Thursday, July 21, 2011

The United States and the Lessons of Rome - Part 1

So recently I was presented with that most infamous of analogies. Is the United States of America and its influence and power falling just like that of the old Roman Empire? Are we also declining? I have to say that this has been said so many times and misunderstood twice as many that it has really started to bug me. So I'm going to try and confront that here.

Now, before I start, I have to point out that I'm no professional historian. I love history, and I've read at least three books on Rome's decline and fall (Gibbon, Goldsworthy, and one other that I can't quite remember). As for the United States and the current world events, I keep up on the news as much as a politics major can. So I feel that, while I may be flawed/rusty in what I'm about to talk about, I feel I have quite a good handle on both that time period and our own. To do this, I will look at reasons behind Rome's fall and go right to comparison of modern day United States, step by step.

Barbarians and Foreign Policy


Perhaps the most commonly realized reason behind Rome's fall was external pressure put upon them by barbarians (Germanic tribes) and middle eastern powers (Sassanid Persians). When people think of the fall of ancient Rome, we automatically think of giant hairy guys throwing torches at the Parthenon. While Rome was sacked like this, it is more important to note that the tension put on the Roman Empire was often more indirect.

The problem is that this goes both ways. There are two things to note on this matter:

  • As time passed in the Roman Empire, they began to remove themselves from countries and regions on their periphery, as they were perceived as both not worth the trouble and too expensive. It was hoped that these peoples would then keep to themselves and leave Rome alone. This did not work, as these provinces (and then the foreign powers that took them over) exerted pressure on Rome's outskirts to see what they could get. Covering such an enormous area, Rome's legions couldn't be everywhere and, even in places where they did show up, victory was not assured. By the latter half of the Empire's life, foreigners had become savvy enough to fight the way the legions did, nullifying that military advantage. Thus, by abandoning far away interests in the name of “focusing on home”, Rome shot itself in the foot and never got the respite it desired by retreating inward. You can see where I'm going with that one.
  • However, it can also be argued that, by spending so enormously on a wide military budget that, despite its costs, was unable to guarantee stability in the long run, Rome was the arbiter of its own demise. A big part of this was that the Roman economy was energized by the looting that occurred when Rome expanded. Once that expansion stopped, Rome's ability to support its foreign policy aims was hit pretty hard. A bigger military was needed in order to keep things stable in its provinces and a bigger military meant ever greater amount of resources kept away from domestic spending. In order to maintain the power of force, greater amounts of taxation and inflation (from coinage) occurred that eroded Rome's economic strength and exacerbated their money problem.

United States

I would argue that Rome's problems here are near impossible to apply definitively to the United States. As I just explained, abandoning our foreign interests (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc) would likely result in much greater problems down the road, as it did for the Romans. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that leaving those areas and obligations will mean that they will leave us alone. It is worth noting that, like it was for the Romans, removing ourselves from our foreign responsibilities could be far more expensive and dangerous than staying and seeing them through. Rome only began to fall once they stopped expanding. That doesn't mean that the United States needs to go all imperialist and get involved wherever we like, but it does suggest to me that we need to remain a force for stability across the world. This will be much more doable as we continue to engage regional powers such as the European Union and China to help deal with their own regional problems... but I'm getting a bit off topic here.

However, based on the lessons of the Roman Empire, the observations I just made could be rendered irrelevant by noticing how Rome's huge military budget put their own economy under enormous strain. It could be argued, then, that by lessening military obligations we may preserve our economy and remain a superpower on an economic level. It gets to the point where we must ask ourselves the controversial question of what matters more: the world or ourselves? Can we better the world more by giving it economic stability or by keeping people and their human rights safe? It could be argued that keeping the world safe brings economic stability and vice versa, leaving us with no good answer. Me, I believe that we are better served staying out there, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, than removing ourselves from the international equation. But that is merely my belief.

And thus it is clear that, with the lessons the Roman Empire gives us in barbarians and foreign policy, that we can't learn anything definitively from Rome's fall. But what of the other reasons behind their fall? What of their economic problems? What of their military innovation, their internal political strife, their general system of government versus ours?


  1. I think the economies are different enough that America can afford to field a major military presence without it unduly affecting domestic spending. The amount of wealth the United States generates is massive in comparison with Rome, and furthermore we have the theoretical ability to impose taxes the upper-echelon of earners that was not similarly available to the Romans. The current economic situation is not favorable to larger taxes, however, and some cuts are probably necessary in a number of areas anyways. But that is getting a bit off-topic into the whole deficit debate. My broader point is that the US economy should be able to shoulder the financial burden of its military better than Rome could.

  2. I agree entirely as to the superior US economy to the Roman. I'll go into that on more detail once I get to the economic portion of these posts. My plan is: Foreign Policy (done), Military Tradition/Innovation, Economy, then Political Systems. I thought about also doing one on Culture, but I'm covering that in brief in the military tradition part. Suffice to say, both the ancient Roman and modern American cultures were/are very attractive in their own ways, which contribute(d) to their staying power.