The Roman Empire is one of the foundations of western civilization. It’s something that is ever persistent in our consciousness. For over a millennium western nations have all looked to Rome as the ideal of peak sophistication. Even in the modern day we stand in awe of its grandeur, all the while standing on its remains. All roads lead to Rome, so the saying goes. But along with that grandeur also comes fear and dread, because even the greatness that was Rome eventually fell. Now of course when talking about the fall of Rome I and most people are usually talking about the Western Empire. Sorry Byzantines.
For the last millennium western nations have all compared themselves to Rome in one way or another, and the United States is no exception to that. In fact, the Americans have a unique fascination with Rome and its fall, and whenever things are looking bad politically or economically people like to compare the United States to the Roman Empire, and proclaim its imminent fall, but is that really the case? Is the United States really in a position like that of the 5th Century Western Roman Empire? Let’s look at the claims.
An increasingly popular comparison being made is that of the Barbarians at the gate, and unmitigated migration. The late Roman Empire had difficulty in maintaining armies manned by Roman citizens. Because of this they resorted to recruiting barbarian tribes to maintain the borders of their empire. The narrative usually invoked is that these barbarian mercenaries did not care for the culture or institutions of Rome, and just wanted a piece of its wealth. With the barbarians now manning the gate, it was far easier for them to let in more barbarians, which eventually resulted in the empire being overrun by those they let in.
In Europe this comparison is being applied to Syrian and other Muslim migrants crossing into Europe through Turkey, and the Mediterranean. But in the United States this comparison is being applied to migrants from Latin America. Here the narrative goes that instead of violently sacking the Roman Empire, these new barbarians are financially sacking the over-burdened welfare system, and threatening the culture by not learning English, or assimilating culturally. And of course there is the go to complaint of “they don’t really care about the country if their first act when coming in is to violate the law by being here illegally.”
Historians debate over how big a role the Barbarians played in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Some believe they were the primary factor, while others believe that the Barbarians were simply the final blow to an already devastated empire. Even if we go with the former’s claim that the Barbarians at the Gate are indeed the biggest reason for Rome’s fall, is unmitigated migration from Latin America the best comparison? The Barbarians invading Rome were, of course, armed and violently attacked Romans. Latin American migrants are for the most part keeping to themselves and trying not to get noticed by law enforcement. The invading Barbarians spoke unfamiliar languages and had a completely different religion and culture to that of the Romans. Latin American Migrants speak Spanish, a language that most people in the U.S. at least recognize, even if they can’t speak it themselves. Along with that the Latin American Migrants are a part of western civilization, like Americans. They may be from a different sub-division of western civilization, but they’re still come from it all the same. And on top of that most of them are practicing Roman Catholics, a religion that the U.S. is quite familiar with.
But what about the financial burden that is being compared to violent sacking? In some states such as California, where they don’t deny non-citizens, legally residing or otherwise, from receiving public services, they are quite a financial burden, but in other more fiscally conservative states, not so much.
Now, the comparison to Muslim migrants to Europe are a closer match to the Barbarians at the gate. I’m not saying that it is a good or even appropriate comparison, I’m just saying that when compared to Latin American Migrants coming in the United States, it is a better comparison.
So with this I think we can give a point to the U.S. is not late Rome column.
Another reason given for the fall of the Roman Empire is the over extension of its military. It is said that the empire expanded its borders to far, and too quickly to the point where it’s military couldn’t maintain the empire. This resulted in the empire recruiting the barbarian mercenaries that eventually overran the empire. When the Huns invaded, the Romans had to pull out of Britain, which let German barbarians take over. This is frequently compared to the state of the U.S. military post-cold war. The army is smaller, but in a lot more places. The exact number of U.S. military bases overseas in unknown, especially those used for covert operations, but the estimates usually range somewhere between 800 and 1000.
Libertarians will use maps like these to compare the over extension of the U.S. military to that of Rome in their efforts to pursue a non-interventionist foreign policy. You will often hear about the use of military contractors in comparison to barbarian mercenaries. I’m very sympathetic to libertarian foreign policy goals, but I’m afraid this comparison is not as strong as you might think.
Of the 1.2 million active members of the U.S. armed forces, less than 200,000 are currently stationed overseas. This means only 1 in 6 active servicemen are currently stationed overseas. Now for libertarians this is definitely too many, but for a domestically secure super power this is pretty low. The number get less impressive if you include the 800,000 reservists, making it only 1 in 10. And when it comes to the use of military contractors, almost all of them are veterans of the U.S. armed forces, unlike the Barbarian mercenaries. And on top of that, U.S. military spending is at its highest ever for peace time. The U.S. armed forces may be over extended overseas, but it’s by no means over extended as a whole.
So that is another point in the No column.
A third big reason given for the fall of Rome is its broken economy. In the 200s Rome had a political crisis that resulted in the empire splitting up into 3 parts for the better part of a century. During this time the several self-proclaimed Roman emperors engaged in an inflationary monetary policy, clipping and shaving gold and silver coins in order to make more coins. They used this new money to finance their respective militaries and governments, but it resulted in significant amounts of inflation, which increased prices for food and other goods. The system was in such a bad state that by the time the empire was reunified under Diocletian he essentially had to declare all the old coinage to no-longer be legal tender. He also put in place a system where citizens could pay their taxes with goods instead of money, which became the foundation of European feudalism.
Those who think the U.S. is on the verge of a Roman style collapse like to point to the Federal Reserve’s expansionary monetary policies of quantitative easing as being the equivalent of third century coin clipping. Like with the libertarian foreign policy, I’m very sympathetic to this narrative, but the U.S. isn’t quite in the same state of desperation. The Federal government hasn’t declared all the old money to longer be legal tender, and they haven’t implemented a system of paying taxes with goods. The U.S. also hasn’t just gotten out of a century long civil war… yet.
So for now I’m gonna have to put this check mark in the no column.
So, as we can see, the U.S. isn’t in the same state that the late Roman Empire was. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a fair comparison that can be made between the current United States and Rome, you just have to think further back.
When thinking about Rome we usually think about imperial Rome and its fall. But Rome had a 1000 years of history before its fall. If you want to find a better comparison, you’re gonna need to go back to the beginning of the second century BCE.
Rome has just defeated Carthage for a second time in the Punic Wars, and for the first time it has no real challengers for dominance of the Mediterranean. The wars in North Africa brought a lot of money and slaves into the Roman Empire. The importation of slaves has driven down the cost of labor to the point where free Roman’s find themselves unemployed, unable to compete. And yet despite there being no major power to compete the Romans are constantly sending their legions overseas to put down a leader they don’t like and put a new more compliant one in their place.
Throughout the Italian peninsula there are people who serve in the Roman legions, and support the economy, but don’t have the rights of Romans due to their lack of citizenship. The wealthy have bought up the land that poorer people could no longer afford to farm, which has led to aspiring Roman politicians, such as the Grachii brothers to run populist campaigns, promising a redistribution of wealth from the wealthy land owners to the lower classes, and in the city of Rome itself mob violence begins to assert itself in political matters, killing off political opponents.
If the current United States is anywhere within Rome’s timeline, it is the second century BCE.
The U.S. is the lone super-power standing after two world wars and a cold war. We frequently engage in military interventions to replace regimes and governments we don’t like.
American workers have lost jobs because they can’t compete with a laborer you don’t have to pay. In Rome’s case it was a slave. In the 21st century it’s a machine.
And the U.S. has a sizeable class of people living within its borders that contribute to the economy, and yet don’t have the full protection of the law due to their legal status.
We are seeing the rise of populist politicians who campaign on redistributing wealth, or otherwise equaling the economic playing field, all the while politically motivated violence and intimidation becomes more common, and in some cases more tolerated.
So if you are to compare the United States to a period of Roman history it’s not the fall of the empire, but rather the fall of the Republic that we should be worried about.
If you want to know more about this period of Roman History I suggest that you read Mike Duncan’s The Storm Before the Storm. It inspired a large amount of this video.