Corona and the fall of the Roman Empire: how to avoid the same mistakes

Haarlem, 17 October 2020 – To avoid continued plagues and climate disaster by repeating some key mistakes of the ancient Romans, Arthur ten Wolde calls for voting more women into power and quickly lowering our personal environmental footprint.

As a result of Corona, leading to an overkill of screen time during work hours, I recently started looking for ways to listen to interesting stories instead of watching Netflix or reading. So yes, I discovered the wonders of podcasts. And within the ocean of available podcasts, I stumbled on “The History of Rome”  by Mike Duncan, an award-winning series published between 2007 and 2012. Now I have never been particularly interested in history. But I find the 74 hours tale of the rise and fall of the Roman empire by Duncan truly awesome. Incredible to hear in detail how a tribe from Rome conquered the entire Mediterranean, then lost the western half to the Goths, the Franks and other tribes, while the eastern half managed to rule deep into the Middle Ages.

Six causes for the decline of Rome

What fascinates me the most is how the Western Roman Empire came to an end in 476 A.D. Many historians have presented alternative explanations for the final fall. One of them has even listed 210 different reasons for its decline, ranging from the abolition of gods to celibacy and vulgarisation. Mike Duncan summarises the main causes for the fall of the Roman Empire in six broad categories: political, economic, military, social, religious and environmental.

First, the political apparatus was broke. The quality of the emperors declined further and further. Many of them were cruel tyrants like Nero, while the bureaucracy was hopelessly corrupt. About half of the emperors were murdered.

The murder of Julius Caesar, scene from the movie (2002)

Second, by 450 A.D., the economy was disintegrating while the central government was starved of funds. Debilitating inflation had destroyed the middle class, leading to a super wealthy elite and poor masses. The system of imperial taxation ground the poor even deeper into the dirt, while the rich were able to use tax evasion.

Then there were the military factors. The empire could no longer raise an army. The legions had ceased to exist. Instead, the Romans paid for protection by hiring foreign mercenaries fighting under their own king. This model proved unsustainable for self-defence.

As for the social factors, a main cause for the Roman decline was the increasing failure of the empire to integrate their new inhabitants. In the old days, conquered tribes were eventually integrated to become Roman citizens. In the fifth century however, even the most capable German leaders, such as Flavius Stilicho and Flavius Aetius, were denied the respect of Rome.

Religious factors added to this. Christianity alone did not cause the fall, but the religious intolerance, feuding and purges acted as a disuniting force during the final centuries. They also led to neglect of the daily management of the empire.

Finally, environmental factors played a role, including, interestingly, pandemic disease and climate change. The empire was hit by several epidemics, including the so-called Antonine Plague (165-180 AD), probably a form of smallpox. This plague wiped out up to 15% (!) of the Roman population, devastating  the economy, accelerating the influx of neighbouring tribes without proper integration, and quite possibly permanently crippling the Empire. On top of this, the climate in Europe started to show wild fluctuations between 150 and 550 A.D. In the A.D. 240s, a ferocious drought struck. Close on its heels, another pandemic, known as the Plague of Cyprian, broke out. These environmental factors combined to yield far more famines than before, thereby further destabilising the empire.

Painting of the Antonine Plague

The importance of feminine power

There are two things that strike me in this analysis.

First, I see a lack of feminine power throughout Roman culture as a deeper laying cause for the decline. The Roman society was strongly patriarchal. Women had no rights. Only a handful of Roman women, like Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia and Empress Galla Placidia, played any significant role at all. More specifically, I mean not only mean a lack of women in power, but also a lack of “yin” in the ruling men. According to traditional Chinese philosophy, yin and yang are the two primary cosmic principles of the universe. The eastern philosophical equivalent of the western law of physics that “action equals minus reaction”. Yin is the passive, feminine part. Yang is the active, male part. Overall, the Roman culture was so strong because of its yang elements, including superior military strength and the glorification of military victories. Initially, these yang forces were balanced by sufficient yin. For instance, the first seven kings or Rome were of an alternating nature, with a warmonger succeeded by a peace-lover every time. In addition, the people held traditional beliefs with sacrifices to the Roman gods, as well as strong family values. The founding of the republic was accompanied by a system of bureaucracy that was later extended by the emperors. Free grain was daily given to the poor mobs of Rome. Poor people had their individual “patrons” among the super-rich. Christianity stressed the importance of love and charity. All these are yin forces that led to stability.

But on the whole, Roman culture was centred in yang. Spiral dynamics, a modern theory of value systems, can explain this more specifically. The central value system of Rome was power (yang) oriented. Yin forces were first provided by its clan background, and later replaced by the order-oriented bureaucracy and Christian faith. Some elements of our current freedom-oriented thinking style were there, but their initial tolerance towards different religions changed into intolerance during the last centuries. Apart from the free grain for the poor, social measures were never implemented.

This leads me to suggest that an increase in yin influences might have saved the empire. Taken into the extreme, had women been allowed to rule during the last few ages, they might have avoided many of the utterly stupid choices made by emperors and generals, and found a way to steer the empire through the many challenges it faced. For starters, they could have refrained from the civil wars that drained the empires resources. From there, they could show respect foreign generals fighting for Rome, reduce their bureaucrats’ corruption and lower taxes for the poor. The actual accomplishment of the latter two feats in the Eastern Roman Empire steered them well into the Middle Ages. In addition, these ruling women – or enlightened male emperors – could have given civil rights to foreign tribes within the empire’s domain, strengthen the legions, and made peace with those living outside the borders. And then solve the real issues of disease, failed harvests and social inequality – including slavery.

Second, I think that the need for an increase in feminine power (yin) applies to our current situation as well. Isn’t it remarkable that plagues and climate change formed part of the Romans’ downfall? Doesn’t that make it worth considering if our modern society is up to the challenges of the 21st century, or is suffering from the same shortcomings as the Romans?

Are we suffering from the same shortcomings as the Romans?  

Let’s make some comparisons. We have certainly come a long way since 476 A.D. First, Christianity brought the “yin” thinking style that steered Western Europe through the Middle Ages. Moreover, this thinking mode is more advanced than the clan-oriented one that stabilised the Roman empire during its first hundreds of years. In an ordered society like the Church or bureaucracy, the interests of the collective again outweigh that of the individual, but decisions are based on written texts like the bible or the law instead of accepted customs.
Then, the age of Enlightenment started, resulting in a global wave of colonisation, the rise of capitalism and the industrial and digital revolution. This is again a “yang”-centred thinking style, which is no coincidence: the alternation of yin and yang thinking styles in the course of history forms a central teaching of Spiral Dynamics. We also have more democracy, respect for human rights – including voting rights for women – and individual freedom. Slavery has been abolished. Again, freedom-oriented thinking is very similar to the power-thinking of the Romans, but more advanced since we abide a written law and constitution. Finally, a growing number of democracies have implemented social measures such as unemployment benefits and pubic health care.

Call to action

This is where we are now. The Roman empire was unable to face their social environmental challenges due to a long series of power-based decisions by their male leaders, including murdering the ruling emperor. Modern western society has evolved into an individualistic one based on obeying the written law, thus excluding plain murder of your political opponent.

But are we in the clear? Will modern law save us from collapse under the current Corona and upcoming climate crisis? Obviously not. Indeed, the Dutch climate activist Marjan Minnesma – yes, a woman – has recently won a lawsuit against the Dutch government, forcing it to implement way more ambitious measures to prevent carbon emissions. However, this victory stands almost alone at the moment. Moreover, the rise of populism shows a reversal in the minds of many people to clan-oriented thinking, blaming “them” for the problems troubling our lives. They vote power-oriented “strong” men such as Putin, Trump, Orban, Erdogan and Bolsanaro into office. Crucially, these countries show poor results in combating Corona or reducing carbon emissions. In sharp contrast, nations with female leaders such as New Zealand, Germany and Finland are winning the pandemic battle while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has put climate change at the top of the political agenda.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who successfully steered her country through the Corona crisis






Now Covid-19 is at least 15 times less lethal than the Antonine Plague, so we will surely overcome this pandemic. However, without quick measures on a global scale to save the remaining biodiversity, new plagues will be hitting us at an increasing pace. Moreover, global warming is already costing us dearly with the rise of devastating hurricanes and wild fires, and forms far worse a threat than the natural climate change in Roman times. On top of this we are currently suffering from a socio-economic crisis with rising poverty, unemployment, inequality, discrimination, refugees and ill-integrated immigrants. Our system is super vulnerable to any crisis – just like ancient Rome. Civil unrest can quickly grow into upheaval and spin out of control into civil war if governments continue the current yang policies. Revolutions have often started suddenly, with no one seeing them coming.

To stabilise our society, we therefore need to rapidly switch to the next yin-centred thinking style: social and environmental. This brings me to two recommendations to – well, to everyone really.

First, for those with voting rights: vote women into power. Whenever the next upcoming elections arrive in your country, look at the women on the various lists, and vote for the one in the party closest to your ideas. If no women are leading the lists, as happens to be the case in the upcoming US elections, vote for woman highest on the list. They can then start planting billions of trees, implement universal basic income and shift taxes from labour to resources and the super-rich – among a few urgent policy reforms.

Second, don’t wait for your government to solve the climate crisis. As of today, start reducing your own environmental footprint as much as possible without disrupting your life. Move your money to an ethical bank, eat less meat, buy an efficient car, stop buying fast fashion, insulate your house, buy solar panels; there are dozens of easy ways that, taken together, come a long way. Moreover, the “power of one” is enormous: your actions will affect those of the people around you, and we are with 7 billion “ones” on the planet.

Still, a collective bottom-up movement will not be able to steer us away from a climate disaster in time. Our economic system prevents this. Apart from a few niches, sustainable products and services are too expensive for most people, or simply not available.

And that is why voting women with yin ideas into power is so important. Or, when no women are eligible, enlightened men with yin ideas.  Only they can change the system into a social one. The Roman Gracchus brothers tried this first in the 120s B.C. It’s about time to make it happen.

Arthur ten Wolde is the Owner and Head of Circular Future