America really really isn’t the new Rome

[A ver­sion is cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Memorial based, ulti­mately, on the Pantheon in Rome. Photo by dbking.

Now this could be a car­ni­val in the mak­ing. A round-up of all the America is the New Rome stor­ies on the web. I’ve already pos­ted on how you can inanely cherry-pick ele­ments of the past to bol­ster a polit­ical asser­tion. It’s an unquench­able well.

It’s awful polit­ics though. Important polit­ics issues are hid­den behind what is often poor his­tory. In many of the America is the new Rome art­icles there’s an idea that situ­ations lead to inev­it­able con­sequences, like the idea that if America is the new Rome then moral decline and the fall of Empire are inev­it­able. You end up with the situ­ation where people argue that soci­ety is mono­casual, or close to it, rather than the com­plex inter­play of cre­at­ive indi­vidu­als. An example is an ana­lysis by William Federer which I found via The Lighthouse Patriot Journal, but a search on Google shows it’s been quoted with approval by many dif­fer­ent people. It’s a shame because you could prob­ably write a whole book about the errors in it:

Rome fell September 4, 476AD. It was over­run with illegal immig­rants: Visigoths, Franks, Anglos, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Lombards, Jutes and Vandals, who at first assim­il­ated and worked as ser­vants, but then came so fast they did not learn the Latin Language or the Roman form of gov­ern­ment. Highly trained Roman Legions mov­ing rap­idly on their advanced road sys­tem, were strained fight­ing con­flicts world­wide. Rome had a trade defi­cit, hav­ing out­sourced most of its grain pro­duc­tion to North Africa, and when Vandals cap­tured that area, Rome did not have the resources to retali­ate. Attila the Hun was com­mit­ting ter­ror­ist attacks. The city of Rome was on wel­fare with cit­izens being given free bread. One Roman com­men­ted: ‘Those who live at the expense of the pub­lic funds are more numer­ous than those who provide them.’ Tax col­lect­ors were ‘more ter­rible than the enemy.’ Gladiators provided viol­ent enter­tain­ment in the Coliseum. There was injustice in courts, expos­ure of unwanted infants, infi­del­ity, immor­al­ity and per­ver­ted bath­houses. 5th-Century his­tor­ian Salvian wrote: ‘O Roman people be ashamed… Let nobody think oth­er­wise, the vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us’.

The corn dole was insti­tuted around 50BC and as surely as night fol­lows day over five hun­dred years later the city of Rome fell. Except it wasn’t Rome — it was Ravenna that fell in 476, the cap­ital of the Western Roman Empire, but I assume Rome was syn­onym. Gladiators provided viol­ent enter­tain­ment in the Colosseum? Not after AD 404 they didn’t — the Emperor Honorarius banned them. Attila the Hun was com­mit­ting ter­ror­ist attacks? No. Not only is ter­ror­ist is not a syn­onym for nasty, Attila died in 453. He wasn’t ter­ror­ising any­one. Infidelity? That’s a human con­stant in all soci­et­ies. So is talk­ing, but so far no-one has sug­ges­ted Rome could have remained great if it had embraced mime. Or if they have I haven’t heard them.

Federer’s ana­lysis is lousy. If I got that as a first year essay in ancient his­tory it would fail badly. If his think­ing with eas­ily check­able his­tor­ical data is that bad, is there any reason to assume that his ana­lysis of mod­ern prob­lems is any bet­ter? If you can’t see how atro­cious it is then read this equally vapid ana­lysis from the oppos­ite point of view.

Rome fell September 4, 476AD. It was rot­ten with cor­rupt rulers who ascen­ded to power because they had the right name and fam­ily con­nec­tions. Visigoths, Franks, Anglos, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Lombards, Jutes and Vandals sought refuge in a land that had been home to a demo­cracy. Arrogant elites refused them the oppor­tun­ity to assim­il­ate and expelled any who aspired to con­trib­ute to Roman life, repla­cing them with other peoples when they desired cheap ser­vants. Roman Legions were strained fight­ing con­flicts world­wide being badly main­tained as civic funds had been con­cen­trated in the hands of rich busi­ness men, their con­tracts secured through cor­rupt pat­ron­age. Gladiators no longer provided enter­tain­ment in the Coliseum, so people grew soft. The Christian lobby siphoned power from the offi­cials chosen to gov­ern. Theodosius pandered to intol­er­ant Christians by attack­ing centres of learn­ing like the Library of Alexandria thus con­demning Europe to cen­tur­ies of fear and super­sti­tion in the Dark Ages. 5th-Century his­tor­ian Salvian wrote: ‘O Roman people be ashamed… Let nobody think oth­er­wise, the vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us’.

If you’re nod­ding your head to either of the pas­sages above and say­ing that’s about right, then it reflects your own beliefs rather than any opin­ion based on evid­ence and that’s as badly sup­por­ted as the ver­sion you dis­like. To be fair to most of the blogs I linked to above they prob­ably assumed that Federer had done some back fact-checking him­self. Only a couple have said they crit­ic­ally examined it.

Last time I checked America was quite dif­fer­ent to Rome. Even if Federer’s ana­lysis were sound could you really apply it to a nation thou­sands of miles and thou­sands of years away? Isn’t a bet­ter way to dis­cuss illegal immig­ra­tion to exam­ine the facts about con­tem­por­ary illegal immigration?

Another very good reason for talk­ing about cur­rent affairs when you want to talk about cur­rent affairs, instead of some his­tor­ical cari­ca­ture is that there hugely dif­fer­ent options open to mod­ern America. The Americans could — if they wished — build a massive wall to keep out immig­rants. If this works to stop the hordes of Canadians who seek to under­mine the American way of life with their polite­ness and Poutine then what does it mat­ter what Hadrian did? History can be a guide, the Romans showed that limes were not guar­ant­ors of safety, but it’s not pro­script­ive. The Great Canadian Wall is not inher­ently doomed to fail­ure and the USA can become a vibrant Anglo-Hispanic melt­ing pot — which is what this all about isn’t it? All those illegal immig­rants Federer com­plained about came from the North.

…and if you are hurt that this tackles a right wing source, there’s another entry due tomor­row that men­tions the mis­use of Rome tomor­row in cas­ual Anti-Americanism and praises a con­ser­vat­ive politician.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

5 Responses

  1. Tony Keen says:

    Was 476 even the ‘fall of Ravenna’ in the sense of the ‘fall of the west­ern empire’? It was not the end of the Roman empire — that passed on a May Tuesday in 1453 (or argu­ably when Thomas Palaeologos sold Monemvasia to the Pope). It was not the end of imper­ial con­trol in Ravenna — lost when the Lombards killed the last exarch in 751 — or the city of Rome — main­tained in name at least until Pope Leo threw his lot in with Carolus Magnus — or in Italy — where the forces of Constantinople remained until the elev­enth cen­tury. It wasn’t even the passing of the last west­ern Augustus — that came with the assas­sin­a­tion of Nepos four years later. 476 was no more than the moment of depos­ing of someone who, as far as the senior Augustus in Constantinople was con­cerned, was a usurper with no claim on imper­ial author­ity, a depos­ing car­ried out by lead­ers quick to assure the remain­ing Augustus that they were still his subjects.

  2. DavidD says:

    There is such a tra­di­tion to link some turn in cul­ture with one indi­vidual. Here Theodosius is sup­posedly respons­ible for the Dark Ages, just like cre­ation­ists say Darwin is sup­posedly respons­ible for evol­u­tion becom­ing a dom­in­ant idea. I’m so tired of such asser­tions, I’d vote to repeal the Constitutional right to free speech in the US just so some cen­sor­ing bur­eau­cracy could draw up a list of fea­tures like this that con­sti­tute unac­cept­able pro­pa­ganda. Few Americans would go that far. I would have been such a good Nazi, but few Americans are so con­trolling, even those who are rigid about out­law­ing abor­tion and homo­sexu­al­ity. So I guess pro­pa­ganda will con­tinue, and over­blown par­al­lels are one sign of that.

    Unlike those of my neigh­bors in California who hate hear­ing Spanish next to them in the check­out line at the super­mar­ket, I’ve enjoyed learn­ing some Spanish. Many Spanish-speakers learn English or grow up bilin­gually. It doesn’t seem dys­func­tional in the long run to me. Of course one could make this a par­al­lel with Rome in that invaders adop­ted Roman cus­toms. Yes, cul­tures do mix, even if some res­ist it. And they will con­tinue to do so. If one could get rid of the “America is doomed” bias in the ana­lo­gies with Rome, it might actu­ally be use­ful to under­stand how cul­ture was evolving around Rome and still does around the world. But one evil effect of pro­pa­ganda is that even the truth of someone’s words becomes use­less in all the partisanship.

    Why can’t we all be good, neut­ral sci­ent­ists, in ser­vice to whatever the truth is, with a secret hand­shake or some­thing, some­thing that ties us more to the truth than try­ing to help our side win?

  3. Keith says:

    Thanks for the ping­back.
    You are cor­rect, but only in the method they seem to approach it. Of course it took a period of time and that great empire did not fall for one simple reason. Like it has only been 50 years since our gov­ern­ment decided to cre­ate a wel­fare state and give people what they whined for to get their votes — at a cost: higher taxes, unfair tax sys­tem, and gradual loss of liber­ties. What price do Americans wish to pay for false secur­ity guar­an­teed by the gov­ern­ment. Some may enjoy being told what to do from cradle to grave, but not I.
    Interesting art­icle and point of view in what speak­ers and writers use from snip­pets of history.

  4. eoinpurcell says:

    What a won­der­ful post! I espe­cially like:

    In many of the America is the new Rome art­icles there’s an idea that situ­ations lead to inev­it­able con­sequences, like the idea that if America is the new Rome then moral decline and the fall of Empire are inevitable.


  5. George says:

    Good point. Rome and America are very dif­fer­ent, but I do think there are some his­tor­ical par­al­lels. That art­icle, how­ever, and ones like it tend to be riddled with fac­tual inac­curacies. Plus, even if his­tor­ical par­al­lels exist, they mean little. Experiments are sup­posed to con­trol all vari­ables but one, this is clearly impossible in this situation.