September 7, 2023 - 9:00 pm
An op-ed in The New York Times warns, as the headline puts it, that “America is an empire in decline,” and finds a precedent in imperial Rome.
The piece, written by the co-author of a new book, “Why Empires Fall: Rome, America, and the Future of the West,” shows that the cottage industry in comparisons between the United States and Rome is as robust as ever.
It is an irresistible temptation to superimpose the history of Rome and especially its decline and fall — an enduring subject of fascination — on top of our own experience and future.
Both conservatives and progressives are prone to their own versions of this narrative, tending to emphasize either moral decline or imperial over-stretch respectively. But the most important thing to know about us and our supposed imperial forbear is that we aren’t Rome and aren’t experiencing any of the most direct, spectacular causes of its fall.
It’s become fashionable among some scholars to argue that there was no fall. There were no barbarian invasions. There was no material decline. Nothing to see here — simply evolutionary change.
It is true that Rome’s fall — a long, messy process — didn’t unfold with the pleasing cinematic simplicity that the popular imagination might believe; the extent of the barbarian population transfers has been exaggerated, and the eastern half of the empire lived on for another 1,000 years. Still, the western Roman Empire unquestionably fell, with disastrous consequences for a long time.
It’s just that dragging us into it is wildly off base. Rome tore itself apart with constant assassinations, usurpations and civil wars. It weakened itself economically and militarily, while confronting challenges from armed bands on its borders that it became incapable of handling as it steadily lost its territory and sources of financial support to barbarian groups. At the same time, it had to grapple with the Persian Empire to the east.
Is this happening to the United States?
Well, an armed contingent of Quebecers isn’t (like the Visigoths) wandering throughout the United States, fighting periodic battles with the U.S. military and seeking subsidies from the U.S. Senate before besieging — and eventually sacking — Washington, D.C. Migrants to the United States don’t settle en masse in national groupings led by military leaders seeking power and preferment. They disperse throughout the country and take illegal jobs as busboys and the like.
U.S. presidents have to worry about declining poll numbers, a recalcitrant congressional opposition, and re-election campaigns. They don’t, like Roman emperors, need to think all the time about potential assassinations and armed usurpers. They don’t need to worry that if they assign a general to take over, say, CENTCOM, he will use the position to muster the troops and resources to challenge for power himself. They don’t need to consider the positioning of military forces with an eye to checking internal enemies.
Jan. 6 was disgraceful day but a blip hardly worth mentioning relative to the perpetual, large-scale internal disorder in imperial Rome. The 1st Infantry Division isn’t marching on Washington, D.C., from Fort Riley, Kansas, and fighting a pitched battle with the 4th Marine Division, devastating to the countryside somewhere in Ohio.
None of this is to deny that the United States and the West may have entered a period of what will ultimately prove to be terminal decline or that rivals, most notably China, are on the rise. It is to say that unless our representative democracy degenerates into an unelected dictatorship with no reliable means of succession and Canada and Mexico begin to eat away at our territory, the story of our decline is not going to track closely with that of Rome, a vastly different polity, at a different time.
By all means, study the history of Rome for its own sake and for the insights it affords into human nature and the roots of the Western world. But the moral of the story needn’t be about 21st-century America.
Rich Lowry is on X @RichLowry.