It was the twilight of the Roman Empire.
The decay, which would lead to the empire’s downfall, had set in long before.
The ruling class sought to appease its people by taking money from the largest landowners and most successful businessmen and giving it to the rest of society. But the effort had irretrievably harmed the economy and habituated the poorest and even the middle class to taking gifts and free stuff, and diminished their work ethic. And the rulers, in their indulgence and eagerness to please the citizenry, had amassed for the empire incalculable debts that it could never repay and now could barely even service.
Meanwhile, the empire’s enemies, the barbarians, had grown stronger, with more of them possessing the weapons that once only the Romans had wielded. The emperor, having no appetite for battle, sought to dissuade the barbarians. He trusted in their peaceful instincts, but they were wilier than he and merely used his goodwill to further their evil designs.
The emperor and his empress were ignorant of the empire’s decline and sought only to increase the happiness of the citizens by taking yet more money from the successful and redistributing it to those who were not. And yet, they themselves led lavish lifestyles, traveling overseas on grand vacations and even journeying frequently to Africa, where the Empress rode elephants and tracked wild animals.
About five years into their reign, the emperor and empress vacationed together on a beautiful isle in the Aegean Sea. After a fortnight, the emperor realized he had no choice but to return to Rome. But the empress moved on to another island, where she continued to revel for another ten days in luxury with her dearest friends.
When she finally returned to the palace, rested and full of joy, the emperor threw a lavish party in her honor. Some 500 citizens of the realm were called to attend. Among them were the leading members of society – artists, singers, athletes, politicians, men and women of great wealth and fame, and more.
The emperor and empress demanded that their guests dance for them – even refusing to serve dinner so that none of them would have a heart attack during the gala.
Even as the empire crumbled around them, the empress and her guests drank “sips” of wine, nibbled at small but delicious treats, and danced into the early hours of the morning. At one point during the bacchanal, a beautiful, barely clad chanteuse, whom the empress herself idolized and had befriended, arose and, slinking and slithering, serenaded the adoring crowd.
As the time to depart arrived, the empress admonished her guests: “Not a word about this! No one must talk about what we did here this evening. The masses must not find out how we really live.”
The guests already understood. All of their writing tools and empty scrolls had been confiscated at the palace door, so that they could not record what they’d seen before the wine had erased their memory. Anyway, they knew they must say nothing, or risk never being invited back to the palace again.
The party ended about 3 am, and then the emperor and empress slept very well. They did not emerge from their palace at all the next day. The following day, a Monday, they went and spent an hour making burritos for the homeless at a local charity, just to remind the empire that truly they cared only about the people, and gave not a whit about themselves.
And outside the palace walls, far from the glittering lives they led, the sun continued to set on Rome, and the barbarians gathered and waited.