The Decline (David Engels)

Decline has haunted people since the dawn of time. Already the Greeks and Romans thought they were living in a decadent era. Venice in the 18th century also saw itself as decadent because it had strayed from the path traced by the fathers of the Republic of Saint Mark. The decline does not exist in itself, however. It is constructed in relation to a more or less happy and fantasized past which would constitute an in-surpassed reference. In his book "The Decline: The Crisis of the European Union and the Fall of the Roman Republic", David Engels, Professor of the History of the Roman World at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, draws a gloomy picture of a declining Europe facing numerous socio-economic and cultural upheavals and of a European Union which is moving forward. blind because she does not face her past. But for this author this situation is not unique in history: late republican Rome was facing a similar crisis. The book aims to highlight the similarities between the two eras. Will the reader find the answer to the crisis in this book? Not that easy...

The analogical approach

The author attempts in this work to shed light on the European crisis in the light of ancient history. The author argues that the crisis in the European Union presents some disturbing analogies to the crisis in late Republican Rome. For him, the European crisis is more an identity crisis than an economic one. As long as the European Union does not define what it is, it will be faced with new difficulties in the future which only European solidarity can overcome. It is therefore not just a work that makes the analogy between contemporary and ancient times, but a militant book that tries to demonstrate that our inability to conceive of Europe other than with universalist values ​​in the end voids is partly the cause of the failure of the European project. The approach used, that of historical analogy, is rehabilitated by the author: "we will not hide a certain optimism in the face of the various attempts made to understand, through a comparative approach, the mechanisms of civilizations". This approach, widely depreciated today, was nevertheless a major factor in the development of European historical, political and philosophical thought until the beginning of the 20th century. Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee were illustrious representatives of this historiographical trend which viewed history in a cyclical fashion (rise and fall of civilizations).

A relevant approach?

The Roman Republic seems to us to be very distant in many ways from us. Paul Veyne in his introduction to The History of Privacy (p.14) "The Romans are vastly different from us, and when it comes to exoticism, the Amerindians or the Japanese have nothing to envy. This epistemological position has given many results in France in the sciences of Antiquity. We can mention in this regard the research of P. Vidal-Naquet, J.-P. Vernant or John Scheid. In some ways, historical analogy can be compared to comparative history. However, comparative history can only be relevant under certain conditions. "According to Gunilla Budde and Dagmar Freist, two German historians," the search conditions must be comparable "for a complete and absolute historical comparison to take place, and the search conditions would only be similar when they exist, in the countries compared, samples from similar and accessible sources. The example put forward by G. Budde and D. Freist to illustrate their argument is that of the comparative history of socialist parties. "It would be precarious", they judge, "to make a comparative study of the socialist parties, if in one country the party archives [...] were kept almost in their entirety, while in the other country the data were above all from the files of the State police ”. A priori, we do not have similar sources for Antiquity and for the contemporary period and above all these sources are not of the same nature. The inventory of the latter and their internal criticism confirm the difficulty that there may be in comparing the Roman world of the 1st century BC with present-day Europe.

What sources?

The book poses many problems. Can we put on the same level the testimony of a former author with statistics provided by a European polling institute? Better yet, can we take the writings of the ancients at face value and compare them to statistics which, as Alfred Sauvy said so well, are "fragile beings who, by dint of being tortured, end up confessing everything? that we want them to say ”. We will not dwell on the quality and relevance of the sources used to deal with the current period. The ancient sources used by the author are mainly texts by ancient authors. Cicero, Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and others come together and provide the portrait of a Rome which faces a profound upheaval at the turn of our era. Can we take all of their comments at face value? We know how the history of bad emperors is skewed by a senatorial historiography that vilified emperors who did not fit into their mental framework of the good emperor. The judgment of Roman citizens could be opposed to that of senators. The case of Nero in this regard is emblematic. We see here forming a first filter. A second important filter is that Latin literature is crossed by the myth of the golden age from Catullus. To this is added a literature which abounds in the sense of a decadence of Rome: Titus Live is a prime example. It would be necessary for Rome to regain the primitive values ​​of the mos maiorum to halt this decline. The deterioration of the res publica is the subject of an ongoing thesis by Georgios Vassiliades which will provide a useful clarification on the subject. To these filters can be added the many social prejudices of the Roman elite such as those on the freed, even ethnic on the Orientals that flourish in literature. These considerations were reiterated recently by Catherine Virlouvet in the show Le Salon noir on France Culture on March 27, 2013 which dealt with the people of Rome (the show can be listened to on the site or available as a podcast). With such material, it is easy to find texts that support a point of view.

A Europe that is doing badly

Many analysts agree that the construction of Europe is at a standstill. In contrast, the decline and generalized decadence of Europe is less openly supported. We are not going to detail (this is not really the goal of a history site) the diagnosis presented by the author: the violence of the latter, supported by an important and diversified documentation, paints the portrait of a Europe. and European States which has nothing to envy a book by Eric Zemmour. Thus in his development (p. 64-65) on European cosmopolitanism, the author indicates that in Germany, immigrants benefit more from family allowances, 22.8% of crimes are produced by foreigners who do not have German nationality. whereas it represents only 8.8% of the population at the time. If this vision of Europe is very pessimistic, it is not for all that Eurosceptic.

A prophetic book

The author is looking ahead and we can say that the book is becoming very disturbing: the face of Europe and its future outlined by the author is apocalyptic. Europe must survive or die and for that it must reform and re-form itself because without Europe there is no salvation. The point is original: he defends Europe not for what it is but for what it is not yet and what it can be. The author explains that Europe is the only possible possibility allowing Europeans to be able to remain in control of their destiny in the years to come. The comments made on the various subjects show to what extent, however, today's Europe does not function and is destroyed behind hollow universalist values ​​which do not create real solidarity. The afterword goes further and proposes "a prognosis based on the fundamental assumption that the structural and identity problems enumerated in this work would find a concrete political solution analogous to the reforms carried out by the imperial system of Augustus and its program of restoration or of revolution ”(p. 270). Still skeptical historians may be offended by such a proposition, but they were warned: this part of the book is not addressed to them but to "the other part of the readers" (and indeed the pragmatic politicians). Let us summarize this prognosis: a centralized European empire should emerge integrating (more or less directly) Central Asia and the neighboring Mediterranean countries. It will be ruled by an emperor aided by an ever more robust and efficient administration where freedoms would be reduced to promote security. Democracy would be limited to simple plebiscites. Restrictions on freedoms would be offset by greater material security. Finally, this empire would be more religious, more conservative, more multicultural, proud of its history and its culture, unlike in Europe today. This is only a partial summary of the diagnosis. And if it does not come true, the author has planned a plan B: we will be dominated by other powers and we will follow a fate analogous to the Greek cities and our destiny will be played out elsewhere! Even if we follow the author's logic, problems persist. How could Europe in the future become a confederal or even centralized federal empire when no center really emerges? What profile would the new Augustus have? These unanswered questions in the book seem to us to be the major flaw in these predictions. Rome has always been the political center of the emerging Roman Empire. This place was undisputed. It is unlikely that Brussels or Strasbourg is a similar fate (at least not in the medium term). The nationalisms still very much alive today seem contradictory with the emergence of a strong man who would necessarily come from a European state. One need only look at the protests and demonstrations tinged with anti-German sentiment currently taking place in Europe or even the results of the Italian legislative elections to have serious doubts about a full political unification of the continent.


This book is very interesting intellectually and has the merit of making the reader reflect on today's Europe and the crisis of the 1st century BC of the Roman Republic. Despite parallels and conclusions that can be debated, this book allows us to discover a Rome haunted by problems which are very contemporary with ours. The translated sources allow a greater immersion in this world which may not be certain aspects quite close to ours. In the end, it is an interesting book that poses many problems but which has the merit of being written in a clear and accessible language for the enjoyment of all.

ENGELS David, The decline. The crisis of the European Union and the fall of the Roman Republic, historical analogies. Paris, Editions du Toucan, 2013

Video: David Engels: Jahre der Entscheidung. Abendland oder Europäische Union, Bundestag, (June 2021).