Bound to repeat it: The late American empire?

by Beacon Staff • April 9, 2008

There he would encounter familiar amenities and safeguards: top-notch sanitation and running water; teeming stadiums and theaters; rigorous state-funded schools; bountiful food and drink.,If a present-day American suddenly warped backwards in time, he would likely find the streets of ancient Rome, during the city's cosmopolitan zenith, a comfortable enough place to visit.

There he would encounter familiar amenities and safeguards: top-notch sanitation and running water; teeming stadiums and theaters; rigorous state-funded schools; bountiful food and drink.

If our time-traveling friend stumbled into trouble, he could rely on courts so fine that most countries today have yet to rival their professionalism and judiciousness.

If he wished to go abroad, a vast navy would be at his disposal, or a latticework of paved roads that would embarrass Massachusetts transportation authorities.

If he preferred to read, worship or exercise, he could go to any number of libraries, temples or gymnasiums.

There would be other options, also: heavily patronized banks, circles of celebrated artists and capable hospitals.

To his amazement, the American would soon realize that this very modern quality of life was enjoyed not just in Rome, but throughout the whole dominion, which stretched from London to Jerusalem.

Incredible disparities of wealth would also confront him, and a large, harsh prison system. He would experience a people fascinated by brutish violence, disturbed by urban unrest and harassed by a host of enemy powers seething just outside the border.

Our man, all in all, would be faced with a massive and imperfect multi-ethnic, multi-racial realm controlled by an unbalanced republican state deeply committed to commerce and internationalism. Technologically savvy, possessing an admirable degree of social tolerance, he would see a "melting pot" with an emphasis on law and order.

In short, a rough draft of the United States (and all of Western civilization) would lay before him.

However, if our epoch-hopping countryman happened upon Rome just a century or so later, he would discover its magnificence crumbling. Not long after, next to nothing would remain of the Romans' brush with modernity, and he would wonder: How did this happen?

"A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within," wrote Will Durant sixty-plus years ago, in the superb Christ and Caesar. "The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars."

Indeed, Rome's collapse had a thousand factors, but a number of them are very clear.

Part of it had to do with the vandalization of the earth itself. Cyprian, a third-century Catholic bishop, said, "You must know that the world has grown old, and does not retain its former vigor. It bears witness to its own decline." The Romans destroyed forests indiscriminately, abused the soil and destroyed eco-systems by fiddling with standing and running water.

Meanwhile, the old caliber of man-power disappeared as the population stagnated. Wrote Durant: "The avoidance or deferment of marriage ... [and] the operation of contraception, abortion and infanticide had a dysgenic as well as a numerical effect: the ablest men married latest, bred last and died soonest."

The end of traditional family life coincided with the annihilation of the traditional Roman character. Traits long prized -moderation, self-sufficiency, self-discipline-fell out of vogue. The poor became dependent on private and public welfare while the rich festered in luxury, forsaking governance and economic ventures.

It became harder and harder to run a productive enterprise. Sprawling state bureaucracy, sickly industry and agriculture, overseas competition, rampant currency debasement, endless "little wars" and burdensome taxes sapped Roman vitality.

But the problems weren't strictly financial. "Moral decay contributed to the dissolution," noted Durant. Wise Tacitus declared as much two millennia earlier, indirectly skewering his fellow Romans while observing the Germanic lifestyle: "In truth, nobody [in Germany] turns vices into mirth, nor is [it] the practice of corrupting and of yielding to corruption, called the custom of the age." Sexual promiscuity, raging abortion rates and abandonment of the old faith further poisoned Roman society.

Domestic troubles were only agitated by a surge of foreigners. "Rapidly breeding [newcomers] could not understand the classic culture," Durant explained. "[They] did not accept it, did not transmit it. Rome was not conquered by barbarian invasion from without, but by barbarian multiplication within."

The dysfunctional economic and social systems were joined by an increasingly unwieldy political structure. Genuine statesmen, inspiring orators and dedicated republicans were few and far between. Notions of civic duty among the commoners was crushed by corrupt emperors and a sclerotic, self-absorbed elite. Citizens avoided taxes, shunned military service, eschewed public office and indulged in exotic cults (Christianity, for example).

Think again, now, of our American on his holiday-in-history. In Rome's success he recognizes his own nation's future prestige, but does he detect any unfortunate parallels?

Like Rome, we are allowing ourselves to be destroyed from within. Our disintegrating moral traditions, our embrace of deviance and foreign influence, our denatured religions and environmental exploitation combine to paint a picture of America's final doom. And that's to say nothing of the overbearing federal apparatus-to which we are rapidly sacrificing economic and political liberty-or of the mounting trade deficit, crystalizing underclass and evaporating industrial base.

The Roman collapse, Durant aptly pronounced, was an "awful drama" driven by domestic trends: the marginalization of old conventions; an obsession with grotesque entertainment; widespread disinterest in self-sufficiency and self-control; the mammoth state with its taxes, wars and welfare; dwindling concern about the integrity of the national character.

As is the case today, these "unseen protagonists" were hidden in plain sight. The populace, distracted by a corpulent popular culture, simply lacked the vigor to realize and react to them. As Orwell reminds us: "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."

It's easy to read too much into the eerie correlations, but it's also difficult to deny that, in many ways, we are heading down a well-worn path of self-destruction. We have learned much from the tough-faced ancients-but have we learned enough?