An editorial in the New York Times warns: As the headline says, “America is an Empire in Decline” and finds a precedent in Imperial Rome.
The article, written by the co-author of a new book titled Why Empires Fall: Rome, America, and the Future of the West, shows that cottage industries are as resilient as ever compared to the United States and Rome ever.
There is an irresistible temptation to superimpose the history of Rome, and particularly its decline and fall – an enduring theme of fascination – over our own experience and future.
Both conservatives and progressives tend to create their own versions of this narrative, tending to emphasize either moral decay or imperial overstretching.
But the most important thing to know about us and our supposed imperial ancestor is that we are not Rome and do not experience any of the most direct and spectacular causes of its downfall.
It has become fashionable among some scholars to argue that there has been no decline.
There were no barbarian incursions. There was no significant decrease. Nothing to see here – just evolutionary change.
It is true that the fall of Rome – a long, chaotic process – did not proceed with the gratifying cinematic simplicity that popular imagination might believe; the scale of barbaric population transfers was exaggerated; and the eastern half of the empire lived on for another 1,000 years.
Nonetheless, the Western Roman Empire undoubtedly fell, with disastrous consequences for a long time. It’s just totally inappropriate to drag us into this.
Rome was torn apart by constant assassinations, usurpations and civil wars.
It weakened economically and militarily while facing the challenges of armed bandits on its borders, which it could no longer cope with as it gradually lost its territory and tax base to barbarian groups.
At the same time, it had to contend with the Persian Empire to the east.
Does this happen in America?
Well, an armed contingent of Quebecers doesn’t roam the United States (like the Visigoths in Rome), periodically engaging in skirmishes with the US military and petitioning the US Senate for subsidies before laying siege to Washington, DC — and eventually plundered.
Migrants in the United States do not settle en masse into national factions led by military leaders seeking power and advantage.
They spread all over the country and take illegal jobs as helpers and the like.
US Presidents have to worry about falling poll numbers, unruly opposition in Congress and re-election campaigns.
Unlike the Roman emperors, they do not have to constantly think about possible assassination attempts and armed usurpers.
You don’t have to worry that if you assign a general to take over, say, CENTCOM, he will use that position to gather the troops and resources to fight for power himself.
You don’t need to consider the positioning of forces in terms of containing internal enemies.
January 6th was a shameful day, but hardly worth mentioning compared to the ongoing, large-scale civil unrest in Imperial Rome.
The 1st Infantry Division does not march from Fort Riley, Kansas to Washington, DC and engages in open combat with the 4th Marine Division, wreaking havoc somewhere in Ohio.
None of this is to deny that the United States and the West may have entered a period of ultimate decline, or that rivals, chief among them China, are on the rise.
That is, unless our representative democracy degenerates into an unelected dictatorship with no reliable succession plan, and Canada and Mexico begin to eat up our territory, the story of our decline will not quite match that of Rome, and no other polity by a long shot, too another time.
By all means, study the history of Rome for its own sake and to gain insight into human nature and the roots of the western world.
But the moral of the story doesn’t necessarily have to relate to 21st-century America.