Much ink has been spilled about the end of civilization since Gibbon wrote his Decline and Fall. Christians fret and write about the End Times, environmentalists fret and write about global warming, statesmen fret and write about the end of the world as we know it. Many a bright fellow today frets and writes that our present times resemble ‘the fall of Rome.’

Not so fast—or at least, not just yet.

First, some historical house cleaning.

When we say ‘the fall of Rome’ we usually mean some horrible, cataclysmic event that ended Roman civilization in Europe and brought to power hordes of barbarians and the Dark Ages.

There is a slight problem with this. There never was a ‘horrible, cataclysmic event that ended Roman civilization in Europe and brought to power hordes of barbarians and the Dark Ages.’

What we call the fall of Rome was in actuality a gradual process that spanned 300 years. In Will Durant’s words,

Some nations have not lasted as long as Rome fell.

We date the fall of Rome—more precisely, the fall of the Western Empire—to September 4, 476 AD. What terrifying thing happened on that day? Simply this: a barbarian chieftain named Odoacer grabbed the crown from the last Roman emperor—a callow lad named Romulus Augustulus—and called himself the King of Italy. That’s it.

The grass continued green, the sky continued blue, the wind continued to blow. As for the great mass of humanity on that day, things continued along just as they had always done. No one woke up that morning and mourned, “No! Rome has fallen!” We know that

Odoacer retained the Roman administration, senate, law and tax system of Italy intact. In return, he won a high level of support from the senate and people.

This does not quite measure up to a cataclysm, does it?

And just so you know: Roman civilization in the East lasted another 1000 years. Not too shabby for ‘the fall of Rome.’

Of course, there were doom and gloom types then as now. Here is Cyprian writing around 250 AD.

You must know that the world has grown old, and does not remain in its former vigor. It bears witness to its own decline. The rainfall and the sun’s warmth are both diminishing; the metals are nearly exhausted; the farmer is failing in his fields.

It seems there were environmentalist pests even back then.

Civilization seldom disappears in an instant. It slowly oozes away into torpor, like Europe is doing today. One ruling class is replaced by another ruling class, some cultural artifacts are abandoned, others are adopted. The old ways fade away so slowly that no one notices except wild-eyed Cassandras. Yeats’ warning that

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

comes true, alas, but usually over much time—centuries in fact.

The history of societies that vanished overnight or nearly so is actually quite short. In fact, I can put them all in this blog essay. How cool is that!

History began in Mesopotamia, the same place where the US military is currently engaged in knocking Arab heads together. Around 3600 BC all the cool stuff that we call ‘civilization’ popped up at about the same time—the arch, city planning, politics, irrigation, animal domestication, metallurgy, writing, the military phalanx, agriculture and beer making.

Things went swimmingly more or less even though Sargon the Great (2334-2279) came along and united much of the region by force—creating the first empire, in fact—but there was no ‘fall of civilization.’ There was no ‘slouching toward Bethlehem’ or any earth-shattering cataclysm.

Here is a map of the region. If it looks familiar, it should. The same area that is such a pain in the neck today was a pain in the neck then.

The first record we have of a great fall of civilizations happened because of—now hold on to your hat—climate change! But before you head to the store to rent An Inconvenient Truth know that this disaster happened because of a volcano, not from anything man did.

Sometime between 1600-1400 BC was perhaps the greatest explosion in history, the eruption of Thera. In an instant every civilization bordering the Eastern Mediterranean suffered a monstrous catastrophe. Egypt, Phoenicia, Crete, Mycenae, the Hittites, Troy all either went under soon after or suffered grievously.

Earthquakes, darkened skies, ruined agriculture and tremendous tsunamis one hundred feet high led to destroyed cities, vanished civilizations, massive famines, a vast movement of peoples and warfare among the survivors that lasted in one form or another for hundreds of years.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned..

It was the greatest single event in history, an astounding blast four times greater than Krakatoa. It ended the world as it was then known. And it happened literally in the flash of en eye. Nobody then living escaped its effects. Even in China the explosion caused the collapse of the Xia dynasty due to a

yellow fog, a dim sun, then three suns, frost in July, famine, and the withering of all five cereals.

And there was not a damn thing anyone could have done to prevent it. No statesman, no invention, no philosopher, no ideology, no wisdom, no cleverness, no poet, no scientist, no general could have done anything—all of them went down.

Compared to the eruption of Thera the fall of Rome was a mere trifle, the destruction of Nineveh (612 BC) a common affair, the irruptions of the Moslems in the 7th century and the Mongols in the 13th nothing more than lengthy migrations.

So much of our heritage comes out of this. The fall of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, Joseph becoming the vizier of Pharaoh, the Exodus, the formation and migration of the ‘Sea Peoples’, the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the struggle between the Hebrews and the Philistines, the legends of Atlantis—all of these very possibly had their genesis in the explosion of Thera.

What actually happened in our world 3500 years ago dwarfs even the most wild-eyed predictions of the most addled and gibbering global warming fanatic of today.

But the result of Thera was not in any sense the complete and utter end of civilization. For civilization proved remarkably resilient. There were a few hundred years of tough times when nations tottered and fell, and then appears Israel and Assyria and Babylon reborn and Persia and Greece and Rome—but you get the picture.

The earth threw at man the worst it could and man survived—and thrived. When some environmentalist begins to babble about the end of the world you need merely say to him, ‘Been there. Done that.’

And so the next time some tiresome historian, moralist or pundit waxes on and on about some lessons to be learned about ‘the fall of Rome’ just remember that things could be much, much worse than what happened during that minor little episode.

And just what can we do to prevent another Thera-type explosion?