For at least 240 years Western societies have been fascinated by two inter-related events, one located in the distant past, and the other in the near but ever-receding future: the fall of the Roman Empire with its causes and consequences; and apocalyptic expectations about the fate of America and Western civilization. Three new books, Cullen Murphy’s The New Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Melbourne: Scribe, 2008), Naomi Wolf’s The End of America (Melbourne: Scribe, 2007), and Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (Melbourne: Scribe, 2007), in various ways cater to (and indeed exploit) these perennial concerns. All three authors have publicized their books widely in Australia, through press, radio, television and Internet interviews, or appearances at writers’ festivals. While none can be commended they raise some interesting questions about the historical study of ancient Rome and its contemporary relevance, and also illuminate some important pre-occupations of the Western intelligentsia.
In contemplating the end of empire Murphy and Johnson are joining a long tradition, exemplified by Edward Gibbon who has described the moment when he first thought to write his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789):
It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. (David P. Jordan, Gibbon and his Roman Empire. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971, p.18)
In 1782, the Frenchman, Count Volney, described a similar reverie before the ruins of another ancient city that led him to write Ruins, or Considerations on the Revolutions of Empires (1791):
Here once flourished an opulent city; here was the seat of a powerful empire … Ah, how has so much glory been eclipsed! How have been annihilated so many labours! Thus do perish the works of men! Thus vanish empires and nations! (Qu. in Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History. New York: The Free Press, p.28)
Meanwhile, (c.1778-80), Johann Fuseli captured a similar moment in a drawing of the artist slumped in awe next to the gigantic fragments of the Colossus of Constantine found in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Then, a century on, Gustave Doré drew a similar picture, envisaging a future imperial London lying in ruins before the awestruck artist. Now, a further 140 years later, Murphy records the same type of experience as he wandered about Washington D.C.:
I doubt I’m the only person who has trod, with lofty step, the sculpted gardens of the Capitol and been seized with a vision of how the city below might appear as a ruin. [Great national edifices] invite you to see them as derelicts … What calamity could bring the capital to this condition? Earthquake, Pestilence? Pride? (The New Rome? p.27)
Murphy found himself impelled to emulate Gibbon – albeit writing in a prophetic rather than an historical mode – and explore America’s impending decline and fall, if such is to be her fate.
By contrast, Johnson displays little of this prophetic vision or sense of historical depth, but is rather a pugnacious and pragmatic polemicist, merely exploiting the fate of Rome to continue his left-wing assault on the US government and its policies that he launched in Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (London: Time Warner, 2002).
Wolf, for her part, has also produced a polemic, indeed an hysterical and paranoid effusion that is concerned with comparing America not to Rome but rather to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, in order to identify ‘parallels’ that show how America is devolving into a terrorist superpower. Her book compiles these into a sort of ‘how-to’ manual for constructing a fascist state: invoke an internal and external threat; establish secret prisons; develop a paramilitary force; place ordinary citizens under surveillance; infiltrate citizens’ groups; arbitrarily detain citizens; target key individuals; restrict the press; represent criticism as espionage and dissent as treason; and subvert the rule of law. Rome appears only as the scene of Mussolini’s activities and Wolf’s book is best treated as an example of the strong apocalyptic tendency in American culture. It is also an example of the reckless, adversarial nature of the intelligentsia, to which we will return towards the end of this discussion.
Underlying Murphy’s book is the conviction that “the debate over Rome’s ultimate fate holds a key to thinking about our own” (The New Rome? p.12). In the American title of the book he asks of Americans: Are we Rome? And can Americans learn anything of contemporary relevance from the achievements, failures, weaknesses, and fate of Rome? He himself is clearly convinced that Americans (and their allies and enemies) can indeed learn something, and (like Wolf) he identifies a set of ‘parallels’ that allegedly exist between Rome and America, and he explores these in the chapters of his book: (1) A sense of imperial destiny and arrogance that tends to view the world as if it revolves around the imperial capital, be it Rome or Washington; (2) The enormous military power that underpins empire but increasingly comes to rely not on a professional army of citizens but on barbarians (Rome) and mercenaries (America); (3) A blurring of the distinction between public and private wealth and an associated tendency to privatize public assets that Murphy claims is inextricably linked to corruption; (4) An ethnocentrism shared by both Rome and America that arises out of their respective dominance and leads them to disparage and underestimate the people beyond their frontiers; (5) The role of borders, which, Murphy claims, reveals a centuries-long Roman capacity to assimilate new-comers that America apparently cannot emulate; (6) Finally, Murphy identifies “the complexity parallel”, according to which, he claims, “the bigger the entity and the more things it touches, the more susceptible it is to forces beyond its control. Maintaining stability requires far more work than fomenting instability” (p.20).
These themes give Murphy’s book its structure, but right away there are problems. To begin with, some of the arguments are trivial, for example, the claim that Rome was ethnocentric and arrogant because it produced maps, arranged road markers, and erected monuments that placed it at the centre, as if it was conceivable that Romans would have sensibly orientated themselves in any other way at the time. And one suspects that these parallels could be drawn between many countries, including China throughout much of her history. Moreover, some of Murphy’s ‘parallels’ seem obviously contrived, as if they have been chosen mainly to ensure the relevance of Murphy’s discussion to current political issues and pre-occupations in America in the current presidential election year, rather than to explore authentically and systematically the true points of contact and divergence between Rome and the US.
Johnson’s approach is similar, although he has a more limited agenda, using the example of ancient Rome to attack what he sees as American imperialism and militarism, which he insists will lead to catastrophe, as he says,
“The collapse of the Roman Republic offers a perfect case study of how imperialism and militarism can undermine even the best defences of a democracy” (Nemesis, p.55).
Attentive readers might notice that although Johnson invokes Gibbon and his explanation for the fall of the Roman Empire, and also seeks to incorporate into his argument the fate of the British Empire, he actually seems to focus on the Roman Republic, which is conventionally taken to have ended with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, whereas the end of the Empire is usually given as 476 AD, when the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus, was deposed and not replaced – more than half a millennium later.
Such readers might have even more pressing concerns – concerns that strike at the very heart of this type of polemical exploitation of the history of ancient Rome. Clearly, for such polemics to have any cogency two conditions need to be met: Firstly, Rome needs really to have suffered a precipitous decline and fall; and, secondly, this needs to have happened for the reasons that the polemicists claim, otherwise their strategy of drawing close parallels between ancient Rome and contemporary America loses whatever power it might have.
Therefore, we must ask, what was the fate of Rome? Did Rome really ‘fall’ sometime around the fifth century, as we have come to accept since Gibbon published his volumes of the Decline and Fall? Or did something else happen to it? And if it did fall, what were the causes? And were they primarily internal (e.g., decadence or militarism), or external (e.g., barbarian invasions)? And do such questions really have anything to teach us across a gulf of 1500 years?
These are clearly substantial matters that illustrate the complex issues with which exercises in comparative history have to deal, and Murphy and Johnson generally avoid discussing them. Therefore, in order that we can more fully assess the type of arguments advanced in these books we will review what Gibbon himself had to say about the fall of Rome, before more briefly reviewing some subsequent theories, including the great competing analysis proposed by Henri Pirenne in Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), and the findings of the most recent historians of Rome. Ironically, Murphy and Johnson have chosen to launch their jeremiads at a propitious time for the study of Roman history. As one historian points out:
“Two generations of scholarship since the Second World War have revolutionized our understanding both of the Roman Empire and of the wider [barbarian] world … The intellectual impact of these [research] trends has been electric” (Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Pan, 2005, p.xiii).
Other historians before Gibbon had explored the idea of civilizational collapse. For example, Edward Wortley Montagu had published Reflections on the Rise and Fall of the Ancient Republics in 1759. Nevertheless, it was Gibbon who gave it brilliant and memorable expression. In Chapter 38 of The Decline and Fall (D. M. Low Abridgement. London: Book Club Associates, 1976), Gibbon offers his ‘General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West’, concluding that:
The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. (p.524)
These are, of course, memorable words, capturing the essential themes that have ever since been associated with Gibbon’s analysis of the fall of Rome and the fate of empires. They suggest, for example, that “immoderate greatness” leads naturally and inevitably to decline, that there is a “principle of decay” inherent in civilizations, and that such immense human achievements can precipitously collapse under “the pressure of [their] own weight”. These observations have the quality of general predictions about the history of civilizations and certainly helped provoke the subsequent interest in the fall of Rome, treated as a case study of ‘immoderate greatness’, as, of course, we are seeing once again with these efforts by Murphy and Johnson.
However, before Gibbon reaches this famous assessment of Rome’s fall he offers an equally grand encomium of her achievements, especially in her earlier centuries, invoking the great Greek historian Polybius, who had witnessed Rome’s annihilation of Carthage and whose work revealed “the deep foundations of the greatness of Rome” (p.524):
The fidelity of the citizens to each other and to the state was confirmed by the habits of education and the prejudices of religion. Honour, as well as virtue, was the principle of the republic; the ambitious citizens laboured to deserve the solemn glories of a triumph; and the ardour of the Roman youth was kindled into active emulation as often as they beheld the domestic images of their ancestors. The temperate struggles of the patricians and plebeians had finally established the firm and equal balance of the constitution, which united the freedom of popular assemblies with the authority and wisdom of a senate and the executive powers of a regal magistrate. (p.524)
In a passage that would irritate Johnson, with his over-heated hatred of militarism and imperialism, Gibbon describes how Rome mobilized the power of its citizen army and its Italian allies – “who yielded to the valour and embraced the alliance of the Romans” – Rome was driven by “the spirit and success of a people incapable of fear and impatient of repose”, advancing “with rapid steps to the Euphrates, the Danube, the Rhine, and the Ocean; and the images of gold, or silver, or brass, that might serve to represent the nations and their kings, were successively broken by the iron monarchy of Rome” (p.524).
However, from the heights of this imperial apogee the story of the ruin of Rome, according to Gibbon, “is simple and obvious”:
The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed and finally dissolved by the partial institutions of Constantine; and the Roman world was overwhelmed by a deluge of barbarians. (pp.524-5)
Despite the radical fervour that they bring to their jeremiads, not even Johnson or Wolf could claim that this offers a relevant parallel to anything that is happening in the US.
Gibbon actually acknowledges a range of causes for Rome’s fall, including the role played by Christianity, and because this is often taken as a central element of Gibbon’s explanation for the fall of Rome it is worth careful review. Gibbon observes that when “the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that … Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire” (p.525). The enervating “doctrines of patience and pusillanimity were preached [while] the active virtues of society were discouraged, [until] the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister [where] the sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age” (pp.525-6). Vast amounts of public and private wealth were “consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion [and] lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity” (p.525). Inevitably, “the church, and even the state, was distracted by religious factions [and] the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods” (p.526). Nevertheless, despite these corrosive affects, Christianity also provided “a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign” (p.526). Consequently, “if the decline of the Roman Empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors” (p.526).
Christianity thus played a nuanced role. It give expression to widespread feelings of guilt and unworthiness, of fatalism and despair with the present world, which conspired to produce a desire for salvation, with many escaping the vicissitudes of life in the here-and-now through new contemplative forms of religious life. The great martial ethic and absolute loyalty to Rome was swept aside by a new ethic of intense self-regard, elevated to supernatural heights. On the other hand, the new religion carefully rendered unto Caesar the civic observances that were required.
Having reviewed a range of causes for the fall of Rome, Gibbon turns from the Roman past to his own time, setting a precedent that Murphy, Johnson, and many others have followed in suggesting that “this awful revolution may be usefully applied to the instruction of the present age” (p.526). For Gibbon, the civilization of Europe (in which he includes America) enjoyed a high level of cultivation, prosperity, and happiness, and a system of arts, laws, and manners that distinguished it from the rest of humanity. On the other hand:
The savage nations of the globe are the common enemies of civilised society; and we may inquire, with anxious curiosity, whether Europe is still threatened with a repetition of those calamities which formerly oppressed the arms and institutions of Rome. (p.526)
In making this assessment Gibbon knew only too well how “cold, poverty, and a life of danger and fatigue fortify the strength and courage of barbarians”, while too many “polite and peaceful nations [neglect] the resources of military art”, and leave themselves unable to resist “the rude valour” of the barbarians (p.528). He laments that “the Romans were ignorant of the extent of their dangers and the number of their enemies” that were gathering: “poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry “(pp.526-7). These barbarian hordes were violently “agitated by the rapid impulse of war”, and behind them were the remorseless Huns, propelled Westwards by their enemies, while beyond them all were “the distant revolutions of China” (p.527).
The French Revolution radicalized the historical study of Rome, with the French initially adopting doctrines and imagery that were inspired by the Roman Republic, before shifting focus to the Empire when Napoleon rose to power. Meanwhile, Britain and Germany turned to ancient Greece as a model of resistance to tyranny. Consequently “ever since Napoleonic times, French thinkers … looked to Rome and accepted Rome’s contribution to the West, while progressive Germans, Britons, and Americans tended to see Rome as at best a necessary evil and to choose the Greeks as models” (David Gress, From Plato to NATO, New York: The Free Press, 1998, p.107). An interesting variation of this Northern view was proposed in 1800 by the German Romantic Johann Herder. He envisaged Rome as a near lifeless form that had lain on her deathbed for centuries until there came “northern giants, to whom the enervated Romans appeared dwarfs; they ravaged Rome, and infused new life into expiring Italy” (Outlines of a Philosophy of History. London, 1800, p.421). These are Northern European orientations towards Rome that have remained influential to this day, as we will see below.
The works of two later historians illustrate what was lost to Western civilization with the eclipse of Rome. In his History of Rome (1854-56) Theodor Mommsen expressed the fundamental insight that it was the unparalleled stature and achievements of Rome that gave rise to the idea of the West considered as a civilization distinct from, and opposed to, the East. Subsequently, in The Legacy of Rome (1920), Ernest Barker showed how the Empire realized the Greek ideal of a universal society, a cosmopolis, in which all free men were equal under the law – thus providing the central political principle of Western civilization. These observations emphasize the cataclysmic long-term cost of Rome’s destruction, the subsequent imposition of feudalism, and the unimpeded spread of Islam across lands that had for centuries lived under the rule of Roman law.
Gibbon’s version of the fate of Rome was attacked at its very roots by Henri Pirenne, who began publishing his views in the 1920s. According to the ‘Pirenne Thesis’ there was no fall, and neither the deposing of the last emperor in 476 nor the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries involved the decline of Rome in any precipitant sense. The world of 600, he claimed, was no different in quality to that of 400, and many essential elements associated with civilized life under the Roman Empire persisted for well over a century. The key event that signalled the transformation of Rome lay elsewhere:
The cause of the break with the tradition of antiquity was the rapid and unexpected advance of Islam. The result of this advance was the final separation of East from West, and the end of Mediterranean unity. Countries like Africa and Spain, which had always been parts of the Western community, gravitated henceforth in the orbit of Baghdad. In these countries another religion made its appearance, and an entirely different culture. The Western Mediterranean, having become a Muslim lake, was no longer the thoroughfare of commerce and of thought which it had always been. The West was blockaded and forced to live upon its own resources. (Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne. London: Unwin, 1939, p.284)
The new Islamic empire meant that that “for the first time in history the axis of life [in this region of the world] was shifted northwards from the Mediterranean”, and European society regressed into feudalism (p.284). A period of anarchy did ensue in the transition period between 650 and 750 but eventually the traditions of antiquity quietly disappeared and the society of the Middle Ages emerged and dominated European history for the next 700 years.
An entirely new perspective on the end of Rome emerged after Pirenne. This postulates a previously unobserved era of ‘Late Antiquity’, and concerns itself with religious, artistic, and cultural concerns. The first great articulation of this view was provided by Peter Brown in The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), where he argued that “it is only too easy to write about the Late Antique world as if it were merely a melancholy tale of ‘Decline and Fall’ [when] we are increasingly aware of the astounding new beginnings associated with this period”, such as feudal society and the spread of Islam (p.7).
Brown shifted the historical focus to the study of contemplatives, monasteries, and holy men and women, and his relatively cheerful approach was a reaction not only to Gibbon but also to Eric Dodds, who had argued in The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) that the later centuries of the Empire were an ‘age of anxiety’, which arose out of the collapse of paganism and the spread of an all-pervasive fatalism, and found expression in the increasing popularity of salvation religions, exemplified by Christianity. Significantly, Dodds drew parallels between this ancient religious revolution and the apocalyptic and millennialist obsessions of the extremist political religions of the 20th century.
According to the Late Antiquity School, the Roman Empire never fell at all, but was gradually transformed into the forerunners of the European state system. This position has been put succinctly by its leading proponents in a major reference work:
The period between around 250 and 800 [was] a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own. It is not, as it once was for Edward Gibbon, a subject of obsessive fascination only as the story of the unravelling of a once glorious and ‘higher’ state of civilization. It was not a period of irrevocable Decline and Fall; nor was it merely a violent and hurried prelude to better things … Not only did Late Antiquity last for over half a millennium; much of what was created in that period still runs in our veins. (G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (eds.) Late Antiquity. London: Belknap Press, 1999, p.xi)
Our patrimony, according to this view, was not drawn from the Romans but from a world of Late Antiquity dominated by the Germanic peoples of the North and the Muslims from the East. As another leading proponent of this approach has observed with breathtaking insouciance: “what we call the Fall of the Western Roman Empire was an imaginative experiment that got a little out of hand” (Walter Goffart, Barbarians and Romans AD 418-584. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980, p.35).
Inevitably, there has been a reaction to this perspective, and Gibbon’s key insights re-appear in some very recent books on the fate of Rome, reflecting research that is far more informed by archaeology than previously. While they retain some of the insights of the Late Antiquity historians they also re-assert the powerful notion of the fall of Rome that Gibbon unleashed into the intellectual tradition of the West. In his own comprehensive history of the period, the Oxford historian, Peter Heather reviews the various theories and concludes that the Western Empire most definitely fell but “not because of the weight of its own ‘stupendous fabric’ [as Gibbon concluded], but because its Germanic neighbours had responded to its power in ways that the Romans could never have foreseen” (Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Pan, 2005, p.459).
The contemporary political dimensions of the historiography of ancient Rome are illuminated by another Oxford historian. Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) points out that the present prominence of the Late Antiquity model reflects dramatic shifts within European politics, particularly in connection with the rehabilitation of Germany in the post-Nazi era: “Already in the 1960s and 1970s the [ancient] Germanic peoples had been rehabilitated from murderous and destructive thugs to become an essential [civilizing] element in the making of modern Europe” (p.174). Consequently, any diminution of northern Europe and elevation of Rome was resisted, and much was made, for example, of the fact that Mussolini invoked Rome for fascist propaganda purposes, while a Rome-centred vision of Europe, it was alleged, “might give the Pope ideas above his station” (p.174).
Moreover, it was felt that a linking of Western civilization with Christianity “would be disturbingly ‘American’” and offend the sensitivities of liberal and left-wing European secularists (p.174). It would also tend to elevate Rome, Athens and Istanbul over Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and Brussels in future accounts of historic Europe – an especially vital consideration as the European Union continues its policy of expansion eastwards while also seeking always to accommodate and placate the demands of its expanding Muslim population and influential Muslim governments and organizations. These increasingly demand that European education and scholarship reflect the ‘Islamization of knowledge’ that replaces the traditional narrative of the West with one that reflects the teachings of the Qur’an, especially with respect to the respective accounts of religious history and contributions to civilization (Bat Ye’or, Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005, pp.253-7).
Consequently, “an interpretation of history that keeps the Roman past, but transforms it into a post-Roman Europe dominated by the Franks, is therefore much more satisfactory” (Fall of Rome, p.175). Given these political considerations it was not surprising the European Science Foundation’s research project into this period was entitled ‘The Transformation of the Roman World’: “In this new vision of the end of the ancient world, the Roman Empire is not ‘assassinated’ by Germanic invaders” as earlier French historians claimed, “rather, Romans and Germans together carry forward much that was Roman, into a new Romano-Germanic world. (p.174)
Ward-Perkins is not comfortable with this politicization of the historical study of ancient Rome, and its misrepresentation of the scale of the calamity, concluding his own analysis as follows: “The end of the Roman West witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilization, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric time” (p.183). Retrieving some of the spirit of Gibbon, he concludes: “Romans before the fall were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency” (p.183).
What is striking about the conclusions first reached by Gibbon, and echoed in vital respects by Ward-Perkins and other recent historians, is how apposite they are at the present time. On one hand, the external forces that are being mobilized to attack Western civilization are increasingly revealed to be barbaric, benighted, and regressive in the extreme. On the other hand, the critical internal forces upon which the West should be able to call for support exhibit only opportunism, complacency, resignation and antagonism (and indeed ‘self-hatred’) towards their own civilization.
Unfortunately, Johnson and to a lesser extent Murphy must be counted as members of this latter adversarial group, an intelligentsia upon whom the massive scale of the challenge facing the West barely registers. Indeed, their books are essentially quite predictable critiques of American society from a left-liberal perspective superficially cast in the form of a discussion of the fall of Rome, informed by little relevant in-depth scholarship about that event, despite the fact that it is one of the most vibrant areas of contemporary scholarship.
For example, Johnson relies principally on only three secondary texts for his discussion on ancient Rome, which he embeds within a rather impressionistic and predictable discussion of contemporary American politics. Murphy seeks to give an appearance of depth to his own discussion and cites a 1980 survey that identified some 210 theories for the fall of Rome, ranging from too many warm baths (causing impotence) and lead piping (poisoning the population), to more academically respectable possibilities. However, he chooses not to evaluate any of these but simply reduces them to the lowest common denominator, claiming that “looking at the range of explanations provides a montage of Rome’s condition” (p.31), apparently believing that the various major theories about the fate of Rome can somehow be readily fitted together or overlaid without major inconsistencies or obscurities. In one paragraph alone he indiscriminately lists some 18 possible reasons for the fall, including six in one sentence (p.31-2), concluding that “all the prime suspects shared in the deed” (p.32). It appears that Murphy is anxious to avoid getting involved in complex and perhaps insoluble historical discussions because what he really wants to do is propose his agenda for the reform of America, all neatly laid out by chapter according to a set of alleged parallels between present-day America and ancient Rome.
Nevertheless, there is a degree of inevitability about the association of Rome with America, with the implication that the known fate of one might inform us about the likely fate of the other. Indeed, so close are the two narratives entwined in American culture that this has become a political factor in itself, a situation that polemicists like Murphy and Johnson both know and exploit with their potboilers.
This association arises partly from the co-incidence that Gibbon began to publish his history in 1776, the same year that the United States Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress. The educated elite of the thirteen colonies had embraced an inspiring vision of Roman history, according to which a simple, hardy community had held fast to the virtues of family life, sober conduct, and self-discipline, and had consequently built a great society. They enjoyed also a good knowledge of classical authors and references to Plutarch, Livy, Cicero, Sallust, Tacitus, and their works abounded in colonial literature, especially those works that contrasted a corrupt and oppressive present with a noble past characterized by virtue, simplicity, patriotism, integrity, justice and liberty. For the Founding Fathers the parallel with their own times was compelling. Consequently, the fate of Rome was discussed frequently in the constitutional debates at Philadelphia, strengthening, for example, the case of those who argued for federalism instead of the centralized system that was taken to have fatally weakened Rome. The educated elite were also steeped in a notion of civic virtue derived from Rome and epitomized by George Washington’s ‘Rules of Civility’, while Washington himself was seen as a contemporary Cincinnatus – a citizen-soldier who led the republic to military victory before downing arms and returning to his simple life on the land, resisting the temptation to usurp the power of the republic.
This history had other vital lessons, and John Adams, for example, in his Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United Sates of America (1787) examined the governmental systems of twelve ancient democratic republics, three ancient aristocratic republics, and three ancient monarchical republics, finding them inferior to that adopted by the new American republic. Cato the Younger stood as a hero of republican liberty against those who would tyrannize the people, while Cicero suggested the pivotal principal that republics must be based on a system of checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power. Consequently, as Russell Kirk concludes in The Roots of American Order (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003, p.98), the “Roman concept of law and obligation, as variously expressed by Polybius and Livy and Virgil and Cicero and the Stoics, passed into American Political thought and jurisprudence, and is permanently embedded in the American Constitution”.
In the theatre, Joseph Addison’s Cato: A Tragedy became one of the most popular plays in eighteenth century America. Based on the last days of Cato the Younger, it deals with such themes as liberty vs. tyranny, republicanism vs. monarchism, and the duty of the individual to hold fast to his beliefs even under the threat of death. It was well known to the Founding Fathers, and was even performed for the Continental Army at Valley Forge. It gave rise to such iconic declarations as Nathan Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”, and Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death”. After independence, Washington, D.C. duly acquired its own Capital Hill named after Rome’s Capitoline Hill, while the Jefferson Memorial was a scaled-down version of the Pantheon, Union Station derived much from the Baths of Diocletian, the Washington Monument recalled Trajan’s Column and many other obelisks of ancient Rome, colonnaded federal buildings abounded, and even Goose Creek off the Potomac was renamed after the Tiber.
Conversely, Americans have also always had misgivings about Rome and what it might portend for their own young country as it continued its continental expansion. These fears found expression half a century later in one of the greatest and most popular works of American art, Thomas Cole’s five-part series of paintings, The Course of Empire (1834-36). This attracted huge crowds and gave brilliant visual expression to a popular enthusiasm for pastoral agrarianism as the ideal state of human civilisation, and the corresponding fear that the path of empire would lead inevitably to excessive centralization, urbanism, corruption and decay. After depicting an Arcadian scene of pastoral tranquillity, Cole, in his third work, The Course of the Empire – The Consummation, depicts a future American imperial metropolis that is indistinguishable from a great Roman city. The next work however, The Course of Empire – Destruction, depicts its fate. In a scene inspired by the Vandals’ sack of Rome in 455, an enemy fleet and hordes of barbarian warriors lay waste to the city and all her people, raping, pillaging, and destroying every aspect of civilization; even the sky is being consumed by a dark stormy vortex. Finally, in The Course of Empire – Desolation, we see the meagre fruits of imperial ambition, as the once grand buildings are swallowed up by the returning wilderness.
As Cole’s gigantic masterpieces demonstrate, concerns about the implications of empire recur throughout American history. Indeed, “the anxiety he expressed … is a very American one, and would raise its head at intervals right down to [the present]: the fear that this culture, so new, so full of shine and strength, could be swept away in one catastrophic eye-blink” (Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. London: Harvill Press, 1997, p.150). And, crucially, the threat was not external military might but internal moral weakness, with the “seed of apocalypse … planted right in the heart of the American democratic experience” (p.150).
Now, as the present position of America as the world’s sole superpower sits atop the agenda of global politics, the perennial interest in the fate of Rome and its implications for America has once again intensified. Amongst contemporary commentators on the topic, Murphy identifies various positions that can be located between two opposed perspectives: the ‘triumphalists’, who believe that America is finally assuming its historic imperial role, imposing a Pax Americana on the world just as Rome brought its Pax Romana; and the ‘declinists’, for whom the US is an arrogant and oppressive global force, an exponent and victim of ‘imperial overstretch’ “dangerously overcommitted abroad and rusted out at home, like Rome in its last two centuries” (The New Rome? p.7).
These perspectives can be found within America’s religious communities, taking a lead from the respective visions of the two great Christian saints of antiquity, including the triumphalist ‘Ambosians’, who see empire as a God-given vehicle for the propagation of the Christian faith, and here Murphy quotes from a Christmas card sent by Vice-President Dick Cheney and his wife in 2003: “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” (p.10) Alternatively, there are the declinist ‘Augustinians’, who compare contemporary America to the decadence of Rome condemned by St Augustine in The City of God, which called upon Christians to disengage from the irredeemably corrupt secular world and await salvation in the hereafter as the shadow of the Vandals passed over the Empire in its death throes.
Caught between the triumphalist and the declinist positions are historians like Niall Ferguson, who argues in Colossus (New York: Penguin, 2004) that the reality of global politics requires superpower leadership, and that this role has presently fallen to America. However, Ferguson laments, at the level of national leadership America is an “empire in denial” (p.6), and that this reflects a deep-seated uncertainty and failure of nerve within the American ruling elite, concluding that “the threat to America’s empire does not come from … rival empires to the West or the East. I regret to say that it may come from the vacuum of power – the absence of a will to power – within” (p.29).
Murphy also invokes Paul Kennedy who, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), argued that America was facing a relative decline in its agricultural, industrial, and financial sectors at a time when it is suffering from ‘imperial overstretch’, where America’s global interests and obligations become larger than the nation’s power to defend them. This requires an ever-increasing expenditure on the military, which squeezes out productive investment and leads to a downward spiral of slowing growth, heavier taxes, and a reduced capacity to bear the military costs. Kennedy observes that if this reflects a pattern in history, then one must concede that just as Rome and Babylon fell, so America’s turn shortly will come. Kennedy appears comfortable with this sombre (and facile) conclusion, remarking that futile calls for ‘renewal’ are themselves a confirmation of the decline of America.
In Arrogant Capital (1994), the onetime leading conservative political analyst Kevin Phillips compared Washington D.C., to nineteenth-century London and fifth-century Rome, as yet another ‘bloated capital’ presiding over an age of imperial decline and characterized by entrenched and arrogant elites, economic polarization and a shrinking middle class, moral decay and a devotion to luxury, a loss of patriotism, and a general sense of a society in decline. This recalls The Culture of Narcissism (1979) by Christopher Lasch, and his denunciation of a self-centred culture of consumption that has undermined American society, producing a bourgeois society that has lost both the will and the capacity to confront the threats that may overwhelm it.
Murphy calls this type of perspective on the fate of empires the ‘rot-from-within camp’ and cites several other contemporary examples, including the radical jeremiad by Jane Jacobs in the Dark Age Ahead (2004), which predicts that the failure of each sustaining cultural institution weakens others, so that with each collapse, still further ruin is ensured. Wolf’s book adds another apocalyptic view with her claims America is turning into a fascist terrorist state.
A conservative analysis that focuses on internal decay is provided by Victor Davis Hanson in an article on Iraq. Hanson notes there the widespread anti-Americanism of the country’s intellectual and cultural elites and observes:
The anti-Americans often invoke Rome as a warning and as a model, both of our imperialism and of our foreordained collapse. But the threats to Rome’s predominance were more dreadful in 220 B.C.E. than in 400 C.E. The difference over six centuries, the dissimilarity that led to the end, was a result not of imperial overstretch on the outside but of something happening within that was not unlike what we ourselves are now witnessing. Earlier Romans knew what it was to be Roman, why it was at least better than the alternative, and why their culture had to be defended. Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared. (Victor Davis Hanson, “I love Iraq, bomb Texas”, Commentary, New York: Dec 2002, 114(5), p.48.)
While commentators like Hanson might be convinced that America is in decline because of the corruption of its intellectual culture, they nevertheless lament the impending eclipse. Not so the intelligentsia, which is the target of Hanson’s attack and is likely to be the biggest consumer of works like those by Murphy, Johnson, and Wolf.
Located on the political left, the intelligentsia positively embraces the decline and fall of America and Western civilization as an act of deliverance, welcoming it as the well-deserved fate of intrinsically wicked and corrupt societies. In fact, this group is the principal vehicle for the relentless internal attacks on the ‘stupendous fabric’ of liberal democratic civilization as it has been constructed laboriously and at great human cost in America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere in the West over the past few centuries. For them, the West is
“of all civilizations, uniquely rapacious, racist, sexist, exploitative, environmentally destructive, and hostile to all human dignity. It [is] unredeemable. Only if the West [goes] down to destruction [can] the rest of the human race hope to survive” (David Gress, From Plato to NATO, New York: The Free Press, 1998, p.14).
The willful absurdity of such claims is astounding. As a vast number of careful studies show clearly, on virtually any measure of democratic freedom, economic, scientific, military, technological, communications, infrastructure, educational, life-expectancy, and health care performance, America and other Western societies far outperform the rest of the world. Nevertheless, for much of the past century intellectuals have forcefully projected a view of Western society as “greedily materialistic, spiritually bankrupt, and devoid of humane values. Modern people are always [depicted as] displaced, rootless, psychologically scarred, and isolated” (Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History. New York: The Free Press, 1997, p.7). Thus, for example, we find the radical Afro-American intellectual Cornel West applauding the “cultural decay [of] a declining empire”, with its “rootless, dangling people” and “powerless citizenry that includes not just the poor but all of us”, as America sinks further into inevitable and welcome decline (Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, pp.18, 6.).
A powerful adversarial intelligentsia seems to be an integral component of modernity in the West. Indeed, “never before the twentieth-century had any civilization produced within itself as powerful, as varied, or as wide-ranging a tradition of radical self-criticism as that of the West” (Plato to NATO, p.14). This intellectual elite enjoys a privileged status by virtue of its superior education and control over the critical apparatus of culture, a control that gives it leverage over the political system that its ideas would not otherwise achieve, especially if they were exposed to the normal democratic process. As Stephen Koch explains in Double Lives (London: Harper Collins, 1996, p.154), his study of the Soviet manipulation of Western intellectuals, this adversarial intelligentsia is drawn irresistibly towards radicalism because, it believes, radicalism alone can “tear aside the bourgeois façade [to reach] the deepest truth”, which is a vision of the fundamental wickedness and corruption of America society and Western civilization. In terms of its cultural nihilism and hatred of everything respected or revered in the Western tradition it recalls the iconoclasts of eighth century Byzantium and the image breakers of the Reformation.
Consequently, for this group of radical declinists “bad news is actually good news”, and all reports of “economic depression, unemployment, world wars and conflicts, and environmental disasters [are received] with barely concealed glee, since these events all foreshadow the final destruction of modern civilization” (Idea of Decline, p.9). Crucially for the ever-increasing influence of this dread-filled perspective of history, “most people today are barely aware of [the influence of this] almost sadistically redemptive component of the pessimist tradition. Instead, the sowing of despair and self-doubt has become so pervasive that we accept it as a normal intellectual stance” (p.10).
Ultimately, it is the radical intelligentsia and the crisis of the cultural sphere that hold the key to the great historical questions about the fate of Rome, America and the West. Consequently, it is the failure of writers like Murphy and Johnson to draw creatively upon the history of Rome to systematically address the existence and role of this vital elite that constitutes their greatest weakness. And this is all the more surprising given that: (1) They are happy to do so in so many other areas; (2) The scholarship exists, because many historical analyses of the fate of Rome focus on the ideological, cultural, and religious dimensions of the catastrophe. Any such analyses will be particularly useful where they focus on the origins and nature of civilizational fatigue and failure, such as that which saw the eclipse of Roman civic virtue and her traditional religions, and the emergence and ultimate victory of Christianity in the form we know. This scholarly concern began with Gibbon but is present in many major historical works, even when they downplay the notion of a precipitant fall, including Pirenne and the Late Antiquity School. Perhaps the reason the intelligentsia does not engage with these issues is that it is afraid to confront within itself the same forces of nihilism that fatally undermined Roman civilization and opened the way to a millennium of violence, oppression and stagnation.
Ultimately then, does the fate of ancient Rome have any lessons to teach us? Indeed it does, but these are not the facile offerings of Murphy, Johnson, and other left-wing polemicists. Nor are they the lessons contained in the jeremiads of those who wish to embrace the desirability or inevitability of decline; such people know not what they wish for. Reviewing the work of the historians described above, it seems undeniable that civilizations and empires are indeed the awe-inspiring achievements that Gibbon and the others recognized them to be. Consequently, they demand a massive and sustained investment of material resources and human faith and energy. They may well be subject to some principle of decay, and decline may indeed be the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness, with the causes of destruction multiplying as diverse peoples and regions are brought within their compass. At time crises may abound.
Nevertheless, in confronting such challenges we enjoy today the great advantage over the ancient Romans that we have before us their timeless example – the stupendous fabric of their achievement – and also know clearly the terrors and desolation that civilizational collapse entails. For five centuries since the Renaissance revealed the achievements of the ancients, the West drew inspiration and insights from their example and these have guided our civilization through the greatest period of sustained change in human history. The great dangers faced now by the West are not transitory political issues that find a place in polemics, but a failure of nerve at the deepest level, a loss of respect for the past, and a collapse of our commitment to building the future.