Mary Beard's history of ancient Rome, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus), offers disturbing lessons for 21st century America. Efforts to draw direct parallels can be too forced. But as countless commentators since Santayana have pointed out, failure to learn from history quite often guarantees repeat of its mistakes.http://www.salon.com/2012/12/26/8_striking_parallels_between_the_u_s_and_the_roman_empire/8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire
Ancient Romans were powerful above all others, class-structured, dismissive of their early republican principles and institutions, arrogant, increasingly ridden by power struggles, overly focused on leadership images and cults, and finally destroyed by internal corruption.
In the final decades of the Roman Empire, following erosion of the Republic, the caliber and quality of leaders -- emperors -- declined dramatically. After the long reign of Augustus, there followed a series of small-bore egomaniacs, all mentally and morally challenged, all dismissive of the ideals upon which the original republic was founded.
The third century CE saw emperors come and go like presidential primary candidates.
There were exceptions, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius among them. But the overall trend was downward.
During the decline of the empire, documented by Edward Gibbon, except for the elites who had fortunes at stake, there was a steady decline in participation in public affairs by middle class Romans who tended to keep their heads down during repeated turbulent leadership and party struggles.
Professor Beard writes:
"Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it."
It is possible to discuss Senatus PopulusQue Americanus if by Senatus we understand not only our Congress but our entire governing structure. Even admitting that parallel-drawing is problematic, similar patterns exist and we neglect them at our peril. As Professor Beard concludes: "many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed ... in dialogue with the Romans."
Today's political realities demand self-examination. Like serious individuals, nations profit from constructive introspection.
Are our qualities of leadership declining, and if so why? Have our parties, and the fractious factions that now dominate them, become simply trampolines for individual egos? Why do angry citizens not vote? Are those advocating military adventurism merely distracting us from the failure of economic institutions to create opportunity and distributed wealth? Why are those who do vote electing representatives who refuse to maintain and rebuild our nation's foundations?
If Professor Beard is right, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire offer valuable lessons in political nature, the responsibility of citizenship, the values of the political class, the failure of economic fairness, and a great deal else. History constantly changes. But basic human nature has changed very little.
Our challenge is for SPQA to learn from SPQR.
Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost documents the corrosive effect of money on our political process. Lessig persuasively makes the case that we are witnessing the loss of our republican form of government, as politicians increasingly represent those who fund their campaigns, rather than our citizens.
Anthony Everitt’s Rise of Rome is fascinating history and a great read. It tells the story of ancient Rome, from its founding (circa 750 BCE) to the fall of the Roman Republic (circa 45 BCE).
When read together, striking parallels emerge — between our failings and the failings that destroyed the Roman Republic. As with Rome just before the Republic’s fall, America has seen:
1 — Staggering Increase in the Cost of Elections, with Dubious Campaign Funding Sources: Our 2012 election reportedly cost $3 billion. All of it was raised from private sources – often creating the appearance, or the reality, that our leaders are beholden to special interest groups. During the late Roman Republic, elections became staggeringly expensive, with equally deplorable results. Caesar reportedly borrowed so heavily for one political campaign, he feared he would be ruined, if not elected.
2 — Politics as the Road to Personal Wealth: During the late Roman Republic period, one of the main roads to wealth was holding public office, and exploiting such positions to accumulate personal wealth. As Lessig notes: Congressman, Senators and their staffs leverage their government service to move to private sector positions – that pay three to ten times their government compensation. Given this financial arrangement, “Their focus is therefore not so much on the people who sent them to Washington. Their focus is instead on those who will make them rich.” (Republic Lost)
3 — Continuous War: A national state of security arises, distracting attention from domestic challenges with foreign wars. Similar to the late Roman Republic, the US – for the past 100 years — has either been fighting a war, recovering from a war, or preparing for a new war: WW I (1917-18), WW II (1941-1945), Cold War (1947-1991), Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam (1953-1975), Gulf War (1990-1991), Afghanistan (2001-ongoing), and Iraq (2003-2011). And, this list is far from complete.
4 — Foreign Powers Lavish Money/Attention on the Republic’s Leaders: Foreign wars lead to growing influence, by foreign powers and interests, on the Republic’s political leaders — true for Rome and true for us. In the past century, foreign embassies, agents and lobbyists have proliferated in our nation’s capital. As one specific example: A foreign businessman donated $100 million to Bill Clinton‘s various activities. Clinton “opened doors” for him, and sometimes acted in ways contrary to stated American interests and foreign policy.
5 — Profits Made Overseas Shape the Republic’s Internal Policies: As the fortunes of Rome’s aristocracy increasingly derived from foreign lands, Roman policy was shaped to facilitate these fortunes. American billionaires and corporations increasingly influence our elections. In many cases, they are only nominally American – with interests not aligned with those of the American public. For example, Fox News is part of international media group News Corp., with over $30 billion in revenues worldwide. Is Fox News’ jingoism a product of News Corp.’s non-U.S. interests?
6 — Collapse of the Middle Class: In the period just before the Roman Republic’s fall, the Roman middle class was crushed — destroyed by cheap overseas slave labor. In our own day, we’ve witnessed rising income inequality, a stagnating middle class, and the loss of American jobs to overseas workers who are paid less and have fewer rights.
7 — Gerrymandering: Rome’s late Republic used various methods to reduce the power of common citizens. The GOP has so effectively gerrymandered Congressional districts that, even though House Republican candidates received only about 48 percent of the popular vote in the 2012 election — they ended up with the majority (53 percent) of the seats.
8 — Loss of the Spirit of Compromise: The Roman Republic, like ours, relied on a system of checks and balances. Compromise is needed for this type of system to function. In the end, the Roman Republic lost that spirit of compromise, with politics increasingly polarized between Optimates (the rich, entrenched elites) and Populares (the common people). Sound familiar? Compromise is in noticeably short supply in our own time also. For example, “There were more filibusters between 2009 and 2010 than there were in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s combined.”
As Benjamin Franklin observed, we have a Republic — but only if we can keep it.
Our resident historian Gawdzilla might correct me, but I think the comparisons are too strong to ignore. The biggie to me is the destruction of the middle class. The creation of the middle class, the guild systems and technological innovation, led to the restructuring of society from all the power on top- feudalism- to economic opportunity to grow for the middle and lower classes. But there has always been a power elite that seeks to control the government and the flow of money.
America was a country started by entrepreneurs. The vast stretch of the continent gave room for expansion and anyone with a plan could kill a bunch of indians and start their own empire. All of the wealth and the "majesty" of the robber barons like Rockefeller and Morgan could still be offset by entrepreneurs to some extent. All the way to the 1900s technical innovation created new industries and growth and the creation of unions to protect the middle class.
And now in this era where new technologies threaten to eliminate old family fortunes, the elimination of oil primarily, the strident effort of the .5% is to remove all incentives and any method of upward mobility to stagnate society to their liking.
Destruction of unions, rearranging the tax system and incentives to favor the wealthy, involvement with foreign wealth and so on. We are heading down the same path. History will repeat itself and the nation is headed for collapse.