A failed empire offers lessons for modern times

There will never be an end to the power of Rome.
– Court poet Claudian, shortly before
the imperial city’s sack by the Visigoths.

THE CITY of Rome is known today for its magnificent ruins: the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon – and Marcello Mastroianni. It remains the most iconic example of civilization gone sideways and all the bad craziness of “Empires Gone Wild.” But back in the early 5th century AD, the Eternal City presented a major theological puzzle for a reformed carouser by the name of Augustine.

The saint-to-be was trying to understand how Rome had fallen to pagan invaders, 80 years after Christianity became the state religion. How could a just God have allowed such a catastrophe? Augustine’s solution, recorded in his
City of God, was that human cities are only imperfect versions of the heavenly model – hence their fates don’t rate. It was a Sicilian kind of dodge: “Hey, stuff happens. But the real deal is waitin’ for us upstairs after we die. Doubt it and you’ll end up downstairs, capiche?”

“History doesn’t repeat itself; at best, it sometimes rhymes,” wrote Mark Twain. And when we think of societies that went from bad to verse, Rome is the first place that comes to mind. How did the Romans get it wrong? And is there a lesson for today’s world? As the US finds its economic and cultural hegemony challenged by the rise of India and China, and its hospitals, schools and infrastructure crumble while it prosecutes financially ruinous wars overseas, the comparison of the faltering US to end-game Rome is becoming unavoidable.

Of course, the comparisons of the Roman Empire to societies that followed it are often strained, and not only by empire’s detractors. The US founding fathers consciously modelled Washington’s neoclassical architecture on the Roman template. (The name “Capitol” relates to the Latin Capitolium, a temple of Jupiter at Rome on the Capitoline Hill.) Hitler’s star architect, Albert Speer, did the same for The Third Reich. Benito Mussolini was of a similar mindset, hoping to raise his elfin stature through a resurgent homeland, with fascist architecture drawing on his ancestors’ architectural glories.

By 180 AD, emperor Trajan ruled most of the known world, including Spain, Britain, Gaul and Northern Africa. At this time, wrote 18th century historian Edward Gibbon, “The Empire of Rome comprised the fairest part of the Earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind.” The debate on Rome’s influence continues today, from academia to pop culture. “What have the Romans ever given us?” snarls Reg, the leader of a Judean uprising in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “The aqueduct,” one of Reg’s commandoes meekly replies. “Sanitation,” offers another, with the rest citing medicine, wine, roads and public order.

And what has the US given its provincials, people like us, clinging on the edge of empire? Petrodollars, information technology and Hollywood’s cultural dominion, for a start. Membership in empire has its privileges, as well as its problems.

If, as some historians insist, the Roman Empire was like an organism, then its brain, the capital, needed increased sustenance just to service its swelling body. In his short but substantial book,
Are We Rome?, former Atlantic editor Cullen Murphy traces the life-sustaining flow across the capital’s permeable membrane: “pottery, jewelry, salt iron and cloth going one way, from inside to outside; and cattle, horses, hides, food, slaves and paid labour going the other way.”

Murphy rhymes off the usual suspects in Rome’s decline, including a few that academics have let off the hook, such as lead poisoning from pipes and/or impotence supposedly caused by hot water in the public baths. The remaining, more believable causes include barbarian invasions, a hollowed out military, economic stagnation, the bubonic plague, destruction of the soil and massive corruption. They all played their part, Murphy decides. “As in the Murder On The Orient Express, all the prime suspects shared in the deed.”

The Roman Empire, which was the autocratic spawn of the Roman Republic, lasted 500 years. In contrast, if we date the beginnings of the US empire back to its first colonial acquisitions in the Spanish-American war, the American Empire has lasted less than a century, though its reach today far exceeds Rome’s ancient grasp. The US now has 700 military bases in more than 130 countries, ensuring that access to open markets is backed up by force.

Catherine Austin Fitts, former assistant secretary of housing in the senior Bush administration, gives a concise description of the global US empire as dominated by two pillars: the defence department and the financial/banking sector. The domestic control of the financial sector ensures that those behind nearly all domestic Ponzi schemes go unprosecuted, while the global influence of the US military ensures the empire’s funny money, the petrodollar, remains the global reserve currency – for now, at least.

From this perspective, Bush and Cheney were servants of empire and proxies of financial/defence interests. Due to the Bush administration’s war on science – and just about anything connected with common sense – the current occupant of the Oval Office has inherited a seemingly unmanageable mess. While launching an unsustainable war on phony pretexts in Iraq, George W. Bush ensured that any prosperity was mostly limited to military contractors, Wall Street and the top 10 percent of the population – the latter mostly through his regressive tax cuts. With New Orleans drenched and everything else in flames, America’s answer to Emperor Nero responded to his plunging popularity with another tax-cutting appeal to his conservative “base.” The second round of tax-cuts was seen as a move so fiscally destructive it was resisted by his own party.

Today, the projected US national debt stands at a staggering $10 trillion dollars, an amount expected to more than double over the next 10 years to $23 trillion. By 2017, the debt is projected to be more than the entire economic output of the country, with most of the debt due to federal “entitlement” programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Compounding the economic bad news is a recession/depression aided and abetted by Wall Street’s briefcase-carrying barbarians, who, thanks to the Clinton administration’s easing of financial regulations, were able to turbocharge their Ponzi schemes. Gibbon’s principle of decay has ripened nicely in the Land of the Free.

One notable source of US democratic fragmentation is the nation’s income disparities, at a level not seen since the Gilded Age. Is there at least an echo here, if not a rhyme, with Ancient Rome? “The class stratification of Roman society was extreme,” writes Murphy. “By comparison, Victorian England might seem a laboratory of equality. Rome’s wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted, by one estimate, two thousandths of one percent of the population, then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything.”

The US still has a way to go to match Rome. In 2005, the average CEO in the United States earned 262 times the pay of the average worker, according to Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute. “In 2005, a CEO earned more in one workday (there are 260 in a year) than an average worker earned in 52 weeks.” In contrast, the wealth gap between Rome’s upper elite and everyone else was on the order of 5,000 to 10,000 to one.

Author Ronald Wright identifies another surprising source for Roman decline in his book, A Short History of Progress. The empire’s foreign conquests made great wealth for its soldiers of fortune, who returned home looking for a little conspicuous consumption. The result was a land boom anywhere within the range of the capital. The peasants were driven out onto unsuitable land, with a resulting exhaustion of the soil.

“Family farms could not compete against big estates using slave labour; they went bankrupt or were forced to sell out, and their young men joined the legions,” Wright notes. In a spiralling series of negative feedback loops, public land quickly passed into private hands and by time of Claudius, 200,000 Roman families were on the dole, living off the emperor’s handouts of free wheat. This was part of the “bread and circuses” to keep the restless mob fat and happy.

Rome’s unsustainable practices were towing it steadily toward the Dark Ages and into the long shadow of feudalism. Murphy quotes historian F. L. Ganshof’s definition of feudalism: “a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the state.” In other words, public wealth and public spaces fell increasingly into private hands. We have another word for that today: privatization.

In the Roman Empire’s declining years, entire portions of government were outsourced to what we would now call private-public partnerships. Wealthy, connected Romans were able to start their own tax operations, gathering tribute for the empire and skimming more than a little for themselves. Then there was the ruinous cost of defending the capital. Wright notes that at the time of Constantine’s 4th century rule, the “imperial standing army was more than half a million men, an enormous drain on a treasury…” Shades of the current US military and military related expenditures, which now consume fully half of the nation’s annual domestic budget. Here is where some of the biggest “entitlement” programs are found.

In 2007, private military contractors working directly for the US defence department outnumbered US troops, according to a report in
The Seattle Times. It’s an old game. In Rome’s twilight years, Rome outsourced much of its defence to barbarian mercenaries. Alaric the Visigoth, who led the sack of Rome, actually did a stint as a general in Rome’s army so the fall of the imperial city did not involve an especially violent transfer of authority. According to Murphy, after waltzing through the gates, Alaric demanded that any wealth that could be lifted up and removed was his. When a representative of the ruling class asked what they could keep, he responded, “your lives.”

But what of that rubbery word, “decadence?” Did moral squalor not also play a role in Rome’s decline? You can’t read about the blood-spattered diversions of the Gladiatorial Games without thinking that the Roman mobs were past their best-before date, to say nothing of the ruling class cheering from the best seats.

It was reality without the television. The retiarii with their nets and tridents duelled with the hoplomachi, the enormous men covered with armour and carrying the big curved shields of the legionaries. Slaves fought lions, women fought dwarves and elephants fought charioteers. It has been estimated that about 500,000 people and over a million wild animals died in the Colosseum games.We can only imagine what the emperors could have done with broadband technology, viral marketing and syndication rights.

But is there a more general principle behind Rome’s fall? Edward Gibbon was first to see the empire’s decline as multicausal: “prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the temporary supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”

In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, anthropologist Joseph Tainter cites Parkinson’s Law, which holds that the cost of running and defending an empire eventually becomes prey to diminishing returns. The immense, interconnected network of alliances, market relations and corrupt politicking ultimately becomes burdensome and unsupportable. In a phase shift – like ice turning to water – the system reverts to more efficient, local forms of organization.

“Thucydides observed that empires start to decline when they cease to expand,” writes Murphy in Are We Rome? “You can’t read an account of Rome in the third, fourth or fifth century, when expansion is over and emperors are desperately trying to hold things together, without marvelling at the blizzard of variables at play. Every Roman action to address one urgent problem – military, diplomatic, economic, political – creates unintended new problems. The blood thinner causes hemorrhage, the coagulant causes stroke.”

Throughout his book, Murphy’s narrative voice yo-yoes from mild alarm to stoic resignation. The parallels between modern-day US and the Roman Empire are many and deep, he believes. Information technology and sheer industrial might, things that Romans were without, have only magnified the height from which a modern superpower can fall.

Rome’s functional qualities eventually became dysfunctional. Corruption and flattering the ear of authority ensured that the reality principle was kept at bay. Like an animal crazed from multiple infections, Rome’s bureaucratic nervous system could no longer reliably report and respond to its internal and external threats.

“The provision of security became an increasingly heavy charge on society, a charge unevenly distributed, which could enrich the wealthy and ruin the poor,” notes historian Edward Luttwak in Murphy’s book. “The machinery of empire now became increasingly self-serving, with its tax collectors, administrators, and soldiers of much greater use to one another than to society at large.”

A line comes to mind from HBO’s dramatic series, The Wire. “We used to make shit in this country, build shit,” says a fictional black character living in Baltimore. “Now, we just put our hands in the next guy’s pocket.” David Simon, The Wire’s writer and creator, put it in more polite terms in an interview on Bill Moyers Journal, noting how national institutions have degenerated into mechanisms for personal enrichment and advancement. “This stuff is systemic. This is how an empire is eaten from within.”

The Roman historian Titus Livius, better know to us as Livy, explained that a society’s strength is ultimately measured by the well-being of its people – materially, socially and spiritually. He didn’t mean “bread and circuses.” And were he alive today, he wouldn’t be referring to media-massaged unreality, denatured food, urbanized isolation, pharmaceutical acclimatization or the sacrifice of freedoms for so-called security. “An empire remains powerful so long as its subjects rejoice in it,” Livy insisted.

In Denys Arcand’s Canadian film,
The Decline of the American Empire, one of the characters muses on how life was actually quite pleasant, for some time, for the provincials on the outskirts of a vanished empire. If empires are always programmed to fail and we provincials are waiting for history’s inevitable rhyme, we can only hope Arcand’s film script sentiment is prophetic.