History From Below

Musings on Daily Life in the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean By Sarah E. Bond

Are We Romans?

The trend of comparing the U.S. to Rome is nothing new and did not start with Cullen Murphey’s ‘Are We Rome?’. Here I compile just a few of the articles I have collected over the years and try and epitomize the reasons these articles believe the U.S. to be like Rome. What is clear is that the “Fall of Rome” and the fall of the Roman Republic are most often used as a device to tease out perceived flaws in American society.

Dan Rather (via reporter Natalie Dickinson), “Dan Rather Watched The Debate And Wrote This Dire Warning To America” (Occupy Democrats, October 10, 2016). In a facebook post placed up on October 9, legendary journalist Dan Rather sees the devolution of Rome into “savagery” as being caused by the Colosseum. The truth is, the “barbaric spectacle” of gladiatorial fights far predate the completion and then dedication of the Colosseum under the Flavians in 79-80 CE. The size of the Colosseum was certainly larger than any other amphitheater, but Romans had enjoyed large, patron-sponsored games for centuries at that point.

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David M. Carr, “Are We More Like the Roman Empire than We Care to Admit?” (HNN, December 28, 2014). “(1.)in its use of air power, (2.) drones and (3.) torture to intimidate and overwhelm its opponents. With violence closer to home, the United States echoes Babylon in its imprisonment of millions of its own citizens, with an average of 1 in 3 black males imprisoned at one point in their lifetime (according to an August 2013 report to the UN by the Sentencing Project).” A resonant conclusion: “Perhaps the turn to 2015 could also mark the beginning of a national process of reflection on the effects of widespread institutionalized violence and a search for viable alternatives.”

Luke Brinker, Ben Carson thinks “Political Correctness” Could Lead U.S. to Collapse Like Rome” (October 15, 2014): 1. Political Correctness: “The reason that is very troubling to me,” Carson explains, “is that it’s the very same thing that happened to the Roman Empire. They were extremely powerful. There was no way anybody could overcome them. But these philosophers, with the long flowing white robes and the long white beards, they could wax eloquently on every subject, but nothing was right and nothing was wrong. They soon completely lost sight of who they were.”

Ben Stein (Yes, that Ben Stein), “Decline and Fall of Obama’s America” (The American Spectator, August 23, 2014): Direct reference to Gibbon in the title? Check. This article is very light on the ancient references (no citations or direct examples, really), but heavy on criticism of Obama. Stein’s take on Gibbon: “The book, as witty and sarcastic as it is learned, makes the point — among many others — that Rome was doomed when its Emperors became steadily more stupid, cowardly, self-obsessed, short sighted, lazy, and grandiose.” Also this fallacy: “Starting roughly 150 years A.D., the emperors were so bad that when each emperor died — often by murder — the citizens would rejoice.” Does this include Marcus Aurelius then? Not murdered. Diocletian? Not murdered. Constantine? Not murdered. Many more I could name….

Roger Cohen, “Ambivalence About America” (NYT, August 18, 2014): We have lost civic virtues (Edward Gibbon invoked? +1 Barbarians mentioned? +1). Extra points for this quote: “There is no record of the Emperor Valens’s saying, as Obama did, “You hit singles, you hit doubles,” but perhaps he thought it.”

John Stossel, “Will America Soon Fall, Just as Rome Did? (Fox News, July 31, 2013): *Please note that although this article says Marius held 6 consulships in a row, he only held 5 in a row and 7 total. Also, poor Suetonius does not get a citation. 1. Holding successive offices 2. Over-legislation 3. Pleasure 4.Luxury 5. Coin devaluation 6. Handouts 7. Over-expansion 8. Debt. Closing point: “That’s a big difference between today’s America and yesterday’s Rome. We have movements like the tea party and libertarianism and events like FreedomFest that alert people to the danger in imperial Washington and try to fight it. If they can wake the public, we have hope.”

Tom Holland, “Why Empires Fall: From Ancient Rome to Putin’s Russia (New Statesman, May 23, 2013): Unlike many other articles on this topic: this piece is written by a very learned classicist and historian. A number of caveats and precautions are taken before approaching the subject of declining empires.

Steven Strauss, “8 Striking Parallels Between the U.S. and the Roman Empire (Salon, December 26, 2012): This article goes back and forth between the fall of the Republic and the “fall” of Rome–even though the title says it is focusing on the Roman empire. We will just assume this means the imperium Romanum and not the principate thereafter. Reasons we are like Rome: 1. Cost of Elections 2. Personal Wealth 3. Warfare 4. Lavish spending (Luxury!) 5. Profits and policy made overseas (no Roman examples, but it sure sounds good) 6. Collapse of the middle class 7. Gerrymandering (again, no Roman examples given!) 8. Loss of ability to compromise.

Keith Roberts, “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire?” (Forbes, May 25, 2011): 1. Disparity between the rich and the poor 2. The state favoring the rich over the poor / monopolization of land and assets by the wealthy 3.Depreciated coinage.  Gibbon is indeed the inspiration for this article, along with many others that modify his book’s title for the title of their article.

Neil Steinberg, “Was Rome Felled by Gays or Goths or Christianity?” (Chicago Sun-Times, December 3, 2010): Rep. Ronald Stephens claimed in the Illinois House that 1. “open homosexuality” was the reason for the fall of Rome. Quoth Stephens: “If you look at the sociological history of societies that have failed,” said Stephens (R-Greenville), “what are some of the commonalities- One of those is that open homosexuality becomes accepted.” Steinberg notes Gibbon’s epigram that in actuality it was actually due to barbarians and the spread of Christianity: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.”

Shannon Travis, “Rand Paul Compares U.S. Economy to the Fall of Roman Empire” (CNN, July 2, 2010): Rand Paul compared the economic state of the U.S. to that of Rome at the “fall”. 1. Welfare States 2. Bread and circuses 3. Debt. Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign spokesman at the time, noted: “”[Rand Paul] uses it as a metaphor to illustrate that great nations can fall if they’re not respectful of their great traditions,” Benton said. “If we don’t avert ourselves from our path of unsustainable debt…we are going to see some cataclysmic consequences.”

Steven Guess, “The End of Empire” (The Guardian, January 19, 2009): 1. Barbarians 2. Internal chaos 3. Wasting resources 4. Expanded too broadly to defend itself. Lesson: “But if Roman history is any lesson, America must humble itself to its new position and work as a global partner instead of seeking to once again control the world in the palm of its hands. Hopefully America possesses the self-awareness that Rome did not, and will work to advance an agenda driven less by Machievelli than by self-interested cooperation.”

Niall Ferguson, “Empire Falls (Vanity Fair, October 2006): Gibbon is quoted in the first paragraph, though Ferguson recognizes the regular comparison of America with Rome. Quoth Ferguson: “The idea of Western decline is hardly a new one. In the aftermath of the First World War, a prematurely retired German schoolteacher named Oswald Spengler published the first volume of one of the most influential books of the 20th century, Der Untergang des Abendlandes,usually translated as The Decline of the West.” Ferguson also believes that the last century has seen the decline of the West, and notes a 1. military decline 2. economic decline 3. cultural decline 4. demographic decline. “In short, it has been a decline in precisely the sense that Gibbon understood the decline of Rome’s empire.”

Lawrence W. Reed, “Are We Going the Way of Rome?” (Mackinac Center for Public Policy, September 1, 2001): Note that Reed appears to reuse the same anecdote, almost word for word, as he used in his 1979 article for The Freeman. Also note this quote justifying slavery: “It is certainly true that slavery existed within Rome’s sphere of influence. That’s deplorable from any standpoint, of course. But to be fair to the Romans, it must be said that slavery was far more common and far more brutal in the rest of the world in those days.” Other points: 1. personal responsibility and 2. the source of personal income are still big points for Reed. Also note complaints about 3. welfare states 4. taxes and regulations 5. moral decay 6. natural disasters 7. coin devaluation 8. despotism.

Lawrence W. Reed, The Fall of Rome and Modern Parallels (The Freeman, November 1, 1979): Changes in 1. Personal Responsibility and 2. Personal Income.

“Shall the Dark Ages Return” (July 3, 1863): “And have we not signs of the times, in literature and science precisely the same with those which characterized the decline of the Roman Empire?”

Rebuttals:

Daniel Johnson, “The Mythology of Decline” (Standpoint, November 2011): The article argues that Gibbon created a kind of “romantic cult of decline”. Quoth Johnson: “The rhetoric of decline has become a staple of our public discourse, so much so that most hardly notice when it crosses the line from rationality to fantasy.”

Bill Gates, “Why America is Not a New Rome” (GatesNotes.com, October 21, 2010): A review of Vaclav Smil’s Why America is Not a New RomeIn Gates’ words: “The key point of the book is that more than 1,500 years separate our current era from Roman times, and life has changed so much that any sense of similarity is illusory. In Roman times, people had barely enough food to sustain them. Human and animal muscle power comprised virtually the entire kinetic energy source. Life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years. Income levels were a fraction of what we have today. So the dynamics of “surviving” were completely different then.”

 

4 thoughts on “Are We Romans?

  1. There are bits of it here, but to me once we see the rise of the ‘corporate’ tax farmers after the donation of Asia, and their influence on politics, we start to see the real connection between the US and the Republic. The Gracchi get killed in the streets for wanting to use the money to help the poor (and, probably, further their own political ends). Increasingly the taboo on Senators being involved in big money gets washed away. Eventually you get Crassus as the politician everyone deserves… Once the stakes got too high, money outweighed responsibility to the Republic. Or am I wrong?

    1. I would agree to an extent but the laws in place to keep senators from owning business outright and engaging in commerce rather than land ownership alone, are still in place during the Republic. The stigma is never washed away completely, even in late antiquity. I wrote a lot of my new book on this! Happy to let you know when it comes out, but it talks about Cicero’s view of commerce in particular.

      1. Do send news of the new book along! I generally read a weird mixture of original source material and pop history books – I could do with more serious academic work.
        I’ve gotten the sense that the relationship between politician and publicani were particularly formed during military outings. The wine for slaves deals in Gaul and the help Caesar got from merchants there that led to him becoming a cagillionaire – you can’t sell a whole city into slavery without some help. The relationship between publicani and governors in the provinces in Asia etc… The politicians weren’t technically part of the ‘corpus’ but were potentially in bed with them. People who opposed business interests did seem to have a habit of disappearing.

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