Skip to comments.Disturbing Similarities Between the Fall of Rome and Today’s America
Posted on 03/18/2011 12:05:22 PM PDT by Kaslin
The parallels aren't perfect, but there is much to contemplate about America when reading about the fall of the Roman empire.
My specialty is American history, but graduate school forces you to learn other branches of history as well, so it was not any great struggle to teach Western civilization. Still, when I do teach a class outside my concentration, I spend some time reading recent scholarship as well. If a student asks a question beyond what the textbook covers, it helps to be sufficiently well read in the field not to look stupid!
The debates at the Philadelphia Convention, and the war of pamphlets concerning ratification of the Constitution, make frequent reference to the problem of how and why republics die and Rome was certainly one of the more common examples. One of the arguments against replacing the Articles of Confederation with an all-powerful national government was that republics on such a vast scale in people and area were impractical — and Rome was regarded as an example of this. Hence, our Constitution created a national government of limited powers. (And then it evolved, rather like an iguana turning into T. rex.)
Some of my recent background reading includes Christopher S. Mackays The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire (2009). The introduction includes a description of what the Roman historian Sallust, writing The Catilinarian Conspiracy in the 30s BC, saw as the cause of the fall. The Roman republic had successfully defeated its only real serious mortal threat, Carthage, in the Punic Wars, but now:
Peace and wealth — things that are otherwise desirable — were an oppressive cause of misery for those who had easily endured hard work and danger and events both doubtful and dire. For this reason, there grew a greed first for money and then for rule, and these were like the raw material for all evils. For avarice overthrew good faith, honesty and all the other virtues, and in place of them it taught arrogance, cruelty, neglect of the gods, and the notion that everything is for sale. Self-serving ambition forced many men to become false, to consider their friendships and enmities not on the basis of fact but of advantage, and to keep their countenance good rather than their character.
I suspect that when you read it, you will find yourself having the same reaction that my students did when I read it to them. Does this sound familiar? It seems like an awful lot went wrong when the last existential threat to our existence, the Soviet Union, quietly went out of business in 1991.
There are other disturbing parallels. Roman law provided for divorce, by some accounts, from the very beginning of the Roman republic in 509 BC. But it appears to have been extremely rare until the last several decades before the republics collapse. Yet by the end, it had become depressingly common, with even a respected statesman such as Cicero divorcing his wife of thirty years so that he could marry a rich heiress.
Rome in the second century BC was growing fast; Romans were making more little Romans so effectively that poverty was becoming a problem, as farmers had to split their land among too many sons. By the end of the republic in the first century BC, quite the opposite was happening: Romans were not reproducing anymore.
A variety of Roman practices seemed to have played a part in the plummeting birth rate. The legal age for an adult man to marry a female was age 12 but these laws were apparently not enforced, and considering what nutrition was like at the time, you can imagine the physical and emotional damage that likely resulted, preventing successful reproduction. Abortion, contraception, infanticide, prostitution, and homosexuality also dramatically lowered birthrates.
The result? Rome found itself increasingly importing barbarians from outside their nation to do the agricultural work that Romans would not do, because there were not enough Romans anymore. Does any of this ring any bells?
By the last gasp stages of the Roman empire, there are some really disturbing problems with guest workers — but the problem is not the immigrants, but their righteous anger at mistreatment. The Visigoths, pressed by the Huns, ask Roman permission to settle in the empire. Short of workers and soldiers, the empire granted their request. But Roman authorities took advantage of their desperate situation by selling food to the Visigoths that was supposed to be given to them who had nothing to sell but slaves. The Romans sold the food in exchange for good-looking women, [and] pursued mature boys for disgraceful purposes. Eventually, the abuse of the Visigoths ended badly for Rome — very badly, with the sack of Rome in 410 AD.
There are a lot of causes of the fall of the Roman republic, and it is important not to get too carried away with the comparisons. The early Roman republic was primarily a military state, in a way that the United States historically has not been. At least one of the causes of the fall of the Roman republic was that armies became increasingly loyal to their general — not to the Roman republic. (Thats why, when you take your oath entering the U.S. military, it is to uphold the Constitution — not your commander.) We also have not descended into the regular use of violence for political purposes that began with the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus — and continued all the way to Julius Caesars unfortunate end.
Still, I keep finding many disappointing parallels — and it does not do anything for my hopes for the future of this republic.
There are some people who really get off on the destruction of this country instead of getting energized to save it.
Civilizations rise, civilizations fall. I can see no reason why America and the West, in general, would be an exception. America is roughly in the same “stage” as the Romans were during the time period of 122 B.C. to 44 B.C. Our version of Caesar is very close.
> We also have not descended into the regular use of violence for political purposes
Yet. It’s starting.
I disagree. I believe we are the period of the last days of Solomon and just after his death where his son took over.
Yes our great Republic has some major problems, but it’s had major problems throughout it’s history. The great thing about this country of ours is, we always find a way to overcome. Think Jimmy Carter. Right now we have Jimmy Carter 2.0 There is still hope, and as long as that hope is there, I refuse to quit. Screw the doom and gloom comparisons to the Roman Empire. We are not the Romans. We are Americans. We have proven that we can do anything.
“We are Americans”.
Not really. Not any more.
“Yes our great Republic has some major problems, but its had major problems throughout its history. The great thing about this country of ours is, we always find a way to overcome. Think Jimmy Carter. Right now we have Jimmy Carter 2.0 There is still hope, and as long as that hope is there, I refuse to quit. Screw the doom and gloom comparisons to the Roman Empire. We are not the Romans. We are Americans. We have proven that we can do anything.”
It can be MORE reasonably argued that your view is head-in- the-sand to suggest that history will not repeat...only a fool believes that we can have this first time ever level of debt and not pay a terrible cost for it.
For this reason, there grew a greed first for money and then for rule, and these were like the raw material for all evils. For avarice overthrew good faith, honesty and all the other virtues, and in place of them it taught arrogance, cruelty, neglect of the gods, and the notion that everything is for sale.
graphic by Freeper paulycy
You bet your bippy, the parallels aren't perfect. The Roman Empire lasted a hell of a lot longer, before the fall!!!
Just read Taylor Caldwell’s Pillar of Iron and it is based on all the writings of Cicero and Caesar and people living in his era.
Everything you say is true. But according to Cicero it all began when the laws of the Republic were corrupted. The inequality under the law led to power factions, resentment and finally a rejection of law since it was unjust.
Just law used to prevail....that based on Natural Law Theory....and that which did not align itself with Natural Law and God’s Laws were unjust law. He stated that all unjust law is unequal law....gives political power to some over others. It is like the Positivism that started around Holmes...which removed morality from our legal system. It became government force for power for some over others which will always dissolve into eventual chaos and the powerful controlling everything to make slaves of the masses.
All laws made-up by man is to create advantage of some over others. But according to Locke and Founders and Cicero....laws based on the laws of nature and God’s laws will always be just because they are based on inalienable rights of private property and freedom of thought, etc.
Marxist ideology creates factions which divide and try to conquer. It is men against women (feminism, homosexuality) , women against children (abortion), wealthy against poor, race superiority....all that produces the opposite of unity and happiness.
Worldview is what changed in Rome....no respect for the law. Cicero mocked the Senate and its corrupt Senators...Law in Rome became a joke.......because it was so corrupt, and therefore, gave people justification for rejecting all law and order.
I don’t have my head in the sand. I understand what this deficit can and will do to us if we don’t get it under control now. But I also refuse to quit. Maybe its the jarhead in me. I also know that history tens to repeat. Who says it has to repeat with us going the way of the Roman Empire? Why can’t it repeat in the same way as we came out of Pearl Harbor, or any of the other crap we have faced over our history. We have overcome too many times in the past and I fail to see why we can’t do it again. Then again I have never been a defeatist. That is another of my jarhead traits.
I agree with your first sentence. We aren’t guaranteed dominance forever and it isn’t realistic to expect it. The question is do we collapse like the Roman Empire or endure in some form like Persia/Iran or China? There is a model for a big country to stick around for thousands of years. Having said that, we clearly are in the “phase” of living off of our past reputation and credit rather than building up more.
A very great deal of scholarship has gone into the reasons for the Republic ending. Niccolo Machiavelli addressed the subject at length in his Discourses on Livy, expanding on those hints Livy was able to drop while writing in a rather repressive environment under Augustus; ironically, Machiavelli himself was to be prosecuted under a similarly repressive environment under the Medici, one thing that led to his penning The Prince at the same time. Basically the reasons that the Republic turned into a despotism were political, only indirectly demographic. These, I think, have a rather disturbing parallel to those of the present-day United States. There was, of course, faction - Gibbon decried it, Machiavelli celebrated it - but it was the coalescence of that around the figures of Marius and Sulla that polarized the thing irrevocably. Julius Caesar stepped into that mix with an army at his back. What Brutus, et al, did with their stabbers did not restore the Republic, they merely delayed the outcome a few years and turned the polarities toward the Triumvirates. "There can be only one," and that one turned out to be Octavian.
The demographic changes the author brings up with respect to the fall of the Empire have their own parallels, but at least the Goths were for the most part assimilable - by that time being a Roman citizen was still a sought-after prize albeit diluted by political considerations into the non-native-born. Why Romans had stopped breeding is still a topic of considerable controversy; that they had is not. And Rome had, by then, made itself vulnerable to the ending of resource importation: food from northern Africa, mainly, and when that fell into the hands of the Vandals it was basically over for Rome. We remain vulnerable to the importation of resources at our peril.
What Rome did have going for it at the Fall was a strange new religion that was, broadly speaking, shared by her conquerors: Christianity. There is no such parallel working today, although the multicultis in Europe appear to believe that secular humanism has replaced it and will be equally triumphant. Their success in convincing their own immigrant Muslim populations of that is, I'm afraid, somewhat imperfect.
There are those who would argue that the fall of the American Republic began with the Federal Bank, the income tax and the direct election of Senators.
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