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The Cambridge Union debates the fall of Rome

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On Thursday, February 11, the Cambridge Union, the world’s oldest free speech society, hosted a debate on the motion ‘This House regrets the fall of Rome’.

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

The debate was chaired by Freddie Fisk, Union president for Lent 2021. It was held on Zoom and live-streamed on the Union’s YouTube channel, free for all to attend.

The first speaker for the proposition was Dr Daisy Dunn, author of Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet and In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny.

She began by asking the question, "Where did it all go wrong?" and her answer was simple: with the "fall of the western Roman empire" in 476.

Rome did not fall, said Daisy, "because its subjects were desperate to be free from it" – in fact, on the contrary, people "clamoured" to obtain Roman citizenship.

The fall of Rome, she said, ought to be a "source of regret" for those who "value high culture" - the Romans were a "versatile and enterprising people" and society would today be better off if they had stuck around for longer.

Dr Dunn was rebutted by Professor Walter Scheidel, professor of ancient history at Stanford. He contested that "not that much changed" for ordinary people after the collapse of the Roman empire.

Indeed, the decline of Rome, he argued, facilitated the flourishing of "parliamentary democracy", as people were no longer subject to "omnipotent emperors".

The disintegration of one monolithic empire into lots of small states enabled competition and technological innovation, he said, adding that Rome might have brought "peace and stability" but it did not bring any "innovation".

"What have the Romans ever done for us?" "The best thing", he said, "was to go away and let other people build a very different kind of world".

Professor Bryan Ward-Perkins, an historian at Trinity College, Oxford, observed that Rome was built on exploitation and slavery, and that, in Cambridge, we should be very proud of "our queen, Boudicca, who rose in revolt against Roman oppression and fought heroically".

The Cambridge Union
The Cambridge Union

But he noted that Rome ultimately became inclusive, and that even emperors "ceased to be Italian". The later Roman empire was a "single, unified state" and "nobody actually wanted to get out of it". Roman hegemony ensured a period of remarkable peace in Europe, and "had the Roman empire continued in peace, we’d be on Mars right now".

Tom Holland, the second opposition speaker, is the author of popular history books including Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic and In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.

He argued that the fall of Rome was a positive development for Britain, which was merely "peripheral" to the Roman world, and that universities would have been "unimaginable under Roman rule".

If "this House" were to regret the fall of Rome, he said, it would be "essentially wishing that it did not exist". The Roman emperors were vicious tyrants, he argued, saying that it is "no coincidence" that the "emblems of fascism derive from Rome" and that Mussolini sought to "model himself on Augustus".

The debate was rounded off with contributions from two student speakers. Matthew Thal, the third speaker for the opposition, questioned the motion, arguing that Rome in fact fell much later, with the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

View of the Colosseum in Rome in the morning sun. Picture: iStock
View of the Colosseum in Rome in the morning sun. Picture: iStock

Paul Norris, on the other hand, argued that the fall of Rome was a "mercy-killing", since Rome had been steadily declining anyway.

At the end of the debate, the ayes won 85 votes, the noes 45, and there were four abstentions, so this House does regret the fall of Rome.


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