It’s easy for us to conceive of the fall of empires. Born in hubris, and often ending because of it, waning civilizations are generally conceived to be innervated to luxury, have poor governance, and are careless of defense, easy pickings to up and coming invaders. That’s the Roman Empire for you, and its decline and fall, or its western half at least, was a comeuppance to its faults, where the barbarians merely gave its teetering edifice a push.
Still, we bemoan what Rome’s fall cost, a seat of learning, of culture, of law, and in spite of its excesses, at least the chariots ran on time. The Romans were simply overwhelmed by a wave of migrants that pushed aside fortified boundaries, defeated the legions, and simply ransacked the place.
Well, not exactly.
If anything, the opening of the great American west is a better metaphor. The barbarians were just tribes of folks trekking out west with their families and wagons, looking for good homesteads and peace with the much more numerous natives, and if they caused a bit of chaos and rapine here and there, it came with the territory. Their numbers told the tale. Barbarian tribes were never more than a small percentage of the native population. For example, the Ostrogoths and Visigoth tribes number no more than one hundred thousand apiece, the Burgundians twenty-five thousand, and the Vandals eighty thousand, hardly enough to disturb commerce and the arts, and certainly not to keep the common language from straying from Romance.
The barbarians of old, like the western pioneers, were not liberators or conquerors, but they were libertarians, and the Roman population, crushed by onerous taxation and regulation, for the most part welcomed this release from misgovernance. Of course, freedom is but a few degrees removed from anarchy, and eventually the common people made deals with the more powerful among them to trade protection for a cut of the harvest. A decent enough trade, given what came before. And so feudal kingdoms gradually arose from a dark ages that presaged the barbarians long before they arrived.
Still, one must wonder. If dark age sensibilities were replaced by new age sensibilities, would the world have been a nicer place? The barbarians would keep within their borders, refrain from invading other places and wanton nation building, and would trade with the Romans and even share with them burgeoning Teutonic wealth and technology. The Romans peace would endure, and so would the Roman rot, and misrule would be ossified and passed down from generation to generation, a societal decrepitude that outsiders would call peace.
The alternative is not inviting, given that dark ages would happen anyways, and to consider it nowadays is simply unthinkable. After all, to cauterize civilization by iron and fire, no matter the eventual healing, would simply be barbarous.