America as Rome?

Roman Empire

I am asked this all time:  Is America going the direction of the Roman Republic (or even the Roman Empire)?  In an age of Trump it might seem like the answer is a definitive “yes.” But historians will be quick to tell remind us that “this too shall pass.”

As historian Tom Holland writes in the New York Review of Books, Americans have been comparing themselves to Rome for a long time.  As he puts it: “America is not Rome.  It just thinks it is.”  Here is a taste:

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been. At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion. In 1919, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, The New York Times warned that the Huns and the Vandals were massing again. “The Roman Empire and its civilization were destroyed by barbarian hordes coming from the East—and it is from the east that comes the wind.” Thirty years earlier, visiting the abandoned Roman city at Baalbek in Lebanon, Brooks Adams—the great-grandson of John Adams—had been inspired by the spectacle of shattered greatness to dread that his own country’s gilded age was bound to end in similar ruin. In the decades before the Civil War, opponents of slavery repeatedly cited the fall of Rome as a warning of what might happen to a slave-owning society. In the 1830s, opponents of Andrew Jackson cast him as a dictator and a demagogue whose tyranny would inevitably bring the infant republic to share in the fate of the ancient empire. Present anxieties that Trump’s presidency portends America’s decline and fall are the contemporary expression of a tradition quite as venerable as the United States itself. 

Just as Americans today look back wistfully to the Founding Fathers as patrons of an age of rugged independence and virtue, so did the Founding Fathers look back with an equal wistfulness to the early years of Rome. There, for any young republic victorious in a war against a great monarchy, a morality tale was to be found that could hardly help but serve as inspiration. The Romans, like the Americans, had originally been ruled by a king; then, resolved no longer to live in servitude, they had dared in a heroic and ultimately successful campaign to expel him. Repeatedly, whether by standing alone on a bridge against fearsome odds, or by plunging a hand into fire rather than submit to tyranny, or by riding a horse into a bottomless abyss in the certainty that such a sacrifice would secure the republic against ruin, Romans had demonstrated their commitment to liberty.

Read the entire piece here.

3 thoughts on “America as Rome?

  1. Jeff,

    Of course, with Jon Meacham we see the business-as-usual establishment figure whose ticket to media and academic salons is his “thoughtful and nuanced” manner of expression peppered with all of the highly appropriate historical allusions. The genteel biographer of the elder Bush has instant credibility in all of the right circles of both major parties——a true ambidextrous establishment fixture!

    Do you think Mr. Meacham could have handled an actual classic debate with someone who challenged his rather predictable talking points?

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  2. I saw Jon Meacham speak at Messiah, I think about the time of the inauguration or early in Trump’s presidency.
    He was asked about how the US would weather these divisions. He gave a hopeful answer that we could trust in the people to come together when a critical crisis arose. I am not as hopeful, but not counting us out either.
    He also expressed confidence in our institutions. But we have a president who tends to denigrate those.

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  3. “But historians will be quick to tell remind us that ‘this too shall pass.'”

    Other historians will also point out Franklin’s quip when asked if the new national government was going to be a monarchy or a republic, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

    I tend to be, in general, a ‘this too shall pass’ kinda guy but if history can teach us anything it’s that for many a republic it did not pass (not just Rome and not just in ancient history). Ergo, constant vigilance for signs of degradation.

    One way of looking at this is that the Revolution will never be over. Viva our Revolution!

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