Americans, we aren’t witnessing the collapse of Rome.
But we are changing — is it for the better?
Disclaimer: I am not related to the President of the United States. Sorry folks!
Within many world religions, there has been a pervasive belief for thousands of years that the apocalypse will occur within one’s lifetime. The signs are often ripe for such predictions — war, pestilence, rapid social change, extreme weather. This idea, known as apocalypticism, is so pervasive that every single generation in history has had large groups of people convinced that the end of the world was very, very nigh.
Humans are motivated by fear, and we constantly look for patterns from history that predict our imminent doom. It is far sexier to make grandiose claims of danger rather than be a voice of moderation and skepticism. You do not need to venture far to prove this point — just look at any social media or news outlet today, and see what stories have the most clicks, reads, and comments.
Thomas Gilovich tackled some of these points in his seminal book How We Know What Isn’t So, the ideas of which might be summed up in his quote:
“People will always prefer black-and-white over shades of grey, and so there will always be the temptation to hold overly-simplified beliefs and to hold them with excessive confidence” — T. Gilovich
A more popular ‘doomsday’ scenario that has cropped up over the past decade is that the United States as a political, economic, or cultural identity will collapse into the dustbin of history. The calls of “Danger, Will Robinson!” grew louder in 2007–2009 with many exclaiming dangers from “Socialism! Marxism! COMMUNISM!” — all directed at a new governing philosophy under development from the then-nascent Obama Administration.
In many ways, these fears were grounded in very real concerns that the anguish of life in the end-2000s would only get worse over time. The immediate aftermath of the Great Recession was terrifying regardless of your age or success in life.
I remember walking through my college campus onto job fairs to a crowd of anxious and frightened near-graduates try and secure their financial future. Around them, the national and global economy crumbled into near-unprecedented disarray, only to be buoyed up by massive government spending plans.
Many college students and recent graduates were worried that their lives would become substantially more difficult than their parents’ experience a generation ago, while older folks sat in helplessness as their life savings dropped 20%, 30%, 50%, or more in exceedingly short amounts of time. Jobs were reduced or eliminated in the millions in a few months.
Demands for immediate and decisive action by policymakers were raised in equal proportion of those who argued that the massive expenditures and policy changes were not only financially and economically unsustainable, but also went against the fabric of American identity.
In most ways, fears that America was trending towards permanent ruin were unjustified. However, this did not stop extreme levels of exaggeration by select members in social and popular media that sought to capitalize on the chaos of America’s Great Recession at the expense of select Republican and Democrat politicians.
The Obama Administration did engage with challenging social, political, and economic issues of the day (some with success, others less so), and America soldiered on through its economic difficulties. The country did not collapse, but it did adapt to the changing economic, social, and cultural landscape that defined 2009–2016. In many ways, America is still processing the impact of the Recession and other deeply troubling events that piled on during this time period.
The same level of hyperbole and prophecies of doom are present today. Just look at some of the top-selling political memoirs and biographies on Amazon: “Fire and Fury!” “Fear!” “Unhinged!”. The shift from the Obama to the Trump Presidencies has not quelled ongoing discussion (which instead is amplified by social media) that America as a nation is trending towards destruction and doom.
Frequently, these doomsday reports are disguised in arguments drawing from historical allegory. One such idea is that America, as the new ‘Roman Empire’ is destined to collapse in the same chaotic, violent, and disastrous manner as its predecessor. Worse, these folks claim — this collapse is already underway.
The connection between the two powers is a spurious one. Comparing the systemic collapse of Imperial Rome with 21st Century America’s current policy challenges makes an excessive number of ridiculous assumptions, and ignores critical strengths that define American culture and society.
Let’s explore these issues.
The evidence given usually draws from a series of usual suspects. I admit, it is tempting to fall for them if taken piecemeal. Here are some of the more pervasive claims, and connections with current events in America:
(1) Rome was militarily overextended across its frontiers, and was actively engaged in too many recurring military conflicts. The United States has spent over $2.4 trillion in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts by 2017, with other expenses in conflict zones of Syria, Yemen, Niger, Philippines, and several others. This does not include US bases in Germany, South Korea, Djibouti, and about 800 other military facilities in around 70 countries globally.
(2) Rome’s economic and financial strength waned in the 4th and 5th Centuries. The United States has experienced significant upheaval during and after the Great Recession that has increased debts and deficits to high levels.
(3) Rome’s infrastructure slowly degraded around its major cities in its waning years. American cities are having significant challenges in maintaining and updating aging highways, bridges, and various other environmental and civil infrastructure projects.
(4) Rome decayed socially into a land of hedonism, materialism, and vice. The United States is moving ever further towards consumerism and materialism, increasing levels of social and cultural upheaval, and popcorn television (here’s looking at you, Honey Boo Boo).
(5) Rome’s adversaries ‘caught up to it’ in terms of military tactics, technological development, and power projection in ways that had not been a concern since the days of Hannibal or Mithridates Eupator. The United States’ rivals and ‘frenemies’ are catching up to it economically, technologically, and militarily.
A quick survey of popular news sites like CNN or magazines like The Economist would probably only reinforce these beliefs. However, to keep our sanity, and more critically evaluate the logic and consistency behind these claims, let’s take a look at the evidence.
The Roman Empire was divided and subdivided into sections by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305 AD) to reduce the burden of its management.
In 395 AD, these divisions into Eastern and Western Empires had become permanent. The Eastern portion continued to survive, in some form, until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Western portion was less fortunate, and disintegrated by 476.
As the Western Roman Empire consisted of Latin-speakers and possessed the city of Rome (which at this point was not even the capital of the Western Empire), popular history dubs the Roman Empire as ‘ending’ with the fall of the West.
Breaking the False Connection Between America and Rome:
Scholars have debated for centuries what caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, with new theories cropping up every few years. It is likely that such collapse came as the result of many decades of mismanagement, and was the result of a confluence of multiple factors.
Regardless of the true proximate cause of Rome’s fall, even using the example of the Western Empire’ collapse as a metaphor for America’s ongoing and future worries is an intellectually dishonest endeavor. Here’s why.
The Roman Empire, and especially the Western Roman Empire of the 5th Century, bears no resemblance to the United States today. Despite its origins as a decentralized Republic, the Roman Empire was a centralized power centered around the Emperor and his small circle of cadres.
The United States federal government, by comparison, is a vast governing body with many decentralized rights and responsibilities that are regularly evaluated and up for change every few years. Most of America’s political leaders are up for election predictably and frequently (2 years for the House, 6 for the Senate, and 4 for the Presidency). Perhaps more importantly, power is shared not only across the branches of government, but also between the federal and state governments.
The short version: the United States is politically and institutionally incomparable to the Roman Empire, which was predicated upon autocratic, mercantilist, and imperial styles of rule where rights and riches were lavished upon Rome’s elites and citizenry at the expense of its vast territorial holdings.
America has many challenges facing its governance, but at a minimum its democratic institutions and republican style of representation allow for more socially and economically responsible policies over time. Truly bad policy maneuvers do happen, but not nearly on the scale that Rome experienced long ago.
Let’s return to the key connections which many use to tie Rome and America together.
- Militarily, Rome and the United States have little in common at present. Towards the end of the Western Empire, the Romans were dependent upon foreign armies to defend their territories. Not mercenaries, or immigrants, but truly foreign and sovereign tribes.
One of the key challenges that Roman leaders had in facing Attila and the Huns was not the ferocity of their enemy, but the fact that the only armies they had at their disposal were other barbarian tribes. Not just in small units, but entire tribes as independent military outfits. This is inconceivable in any modern military.
While it is also true that the US military does maintain a large number of overseas bases, and an even greater number of diplomatic institutions, these are designed and planned to be as sustainable as possible and work together. Further, while US military expenses are high relative to other countries at present (approximately 28% of estimated tax revenues in 2010), expenses on maintaining Rome’s military were tremendously and ruinously burdensome (at some estimates, 80% of tax revenue in 150 AD).
This does not account for the dramatically higher degree of American productivity per capita. Comparatively, Angus Maddison estimated that the average American in 1998 was roughly 73 times as economically productive than an Empire-era Roman.
In other words, military expenses accounted for a crippling level of Roman productivity, while the obverse is true in the United States. This also does not account for the regular and devastating losses that Rome suffered in its battles along its borders such as Persia, which led to tremendous losses in life and goods in the 4th and 5th Centuries.
Further, the US military is stupefyingly technologically advanced relative to their Roman counterparts. This is known in military circles as ‘force multipliers’, where certain material or cognitive advantages by military units can increase their reach and destructive force in a manner well beyond what would be expected.
More simply, the force multipliers of American technology and training make America’s military better equipped and capable of operating in any theater around the world with minimal delays. This allows America’s military to cover more territory, and meet greater challenges, than Rome’s military could sustainably maintain in its best days.
These force multipliers are not limited to dramatic advances in air, naval, or armored support, but even in the way that the United States armors and educates soldiers individually and collectively. This is not to denigrate Rome’s legions and late period armies — stories of their capacity to carry 100 pounds of gear, march huge distances, and dig trenches and build fortifications all in a day’s work are legendary.
Instead, however, it is important to recognize the improved capacity of the US military’s capacity to tactically and strategically meet mission objectives with minimal losses and maximum transparency. Losses during Rome’s Imperial wars were staggering even by today’s standards, and the military training and technological advances held by the earlier legions were not easily or readily passed down to future Roman military outfits in the late-Empire.
2. Rome’s spending was limited by the coinage that could be minted and distributed to finance trade and state expenses. Stuck with a silver and gold standard of coinage, Rome’s leadership regularly debased its currency to meet its obligations in the 2nd Century-onward.
This involved reducing the purity of coinage, where less and less gold or silver comprised an individual coin. In the time of the famous Emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161–180), a silver denarius (Roman coin) was 75% silver. By the reign of Emperor Gallienus (r. 253–268), that same denarius was only 5% silver. The value of Rome’s currency slowly slid into relative worthlessness.
At the same time, Rome’s soldiers rarely got increases in pay — meaning that their wages were increasingly less valuable or capable of affording their lifestyles. Similarly, inflation skyrocketed for Rome’s citizens and subjects, creating a major economic crisis in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD.
While we in America might gripe about inflation and the increasingly expensive cost-of-living in the 21st Century (which IS a problematic and difficult challenge for America’s policymakers), this pales in comparison to the economic disaster which repeatedly hit Rome. If you would like an idea of what that experience would be like in today’s terms, look no further than the case of Venezuela’s mind-boggling inflation rate (noted at an annualized rate of 32,714% in August 2018). Rome’s economic crisis partially spurred a particularly brutal era known as the Crisis of the Third Century, where civil war tore the Empire into three competing regional sections and Emperors were regularly assassinated or deposed within a year or two of taking the purple. These economic woes were assuaged under the leadership of a few Emperors, yet continued to re-emerge throughout the remainder of the Empire’s existence.
By comparison, America’s currency and finances are far more stable, predictable, and useful as a medium of exchange over time. Growing US debt obligations (both national and household) are worrisome, yet do not compare with those held by later Roman Emperors. Both in terms of absolute wealth and standard-of-living, it would be foolish to ignore the relative luxury and improved living standards earned by Americans today relative to the average Roman 1600 years ago.
3. Rome’s infrastructural woes were definitely compounded by their economic problems, but also from the technological limitations of the time. A core example of the use of lead for water piping and aqueduct construction, where the Roman engineers were broadly unaware of the damage that regular lead exposure can have upon the population. For those that are not aware, lead exposure contributes to potentially permanent damage to many vital organ’s in the human body — not exactly something I would want in my drinking water. The word aqueduct (infrastructure used to carry water large distances to Roman cities) reinforces this point — aqua (water) and ducere (to lead an item).
Rome’s engineers and architects were well ahead of most of the world, yet still had many limitations in a pre-industrial society in the areas of biology, chemistry, and materials science. This was not restricted to infrastructure either, as Roman women frequently used arsenic as a cosmetic!
Other infrastructural developments were prohibitively expensive to maintain. After all, if you’re sending most of your money to keep the military from revolting in far-flung provinces, how can you afford to maintain roads or upkeep buildings in cities? As the 4th and 5th Centuries went on, Rome’s famous urban management decayed and its cities slid into the unhygienic and relatively simple construction of the early Middle Ages.
America’s infrastructural challenges are many. The American Society for Civil Engineers regularly grades America’s infrastructural performance and sustainability, and gave the country a ‘D+’ in 2017. They are particularly concern with the continued availability of safe drinking water (the US uses about 42 billion gallons of water daily), which is increasingly challenging for communities like Flint, Michigan. Other challenges include airport modernization, bridge and dam improvements, and the protection of coastal communities from storms and flooding.
A key advantage held by the United States that Rome did not have is the ability, and incentive, to finance large infrastructural projects. Instead, infrastructural investment is a question of political will and timeliness, and whether one’s representative in Congress is skillful and well-connected enough to bring resources back to their district to make large projects happen.
4. Change, including social change, is constant. This is the core idea behind resilience, where a society can onboard new ideas and practices into its existing culture and adapt to new and interesting practices. Those who recognize change early can reap tremendous profits, or at least significant attention for being a successful trendsetter. Every society goes through periods of cultural innovation and cultural decay — what is more important is how that society learns new lessons and adapts to more normatively positive practices over time.
Blaming the collapse of Rome on a desire for more bread and circuses to appease mob rule places far too much emphasis upon a symptom of a much greater systemic problem facing Ancient Roman society. Mob rule, and the need for Emperors to appease increasingly dissatisfied urban dwellers came at a time when economic and military upheaval across the Empire was reaching its zenith.
Roman governance — that is, the rule of law and informal customs which set practices for everyday life — rarely governed strategically in the 3rd-5th Centuries. Roman leaders spent more time trying to solve the latest crisis in one province rather than addressing the poor decision making and weak institutions which made these crises possible in the first place. By the early 5th Century, Roman governance lacked any real notion of a meritocracy and had few checks upon the power of an Emperor or, increasingly, their chief warlords (known as the magister militum).
America’s governing institutions are largely built upon a belief in meritocracy, or rewarding high achievers for their hard work. This might be naïve or overly simplistic, but at a minimum, more individuals have greater say in the construction and implementation of American policy than in the Roman Empire.
Sure, this made Roman governance very efficient — the Emperor could change rules or standards with a relative snap of their fingers. However, it did not make Roman governance very effective — Imperial policies and commands were rarely self-reflective, and generated harms or losses that could have been mitigated or avoided with the help of a more responsive civil society and bureaucracy.
America’s governing approach is much slower, yet more deliberate and transparent than the Romans. Proposals are generally debated in public, and determined through a separation of powers that limits the unilateral authority of any individual or group. Further, America’s governing tradition prides itself on civilian control over its military — in Rome, it was often the other way around.
American interest in trash television or questionable pastimes (think, the Tide Pod Challenge) might not strengthen our national capacity for strong policy and responsive decision making. However, America’s institutions and reliance upon many organizations and actors to weigh and measure a decision is a far less risky, and a far more resilient approach to tackling complex problems of the day. I will take MTV and The Bachelor over the chaos of Imperial Roman governance any day of the week.
5. Political Scientist Graham Allison postulated the theory of a ‘Thucydides Trap’, where a Great Power is forced to defend its position against a rising power through warfare. Historically, ‘Great Power Wars’ generated some of the bloodiest and most destructive periods in human history, and were only ended when once national force was forced to surrender at extreme cost to the other.
Rome fought dozens of wars before and during its Imperial reign. They often sustained horrific losses (think Hannibal and Carthage, or Crassus’ invasion of Parthia). However, by the middle of the 1st Century AD, Rome had largely ended any existential threats against its survival, and took war into new lands to conquer (Britannia, Belgica, Dacia, and briefly Mesopotamia, Assyria, and Armenia).
This period, known as Pax Romana (or, ‘Roman Peace’) was still quite bloody and expensive in terms of military conquest, yet these campaigns were generally targeted and limited in scope. Regional wars were brief and limited, and had clear goals in mind.
By the 5th Century, this relative peace had long ended. Rome not only lacked the ability to expand its borders, but instead was being invaded by huge barbarian tribes which de facto captured huge swathes of Gaul (modern France), Hispania and Lusitania (modern Spain and Portugal), and Africa (modern Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia). Even the Eastern Roman Empire faced many threats, such as with the Sassanian Persians or the Goths.
The most destructive of all of these groups were the Huns. Over a period of decades, the Huns slowly migrated Westwards, subjugating entire peoples and destroying everything that they could not take with them. Under the famous Attila, the Hunnic Empire grew to incredible heights, allowing him to boast that he was “King of the Huns, the Goths, the Danes, and the Medes” (although his reach over the last two is very questionable).
Fear of the Huns drove dozens of tribes West and into Roman territory, leading to one of the most wide-reaching migration periods in recorded human history.
In their Republican and early Imperial centuries, Rome’s military was highly adaptive to new and improved ways of fighting. The legions readily experimented with combat and armor styles that worked well in certain theaters, and abandoned those which left them at a disadvantage. In contrast, by 450, Rome’s army could only respond to emerging threats, and lacked the time, resources, or leadership to adapt to new styles of fighting. By the invasion of the Huns, Roman leadership depended upon friendly tribes to resist Hunnic invasion.
With help from other tribes which occupied previously Roman-held territory, the Western Roman Empire eventually defeated Attila and the Hunnic threat in 453 AD. However, the West Romans were unable to sustain their victory, and collapsed under the weight of multiple invasions of Goths, Vandals, Alemanni, Heruli, Burgundians, Franks, and many other famous tribes.
By contrast, the world is in the midst of one of the longest eras without a Great Power War in five thousand years. There have been plenty of bloody and destructive conflicts, but nothing on the geographic scale as World War 1 or 2.
More importantly, the nature of war has changed over the past two thousand years.
Historically, leaders of a country had two options to enrich themselves — they could tax their own population, or take from their neighbors. Often they did both, yet war booty and appropriated lands were generally far more popular than depriving subsistence-level farmers of one’s own country of their goods.
This idea was salient well into the 20th Century. Just look at the rhetoric of key leaders of the Nazi regime — their idea of lebensraum, or ‘living space’, is driven by a need to increase the agricultural and development area for the Nazi state at the expense of many of their Eastern neighbors.
More recently, the ability to develop and increase productivity within increasingly small plots of land has made the expansionist, Alexander the Great-style ambitions for land conquest obsolete. Just think about New York City, Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, or Singapore — all are relatively tiny geographic areas that produce tremendous wealth for their inhabitants. This is not restricted to finance, as industrial production and commercial services have also increased the productive value of land area worldwide.
In the modern era, there simply is no real incentive for Great Power war. It is far easier, safer, and more rewarding to compete economically. Even more damning is the threat of all-out nuclear war, and the near certainty of mutually-assured destruction that these threats bring.
Even if we brushed all of these issues aside, US military capabilities in proportion to global military capacities in no way resemble the decrepit, understaffed, and overworked Western Roman Army. For starters, the US currently operates 11 aircraft carriers, with more under construction at present. In contrast, the rest of the world collectively possess 9 active service carriers. The power differential is stark and asymmetric for the near future.
The American industrial capacity to develop newer, larger, and more lethal aircraft carriers is considerable. Other technological advancements include the production of fifth-generation multi-role stealth aircraft fighters, and an array of other new technologies that have already been publicly announced and tested.
A Great Power war in the 21st Century would be short and catastrophic. In a matter of days, if not hours, much of the habited world would be reduced to smoke and ash. From that scenario, there is no recovery — and all major powers are very aware of this.
5th Century Rome lacked the military force to defend itself, or at least make combat unappealing for an invading force. The United States has no such limitation, and the global thirst for combat has diminished as world trade and economic development has given many the opportunity to provide a safer, healthier, and more accomplished future for their people.
The United States might be subsumed as a cultural or economic hegemon, but what would the consequences of this be, and is war necessary and worth it to avert these consequences?
A more apt comparison might be with 20th Century UK rather than 5th Century Rome. The UK had considerable economic woes in the aftermath of World War II, yet did not experience the catastrophic destruction and pillage of its country that Rome, Constantinople, and many other Ancient and Medieval cities experienced in their twilight years.
America is Not Rome. But it is Changing Nonetheless. Can it Adapt to New Opportunities?
There are few good metaphors which cleanly link the United States and the Roman Empire. However, it is true that America is changing in unpredictable and widespread ways — particularly due to the growth of new and disruptive technologies. Specifically, the rate and scale of technological change is putting strain on our social and institutional way of life. This leaves us with plenty of hope for a better future, as well as flashing warning signs of a need to adapt to new ways of life.
For one, the world until now has not fully appreciated the awesome creative and destructive power that is the internet. Many international bodies, like the United Nations (UN), the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) all note that digital and internet economies are already fundamentally changing social and economic life in most areas of the world.
One clear example of this is the rideshare economy. Companies like Uber and Lyft identified clear opportunities to use digital services that would out-compete existing taxi services (see Professor Thomas Seager’s discussion of that problem here: https://medium.com/@seagertp/what-problem-are-you-trying-to-solve-cb4cc9706758). This has led to thousands of people worldwide tapping into alternative and previously inaccessible sources of revenue.
Likewise, however, it displaced taxi companies and professional driving services in an abrupt manner — hundreds of thousands have lost longstanding and historically reliable forms of income.
Digitization of labor has contributed to other losses as well — just go to any law firm with a 30-year history or greater and ask for their workforce records. You will find that prior to the internet, clerks, paralegals, and entry-level lawyers fresh out of school could easily gain employment in the records section of a firm. Armies of individuals would scour legal records day and night. Now, a fraction of that workforce is capable of crunching data and filing legal documentation at previously unheard-of paces, leaving the remainder of employees out of a job.
The real threat that digital economies present is that they might destroy more jobs than they create. In the Agricultural, Industrial, and Communications Revolutions, more jobs were created than those were lost due to obsolescence. However, in the Digital Age, a desire for efficiency and increasing levels of interconnection is driving most companies towards small and highly-skilled workforces to operate increasingly complex information and operating systems.
This should be no surprise — just take a comparison in the job requirements of a steelworker 50 years ago versus today — one of the most in-demand positions in steel and other industrial positions today is software programming and coding.
The next phase of digital economy growth is centered around the twin pillars of advanced/artificial intelligence, and automation. Automation is nearly here in the form of a self-driving car movement, to automated retail, to even automated fast food services and grocery delivery. According to 2014 Census data, approximately 4.4 MILLION Americans worked as drivers (more since Uber and Lyft have developed) — these positions would vanish with an automated vehicle network. Retail and food preparation — two other major areas of US employment, are similarly following suit. The question remains: what would these people do for gainful employment without their current job?
That answer is frighteningly uncertain. However, the consequences of this move, which appears inevitable, do not have to be inherently negative if we can derive solutions to make up for the losses.
The imminent technological revolution will change the landscape of American economics and social policy. However, the defining American characteristic that separates itself from its Roman comparator is also the characteristic that will ensure its survival and success — its resiliency.
Resiliency is a measure of how well a complex system can recover and adapt from disruption or stress. As an institutional and social body, the United States is tremendously resilient in the face of adversity. Maybe it is due to the country’s democratic heritage, or its willingness to take calculated risks for the good of the country, or simply a desire of the average American to make sure that their children will have a safe and enriching place to grow up.
But that drive to overcome disruption and use such moments as opportunities for growth is neither a Democratic nor a Republican principle — it’s a shared idea within the DNA of the average American. The question now is given the incredible pace of technological change, what will our policymakers do to make sure that America will not collapse under the weight of its own innovative and industrial capabilities?
America is not Rome — it never was, and it never will be.
It faces clear and imminent challenges to many of its core systems, but not nearly on the scale of 5th Century Rome. America’s institutions, military, economy, and infrastructure are far too resilient to disruption, and far more capable of responding to shocks and stresses on the horizon.
A better, and more compelling question is, “How can we ensure that future generations will have a healthier, richer, and freer life than their parents and grandparents?” This question is far more challenging, far more uncertain, and far more interesting.