An American Rome
Recently I spoke with a resident of New York City who took much pleasure in declaring it to be “The New Rome.”
It appears to be a fashion to compare one’s civilization to the Roman empire, usually with a minimum of factual basis. But, thinking back on Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it occurs to me that there is more to that comparison than meets the eye. Much of what Gibbon describes during the golden period of Roman Expansion has a mirror today in American expansion. Many of the tendencies and mistakes Gibbon identifies can be observed in American culture today.
Gibbon’s History is a massive, sprawling monolith which I have no right to condense. His narrative threads entwine with the complexity of a mangrove swamp to form a layered, nuanced argument. It defies quick analysis. But dominant themes emerge, and if pressed, one could offer a short list of patterns that hastened the demise of Rome. I think it is no coincidence that Gibbon wrote his History during the American revolution and subsequent experiment with the Articles of Confederacy. From his centuries of absorbed wisdom, he may have served as a warning to all future American seekers of Empire. His warnings, unfortunately, have fallen on deaf ears, to the extent that most people I know have not even heard the name Gibbon.
His work must be read in full, for this shall be a vast simplification. But for interested Americans, the causes Gibbon ascribes to Rome’s decline that have direct analogues in current US condition are as follows.
Apathy among the Population
Gibbon describes this briefly as “loss of Civic Virtue”, but it is a common theme throughout his narrative. At first, in the days of Caesar and Augustus (BC 30 – CE 14), the public had its appetite whet for empire and cared little for their ancient liberty. Later, when problems emerged on the borders (~CE 250), much of the public, accustomed for two centuries to a servile senate, an expanding empire, an easy life, was unwilling to join the legion without the promise of plunder and riches. Finally, when Rome itself saw siege, too few of its defenders were actually Romans.
Likewise with the Senate. An assembly that once spoke the law of Rome found itself reduced within the span of 50 years to having a horse (appointed by Emperor Nero) join its ranks. Its swift and sudden loss of power could not have occurred without the tacit consent of the population – and once revoked, such powers were increasingly difficult to reinstate. By 193 AD, Senate seats were literally auctioned to the highest bidder. The public had forgotten there was any other way.
Such behavior finds its American mirror in the profound indifference expressed by the everyday person over such issues as the Iraq War, the control of finance over government policy, or the dizzying cost of running for office. Likewise with Rome, our Senate seats are for sale: either literally, in the case of the Blajojevich scandal, or figuratively, in the form of a multi-million dollar cost of campaign. As with the average Roman, these issues do not place highly on our American list of concerns. Regarding the military, Barack Obama recently remarked to a group of veterans that though our country can boast a population of 300 million, less than one percent of them wear the uniform. Just as the Roman emperors before them, our leaders have had to look to other means to support their empire.
Reliance on mercenaries and other auxiliary forces
With fewer and fewer Romans reporting for service, the Emperors had to resort increasingly to mercenaries, usually drawn from the Germanic tribes. According to Gibbon the use of auxiliaries dates before the Empire, but they formed vast minority. As its borders expanded, first to Germany via Caesar and Augustus (CE 14) and later to Persia and Iraq via Trajan (CE 98-117), the empire found the need to draw from the border civilizations for defense. Needless to say their allegiances were of a dubious sort. They fought fiercely enough when they pay was good, but they were willing to turn on their benefactors as soon as the money stopped. In practice, they did this several times throughout the third and fourth centuries, until finally, in 410, assisting in the Sack of Rome.
Now compare to today’s “military contractors” such as Blackwater (which has been heavily documented), and others (who still operate largely in the shadows). These corporations are nothing more than modern mercenary outfits, whom we currently pay not only to subdue Iraq and Afghanistan, but to prosecute our “War on Drugs”, maintain control in Latin and South America, and carry out our secret assassination programs. Mercenaries have become instrumental to our foreign policy.
Expanding and indefensible borders
One problem with the empire model is that the returns tend to diminish with increased expansion, but penalties for the failure to expand can become quite severe. Thus Rome, once committed to imperial possessions, had no choice but to constantly add to its collection and to defend its hard-won conquests at any cost. Their economic model based itself on plundering the provinces of their resources; as population and urban consumption grew, borders necessarily had to expand. Soon their borders became so wide as to be impossible to defend all at once. The legions would suppress a Gallic rebellion only to leave the East undefended. It was a classic case of “imperial overreach”.
The similarities to America’s method of expansion; first over the North American continent, then over Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, are readily apparent. Frequently the US ran into trouble (namely, in Vietnam and Iraq), but expansion has continued unabated nearly since the country’s inception. It is not hard to see the drain on resources and energy adventures such as Iraq and Afghanistan pose to the American people. Worse still, these possessions, once acquired, must be kept at any cost. Hence, President Obama’s escalation of the Afghan war, and the constant stream of military aid we supply to nations and dictatorships across the globe.
Debasement of Currency
Debasement (cutting silver coins with less expensive metal – usually iron) was first practiced under Nero (CE 98) and saw wide use under Commodus (CE 180-193). Commodus, portrayed in the 2000 film Gladiator, really did fight in the Roman Coliseum – and he charged the state 1,000,000 silver pieces for each appearance. There did not exist enough silver to furnish this “new and most ignominious tax” (to use Gibbon’s phrase), so the treasury found themselves compelled to debase the Roman currency further. The Roman economy collapsed into hyperinflation only 50 years later; and while subsequent policy alleviated the situation, confidence in the Roman treasury did not quickly return.
Currency debasement finds its American analogue in “quantitative easing” – the mass infusion of printed cash seen recently in response to the financial crisis. Note that much of this conjured money has gone into the pockets of a few powerful banks to be distributed as “bonuses” to their employees: just as much of the inflated Roman currency found its way to the Emperor’s private purse (to be distributed amongst the legions). The trend has its roots well before our current crisis: indeed since 1971, the year Nixon took the US dollar off of the Gold Standard, Dollar debasement has ensued with ever-more vigor. We have the power now, as Rome once did, to force our currency upon conquered nations. But as Rome learned in the Third Century Crisis, this power is easily lost.
All of this is not to say that the US is in danger of imminent collapse, or even that a collapse must occur. All prophecies are wrong, and predicting the future based upon the past is a dubious endeavor. Gibbon also ascribes several causes for Rome’s decline either which I do not have the space to discuss, or which do not bear direct relevance to the current US situation. The above is, at best, a crude comparison of the US and the ancient society of Rome.
Still, however, I find some of the similarities rather disquieting.