After September 11 and the acrimonious war in Iraq, America was castigated as the world’s sole “empire,” “hegemon,” or “hyperpower.” A series of books, especially in Europe, not only lamented the overweening power of the United States, but gleefully predicted our imminent collapse. The fate of Rome was the obvious and frequent imperial referent, the subtext of any such comparison being that an inwardly decadent America was no match for its poorer, more numerous, and zealous enemies: the Islamists would simply kick in an already rotten door.

Despite occasional revisionism, the story of Rome’s fall was pretty much universal until recent times. After some five centuries of imperial domination from the Sahara to the Rhine, and from the British Isles to Mesopotamia, the Western empire collapsed in the late fifth century, specifically when its last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed in 476...


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