November 23, 2004
Is Their Story Our Story?
The lessons ascertained by studying the rise and fall of Rome are of great relevance and consequence today. Similarities between religious turmoil, such as the birth of Christianity/the beginning of a whole country questioning their faith; the military and the things that were done to simply “keep busy;” and the governmental structure and decay of Rome subtly hint at a not-so-pleasant end to our dominating role on an international level. While it is impossible to decisively say whether or not our society is on the exact same path as Roman society, there are too many parallels between the two societies to ignore; without major change, our society will collapse as Roman society did.
Just as Roman society reached its peak (often referred to as “Pax Romana”), the cogs of destruction had already begun grinding away. A man named Jesus Christ had slowly started to galvanize the populace with his message. He preached a message that, at its very core, conflicted with Roman governmental policy. Essentially, he preached a message that caused people to place more importance on the individual, rather than the whole. His message was that every life was precious and worthy of salvation. This was in direct contradiction to the Roman policy that citizens should value Rome over themselves. Because Jesus clashed with the Roman government, he was put to death despite Rome’s typical tolerance towards religion. While there is no direct parallel in this situation to modern day society, the underlying factor of a population suddenly questioning existing religious beliefs and accepting new ones is, in fact, occurring today. However, rather than having a new religion on its way in (as was the case with Roman civilization), an old religion seems to be on its way out. Today, our society debates whether or not Christian ideals should remain in the constitution and buried deep within laws – our country has begun to question the very principals upon which it was founded. Religious turmoil certainly exists within our society; the question is, will we be able to survive it or will we succumb to it as the Romans did?
Another parallel that exists between Roman society and our own, albeit less subtly, is the great military strength that the Romans have, and that we currently possess. One of the unifying characteristics of Roman society was its great military strength. While the government rotted from the inside out, the people were inspired by news of military victories abroad. The military restored a measure of faith in the people, and it was one of the only things that kept Rome going. Coincidentally, when military conquests began to diminish (due to a lack of enemies) the society had to be kept sedated by a series of bloody gladiatorial “games” (a series of competitions that imitated real Roman battles, and were very real themselves). One of the largest problems that the Roman government faced was what to do with its idle military when Rome had conquered most of the known world. If the highly trained and ruthless soldiers aren’t kept busy, and they begin to notice the corruption and rot in the government, what might happen? Civil war does not seem too unlikely a scenario. Luckily for Rome, civil war (at least not in this capacity) wasn’t what destroyed her; but does that necessarily mean our society is immune to civil war? While we are less enraptured by our military, Americans seem to be split right down the middle regarding the use of it. Worse still, the soldiers also seem undecided as well. Some believe in the duties they perform, while others have more than a few doubts. Our country has experienced one civil war, although thankfully before the invention of conventional small arms weaponry and modern bombs. Now with the gaping division in our country over our hegemonic tendencies (hegemony being a synonym for the word “unilateralism,” which is basically the idea of “going it alone.”), arguably as large the dispute over slavery and states rights in the 1800’s, is another civil war really that far off?
A crucial factor to consider when predicting civil war is the state of both our government and the Roman government at the time of its collapse. The state of the Roman government at the time of its collapse was one of corruption and excess. It is important to note that the Roman government was organized strikingly similar to our own; with a Senate (comprised of the social elite) and another body that represented our House of Representatives (comprised mainly of the more “common” man). There were parties and factions vying for control, fat-cat contributors who used their money to buy biased laws, banners and billboards depicting politicians, and negative advertising discouraging people from for rival politicians. Not only did corrupt and greedy politicians run the government, but the government also didn’t receive the funds it needed to operate due to tax evasion and provinces secretly trading between other provinces (rather than having provinces trade through Rome). The Roman economy was implicitly on a decline. Clearly, the state of the government was in no condition to manage an empire as large as Rome had become – collapse or reform was inevitable, and collapse happened first. Our own government parallels the Roman model remarkably; we have parties, large corporations donating money to ensure slanted laws, banners and billboards praising political candidates and enough negative campaigning to make one sick. The two party system has become so over simplified that people no longer vote based on issues but vote rather on party affiliation, turning a blind eye to both domestic and international affairs. Their irresponsible voting is not just dangerous for Americans but is dangerous for the world at large. Tax evasion has been brought to the foreground recently (within the last decade), and our economy is in a state of turmoil. Like Rome, we have only two options available to us – reform or collapse. With the current divisions in our country, collapse seems a lot more probable than reform.
The issue facing us isn’t whether the United States is mirroring Rome’s path to destruction; it’s whether or not the overarching concepts behind the demise of Roman civilization (not necessarily the particulars) are present in modern day society. Sometimes one must dig through a few layers of grime before unearthing a treasure – analogous to the way one must read between the lines in order to discover subtle but surprising truths. Using Rome as a model, it only takes a few logical leaps to discern exactly where our society is heading – straight down the proverbial gutter.