As I See It: Are we the next Roman Empire? 

  • Jon Huer FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/1/2022 2:24:19 PM
Modified: 7/1/2022 2:21:45 PM

As we celebrate our Independence Day, it is fitting that we raise the question that our historical perspective calls for: Is the U.S. the next Roman Empire?

It is interesting that the two greatest empires in history — Roman and American — share each other’s glory as well as each other’s follies. Rome is already recognized as something of a model for failed civilizations. In spite of all the glory that was the Roman Empire, it is history’s sad tale of a great power that has gone insane in its old age. How closely is the U.S. duplicating its predecessor?

There are ominous signs — politics, culture, national character — that the U.S. might have embarked on the beginning of its end as a great empire, just as insane as Rome in its decline. As human sagas and as Greek tragedies, their stories are familiar. As historic entities, both lasted about the same length of time. Almost two thousand years apart, each gave the world its own unparalleled period of peace and prosperity, known as Pax Romana and Pax Americana, respectively. Both Rome and America emerged in solemn stoic virtues, but became mired in lamentable Epicurean decay. The U.S. is waiting for its own exit point in history at the very summit of its own fool’s paradise.

For all their later glory, both Rome and America came from a humble and virtuous republic that promised democracy and inner discipline, Romans from the Roman Republic and Americans from Jefferson’s America. And on the promise of democracy and inner discipline, both nations rose from insignificant beginnings to become world powers. In Rome, once its world dominance began, the memory of their earlier national promises of justice, democracy and community, faded. In its place, the diseases of all great and dominant empires entered into Rome: arrogance and erosion of the spirit. These are the lures and seductions of success that have crept into the United States today at the moment of its greatest triumph — arrogance and erosion of the spirit — the killers of all empires.

The Romans were also insatiable in their famous pursuit of “bread and circus,” as we are today in America. What began as a means to pacify the plebeian Roman masses, the circuses ultimately became their daily obsession and consumption of cruelty and corruption in pursuit of mass entertainment. Day after day, from morning till night, the Romans sought and found their pastime at the Circus Maximus and the Coliseum.

This tragic-comic tradition has been revived with a vengeance by our modern-day Americans, whose consumption of daily amusements is indeed unparalleled since the days of Romans. Our famed American entertainment holds the generations, and much of the world, spellbound and beholden to Hollywood’s great escapism-production. All year round, around the clock, on television and the internet, in the movies and magazines and athletic events, Americans are entertained and amused to an extent unimaginable even by the most opulent among Roman aristocrats. Our football stadiums are modeled after the Roman Coliseum and our Super Bowl halftime shows are an uncanny imitation of Roman festivals. If you put togas on the screaming fans at today’s ballgames, you would not know that they are not Romans at the Coliseum. Just like their Roman counterparts, Americans today, in perpetual amusement, can taste their own internal decay as their frontier spirits are dulled and their minds are made oblivious to reality. Surpassing the Romans, our modern-day compatriots have proven to be masters of inventions that entertain us like spoiled children. Yet our seemingly pampered life conceals the inner despair that is the price for our very pampering. In their days of decay and corruption, the very word “Roman” (as in “Roman holidays”) meant debauchery and corruption, and today “a typical American” conjures up fun, indulgence and childishness. Our own existence, as in “American life,” is at once the envy of the world and the terrifying testimony to the emptiness of our desperately lonely lives.

Both the ordinary Romans and the middle-class Americans share a similar economic fate: The Romans under coercion and oppression, and Americans now by the ever-improving techniques of temptation. The Roman proletarians remained poor as most middle-class Americans do today. In the midst of great national affluence, average Americans remain perilously close to bankruptcy all the days of their lives. Just as few property-less Romans ever escaped their poverty in the ancient empire, few working Americans ever escape theirs, in spite of the great wealth of their nation and the great promise that is America’s allure of fortunes.

Finally, as nails in their coffins, the mighty Roman legions and the invincible American military establishment, aside from their stunning power and effectiveness, share similarity in a rather odd way: Both are shunned by their own citizens. In their declining days, the Roman military was spurned by its own kind, who preferred to spend their lives at the Circus Maximus. The legions had to entice foreigners — mostly Germanic Barbarians — to fill their ranks, promising Roman citizenship as enticement. Foreigners swelled the ranks in short order and eventually declared their disobedience, and, on that very day, the mighty Roman Empire was no more.

The American military, in striking resemblance to the Romans just before their demise, has a tough time getting enough soldiers. Just like the Romans, American youths spurn the military as a meager career choice and too disciplinarian for their liking. The military is forced to rely more on the lure of monetary reward and less on the “citizen soldiers” it once had, almost exclusively enlisting from the poor and less educated. The Roman Empire frantically tried to shore up its military with money; but, too decayed and corrupted within — its early spirit and discipline gone — the day of reckoning eventually came for Rome.

Is ours not too far off?

Jon Huer, columnist for the Recorder and retired professor, lives in Greenfield.


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