Lessons from How Rome Fell

A while ago, I finished reading Adrian Goldsworthy's How Rome Fell. While there are far too many inane comparisons between the Late Roman Empire and the U.S., this summary of Goldsworthy's thesis seems appropriate (italics mine):

That is not to say that the latter emperors were more selfish, but simply that they could never be as secure. Many may have had the best of intentions to rule well, but the government of the empire became first and foremost about keeping the emperor in power - and at lower levels, about the individual advantage of bureaucrats and officers.

The Late Roman Empire was not designed to be an efficient government, but to keep the emperor in power and to benefit the members of the administration. Many of these could enjoy highly successful careers by the standards of the day without ever being effective in the role that they were theoretically supposed to perform. Sheer size prevented rapid collapse or catastrophe. Its weakness was not obvious, but this only meant that collapse could come in sudden, dramatic stages, such as the loss of the African provinces to the Vandals. Gradually, the empire's institutions rotted and became less and less capable of dealing with any crisis, but still did not face serious competition. Lost wars were damaging, but the damage was not fatal to the empire itself....

...Long decline was the fate of the Roman Empire. In the end, it may well have been 'murdered' by barbarian invaders, but these struck at a body made vulnerable by prolonged decay.

Goldsworthy lays out in detail how the lust for power became so overwhelming that the Republic could no longer function well; after repeated squabbles, the Late Roman Empire just didn't have the resources to respond to threats (to put this in perspective, at the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal wiped out roughly 50,000 Romans in an afternoon, yet Rome recovered and became the sole Mediterranean power; Rome fell several centuries later to about 7,000 Goths). So Monday we read this by the Krugman:

The fact is that one of our two great political parties has made it clear that it has no interest in making America governable, unless it's doing the governing. And that party now controls one house of Congress, which means that the country will not, in fact, be governable without that party's cooperation -- cooperation that won't be forthcoming...

On one side, Republicans oppose just about everything that might reduce structural deficits: they demand that the Bush tax cuts be made permanent while demagoguing efforts to limit the rise in Medicare costs, which are essential to any attempts to get the budget under control. On the other, the G.O.P. opposes anything that might help sustain demand in a depressed economy -- even aid to small businesses, which the party claims to love.

Right now, in particular, Republicans are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits -- an action that will both cause immense hardship and drain purchasing power from an already sputtering economy. But there's no point appealing to the better angels of their nature; America just doesn't work that way anymore.

And opposition for the sake of opposition isn't limited to economic policy. Politics, they used to tell us, stops at the water's edge -- but that was then...

How does this end? Mr. Obama is still talking about bipartisan outreach, and maybe if he caves in sufficiently he can avoid a federal shutdown this spring. But any respite would be only temporary; again, the G.O.P. is just not interested in helping a Democrat govern.

My sense is that most Americans still don't understand this reality. They still imagine that when push comes to shove, our politicians will come together to do what's necessary. But that was another country.

It's hard to see how this situation is resolved without a major crisis of some kind.

I'm not even sure a crisis will be sufficient, as Steve M. notes:

...for 30 years we've had a country that's nominally democratic, but in which presidents are allowed to govern only if they're Republican or forced to defer to Republicans.

Don't think of the Democrats and Republicans as the two major political parties in a democratic system; think of the Republican Party as the U.S. equivalent of, say, the people who really run Pakistan -- the generals and members of the intelligence establishment. Pakistan has elections, but if you're elected, you're still not free to do what that crowd doesn't want you to do. Cross them and you're likely to suffer the consequences.

We don't have literal coups or assassinations (so far), but that seems to be because our authoritarian permanent government doesn't need them, and because maintaining the illusion that we're not a country run by a strongman force strengthens the Republicans in the long run. As Krugman notes (and as Zandar notes), Republicans seem able to run the country this way without attracting any scrutiny from even the most plugged-in observers. Hard to imagine when that will change, if ever.

At this point, it's typical to write some Compulsive Centrist bullshit like, "I don't see how things get better with such an ideologically driven country." Except that's bullshit. A longtime reader points us to a comment left in response to Krugman's column:

What most Americans realize is that President Obama has to move to the center.

What they don't realize is that the President has to move to the left to get there.

The screwball Repugs have moved the paradigm so far to the right, the supposedly Socialist President is now a moderate Republican.

A significant minority that is bugshit lunatic has taken over the Republican party. Until they regain their sanity, we are completely hosed. Not only won't we solve any of our long-standing problems, but we will make them worse.


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The floggings will continue until morale improves.

Oh, you poor Americans, who publishers feel are somehow so unsophisticated you must change the titles of English books before releasing them.

Seriously, what's wrong with 'Fall of the West'? Are those Americans who are sophisticated enough to want to read a serious book about the Roman empire unaware of its division into two halves, one of which collapsed?

I bet they even put in a subtitle. Bah!

But as always, good post.

By Ketil Tveiten (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

So true, and that is unfortunate. So depressing, so utterly depressing. I think I am becoming a hard cord nihilist as a consequence. Maybe we all need our own Walden Pond and just not give a damn.

Hey Ketil, what next, are you going to complain about Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone? Here in Amurrika (fuck yeah!) we don't have no need for stinkin' philosophy, we want sorcery! Magical tax cuts! Enchanted corporate giveaways! And if we appease the souls of the dead Galts among us by getting rid of estate (whoops, I mean DEATH) taxes, we'll all get a pony and a solid gold toilet.

I will say though, that How Rome Fell just seems like a better title, especially if you're trying to get holiday shoppers who aren't super interested in Rome but know someone who does (my dad might be getting one of these).

That reader comment was full of awesome, thanks to the anonymous reader for rescuing it from the dark depths of Hades that is any major newspaper's comments section. If I read the WaPo's comments for more than 5 entries, I suddenly start supporting selective sterilization for the good of the species.

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink

Oh, you poor Americans, who publishers feel are somehow so unsophisticated you must change the titles of English books before releasing them.

Seriously, what's wrong with 'Fall of the West'? Are those Americans who are sophisticated enough to want to read a serious book about the Roman empire unaware of its division into two halves, one of which collapsed?

I don't know that the change of title is that big a deal - the western half of the Empire was indeed Roman, and the eastern half Byzantine.

I hope he also discussed the effect that the third century plague had on the empire. It lead to at least a third of the people dying and most of the suvivors moving to the country and away from the cities.

By tenacitus (not verified) on 23 Nov 2010 #permalink