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
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Campaign 2016, reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…
- Is the American Republic dying, as in the last days of the Roman Republic?
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- 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.
9 thoughts on “America isn’t falling like the Roman Empire. It’s falling like Rome’s Republic.”
I am not sure I can agree. Rome expanded well beyond the territorial limits that the institutions of a city state could support. A “middle class” citizen army mustered on a need basis could perform well against neighbors or an invader threatening the heartland and might balk at being turned against the republic. It would not be very suitable to garrison places months of marching away from home; a professional force would be much better for that but then proles who were in for cash and land would follow any leader that could deliver.
Likewise in a still primarily oral culture the popular element could at least theoretically act as a check to aristocratic government in a modest size territory. Without printing press and paper keeping a public opinion in Spain reasonably informed about a campaign in Mesopotamia would have been problematic even if the inclination to set up an improved representative system had been there.
Essentially I would argue there were a number of structural issues that made the republic untenable
Most historians agree with you that the expansion of Rome doomed the Republic. However, some of your details are not correct.
“Rome expanded well beyond the territorial limits that the institutions of a city state could support.”
Rome was not a city-state by the mid-Republic years, as citizenship was gradually extended throughout Italy. This expanded its fiscal and civic resources. For the army, that made more men eligible for volunteers and subject to the draft.
“a professional force would be much better for that but then proles who were in for cash and land would follow any leader that could deliver.”
So you believe America’s volunteer forces will “follow any leader that can deliver” cash and goods to them? I suggest you test your theory with some local vets, perhaps at a Veterans’ Day parade. Report back to us on your findings.
Rome may have ceased to be a city state in size but in terms of institutions it was never updated. There were some instances of votes about matters in Rome being cast in colonia IIRC and of course meaningful municipal election continued for some time in the principate, however little was done to keep up with expansion other than rigging things in favor of aristocrats. Not much constitutional reform would have been possible in any likelyhood.
By the time the social war ended ( and Roman citizenship was given out en masse) the proles in the ranks were ready to follow a Silla to Rome and cut throats. Should they have respected a system where any politician willing to make concessions to popular demands was a candidate for assassination?
Speaking of which as long as some veneer of republic is kept up and the state continues to pay wages there should be no major problems . Once the republic becomes a total joke ,and state support gets weaker then some Erik Prince or some charismatic military leader might have people willing to follow him across the Potomac.
out of curiosity why do you dislike Stoicism? Seems like very smart men like Nassim Taleb hail it. I am curious from another perspective on why some dislike Stoicism.
“out of curiosity why do you dislike Stoicism?”
What makes you think I dislike Stoicism?
“What makes you think I dislike Stoicism?”
Could it be the part where you write: “Personally, I dislike Stoicism.”?
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I have read a few essays on the “fall” of Rome. A couple of interesting root causes were that the youth of the privileged class became more rebellious after a long period of prosperity and sewed seeds of political discontent far enough to undermine the republic (don’t recall all the details). Another was basically the fall of the republic with all the murder and theft in the privileged/political class. The average citizen, soldier, etc., who actually had some “civic” duty to the state/population began to be less likely to sacrifice for said state. Order was basically kept by the threat of violence, and though violence was rare, freedom and democratic input basically faded out of existence. That lasted for centuries, which is amazing, although the size of the empire kept shrinking.