After generations of waiting, we see that America is the New Rome (but not in a good way)

Summary:  What happens as a nation of citizens becomes a plutocracy ruling subjects?  The people’s psychology must change to match their new situation.  It happened as Roman Republic fell; it’s happening today in America.

Emperor Octavian


A theme of the original Star Trek is that humanity was not meant for slavery; we always rise up and fight for freedom.  That seemed plausible when I watched those shows as a child.  Unfortunately, history shows that rebellions against internal elites are rare.  Successful revolutions are still more so (even partial successes, such as France 1789).  In fact subjects in well-managed societies (eg, tyrannies, oligarchies) wear the yoke comfortably.

More common is evolution in the other direction, our subject for today.  The transition from citizen to subject is a bitter one.  How have people managed it in the past?


Their Republic lasted almost five centuries (509 BC–27 BC), followed by five centuries of Empire.   The transition required a complex psychological process, with several modes of adjustment.

First, pretend nothing has changed by retaining the outward forms of the Republic.  The Senate still met, the laws still remained (more less than more).  SPQR still appeared on coins, on public documents, on monuments and public works, and on the standards of the Roman legions (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, The Senate and People of Rome).

Second, hope for a miracle that restores the Republic. Better times are coming! A good emperor will come, or the people will rise up (as they did in the past).

Third, adopt a philosophy of passivity and withdrawal — some combination of irony, detachment, and resignation.  For Rome that was Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Hedonism. The rebelliously inclined adopted one of the mystery religions (esp popular in the Army), or something radically different like Judaism or Christianity.  (This insight stems from Hegel, developed by Nietzsche and others)

The United States

We’re following in Rome’s footsteps in many ways, and this adjustment as well.

First, we’re ignoring the rapid erosion of the Constitution and the civil rights it provided.  The Executive’s powers grow, the Courts become their cheerleaders, and Congress retreats into irrelevance.

They’re watching us!

Second, instead of beginning the hard work of organizing and educating our fellow-citizens, we dream of better days.  People hope for organizational solutions — magic org charts or a constitutional convention, without describing how these changes occur — or why they improve America with no change in its people.  Others draw parallels with revolutions such as 1776 America or 1789 France, ignoring the decade of mobilization that preceded those events.  Quite unlike the apathy and disorganization that prevails today, accompanied by a massive increase in the State’s surveillance and police machinery.

Third, we cannot see what’s on the mind of Americans.  Other than porn, videogames, TV, and drugs.  Personally I find it difficult to choose between epicureanism or hedonism.  Perhaps I’ll try both, then choose.  Followed by a conversion to Christianity in my dotage or on my deathbed.

For More Information about Rome — and its lessons for America

  1. Is the American Republic dying, as in the last days of the Roman Republic?
  2. Watch the Constitution die right now as we burn a 2452 year old vital legal precedent.
  3. For America to prosper it must first burn.

8 thoughts on “After generations of waiting, we see that America is the New Rome (but not in a good way)”

  1. When the name is used correctly, history is a hard science. Like physics, biology, and chemistry. Like the others, it is a deductive science. First one observes facts, then one organizes those facts, and then one analyzes them using sound scientific methods. As opposed to Fox news, where one starts out with assertions, then pokes through the data to see if one can find even one fact to support one’s fantasies. Which is what you apparently have done in this blog.

    One of the oddest things, yet fully understandable, is that some of the very best scientific history ancient history. Since almost no one studies Latin anymore, and Americans never reads history (only fantasies on a few arcane subjects, usually military history or gossip about celebrities, such as former presidents), no one knows what the classicists are doing, so they don’t have to be politically correct and can tell the truth.

    If one is going to make a metaphor or a sustained metaphor, such as you do, one ought to get the facts correct. You are not comparing the US to ancient Rome. You are comparing the US to some Disney fantasy version of ancient Rome. I could list hundreds of errors of fact, but why bother?

    What is the point in comparing the US to a Disney fantasy? None.

    Can you present the names of, say, a half-dozen books by serious classical historian, written during the past 50 years, who would agree with anything you assert in the blog? [Note: serious books (which therefore will have many, many footnotes and a critical apparatus), not text books for high school or college freshmen.] No. Well, how about even one book or a few articles in professional journals?

    Although I personally have worked out, as they say, for 55 years, I have always had zero interest in spectator sports. They are more boring than watching paint dry. Obviously I know nothing about, for example, football or soccer. For that reason, I never would write a blog comparing the US to a soccer game. In the same way, you should not write blogs about historical subjects. A word to the wise. Do not write blogs comparing the US to something you know nothing about.

    1. (1) “I could list hundreds of errors of fact”

      It’s quite odd to claim there are “hundreds of errors” but not mention one specific error. Worse, the section about Rome consists of ten sentences, 167 words. That’s more than one error per word, including the articles and adjectives. Many of those sentences are simple statements of fact (eg, duration of the Republic and Empire).

      (2) “When the name is used correctly, history is a hard science.”

      Another odd claim. Some people consider history a social science, although it’s more often classified as among the humanities. I doubt there are many experts, even historians, who claim it is a “hard science” — a term usually reserved for the physical sciences.

    2. If I can name only one book then it would be The New Deal in Old Rome by H. J. Haskell (1947). This is the classical analysis of transformation of Roman Republic into Roman Empire. Based on economical analysis primarily.

      Read about Rome and think about US.

      1. You can download a free pdf of The New Deal in Old Rome by Henry J. Haskell (1947). He was Editor of the Kansas City Star. It’s an obscure work, uncited by historians and kept alive only by mention on a few conservative websites.

        It’s a polemic, one of the many over-heated forecasts that the New Deal — and similar liberal projects in Europe — would destroy Western civilization. In that respect much like Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (see here for details). Such as this from Haskell’s conclusion, about Western Europe at the dawn of its fantastic post-WWII reconstruction:

        It is quite impossible to draw a safe inference from the Roman experience as to the limits of modern spending. There is merely the obvious warning that it is possible to go so far as to involve destructive taxation with the dangers of inflation. But certainly in Europe there are disquieting and spectacular analogies to the last years of Rome. To pass over the waste and devastation from war, there are uncertainties affecting the currencies of most countries with potentially disintegrating effects on the social structure. There is the spread of totalitarian systems in which Diocletian and his successors would have felt at home. The lives and activities of people are increasingly controlled by regimes that refuse to allow freedom of spirit.

        It seems odd to me that sixty years later anyone still pays attention to these forecasts, after proving totally wrong.

      2. This is a separate comment, since not intended as a rebuttal or critique of Haskell’s book. Paul Krugman provides two cautionary notes about applying ancient world history to modern times, posted the New York Times website. Excerpts:

        (1) Don’t Know Much About (Ancient) History“, 30 April 2012:

        I debated, sort of, Ron Paul on Bloomberg.Video here. I thought we might have a discussion of why the runaway inflation he and his allies keep predicting keeps not happening. But no, he insisted (if I understood him correctly) that currency debasement and price controls destroyed the Roman Empire. I responded that I am not a defender of the economic policies of the Emperor Diocletian.

        Actually, though, appeals to what supposedly happened somewhere in the distant past are quite common on the goldbug side of economics. And it’s kind of telling. I mean, history is essential to economic analysis. You really do want to know, say, about the failure of Argentina’s convertibility law, of the effects of Chancellor Brüning’s dedication to the gold standard, and many other episodes.

        Somehow, though, people like Ron Paul don’t like to talk about events of the past century, for which we have reasonably good data; they like to talk about events in the dim mists of history, where we don’t really know what happened. And I think that’s no accident. Partly it’s the attempt of the autodidact to show off his esoteric knowledge; but it’s also the fact that because we don’t really know what happened — what really did go down during the Diocletian era? — you can project what you think should have happened onto the sketchy record, then claim vindication for whatever you want to believe.

        (2) Diocletianomics“, 1 May 2012:

        In this afternoon’s Reddit, I was asked how the Fed can help the Emperor Diocletian escape the zero lower bound. My answer, I realized later, missed a crucial aspect of the situation: the ancient Roman economy could not have trouble with the zero lower bound, because the Romans didn’t have the concept of zero. They had to set the Fed Imperial funds rate at LXXV basis points, or whatever.

        It wasn’t until the Arabs invented Arabic numerals that the liquidity trap became a possibility.

        PS: The whole thing is here.

    3. I presume you have an indicative bibliography of “serious classical historians, written during the past 50 years” that you could share with us. No jest.

      1. Aguest,

        That’s a great idea. Thank you for the suggestion! Giving the size of the subject, let’s limit it to those works with powerful lessons for us today. My recommendations:

        (1) The Peloponnesian War, Donald Kagan (2003) — Destroying the nation thru foolish military adventures.

        (2) Caesar by Christian Meier (1982) — Caesar was not a hero. Describing the contest over who would govern Rome after the Roman people had tired of governing themselves.

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