By Robert A. Vella
The historiography of the fall of the Roman Empire is as varied as it is comprehensive, though few works reach the essential straightforwardness of Edward Gibbon’s 1776 book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The general consensus asserts that Rome suffered a prolonged period of internal social decay which eventually weakened its ability to fend-off military threats from outside groups. Some hypotheses propose much more specific causes such as a mismanaged migrant crisis offered yesterday by Quartz staff reporter Annalisa Merelli. In my view, such oversimplifications are woefully inadequate in explaining the complex and lengthy history of Rome. It would be far more accurate just to say that all empires inevitably come to an end.
However, I’ll venture to offer an oversimplification of my own because the modern parallel of America is too tempting to resist.
First of all, Rome began as a republic – based on rudimentary rule of law and democratic concepts – in the 6th century BCE when it ousted monarchical rule by decree (i.e. kings). America began the same way. Also like America, political power was largely held by regional magistrates (states, in the U.S.) until the Roman Senate developed into its highest form. In America, a similar political transformation occurred with the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, continuing through post-Civil War reforms, and concluding with the progressive advances of the mid-20th century.
Secondly, this Roman republic began its steady transition into empire with the appointment of Julius Caesar as dictator in 44 BCE. Upon the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE, the transition was complete. Rome then slipped into a precipitous decline which resulted in an east-west split in the 6th century CE and a total collapse in the 15th century CE (i.e. the Byzantine Empire). In comparison, America’s transition from a functioning democratic republic towards an imperialist authoritarian state (a corporatist plutocracy, in my opinion) was rooted in the ascendancy of Cold War industrial militarism and emerged politically with the rise of neoliberal administrations beginning in 1980.
What typified both the history of Rome and the history of America is a pragmatic abandonment of the philosophical principles upon which these eminently successful republics were founded. When authoritarianism took over, increasingly harsh measures were necessary to hold onto power. But, it was a trap. As their political grips tightened, the support of the people eroded. To maintain societal control, extraordinary means were used to distract the populace and create the illusion of normalcy. The Roman gladiator games were equivalent to today’s mega-sports and entertainment industries – bread and circuses for all, so-to-speak. But, even this strategy of appeasement couldn’t last The people of Rome eventually woke up and saw the full extent of corruption – and the emperor, indeed, had no clothes.