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[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.