Rome and America

Some people have tried to draw a parallel between the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the current condition of the United States. To me, however, events during the period of Rome’s late Republic seem eerily similar to what is happening to America. How?

As the Roman Republic grew (conquering Italy just as we conquered much of North America), the prosperity of the country grew apace. However, when Rome marched forth to destroy enemies and conquer surrounding regions, there occurred an epic change in the Roman economy. The patricians found it financially beneficial to obtain slaves from the conquered peoples to run their estates and man their factories. The result was to throw millions of free Romans out of work or into poverty either because they were replaced by slaves or because wages dropped so much due to competition for remaining jobs that families could not subsist on them.

In a way, those who controlled Rome’s economy outsourced their jobs to foreigners who would be forced to work for nothing. The globalization of Rome’s economy meant that the citizens of Rome had to compete economically with the provinces that fell under Roman rule and their slave labor. Moreover, Rome’s constant wars meant that many citizens left their farms to join the legions and as their farms decreased in value due to falling prices and neglect, they were bought up by the aristocrats. Presumably, high foreclosure rates and mortgages under water were common then, as well as now. Consequently, Romans left their farms or legions and ventured to the cities, notably Rome itself, to look for work. Retired Roman soldiers were usually given a plot of land in some conquered province as a reward. But they still had to compete with the large estates run by slave labor.

To simplify, at the time of the Republic, the nation was ruled by a senate of aristocrats (patricians) and council of commoners (plebes). The heads of state were a couple of aristocratic counsels elected by the people. The Roman constitution was not written down and, like the British, was based on tradition. It could be modified at any time by passing a law. In that end, that's what killed the republic. The structure of checks and balances that kept the aristocracy from taking over was steadily destroyed by those with the money and power to have their way.

As Rome filled with unemployed citizens, crime grew and the security of those in power was rendered precarious by riots and wars between commoners and the aristocrats. The poor citizens looked to a strong leader who would alleviate their economic plight and the result was politicians vying with each other to get elected counsel by offering entitlements to the people. Rome created a welfare state to pacify the unemployed. Eventually, politicians were practically bankrupting the government by offering free bread and circuses to get elected and placate the mob. Eventually, as more and more people poured through the borders of the Republic and later the Empire, the expense became so onerous that the currency was consistently devalued, resulting in rampant inflation.

What’s more, the Roman constitution became consistently flouted as ever more powerful politicians bent the law to stay in power and pursue their agenda. In the end, a civil war broke out among the leading politicians over who would rule that effectively ended the Republic.

This is an overly simplified version of what happened to Rome’s republic. But if any of this resembles the current model of how the United States is operating or where we’re heading, then there’s cause for alarm. The question is, will we Americans maintain our Constitutional Republic (which was modeled in large part on the Roman Republic’s constitution of checks and balances and a bicameral legislature), or will we disintegrate economically and constitutionally until we, too, are swept into the dust bins of history?

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