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Parallels Between the Decline of the Roman Empire and the Decline of the United States of America

History buff. I enjoy contact with other minds and other points of view. I mean that.

The fall of Rome?

The fall of Rome?

There are many parallels between the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of the present-day American economy.

An English author, Edward Gibbon, published a book in 1776 called "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." Have you ever read this book? It's very interesting, quite a heavy tome. I was dusting off my bookshelves and books and came across this weighty masterpiece of English literature and history of Classical Antiquity . . . I haven't looked in it for maybe a decade or so. As I did, I was shocked to discover what the decline of the Roman Empire and our current economic situation here in the United States had in common.

I paused to flip through it once again. It grabbed me, sort of. That always happens when I'm dusting or re-arranging my books. A book will suddenly demand my attention when I've had it on my shelf for years without opening it. That's why dusting the books takes me a week or two to complete the task!

There are definitely parallels between what happened then, to those last, decadent Romans as their economic and political system collapsed in ruins about their feet, and what is happening in America, today, as our decadent and overly self-indulgent society seems to be on the very brink of economic and political collapse...

Why did Rome fall? The Roman Empire during the period of Classical Antiquity (which pre-dated widespread Christianity, and was artistically most significant in the pantheons of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses) was a very powerful and widespread Empire. The ruler was the Caesar (a line of 12 Caesars ruled the Roman Empire: the first was Julius Caesar, the last was Romulus Augustus); his rule was autocratic and absolute. In its essence, the Roman Empire in its heyday was a military dictatorship, heavily supported by a slave economy, and with arms out-flung to the outer reaches of Europe. There seemed to be, on the face of it, no outward reasons for this successful model of government and economy to cease to be successful. The inner reasons are speculative and numerous. Historians, including Mr. Gibbons, do not have the definitive answer. Here are just a few:

  • Invasions by Germanic hordes of people
  • the coming of Islam
  • The sack of Rome
  • The general malaise of the people
  • the decadence of the ruling classes
  • the growing influence of Christianity
  • a collapsing and no longer workable economy. "The economy of the Empire was a plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new."
  • loss of civic virtue
  • Excessive taxation spurred by a huge and overweening military budget
  • A decline in agriculture; deforestation which led to drought; withdrawal of land from agriculture. Small farmers driven onto the dole; the elite who owned vast tracts of land tilled by slaves were exempt from taxation.
  • A decline in the production of exportable goods; discouragement of entrepreneurialism; discouragement of technical innovation
  • Unsound economic policies (maybe the most key factor)
  • The debasement of the currency
  • crop failures
  • disease
Look familiar?

Look familiar?

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Do any of the above reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire sound familiar? The unsound economy? The mismanagement of natural resources and agriculture? The overweening military budget? The elite sheltered from taxes while the small farmers are going under? The general malaise of the people; the loss of civic pride and civic responsibility?

I thought, very uneasily, yes, it sounds familiar. It could be America, today, instead of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century, AD. All except for the part about the barbarian hordes of Germanic people invading, of course.

I also came to realize that societies, countries, "empires," have a natural terminus, as well as individuals and businesses, do. The Bell curve is swooping upwards from the inception of the complex society (or individual, or business); the thing is growing all the time, reaching its maximum peak, its heyday. From then on, there is a natural reactive decline, until, in the end, the person, or society, or business...dies. Ceases to exist. Fades out completely, and is no more.

An American anthropologist named Tainter presented a theory in his book, entitled, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," which sounds a LOT like the anthropological version of chaos theory.

He says, in effect: there are diminishing returns to an increasingly advanced, increasingly complex, and increasingly technically sophisticated society. Societies become increasingly advanced, increasingly complex, and increasingly technically sophisticated at the expense of their resource base, to the point where the resource base can no longer accommodate the complex society and the society is no longer sustainable.

Once the complex society is no longer sustainable, it collapses into smaller, less complex units, which ARE sustainable with the available resources. And the cycle of increasing complexity begins all over again. This would explain why we, the human race, seem to be condemned to repeat history, over and over.

The collapse may be a violent collapse, or it may be a peaceful collapse. The collapse may be sudden, or it may be gradual. A case may be made for the survival of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire well into the European medieval period. It didn't officially expire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

What does this mean for us? Where is America going, now? We have outrun our resources, as evidenced by the current debt crisis. What happens next?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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