I was standing outside the Roman Forum with a group of American college students in 1983 when one of my classmates kept repeating the same joke about the rectangular piazza before us.
“It’s all in ruins, man,” he said again and again. “Ruins.”
Our group of a dozen students was spending a semester studying abroad. Our focus was ancient history and archaeology. In Rome, that meant studying ruins.
Yet something more important sunk in during that semester overseas: the realization that however much historians might debate the idea, Rome and her empire did indeed fall. There was no denying that we were standing in the ruins of a glorious civilization and that at some point, the Romans had let it all go to hell.
Now the clock is ticking down for us: our empire is also falling. That’s not just some paranoid fantasy. It’s reality.
You don’t have to be a classical history major to understand it, but knowing some history puts it all into a clear perspective.
An Empire Too Vast
The Roman Empire circa A.D. 300 spanned a huge area, from the Middle East to the middle of the British Isles. It had the most powerful military in the world — just as we do today.
But even as Rome’s influence loomed so large, it had already begun to develop the systemic weaknesses which eventually brought about its end.
Under constant pressure to defend itself, the Empire taxed its citizens to new levels. Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) was one of the first to do this. Although taxation became fairer, it was also higher —essentially a desperate measure to cover increasing bureaucratic costs and continuous military campaigns.
Rome’s military industrial establishment was just as enmeshed in the “forever war” we lament today. Our own foreign military footprint has more than doubled since the end of The Cold War. Today, the U.S. has more than 700 military bases in more than 80 countries.
Like Rome, the U.S. is also becoming increasingly dependent on foreign troops. Case in point, the $138 billion dollars we spent during the Iraq war on private military contractors for everything from security to logistics.
The Rot Within
The rot that undermined Rome circa A.D. 300 also ocurred within the empire, just as it is now in America circa A.D. 2015. Behold the slightly Neronic figure of Donald Trump as president, who is no less absurd than the candidates proffered up by the late Roman Empire.
Take Emperor Honorius, who reigned from A.D. 393-423. He has the distinction of being labeled by one historian as the Roman emperor who presided in a “period during which the condition of the human race had been most calamitous”. He was also called “mulish and obstinate”.
The Loss of the Republic
One of the most important seeds of Roman imperial decline was sown when its Senate first began to weaken. Our own Congress is now so despised, venal, and ineffective that its job approval ratings during the past five years are the lowest since The Gallup Organization, began compiling them in 1974.
The Roman Republic was doomed when the personal charisma of figures like Julius Caesar trumped (no pun intended) the workings of the Senatorial system.
There are plenty of other signs that our time as a Republic has come. And gone.
For one thing, American elites seem to have embraced shameless nepotism in their efforts to distance themselves from their countrymen and women both financially and socially.
Yes, the Roosevelts might have marked the first “dynastic” presidency of modern times, and there was the political clan of the Kennedys. But it’s getting more frequent now.
We’ve had two Bushes in the past 25 years and the Clintons seem determined to follow their lead. Not just with Hillary, but also with their sheltered daughter Chelsea.
Grave economic indicators also loom.
Like the fading Roman Empire, the U.S. suffers from poor economic management, huge military expenditures, and excessive minting of money. The Roman Empire was besieged by heavy administrative costs, which were funded by increasing tax rates and fees.
A Cultural Collapse
Clear parallels exist among social markers, too. In the U.S., we revile — and yet rely completely on — foreigners. Much as Rome did during its decline.
The Roman underclass was generally looked down upon — our word “vulgar” comes from the Latin vulgus, a term the Romans used for the “common people,” and the “crowd.” But this social class was also a vital political group, which those seeking power sought to manipulate.
In a cynical fashion reminiscent of the fading Roman empie, American political parties now only pay heed to the underclass, our faltering middle class, and immigrant populations come election time.
There was a time in the U.S. when only criminals and prostitutes had tattoos, let their pants sag, and engaged in public displays of sexual activity for money or notoriety. The fact that this repellant conduct is now mainstream is also an unmistakable indication of our cultural decline.
Perhaps the increasing disgust the American people feel about themselves and their own society.
Romans displayed the same behavior along the path to their decline. When Germanic captives were paraded through the streets of Rome, the Romans viewed them as barbarous. However, they were simultaneously captivated by the blonde hair of this lowly population and blonde wigs from the prisoners’ hair became all the rage. The late Roman emperor Honorius actually had to issue edicts against the adoption of barbarian dress, such as trousers and long hair, for fear of culture dilution.
Bread and Circuses
Like the Romans, we now offer our own profusion of “bread-and-circuses.” Epic events like the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, so-called “reality” television shows, and even the nightly news broadcasts now serve no other function but to distract our population from their declining standard of living.
The Romans used the gladiatorial games not just to entertain the populace, but also to instill a sense of fear in them as a method of social control. We entertain and control our own population in a similar manner, through shows like “Cops” and the endless alarms of the “War on Terror.”
The bogeyman — whether he be a Visigothic warrior displayed in the Colosseum or an ISIS terrorist on television — is always a useful tool for social control.
The Death Spiral
The key question is whether we are truly living at the end of an empire?
Let me phrase that question another way: Is there any possible way we’re not living through the decline of the U.S. Empire and the final years of the brief period of global dominance we’ve enjoyed since World War II?
The parallels noted above are part of the answer, especially given history’s unfortunate penchant for repetition. However, they’re not the only factors we must consider.
We also have to take into account the changes wrought by the Information Age. Today, any citizen can easily look up the decline and fall of the Roman Empire on the Internet. That easy access to knowledge could conceivably change the timeline for the decline of empires.
Sadly, there’s no evidence that knowing history guides us to avoid repeating it.
The Romans were not blind to the past. They knew of the sad outcomes which befell the Greek and the Egyptian civilizations before them.
Plato and other writers made it very clear that such behemoths were destined to collapse. In his Atlantis story, he even made it clear that we as a culture tend to be naive and forget what happens.
I was at the Metropolitan Museum in New York with my wife last month when I was suddenly reminded of the words of an elderly Egyptian priest in the Atlantis tale. There’s a scene where he comments to the visiting Greek delegation: “There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind.”
We were walking through an exhibit labeled “Byzantine Period” when my wife asked me, “When was that?” The answer to her question about this remnant of the Roman Empire came to me immediately…
“It’s now,” I said ruefully. “It’s now.”