America really really isn’t the new Rome

Standard

[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.

5 thoughts on “America really really isn’t the new Rome

  1. 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. 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. 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. Quality!
    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.

    Eoin

  5. George

    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.

Comments are closed.