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Downhill All the Way?

Rome and the USA



"The U.S. is going the way of Rome!" has become practically a catchphrase among so-called "declinists" of all stripes. The parallels are so legionary (so to speak) and the general feeling of malaise so prevalent, you'd think our version of 476 AD — the year the last Roman emperor abdicated — is just around the corner. Another decade, and we're done for.

PARALLELS: The most commonly-cited parallel is our shared penchant for more-or-less continuous war. With barely any pauses over a period of nearly 1,000 years, Rome battled both rival empires (Carthage and Parthia, for example) and "barbarian" tribes (such as the Visigoths). Similarly — kind of — the U.S. has been engaged militarily, with few breaks, since the second world war: 44 years of the Cold War, 22 years in Vietnam, 14 years (and counting) in Afghanistan, not to mention the Gulf War, Iraq and dozens of lesser conflicts. Meanwhile, we're delegating traditional military duties to the likes of Halliburton and Wackenhut, echoing (in the eyes of declinists) Rome's shift from home-grown legions to the employment of outsiders — usually former enemies —to do its dirty work. (Until they overthrew Rome, the Visigoths were Rome's hired mercenaries.)

Another parallel — and in my mind, a more troubling one — is our common sense of exceptionalism: Other countries' rules don't apply to us because we're special, Manifest Destiny's chosen people. The Roman poet Virgil's novus ordo saeclorum ("a new order for the ages") etched on the back of our dollar bill was recalled, for instance, by George Bush Sr., when he celebrated the fall of Communism as "the advent of a new world order."

As in Rome, Americans' sense of being especially favored leads to ignorance about the rest of the world. Take our geographical myopia whenever pollsters ask us to identify places in which we're deeply involved, like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan; or to outline the differences between, say, Sunnis and Shiites. This isn't limited to just the "man in the street" either; despite the CIA's $40 billion annual "black budget," it has been widely reported that none of the agency's Middle East division chiefs can (or could, until recently) read or speak Arabic or Farsi. Like us — Vietnam, Somalia and Afghanistan come to mind — the Romans often misunderstood and underestimated their foes, resulting in humiliating defeats, such as Cannae, Teutoburg Forest and Adrianople.

DIFFERENCES: Fortunately, the differences between Rome and the U.S. run deeper than the similarities. For instance, the best Roman democracy was far worse than any period in U.S. history. The recent gay marriage decision (yaaay!!!) comes on the heels of decades of liberalizing gender and race laws, the likes of which would have appalled most Roman citizens (patriarchal slave-holders to the last), whose idea of Sunday afternoon fun was watching gladiators, Christians and wild animals die horribly in their amphitheaters. Cullen Murphy, author of the 2008 bestseller Are We Rome?, wrote that "Romans were as bawdy as Americans are repressed."

I suspect that any sense of inevitability that our country will follow Rome's downhill path is greatly exaggerated. For that matter, the danger of drawing lessons from history is that you can make any ideology fit any event: Cite Munich if you want to make the case for going to war; Vietnam for staying out of it. Perhaps English historian A.J.P. Taylor said it best: "The only lesson of history is that there are no lessons of history."

Barry Evans ( wonders what the Romans have ever done for us (other than sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water and public health).

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