On the Fall of Empires

A. Scott Piraino

This is how Rome fell. First a vibrant empire comprised of wealthy citizens was reduced to an aristocracy. Then that decadent, impoverished empire was overcome by external enemies.

Roman civilization has many parallels to our own. The Roman Empire is a historical construct, contemporary Romans always referred to their country as a Republic. Of course Rome was an empire, as successive Emperors consolidated power and began ruling far flung provinces. But the republican values were an egalitarian fiction until the fall of Rome. It is interesting to note that the United States is never officially referred to as an empire, although our country has assumed many imperial characteristics.

As their empire expanded, the Romans built the greatest road network the world had ever seen so their marching legions could defend any threatened territory. These roads facilitated trade and commerce, and were necessary for the growth of the Empire. After WW II, the United States began construction of the Federal Highway system, to move tanks in the event the US was ever invaded. These highways have not just radically improved transportation, they have affected the growth of suburbs, malls, and even whole cities.

The Romans built great coliseums to celebrate sporting events and watch plays or other public entertainments. Our sports amphitheaters are actually modeled on these Roman designs. Aside from modern technology, there is very little difference between the Superdome and the Parthenon. We are also a culture that worships entertainment. Instead of plays and gladiators, we have football teams, rock bands, and movie stars.

But besides our public works, the United States shares other, more disturbing similarities with the Roman Empire.

In the early Roman period the curials were the backbone of society. These were middle class landowners who could vote, and fought in the legions during times of war. By the end of the Empire, the curials had been reduced to the status of serfs. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few landowners, and the curials worked the land for them.

The Fall of the Roman Empire can be traced to the demise of the republican values that created it. In modern terms we can compare this to the death of our middle class. Our country was founded not just on Democratic principles, but the idea that the people were the owners of the country.

The first Americans were predominantly small farmers who owned their land, (with the exception of the black slaves, of course). In early American history just as in Rome, voting and military service where the duties of citizenship, and ownership of property was a right. As industrialization eclipsed agriculture, rural farmers became urban factory workers. But the goal of life in America has always been the same, to own a house, buy a car, in short, to live the American dream.

Over the past twenty years, the ability of the average American to live that dream has all but disappeared. Per capita income continues to climb only because a small number of Americans have grown much wealthier. Incomes for the working poor and middle class Americans have stagnated, and even declined. The average American is increasingly a renter, not an owner.

Twenty years ago a high school graduate in Akron Ohio could look forward to a lifetime of factory employment, and earn enough from his wages to buy a house and a car. Today Akron Ohio consists of ghettos and boarded up factories. Those jobs have moved to China and Mexico, and what were once middle class neighborhoods are now tenements for the poor.

How did this happen? To answer that, we must address the issue of leadership.

The first Roman Emperors were crusaders for the Glory of Rome. After the initial conquests of France, Britain, and the Mediterranean, the Roman borders remained essentially unchanged for three hundred years. The later Emperors maintained the trappings of the earlier heroic period, but they served themselves, not the greater good of Rome.

Our founding fathers were idealists. They can rightfully be compared to Caesar, and the early Romans. But though our present leadership uses the same slogans, and shrouds their policies in the same idealism, it is clear they don’t believe in anything. It is said that Nero fiddled while Rome fell, our leadership has fiddled as well, while our country has descended into mediocrity.

The source of our economic decline can be traced to Ronald Reagan and his successors. Reaganomics was nothing more than an excuse to cut taxes for the rich. Just as free trade is an argument for exporting manufacturing jobs to foreign nations where our corporations can pay much lower wages.

In 1981 the United States was the largest creditor nation in history. Today our national debt stands at over six trillion dollars and growing. In addition, our country has exported over three trillion dollars to foreign producers. The US posted a trade deficit of over 400 billion dollars last year, a new record high.

Our budget deficits transfer wealth from taxpayers to bondholders. Our trade deficits transfer wealth from American consumers to offshore producers. These huge transfers of wealth are responsible for the death of our middle class.

Ronald Reagan was either a demented fool or a corrupt servant of the rich, depending on whether he believed his own agenda or not. But there can be no doubt about his successors. George Bush the First called Reagan’s policies “voodoo” economics while campaigning against him, then carried on the same policies during his four years in office.

In 1992 when the Democrats returned to office, our country had an opportunity to reverse the corrupt policies of the Reagan era. Instead we elected a cheap whore named Bill Clinton. His administration continued the same policies, only in a trendier, more liberal guise.

George Bush II has wasted no time getting back to Reaganomics, passing two tax cut packages into law that favor the wealthy, and supporting more free trade agreements. The difference of course is that our country is already over six trillion in debt, and we are the biggest debtor nation in history.

We are also at war.

The Roman Empire did not fall to one superior enemy. Rather the Empire died the death of a thousand cuts, suffering repeated attacks against her frontiers and invasions by increasingly larger and better organized enemies. By the end of the Empire, Roman citizens were loathe to join the legions and defend their country.

The dangerous job of soldiering was left to slaves, and foreign mercenaries. The date for the fall of the Roman Empire is commonly noted as 476 A. D. The year a Germanic mercenary commanding Roman armies deposed the last, enfeebled Roman Emperor.

Today’s US servicemen are predominantly poor whites and poor blacks, even foreign citizens are allowed to enlist to fill the ranks. Our youth increasingly distain the armed forces, preferring a more relaxed urban lifestyle. For those young Americans who do opt for military service, there is plenty of action.

After September 11th, President Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan, seeking the terrorists responsible for the attacks. Osama Bin Laden has not been found, nor has the Al Qaeda terrorist network been eliminated. But 8000 US troops are still in Afghanistan, enduring ambushes, bombings, and fighting an elusive enemy.

No one could question our right to attack Afghanistan after September 11th, but that moral authority has been squandered by the reckless invasion of Iraq. 150,000 US troops are now attempting to occupy the country against increasing resistance from indigenous guerrillas. One third of our standing Army is now committed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the War on Terror is far from won.

President Bush’s imperial ambitions have scattered our Armed Forces across the globe. Now his administration has publicly threatened Iran, as if occupying the entire Middle East will somehow eliminate terrorism. Rather these unwarranted attacks are winning over Arabs to a radical form of Islam, while providing targets to those militants by sending US troops into their midst.

The occupation of Iraq is unraveling, and showing signs of becoming a full fledged guerrilla war. North Korea will certainly have nuclear weapons within a few months, and they have missiles that can reach Alaska and our bases in Asia. Nor can we discount China. That nation is now the world’s third largest economy, thanks to our trade deficits, and no friend of the United States.

The American people have good reasons to fear for the future, and nowhere to turn for answers. Roman civilization faced this uncertainty as well, and by searching, found new answers. The end of the Roman Empire was also the end of the ancient world, and the rise of a monotheistic religion known as Christianity.

Roman civilization was so much more advanced than anything before it, so much wealthier, more comfortable and safe, that people’s view of the universe began to change. In the early Roman period pantheons of gods like Zeus and Apollo were worshipped, and great temples were built to honor them. But after centuries of peace and prosperity sacrificing to these old gods seemed superstitious, even quaint.

As the old ways declined Romans sought cults, astrology, and mystic traditions to address their spiritual needs, before the Empire converted to Christianity. The first Christians were young, urban, educated Romans. The rural people held to the old ways the longest, sacrificing to the old gods, maintaining shrines to local spirits, and keeping up the sacrifices. The word “pagan” is Latin for rural person, with the connotation of hillbilly or hick.

Just as the old gods made no sense to the late Romans, Christianity makes no sense in the modern world. The new generations of Americans, baby boomers and their progeny, don’t look to the Christian faith anymore. Younger, more modern Americans seek new age bookstores and any number of wonkish solutions to their spiritual questions.

The last vestiges of Christianity in our country can be found predominantly in rural America. There you can still find people who go to church on Sundays and read, or even believe, the Bible. They are the pagans, the rural people holding to the old ways.

The cynicism and moral relativity of these times is part of this change in the way we view our universe.

We have called the future post-modern, the information age, the space age, and the nuclear age. Whatever this new age is, we are seeing its birth in our time. Part of that change is a new morality, a new spirituality if you will.

But faith that all will end as it should is no excuse for the incompetence and corruption of our national leadership. Historians will look back on the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush administrations as an era of decadence and decline. Our economy is left tottering, our enemies are plotting our destruction, and we are left with an inevitable sense of fatalism about the future.

This too shall pass.

Published in: on October 8, 2003 at 3:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

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