Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The America and Rome post

The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius. John William Waterhouse, 1883
I decided some time ago that I wasn't going to write a post like this one, but the "U.S. as Rome" meme, which had recently begun to fade, has been given fresh legs by the imprimatur of David Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States. Here's an excerpt from Walker's speech at an August 7 meeting of the Federal Midwest Human Resources Council and the Chicago Federal Executive Board:
There are striking similarities between America’s current situation and that of another great power from the past: Rome. The Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years, but only about half that time as a republic. The Roman Republic fell for many reasons, but three reasons are worth remembering: declining moral values and political civility at home, an overconfident and overextended military in foreign lands, and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government. Sound familiar?
I got tired of the steady stream of "U.S. as Rome" comparisons months ago, not only because the blogosphere seems to produce several new ones each day, but also because most of them—even a few of those written by apparent professionals—read like comparison-and-contrast essays for a high school English class. Some mangle basic facts of the history of the United States, ancient Rome, or both. Most distastefully, a disturbing number are noticeably steeped in schadenfreude. Unlike Walker or Cullen Murphy, they don't offer analyses on the shared problems and strengths of two states separated by two thousand years of history, but are instead rhetorical cudgels wielded against America's alleged self-image. The Romans got what was coming to them, and so will America, or so goes the thinking.

Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), who has reinvented himself as a popular historian, has been a celebrity standard-bearer for this phenomenon with his various television programs about ancient Rome and its neighbors. Tony Keen observed last summer that Jones seemed at least as concerned with allegory as documentary:
Jones has an agenda, of course, one some right-wing commentators predicted early on, and which emerges most strongly in the programme on the 'barbarians' of the east. That agenda is the equation of ancient Rome with the modern United States. So, the Roman occupation of north-west Europe is a 'war on the Celts', and he talks of how the Romans came a cropper in the Middle East, just as the Americans are now doing (Jones doesn't say this out loud - he doesn't have to). (Here, Jones has his cake and eats it - the Parthians beat the Romans because their values were utterly different from Rome's, whilst the Sassanians prevailed through being exactly the same as the Romans, only more so.) As it happens, I tend to agree with Jones' opinion of the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But this simplistic equation helps us understand neither Rome nor America.
Ah, yes. George W. Bush. America was such a swell old superpower until he came along in 2001 and mucked it up with his darned unilateralism. If only we could have that America back. But then, here's Eddie Izzard, performing in San Francisco in 1998:

I don't mean to suggest that it's somehow invalid to compare the U.S. and Rome. Cullen Murphy, who appeared on Book TV last month in support of his newest book, Are We Rome?, correctly pointed out that even if the U.S. didn't enjoy the world's catbird seat, it would still invite these comparisons with everything from the design of its capitol's public buildings to the name of its governing assembly. The architects of the nation borrowed heavily from Republican Rome. The enshrined ideal of Rome, or, more precisely, what Rome could have been in more Enlightened hands, was as powerful a lure for them as it was for ten centuries of Europeans before them. America was designed to be, among other things, a revised Rome.

Also, David Walker is right. The problems he cites don't all have parallels with late Rome, but that doesn't make them any less daunting. The U.S. is spending lots of money it doesn't have. A huge segment of the population is heading into retirement with the expectation of a plush government pension. The military is overextended. The infrastructure is badly in need of repairs and modernization.

Like Walker, I'm confident that these problems are surmountable. But if this is a terminal decline, its Western spectators shouldn't look on with any degree of satisfaction. Here's Britain's Bryan Ward-Perkins, writing about the "kinder, gentler" fall of Rome that has pervaded late Roman historiography for the last generation:
My worries about the new Late Antiquity, however, go deeper...there is a real danger for the present day in a vision of that explicitly sets out to eliminate all crisis and all decline. The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times. Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue forever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.
He's not just addressing America, but all of Western (and Westward-looking) civilization. If, in the coming decades, the loci of geopolitical and economic clout begin to shift in the way many observers believe, I suspect the world will miss the so-called American Empire when it's gone. And it's then that the U.S. and ancient Rome will display their strongest parallel: as idealized symbols of golden ages past.

1 comment:

Judith Weingarten said...


OK, I know it's facile but one parallel with ancient Rome gives me nightmares: an over-mighty mercenary military.

Think Septimius Severus, the 3rd century, and onwards.


Empress of the East