gained the world and lost its soul. As Durant says, “Every new conquest made Rome richer, more rotten, more merciless. She had won every war but the class war. … Now through a hundred bitter years of revolution, Rome would pay the penalty of gaining the world.” (Durant, p. 108.)

His epilogue summarizes: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within. The essential causes of Rome’s decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.” (Durant, p. 665.)

We have been concerned with the rapid rise of a public notion that families should be reduced. A congressman whom we know proposed a program of limiting the family to two children. Again, study the history of countries that have done this. It seems that imported laborers, slaves, uneducated criminals often take the place of the children who would have been under supervision and training.

Will Durant queries:

“What had caused this fall in population? Above all, family limitation. Practiced first by the educated classes, it had not seeped down to a proletariat named for its fertility; by a.d. 100 it had reached the agricultural classes. … Though branded as a crime, infanticide flourished as poverty grew. Sexual excesses may have reduced human fertility; the avoidance or deferment of marriage had a like effect, and the making of eunuchs increased as Oriental customs flowed in to the West. …  

“The rapidly breeding Germans could not understand the classic culture, did not accept it, did not transmit it; the rapidly breeding Orientals were mostly of a mind to destroy that culture; the Romans, possessing it, sacrificed it to the comforts of sterility. Rome was conquered not by barbarian invasion from without, but by barbarian multiplication within.

“Moral decay contributed to the dissolution. … Men had now, in the middle and upper classes, the means to yield to temptation, and only expediency to restrain them. Urban congestion multiplied contacts and frustrated surveillance; immigration brought together a hundred cultures whose differences rubbed themselves out into indifference. Moral and esthetic standards were lowered by the magnetism of the mass; and sex ran riot in freedom while political liberty decayed.” (Durant, pp. 666–67.)

The real tragedy is the large number of innocent children who live with only one parent after a divorce or family breakup. In a city not far away from Salt Lake City, 38 percent of all the children under 18 are short of parents. Only one parent is their best record. When children drop to a one-parent basis, that is the announcement of the failing civilization, and it means social disorganization. One survey stated that 70 percent of male prisoners in the United States came from broken homes where they lived with only one parent. ("Home: the Place to Save Society," Ensign, January 1975, 3)

Ezra Taft Benson (Quorum of the Twelve)

As a free people, we are following very closely in many respects the pattern which led to the downfall of the great Roman Empire. A group of well-known historians has summarized those conditions leading to the downfall of Rome in these words:

“… Rome had known a pioneer beginning not unlike our own pioneer heritage, and then entered into two centuries of greatness, reaching its pinnacle in the second of those centuries, going into the decline and collapse in the third. Yet, the sins of decay were becoming apparent in the latter years of that second century.

“It is written that there were vast increases in the number of the idle rich, and the idle poor. The latter (the idle poor) were put on a permanent dole, a welfare system not unlike our own. As this system became permanent, the recipients of public largesse (welfare) increased in number. They organized into a political block with sizable power. They were not hesitant about making their demands known. Nor was the government hesitant about agreeing to their demands … and with ever-increasing frequency. Would-be emperors catered to them. The great, solid middle class—Rome’s strength then as ours is today—was taxed more and more to support a bureaucracy that kept growing larger, and even more powerful. Surtaxes were imposed upon incomes to meet emergencies. The government engaged in deficit spending. The denarius, a silver coin similar to our half dollar, began to lose its silvery hue. It took on a copper color as the government reduced the silver content.

“Even then, Gresham’s law was at work, because the real silver coin soon disappeared. It went into hiding.

“Military service was an obligation highly honored by the Romans. Indeed, a foreigner could win Roman citizenship simply by volunteering for service in the legions of Rome. But, with increasing affluence and opulence, the young men of Rome began avoiding this service, finding excuses to remain in the soft and sordid life of the city. They took to using cosmetics and wearing feminine-like hairdo’s and garments, until it became difficult, the historians tell us, to tell the sexes apart.

“Among the teachers and scholars was a group called the Cynics whose number let their hair and beards grow, and who wore slovenly clothes, and professed indifference to worldly goods as they heaped scorn on what they called ‘middle class values.’

“The morals declined. It became unsafe to walk in the countryside or the city streets. Rioting was commonplace and sometimes whole sections of towns and cities were burned.

“And, all the time, the twin diseases of confiscatory taxation and creeping inflation were waiting to deliver the death blow.

“Then finally, all these forces overcame the energy and ambition of the middle class.

“Rome fell.

“We are now approaching the end of our second century.” (Address by Governor Ronald Reagan of California at Eisenhower College, New York, 1969.)

In 1787 Edward Gibbon completed his noble work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Here is the way he accounted for the fall:

1. The undermining of the dignity and sanctity of the home, which is the basis of human society.

2. Higher and higher taxes and the spending of public monies for free bread and circuses for the populace.

3. The mad craze for pleasure, sports becoming every year more and more exciting and brutal.

4. The building of gigantic armaments when the real enemy was within the decadence of the people.

5. The decay of religion—faith fading into mere form, losing touch with life, and becoming impotent to warn and guide the people.

Is there a parallel for us in America today? Could the same reasons that destroyed Rome destroy America and possibly other countries of the free world?

For eight years in Washington I had this prayerful statement on my desk: “O God, give us men with a mandate higher than the ballot box.”

The lessons of history, many of them very sobering, ought to be turned to during this hour of our great achievements, because during the hour of our success is our greatest danger. Even during the hour of our great prosperity, a nation may sow the seeds of its own destruction. History reveals that rarely is a great civilization conquered from without unless it has weakened or destroyed itself within.

The lessons of history stand as guideposts to help us safely chart the course for the future. ("Watchmen, Warn the Wicked," Ensign, July 1973, 38)