In the year 210 AD, after two decades of constant warfare, Roman Emperor Septimius Severus was finally satisfied: he had conquered nearly the entire known western world.
This was the year that the Roman Empire reached its maximum territory– approximately 5 million square kilometers, stretching from Morocco to Georgia, from southern Scotland to western Iran.
Plus Rome controlled absolutely everything in and around the Mediterranean. They controlled the Black Sea. They controlled the Nile and Danube Rivers. They controlled the Silk Road.
In short, Rome controlled virtually every known trade route in the world, and this gave them extraordinary economic power.
But it came at great cost: It’s expensive to wage war. It’s even more expensive to maintain a huge empire.
And in order to pay for it all, Septimius Severus resorted to heavily debasing the Roman currency. The purity of the denarius silver coin plunged from 83.5% down to just 55% during his rule.
Severus died the following year in 211, at which point his son Caracalla became emperor after murdering his own brother.
Caracalla was legendary for his cruelty, brutality, and poor decisions. He executed many of Rome’s most productive citizens, doubled tax rates, and debased the currency even further.
Caracalla was eventually slain by one of his own soldiers. But Rome’s string of bloodthirsty, maniacal emperors was just getting started.
By 218 AD, for example, the new Emperor Elagabalus completely ignored the duties of his office because he was so obsessed with his own sexuality.
Elagabalus reportedly offered to give away half of the Roman Empire as payment to any surgeon who could turn him into a woman, and he used to regularly prostitute himself at local brothels around Rome.
He too, was assassinated.
In fact political assassinations were becoming so commonplace in Rome that it was almost remarkable when an emperor died of natural causes.
In 238 AD, for example, Rome had SIX different emperors in a single year, with each plotting the murder of his predecessor.
Throughout the entire third century, in fact, Rome had a total of 35 different emperors. Only one is certain to have died of natural causes. Most were murdered by rivals.
By mid-century, Rome was in full-blown crisis. In fact historians today actually call this period the “Crisis of the Third Century”.
The political turmoil caused deep distrust in institutions; the Emperors themselves were typically corrupt, depraved, incompetent, or all of the above, and Romans lost all confidence in their government.
Moreover, the currency had been debased so severely that inflation was rampant across the empire.
The government was routinely failing to secure its borders, and various foreign tribes began flooding into Roman territory, causing severe disruptions to trade and agricultural production.
Rising powers in the region– namely the Kingdom of Alemannia– even began conducting raids in the Empire and directly engaging the Roman military. Rome suffered a number of embarrassing military defeats, shattering its reputation as a strong, invincible superpower.
Oh, and there was also a massive pandemic in the year 249. (Stop me when this all sounds familiar).
It was known as the Plague of Cyprian, and it caused even more widespread economic devastation.
In particular, the pandemic caused major labor shortages, and nearly every industry struggled to find enough workers.
So naturally the imperial government stepped in and started forcing people into government service. They needed more soldiers to enforce their ridiculous edicts, and more tax collectors to steal people’s money. And this made the labor shortages even worse.
Rome was essentially in a period of nasty stagflation. The currency was constantly losing value, prices were rising, and the economy was shrinking.
Trust was at an all-time low, social divisions were extreme, civil war was commonplace, corruption reigned, and people felt like the situation was hopeless.
It was around this time that the Empire literally began to split apart. By 270, in fact, what used to be known as the Roman Empire had actually divided into three distinct regional empires. And it appeared that the once-dominant superpower was no more.
But that’s also when a former soldier named Lucius Domitius Aurelianus became emperor of the new, smaller, regional Roman Empire.
He is known to history as Aurelian, and his top priority upon assuming power was reunifying the Empire.
His military victories were nothing short of astonishing; within just a few years, Aurelian had reconquered nearly all of the Roman territory that had been lost during the Crisis of the Third Century.
He also took steps to reform the currency, heal social divisions, eliminate corruption, and slash the government budget.
Aurelian only ruled for about five years (before he, too, was murdered by rivals). But his actions were so successful in helping to end the crisis that he was given the title Restitutor Orbis– Restorer of the World.
Rome eventually did fall. But without Aurelian, it would have all probably ended in 270 AD.
In just five years he managed to implement enough reforms to keep the western empire going for another two centuries.
Centuries from now, future historians may look back on this time as America’s “Crisis of the 21st century”.
When you think about it, so far this century the US has endured the 9/11 attacks, the War on Terror, the Global Financial Crisis, a complete breakdown of trust, extreme social divisions, chaos at the border, cancel culture, Big Tech censorship, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of China, humiliation in Afghanistan, war in Europe, record high debts and deficits, inflation, stagflation, and much more.
It looks eerily similar to Rome’s Crisis of the Third Century. And I know for many people it seems hopeless. But it’s not.
The 1970s was another extremely dark period in the United States which included stagflation, crime, political corruption, energy crisis, hostages in Iran, and the constant threat of war with the Soviet Union.
It was a horrible time. But nothing unifies voters and focuses their minds on the right priorities like shared suffering.
And so in 1980, voters threw all the bums out and brought in a new government that, within a few years, tamed inflation, cut taxes, reduced the size of government, strengthened the military, and set much better conditions for economic prosperity.
(I’d actually encourage you to watch Ronald Reagan’s brief remarks during his very first press conference in 1981, summarizing his administration’s mission.)
If we’re being intellectually honest, government bears the bulk of the responsibility for most of the problems we’re facing today. So theoretically, a better, more responsible government has the power to arrest the decline and move things in the right direction once again.
And there is substantial historical precedent for this turnaround thesis; Aurelian is just one example.
But it would be a major affront to our basic human dignity to capitulate all responsibility for our lives to politicians. And frankly I think this is a huge problem.
Too often people believe that they don’t have control over their own lives, and that things will only start to improve once the ‘right’ people have been elected.
Sure, it’s possible that a better, reform-minded government may emerge from this Crisis of the 21st Century.
But the reality is that no one needs to wait for an election, or for some politician to ride to the rescue.
Most of us as individuals lack the authority or resources to fix national problems on a grand scale. But we absolutely have the power, and a multitude of tools at our disposal, to set ourselves up for success.
For example, we know Social Security’s major trust funds will run out of money in about 10 years, causing the program to make drastic cuts to its benefits.
But we also have a number of tools available to fix this problem for ourselves– like setting up a robust retirement structure and channeling side-income into tax-advantaged investments.
We know taxes are on the rise and likely to rise more. But we also have completely legal ways to reduce them.
We may be facing certain domestic risks at home. But there are nearly 200 other countries in the world where we can set up our own personal safe havens.
We can certainly hope the Crisis of the 21st Century ends with voters coming together and electing a responsible government.
But in the meantime, there are countless steps that anyone can take to improve their own lives which don’t require any politician to save the day. Rather, all that’s needed is a little bit of education, and the will to take action.
That’s what a Plan B is all about.
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