We are Rome! Or are we? Posted on October 5th, 2010 by

Speaking of conversations in print…

In his column Third Party Rising, Thomas Friedman compares destructive factors in modern American politics with the conditions that led to the fall of the Roman Empire.  He envisions a third party presidential candidate proclaiming to the American people…

“I am not going to tell you what you want to hear. I am going to tell you what you need to hear if we want to be the world’s leaders, not the new Romans.”

Paul Krugman responded with his own column, Roman Projections, on the folly of comparing modern America with ancient Rome:

In his column today, Tom Friedman quotes Lewis Mumford on the decline of Rome, and applies it to ourselves. It’s a common trope, and I don’t have any problem with Tom using it. But I do think we should be aware that the Roman Empire was a very different kind of society from anything existing in the modern world, and that when someone draws morals from Rome’s decline, the reality of Rome almost never comes into the thing.

As it happens, I recently read Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell — and what I really appreciated was the author’s refusal to “modernize” Rome and its concerns. His basic thesis is that civil war was what did it — that Rome’s strength was sapped by the endless series of uprisings as local commanders tried to seize power. And these civil wars, crucially, were not about ideology, or nationalism, or any of the things we might try to project back onto the ancients; they were about personal ambition, pure and simple.

In that case, however, why did the empire have a golden age in the first place? Partly luck — a series of pretty good emperors, partly because a series of childless emperors adopted competent men as their heirs. But also — and here’s where Goldsworthy is gloriously un-PC and willing to see the world as it was — stability rested largely on the lack of meritocracy. As long as only members of old Senatorial families were contenders, the game was relatively limited and stable; once the seemingly pointless role of a hereditary aristocracy had been eroded, it became a deadly free-for-all.

So, can you draw some analogies with modern America? Well, I guess you can talk about ruthless politics, the decline of the old establishment, something like that. But basically the Romans were not us, and we’re not them. If we’re in decline — and we are, we are! — we’re doing it our way, not theirs.

HT: Clara Hardy


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