Summary: Sunday’s post asked if America is like the late Roman Empire. The good news is that it’s not. The bad news is that in an important sense we’re like the last generations of the Roman Republic. Rome’s people grew weary of carrying the burden of self-government, just as we have. But we can change.
The original Star Trek taught us that humanity was not meant for slavery; we always rise up and fight for freedom. Unfortunately, history shows that rebellions against internal elites are rare. Successful revolutions are still more so (even partial successes, such as France in 1789, are rare). In fact subjects in well-managed societies (e.g., tyrannies, oligarchies) wear the yoke comfortably.
Although democracies (i.e., self-government) are rare, sadly common is evolution in the other direction, the bitter one from citizen to subject. The most famous example is the fall of the Roman Republic, a history familiar to our Founders — who built America on lessons learned from it.
If lose sight of that history America might suffer the same fate. The Roman people grew weary of self-government, of carrying its burden of responsibility and self-discipline. Civil wars determined who would place the bridle on Rome’s people and rule. Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography vividly tells the story of the Republic’s last days (I strongly recommend it).
We are following that path.
The Roman Republic
Their Republic lasted almost five centuries (509 BC–27 BC), followed by five centuries of Empire. The story of Republic to Empire is well known. Less so is how its people adjusted to this change from citizen to subject. They used several means to retain their self-respect. We probably will use them, too (perhaps we have already begun).
First, they pretended nothing had changed by retaining the outward forms of the Republic. The Senate still met, Rome’s laws still remained in force. “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, they hoped for a miracle that would restore the Republic. Better times are coming! A good emperor will come and restore Rome’s past glamour, or Rome’s people will rise up (as they had in the past). Dreams are cheap, albeit ineffective.
Third, they adopted philosophies of passivity and withdrawal — some combination of irony, detachment, and resignation. These became Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Hedonism. The religiously inclined adopted one of the mystery religions (Mithraism was 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. Three years after Snowden’s revelations, the security State continues undiminished (details here).
Second, instead of beginning the hard work of reform — organizing and educating our fellow-citizens, as done by previous reform movements — we dream of better days. People hope for organizational solutions — magic org charts or a constitutional convention — without describing how these changes occur, or how they improve America with no change in its people.
Other Americans dream of revolution, drawing parallels with revolutions such as 1776 America or 1789 France, ignoring the decade of mobilization that preceded those events. Those events began amidst conditions unlike today’s apathy and disorganization, accompanied by a massive increase in the State’s surveillance and police machinery.
Third, we fill our minds with modern amusements — porn, video games, TV, and drugs.
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
— Attributed to Otto von Bismarck.
What comes next? I don’t know. Personally, I dislike Stoicism. I find it difficult to choose between Epicureanism and Hedonism as the best means to enjoy watching the US Republic fall. Perhaps I’ll try both, and then choose one. Followed eventually by a conversion to Christianity in my dotage or on my deathbed.
The circus of Campaign 2016 shows what happens when we treat it as entertainment; Rome’s fate reminds us of the eventual consequences. The machinery bequeathed us by the Founders remains idle but powerful, awaiting only our energy to set it in motion. Lawrence of Arabia tells us that “nothing is written” (in the 1962 film). We can still forge a different fate for us than that of Rome.
For More Information
- Is the American Republic dying, as in the last days of the Roman Republic?
- For America to prosper it must first burn.
- Scary lessons for America from pre-revolutionary France.
- The 1% build a New America on the ruins of the old.
- Americans trust the military most. 29% are ready for a coup. Ready for fascism?
- American politics isn’t broken. It’s working just fine for the 1%.
- Advice from a sage about America and its future. Listen to this man. — Alexis de Tocqueville.