Opinion | America should not follow Rome’s example
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 02:10
It is perhaps one of the peculiarities of being a mathematician that I should feel inclined to take pen (or keyboard) in hand to write a rebuttal to something with which I agree on the whole, but such is what I mean to do herein.
I could not agree more that, at this point in time, America needs to look to the past if it is to avoid the same fate that befell many other prosperous civilizations. However, I find the recent essay on this matter to be lacking in small but ultimately important ways.
The article in question was surely omitting details for the sake of space, but the broad strokes in which it sought to paint are more than slightly misleading, and its conclusion was simplistic at the very best. To begin with, let us consider Rome.
Of the three examples presented — the Roman “empire,” Byzantium and the Ottoman empire — Rome is by far the most relevant to modern-day America. Indeed, no geopolitical situation in history resembles America’s so much as that of the Roman Republic in the second and first centuries BCE.
In this period, Rome was what might be called a republican empire; that is to say, it was a republic, much as America is today, but with similar imperialistic tendencies. Indeed, the great conquests of territory by Rome occurred primarily during the republic rather than under the later empire.
In this period, the Roman republic was by far the strongest western power, and it easily rivaled China — the only comparable Eastern power at the time — in size and prosperity. No other power could compete militarily, as its recent defeats of the various successor kingdoms of the Hellenistic world had proved, yielding hegemony over what was, for the Roman people, almost the extent of the known world.
It was ultimately from within that the demise of this great republic would come, and it is the demise of the republic that is relevant for America now, given the importance most of us who live in this country afford to our political system. That is to say, we are a democratic republic rather than a monarchy or empire.
Whether or not one can say that the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE, the death of the republic had come nearly five centuries earlier, when the emperor Augustus founded the first imperial dynasty in spite of Rome’s hatred of the idea of kingship.
However, the republic had been unraveling for years already by this point, as ideological strife divided its people and increasingly charismatic and ruthless “great men” gained more and more power, weakening the people’s ability to control their government, even through the senate. It is tempting to equate these “great men” to our modern-day political candidates, but this would, in my opinion, be a mistake. Whatever their flaws or failings, these candidates are working within the democratic system.
With exceptions, those who would be president have rarely sought to usurp the power of the public, and even those whose goals I personally find distasteful seek to accomplish those goals through the proper process. No, a more reasonable equation would be to see the parallels between the large, influential figures of the Roman republic and today’s business leaders. In this age of mass media and easy communication, it is no longer necessary that one be charismatic to influence large numbers of people.
It is enough to have the capital to fund hundreds of radio and Internet and television advertisements, which may or may not be true. It is enough to be able to make sensational claims in public ways so that they attract the eyes and ears of the less informed amongst us.
Sadly, a milestone has been reached recently which has granted such individuals even more power over our perceptions. What will unravel our republic is not, as the recent article put it, continued governmental and military spending (although the latter, admittedly, probably could manage it), but rather the increasing influence of powerful individuals with personal interests in our national politics. If we truly wish to avoid going the way of Rome, then we must first put an end to this influence.
And, indeed, we may find our other economic and social ills will be easier to combat when the public good is no longer compromised by the ability of wealthy individuals to influence our government’s policies toward their own ends.
Certainly it cannot become harder to address these issues if we prove ourselves able to first overcome this one. But only the history books of some future age can say for certain; if we fail, then it seems we are fated to join that list of examples ourselves.