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The rise and fall of the Ancient Roman Empire can be understood once the importance of the Mos Maiorum as a moral code in Ancient Rome is appreciated.
The Mos Maiorum was an Ancient code which loosely translated meant the way of the elders or ancestors.
It functioned as the moral and ethical code of Ancient Rome.
Although it was never written down, the moral principles of the Mos Maiorum influenced all aspects of Roman life and contributed to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.
It has been suggested that the rise and fall of the Roman Empire can be explained by examining to what extent the Romans kept or strayed away from the moral principles of the Mos Maiorum.
The core moral principles of the Mos Maiorum were:
Fides – is the root of the modern English word “fidelity”, and it can best be translated as honesty or reliability.
On a personal level, it was the expectation that someone would keep their word, and at a political level, that the politician would fulfill the expectations of their office.
Pietas – The root of the modern word “piety” – related to the respect and honouring of not just the Gods, but also family and homeland.
Religio and Cultus – are two concepts that go together.
Religio, the root of the modern word “religion”, was the proper observation of religious practices.
Cultus, the root of the modern word “cult”, was the maintaining of the Romans’ relationship with the gods.
The Romans believed they were in an eternal relationship with their Gods. This peace could only be maintained, by observing religious holidays and rituals – religio – and performing them correctly – cultus.
Religio and Cultus could be expressed in building and maintaining temples, or performing sacrifices.
The Romans believed that it was their observance of the Peace with the Gods that led to their success in that their Religio and Cultus were recognised and rewarded by their Gods.
Disciplina – denoted training, method and self-discipline. This could be applied to a large military context, such as the training and drilling of soldiers, and on a personal level, such as having the self-control and discipline to practice a skill, for instance rhetoric, on a daily basis.
In a military context, it was this virtue to which the Romans attributed a lot of their success; because their generals and soldiers adhered to disciplina, they would always triumph over those who did not.
Virtus was manliness, but it included universal connotations of bravery, justice, knowing what is honourable and dishonourable.
It is perhaps best understood as “excellence”.
A person who has virtus applies all their best attributes for the benefit and glory of the Republic. For the Romans Virtus was the most defining characteristic of a true Roman.
Dignitas was similar to prestige, it was the person’s influence and personal reputation.
Auctoritas was the ability to use that influence, and to rally support.
Following the fall of the Republic, a number of contemporary historians writing in the early days of the fall of the Empire suggested that Rome had experienced a period of moral decline shown by a failure to adhere to the Mos Maiorum code.
The destruction of Carthage and Rome’s conquest of the East are events that have been considered as triggering Ancient Rome’s departure from the code of the Mos Maiorum.
Both these events resulted in large amounts of wealth being concentrated in Rome which in turn promoted luxury, indulgence and excess over the individual excellence embodied and encouraged by the principles of the Mos Maiorum.
This caused the decline of Rome because Romans became more focused on advancing their own positions and glory rather than the broader interests of the Republic. The interest in self over that of the Republic went contrary to the principles of the Mos Maiorum.
Roman Senators like Cato and later Cicero criticised Roman Society portraying Rome’s turn away from the principles of the Mos Maiorum as a fall from grace characterised by corruption and moral decadence.
Ultimately, whilst the rise and fall of the Roman Empire can be attributed to a variety of complex factors, there is no doubt that a significant number of Ancient writers concluded that the fall of the Roman Empire was due to the Mos Maiorum being ignored.
In the eyes of these Ancient commentators, the departure of Ancient Rome from the moral principles of the Mos Mairoum was the ultimate reason for the fall of Ancient Rome.