The Dire Lesson of Rome’s Rise and Decline

For nearly 250 years Western societies have been fascinated by two inter-related events, one located in the distant past, and the other in the apparently increasingly close future: the fall of the Roman Empire with its causes and consequences; and apocalyptic expectations about the dire fate of America and of Western Civilization more generally.

A recent Australian article by Tom Switzer well illustrates this concern (“Nixon warned of US decline 50 years ago”, The Australianpaywalled). He quotes a 1971 speech in which President Nixon draws this parallel and argues that “the great civilisations of the past, as they have become wealthy, as they have lost their will to live, to improve, they then become subject to decadence that eventually destroys the civilisation,” and he laments: “The United States is now reaching that period.” Reflecting on the half century that has passed, and especially on the collapse of the Soviet Union, Switzer observes: “Today China is rising, Russia is resurgent and the US is again [as it was in 1971] consumed by division and self-doubt. Will the US disprove the forecasts of decline again, or was Nixon ahead of his time.”

In fact, Nixon was giving voice to a perennial concern, one that goes back to at least 1776. Indeed, 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.

This association arises partly from the co-incidence that Edward Gibbon began to publish his monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789) in 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.

The Founding Fathers knew they were acting as midwives at the birth of a titanic new force in the history of civilisation, and they knew well what was at stake.  Consequently, the dire fate of Rome was discussed frequently in the constitutional debates in 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’, and by his example as a contemporary Cincinnatus – the 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. 

The study of Classical history had other vital lessons. For example, in his Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (1787), John Adams 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 was seen as a hero of republican liberty against those who would tyrannize the people, while Cicero suggested the pivotal principle 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, 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 (below) 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 always had misgivings about Rome and what it might portend for their own young country as it continued its continental expansion and pursued its ‘manifest destiny’ on the global stage. These fears found expression 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, reproduced below). This monumental historical panorama 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, imagines 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”, as Robert Hughes put it in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.  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”.

As these examples illustrate the fear of internal betrayal and collapse has been present in American history since the early years of the Republic and is embedded in the nation’s cultural DNA. It is this perennial concern to which Nixon gave expression, as Switzer reminds us. This is a timely warning as America, divided to a degree unprecedented since the Civil War, faces an increasingly bellicose China and Russia. Given Australia’s precarious relationship with China we have a vital interest in how this great historical and cultural tension resolves itself: will America drag itself out of the mire of the Cultural Wars, Identity Politics, and deep internal subversion, or will she succumb, as did Rome, to the relentless onslaughts of barbarism and allow the world to slip into another Dark Age? 

(Those interested in pursuing these questions in more depth might like to consult Mervyn F. Bendle, “America as the New Rome”, Quadrant, No.446, May 2008.)

11 thoughts on “The Dire Lesson of Rome’s Rise and Decline

  • pgang says:

    I appreciate this article from Bendle (not least because it didn’t blame the Reformation), but I wonder whether we can truly compare the USA with Rome. The former was founded on solid Christian principles which still guide at least half the population, if not the wayward and rambling political realm. Rome was built on Greek paganism and ultimately nihilism. Two very different ways of going about life.
    The divide in the USA is a spiritual war between Christianity and anti-Christianity (socialism), for the soul of the country. It is a rift between those who want to cherish and build their nation, as opposed to those who long for death. Naturally the earthly powers are all siding with the latter, and it is perhaps there that the comparison with Rome works.
    But it is in its very ability to wage this war that defines the USA as the world’s stand-out nation and empire. Compare them with all other nations, such as ours, in which apathy is the standout feature (perhaps we are more like Rome?), It is in the USA that the battle for our souls is playing out on the front line, and I’m not sure that the forces of death will ever be able to defeat the forces of life, even if the current generation is under a terrible siege.

  • Peter C says:

    The blatant stealing of the last election from Donald Trump and his supporters clearly shows that the decline of America is very well established. America is well down the road to ruin and may never recover.

  • STD says:

    Peter, C.
    Power corrupts – but the pursuit of power corrupts absolutely.
    Philosophically, Quantum mechanics, proves in theory, that the world is here , and human beings, ‘their’ mad- time and space are not required and care very little.

  • STD says:

    On one hand we have the physical realm, the flip side to life is that of a sense of a higher realm- the heart senses this higher area ,it innately knows, if we listen.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Excellent piece from Professor Bendle and pleasurable to read. I personally am of the view that it’s not possible to make real comparisons between modern liberal democracies and the ancient republics and principates but it makes good reading and encourages some thought. Similarly I don’t think the corrupt CCP and China per se, can be compared to the USA, with the USA being far more formidable on every front and this includes Russia, who at the end of the day would in all probability be more likely to confront China, not join them, at least if they have any knowledge of their own past history they would. China is all front in my view , beneath the surface they are very, very insecure….hence their reason for all the chest beating and posturing.

  • Alistair says:

    There are many small and large threads connecting the Decline of the West and the decline of Rome. I pointed out one small one in a recent posting on this site …
    An Ancient Voice in Our Age of Decline. Quadrant Online. 26th June 2021

    However, as Adam Smith pointed out “There is much ruin in a nation” I believe America has a long way to go yet. If I understand my Oswald Spengler correctly I would say that in relation to Rome, the USA is just about at the end of the Republic (the end of Democracy) and about to head into many years of tyranny under the “single party” domination of the Caesars and a tiny ruling elite. (Or in the USA case – the tyranny of the Technocratic Oligarchs and their tiny ruling elite. )
    Europe? – no, that’s finished A site for historical tourism like Athens in Roman times

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Alistair, you made some good points in your piece in Quadrant on the 26th and I enjoyed using it to go back over my own copy of V. Watts translation of ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’, to recapture some of the points and depth in it. You are right that it does make good reading 1500 years later, and maybe it is due to Watt’s translation….. in fact probably it is. Reflecting more on the Roman comparison I still can’t help thinking that the Wheel of Fortune had actually turned more than once for them…. yet they recovered and went around again, so based on that alone Spengler would have to be wrong about the USA and I don’t see the Chinese as being the Goths or the Gauls, who had been hammering away at Rome for hundreds of years…winning some and losing most, with a lot of them even fighting for Rome as auxiliaries. Putting it in very simple terms the main difference today, in my eyes anyway, seems to be that while America has a strong core, it tends to act weak on the surface, while China has a rotten core…. but tends to act strong on the surface. The trick for the USA is not to act too weak, which is probably what they had been doing, and why a President like Mr. Trump was, and still is needed in my view.

  • pgang says:

    Alistair I take a more positive viewpoint, and think that the USA will recover. The Donald Trump phenomenon proves that there is a genuine reactionary force at play there, unlike here. And unlike Rome, which had no logical philosophical or theological grounding (being caught between the one and the many, as with all paganism), the USA has a very deep pool of Christian outlook ready to recharge the batteries. We are already seeing that fight-back at a local level post-Trump. The politicians are losing the people over there (unlike here, where the apathetic are more than happy to not have to go to work).

  • whitelaughter says:

    Every empire fell; we know about the Fall of Rome because Christian monks kept classical knowledge alive.
    The current situation is very weird because we’ve had two empires speaking the same language: the British Empire replaced by the American Empire. The only equivalent I can think of is Rome to Byzantium.

    While the USA is in a mess, it is hardly dead. The Roman Republic collapsed half a millennia before the Roman Empire did; if the USA is a modern Rome then the American Empire has some 500 years left in it!

    And the checcks and balances of the USA are still having an effect. “Red Flight” – Republicans fleeing from Democrat strongholds to live somewhere their homes and businesses won’t burn down – has dramatically changed the American political landscape. California has lost a Congress seat for the first time in history, Texas has gained *two*, which is remarkable. The 2022 congressional election should be a landslide for the Republicans – and cheating won’t help the Democrats.

  • pgang says:

    Interesting thoughts whitel’. In a sense maybe the USA is a rebirth of the British Empire, which exhausted itself in the fight against socialism, only to succumb to the malady.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    America may be likened to Rome in the sense of having the simple virtue of a strong patriotism and an intense belief in the ‘idea’ of America and its hopeful founding. The ‘founding fathers’ mythologies are similar to Rome’s Republican myth of Cincinnati the retiring soldier politician turning his sword into a ploughshare, a comparison made explicit by decking Washington out in a bronze toga. Rome’s Empire disintegrated under the thousand pressures to which Imperialism is heir and for a while there was nothing much left but a strong sense of Romanitas, the ‘idea’ of things Roman as being glorious and heritable, a turning therefore to Roman ways, which the Christian church came to represent and to model itself upon. America’s Empire is similar in this regard: as the pride in America and its flag takes various hits, and the economic front starts to fragment, the memory of a ‘Great America’, which we have seen President Trump use so well to muster support, will rise again to create another sort of polity, with hints of what has gone before, but changed as new demographics and ideologies compete for attention.

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