Ominous comparisons between the United States and ancient Rome are common, but misplaced. (Photo: Lonnie Schlein/The New York Times)
The United States is not ancient Rome - we are not Romans, and they were not Americans.
In an Oct. 2 column in The New York Times, Thomas L. Friedman quotes a passage from Lewis Mumford’s “The Condition of Man,” a book about the decline of ancient Rome and its parallels with the United States’s situation today.
Mr. Friedman reports that he got a chill down his spine when he read that in Rome, “Everyone aimed at security: no one accepted responsibility. What was plainly lacking, long before the barbarian invasions had done their work, long before economic dislocations became serious, was an inner go. Rome’s life was now an imitation of life: a mere holding on. Security was the watchword — as if life knew any other stability than through constant change, or any form of security except through a constant willingness to take risks.”
This comparison is a common trope, and I don’t have any problem with Mr. Friedman’s using it. But I do think we should be aware that Roman society was very different from all modern equivalents. When someone draws morals from Rome’s decline, the realities of ancient times rarely enter into consideration.
As it happens, I recently read Adrian Goldsworthy’s book “How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower,” and what I really appreciated was the author’s refusal to modernize ancient Rome and its concerns. Mr. Goldsworthy’s basic thesis is that civil wars brought down the empire, Rome’s strength sapped by an endless series of uprisings as local commanders tried to seize power.
And these civil wars, crucially, were not about ideology, or nationalism, or any of the things we might try to project onto the ancients; they were about personal ambition, pure and simple.
In that case, how did the empire ever have a golden age in the first place? It was partly luck — a series of pretty good emperors, for example — and partly because a series of childless emperors adopted competent men as their heirs.
But also (and here’s where Mr. Goldsworthy gloriously disregards political correctness and is willing to see that world as it was) stability depended largely on the lack of meritocracy in leadership.
As long as members of the privileged, wealthy old senatorial families were the only contenders, the game was relatively limited and stable. Once the seemingly pointless role of the hereditary aristocracy had eroded completely, Roman society became a deadly free-for-all.
So, can we draw some analogies with the United States?
Well, I suppose that the ruthless politics and the decline of the old establishment bear some similarities. But if the United States is in decline — and we are, we are! — we’re declining in our own way, and not the Roman way.
Backstory: A Decline Foretold?
The United States Labor Department released a report on Oct. 8 that had long been dreaded by economists: it showed that hiring has slowed and that local governments have laid off workers at the fastest rate in 30 years. In addition, 14.8 million people are unemployed, and just weeks before the November midterm elections, when political parties could be promoting different plans for restarting the troubled economy, Congress is at a stalemate.
This data gives ammunition to those who draw comparisons between the United States and a former global superpower: ancient Rome.
Some readers of Roman history argue that the current financial crisis is the result of a sort of decay quite similar to that which brought down the Roman Empire. Seemingly greedy bankers, sleeping regulators, self-serving politicians and hapless citizens all play a part in this scenario, in which Lehman Brothers was only the first of many dominoes to fall.
In some ways the comparisons are apt. In his book, “How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower,” published last year, British historian Adrian Goldsworthy suggests that Rome’s bloated bureaucracy and the greed of its leaders so undermined the public good that collapse was inevitable. While tribal invaders delivered the final blow, he explains, Rome’s internal decay was so extensive that its eventual conquest was easily accomplished.
Mr. Goldsworthy discourages simple comparisons, however. He points out that the fall of the Roman Empire took place over several centuries and involved numerous critical failures and assaults. At the heart of its slow demise were the many civil wars that divided the empire.
That Rome’s decline took a long time and had many hard-to-identify causes is cold comfort, though, for the many Americans still reeling from the financial mess and simply looking for a way to pay their bills.
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Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.
Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including "The Return of Depression Economics" (2008) and "The Conscience of a Liberal" (2007).
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company.