The history of the Roman Republic and Empire looms large in Western consciousness. Its existence marked the creation of a European civilization and the spread of Hellenic thought, which would become the intellectual foundation of the entire occidental world. Roman civilization’s ruins are spectacular, and its achievements incredible. We look back fondly at that height of civilization and civic virtue, as we consciously model our governments and societies on that of Rome.
The fall of the Roman Empire was lamented even by its contemporaries. Odoacer, the Ostrogothic King who deposed the last Roman Emperor in the West, wanted to claim the mantle himself and aped as many of the conventions of Rome as he, a foreigner, could. In fact, Gothic Kings pledged fealty to the Eastern Roman Emperor in Constantinople and ruled ostensibly as Byzantine officials. But this was, over time, an elaborate fiction. Rome was dead. A city of over one million people at its Augustan height fell to only ten thousand by 1000 AD. The people who lived in Rome lived among ruins; the aqueducts lay dormant, while people lived in their own filth. Literacy was non-existent where once a center of culture housed Cicero, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. The change happened gradually, without anyone really understanding what was going on. But something had happened; something profoundly tragic. The question of what happened has haunted the collective western consciousness for the millennia and a half since the collapse.
America was clearly founded as a new Rome. This was done consciously by the intellectual class and was meant as more than a simple homage. Intellectuals in the new America wanted to create a republic to emulate and surpass the glory of Rome. Any walk down the Washington D.C. Mall will show they were more than moderately successful. Not coincidentally, the first modern historical text about Rome was published in 1776 by Edward Gibbon. Gibbon’s history graced the bookshelves of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. The book, entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ensured that America’s founders did a fair amount of navel-gazing in trying to prevent the fall of this New Rome.
Gibbon’s explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire was shocking and scandalous at the time. He laid the blame squarely at the foot of the Christian church, the inheritor of the Roman bureaucracy. Gibbons asserted that the cultural introduction of Christianity into the Roman Empire degraded the army’s martial spirit, as well as the intellectual curiosity of its lower classes and ensured the intelligentsia cloistered themselves in monasteries, concerned with spiritual rather than worldly problems. All of this served to hollow Rome out and accelerate its fall.
The history left quite an impression on the American Founders. The First Amendment of the Constitution was created to avoid the merger of church and state, which in their eyes transformed the Roman Empire into medieval Europe. They also created a Senate of enlightened aristocrats who governed for the glory of the country, rather than their own venal pursuits. George Washington styled himself after the Roman leader Cincinnatus, who possessed the ability to claim kingship, but declined and returned to his humble farm a citizen. The ideal was no man above any other man, a society of equals dedicated to the civic virtue of civilization against the kings and barbarians of the past. America’s Founding Fathers thought they emulated Rome’s virtues and avoided its problems. But 250 years later, history has not vindicated their propositions.
It’s my belief that we’ve fallen into the exact same trap as the Roman Empire. The founders did more than a wonderful job in recreating Roman government and society, but did an extremely poor job in creating safeguards which would insulate the new Republic from the decline and fall of government and society. We already have all of the symptoms of decline and it seems to me irreversible.
I agree with Edward Gibbon that the religion of Christianity was certainly a factor in the decline, but the fact that Christianity was a religion was unimportant in and of itself. What was important about Christianity was its nature. Christianity was a viral ideology that changed society into something which ensured that Roman civil society would vanish. Modern society is already infected by a viral ideology that avoids all of the conventional trappings of a religion while still being as corrosive to American society as Christianity was to Rome. That ideology is progressivism. In an America where all the fashionable and most moderately intelligent people in our nation are unabashedly progressive, it seems like we are quite far down the path of decline indeed.
Modern historians follow Gibbon’s example and take things one step further, presenting Rome as a secular, multicultural paradise which only fell due to the pernicious influence of Christianity. Given America’s intended status as the cultural inheritor of classical Roman virtue, these historians need to present the current state of America as analogous to the height of Rome and the opponents of progressivism as the forces which brought about its downfall. A more accurate reading of Roman history, however, can present a picture where the opposite is the case.
You can date the start of the cultural decline of the Roman Empire further back than most historians, even before its generally accepted civilizational height of Augustus Caesar.
I begin with the Gracchi brothers.
Rome had just won the ancient version of World War II, the Third Punic War. In that war, Rome devastated its rival, Carthage, and remade it in Rome’s image. General Lucius D. Clay, deputy to General Eisenhower and in 1945, the Military Governor of U.S.-Occupied Germany, was the first to compare the events. If anyone was in a position to make the comparison, it would be him. The Punic Wars were defensive in nature, fought to protect Rome from the Carthaginian menace. In the process, Rome conquered the known world in a single generation. Does that ring any bells? Conquering the world in self-defense? The Founding Fathers really had no idea how much their copy of Rome would replay its history.
In the aftermath of the Punic Wars, Rome gained untold amounts of wealth which established it as the financial center of the Western Mediterranean world. When the Romans brought the wealth of the Carthaginians back home, it was concentrated in a few individuals. Most Romans found themselves poorer than they were before the wars.
Tiberius Gracchus was the first Roman politician to really address the political issue of financial inequality. Furthermore, he argued for granting citizenship to the Italic peoples that the Romans formerly held as slaves. His solution was land reform, progressive taxation, and the establishment of free food for the poor. Tiberius would be murdered for his suggestions, but his work marked the establishment of a political movement known as the Populares.
There are specific details which I could add, but the parallels between the establishment of political progressivism in the wake of World War I and II and the rise of the Populares in the wake of the Punic Wars are clear.
After the assassination of the Gracchi Brothers, there were a series of civil wars between the Populares (progressives) and Optimates (conservatives). While the Optimates put up a good fight; slowly, over time, every single piece of the Populares platform became Roman law: progressive taxation, government seizure and redistribution of land, the grain dole for the poor, and the expansion of citizenship (voting rights) to millions of disenfranchised former slaves.
Does that sound at all similar to the political history of America in any way? Before you say, “We have not had a war pitting the progressives against the conservatives,” tell that to the Haymarket Square strikers, the Bonus Army, and the victims of the Weather Underground bombings. America isn’t immune to paramilitary political violence. The fact that there was comparatively little killing just means that our conservatives couldn’t hold a candle to the Roman Optimates. If Nixon had wanted to be Lucius Cornelius Sulla, he’d have had to dial up Kent State a thousand times and aim the tanks at Harvard Yard. See, that would be a real checkmate to the progressives. Seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it? That might suggest that the real ideological civil war ended before 1970.
The Roman Civil Wars were ended in 27 BCE, by a man of whom even the most historically illiterate know. He was born as Gaius Octavius to a relatively illustrious Roman family, but his real claim to fame was being the great nephew and heir to Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar’s policies were extensions of the Gracchi Brothers’ platform and many in the senate had him murdered because of his success and popularity among the people. In the anarchy afterwards, Octavius managed to finally subdue the Senate and convince the remaining Optimates to support his dictatorship as the first Roman Emperor, ruling as Augustus. The policies he put in place would dominate the operation of the Roman Empire for the 650 years.
Let’s talk about these policies.
The most important policy change affecting the long-term health of the Roman society was the grain dole. ‘Grain dole’ is a misnomer, as over the course of the Roman Empire, the dole grew more elaborate, with olive oil, meats, and dairy added by Trajan and Diocletian. But at the Empire’s demographic height, over 300,000 Roman residents were on the grain dole out of a population of 1 million. An interestingly parallel: today, 21.3 percent of Americans are on various welfare programs.
These 300,000 Roman people bear more than a little resemblance to our welfare underclass in behavior and values. Infanticide, which was legal under Roman law, was practiced frequently, and normal family life was basically impossible. Crime was rampant. Augustus viewed the population on state programs as a security risk and attempted to reduce the welfare population down to 200,000 people. He was only temporarily successful. Augustus is considered the most powerful Roman Emperor. It’s remarkable, then, that he couldn’t combat the power of the grain dole. The establishment of our welfare state seems irreversible, and if the Roman grain dole is anything to go by policy-wise, that assessment seems to be correct.
The other most important policy program of the Roman Empire was the maintenance and growth of the security forces. The Roman legions need no introduction. Their excellence in combat allowed Rome to best all of their Mediterranean rivals and create the Empire. But their role in the Civil Wars were also incredibly important. Gaius Marius, a famous general and the uncle of Julius Caesar, initiated an important reform which both increased the strength of the army and set a dangerous precedent. Originally, Rome did not have a standing army. The civic duty of the citizens were to leave their farms and families to fight. There was a property and tax-paying requirement, and they also had to purchase and bring their own weapons. This citizen-volunteer soldier motif was the central idea behind the prohibition of a standing army in the American Constitution. The Second Amendment was created so that American citizen soldiers would bring their own arms to battle. But just like the American prohibition on standing armies, it wouldn’t last past the conquest of the known world.
Due to the constant fighting against Carthage and its allies, Rome’s conception of the army became impossible. The number of landowners shrunk and the cost of maintaining their own arms meant that there was an extreme shortage of manpower. Marius instituted a series of reforms. The first was the removal of the property and citizenship requirement, as well as the addition of a promise of citizenship to those who served for a long enough period of time. The second was the establishment of a spoils system, which was necessary as these men had no wealth to go back to. They only were paid if they collected enough bounty. This made them independent of the Senate and ensured they would not disband easily. The legions supported the wars of Marius, Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, and Augustus because of this system, and this support did not cease when Augustus completed the transition from Republic to Empire.
In the creation of these legions, the Roman elite created a system where a large permanent army existed and the only way to continue to employ them was to launch wars against their neighbors, leading to large engagements with no clear objective. Augustus spent decades in the forests of Germany, Trajan spent years in Mesopotamia, and Marcus Aurelius spent his entire life in Dacia (Romania). None of these regions became integral parts of the Roman Empire, but existed as a money and manpower sink for the Roman legions to do something.
In other words, they created a military-industrial complex after a world war, which necessitated global interventions for questionable purposes at great expense to the taxpayer. This should start to sound familiar. Ultimately, when we look at the real financial makeup of the Roman government, we see two important cost centers. First, we see massive military expenditures punctuated by expensive preemptive wars against groups who posed no real existential danger to Rome. Second, we see large wealth redistribution programs which are permanent and expanding. Seeing the parallels to the United States budget is just a matter of looking at the Congressional Budget Office’s website. We have early Rome’s constitution, but we have late Rome’s bureaucracy and entitlements.
This grand explanation of Rome’s political formula is a Rorschach test for modern Americans. Those on the Left believe that it was the military adventurism that led to Rome’s downfall and the Right believe that it was the increase in bureaucracy and reliance on welfare was unsustainable. I argue both of them are unsustainable. I believe them both to be a symptom of progressivism. On the Left, it is the wealth transfer programs and bureaucracy. On the Right, it is the desire to spread democracy militarily throughout the world. Both of these ideas were foreign to both political parties in 1900. We are only 100 years into our current progressive experiment.
The really interesting question is how Rome made it financially sustainable for 700 years. How they did it varied by the Emperor, but the method they most commonly employed is my real explanation as why Rome became ripe for collapse.
The answer is monetary policy.
Over time, Roman emperors found it impossible to continue to increase taxes on wealthy Romans as they began to leave the cities in massive numbers, so they had to turn to money-printing as their only way to make up the budget shortfall. But given that fiat paper currency had yet to be invented, they had to resort to a practice called debasing the mint. This process involved taking in coins with a certain amount of precious metals in them and reissuing them with a smaller amount of those precious metals. In order to understand the gravity of this practice, you need to understand some minutiae about Roman currency.
Originally, there was only a gold currency called the Aureus and two denominations of silver currency called the Denarius and the Sestertius. Think of Aurei as dollars, Denarii as quarters and Sestertii as pennies. It was at tight as money goes at the time of Julius Caesar. In 33 BC, Aurei were weighted at eight grams of gold, Denarii were weighted at 10 grams of silver and Sestertii were weighted at 2.5 grams of silver. By Nero (68 AD), the mass of Aurei were decreased to 7.4 grams of gold. By Caracalla (217 AD), it was 6.5 grams. Diocletian (305 AD) introduced the Solidus to replace it, which was weighed at 5.5 grams. By this time, the Denarii was set at 1/1000th of a Solidus. Constantine (337 AD) rebased it to 4.5 grams of gold, and by this time it was worth 275,000 denarii. So, over the course of 400 years, the accumulated wealth of the richest Romans was halved, and the accumulated wealth of poorer Romans was annihilated to a fraction of its former value.
In this economic situation, any wealth created by plebeians would evaporate within their lifetimes. The people who lived in this world began to have a very difficult calculus to make in creating a life and a family. Many sold themselves in bondage and became serfs, and still more decided against having children. Many Roman historians describe a general feeling of malaise among the inhabitants. The demography of the Roman Empire was marked by a severe decline in birthrates starting during the Roman Empire. In the year 100 AD, the Empire reached the peak of its population at 60 million inhabitants. By the year 300 AD, the population had declined to 40 million people even after the inclusion of Germanic settlers.
The inherently short-term frame that unemployment is more important than inflation is indicative of a fundamentally unsustainable governmental system. Being able to print money is the only way our government can promise to pay for the ever increasing military and welfare state while not raising taxes on a majority of America. It is simply political anathema to suggest anything otherwise. It represents a failure state much like the irreversible economic decline of Rome.
Mainstream economic thinking is to accept inflation as standard in our economy. The last time in which we experienced any deflation was the year 1950. For 65 years, we have had varying amounts of inflation, but the average yearly inflation rate is roughly 4 percent. For perspective, if you put one dollar underneath your mattress in 1950, today it would only be worth seven cents. This has been incredibly destructive to America’s collective economic strength, a hollowing out of our society much like what happened to the Romans.
The economic thinking among the Romans in the late Empire and America today is very similar.
By the late 200s, the Romans, like the Americans and Europeans, thought that this system of taxation was simply unsustainable. Population declines and public misery was at an all-time high. But since the entire economic and political system of Rome was propped up by this, hundreds of thousands of alien Germanic settlers were invited to immigrate. These groups had no incentives to follow Roman culture and a half-baked assimilation would only occur hundreds of years after the Empire’s demise. Through a series of wars and political compromises, Belgica became Burgundy, Gaul became France, Northern Italia became Lombardy, Moesia became Bulgaria, Illyria became Croatia, and so on. The Empire was so exhausted and empty that these people simply assumed their posts as leaders. They could not retain Roman civilization but merely marvel at its decaying ruins and use what still worked.
While late Roman society had no innate civic desire to continue the lineage of large families, Christians inherited sexual and familial development practices from the Jews. This ensured that a demographic shift continued to take place. Traditional pagan families had fewer children than Christian ones, and thus Christians grew in proportion to the Roman population. It was the thread that continued Roman tradition, even as it began to collapse. It civilized the barbarians, and thus the Roman Empire became Christendom. It managed keep the flame of Hellenic knowledge and memory of the glory of antiquity alive.
In short, Rome and America share the same problems and same terrible solutions which hollow out its population. This makes them susceptible to ideologies which prey on despair, hopelessness and envy. Rome, poisoned by its own political and economic failures, killed itself and invited in its replacements. America appears poised to do the same. It is our job to weather the storm and restore a Golden Age.