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America and Ancient Rome: Comparisons

Senatus Populusque Romanus
(Senate and people of Rome)

History offers insightful comparisons and contrasts between past and present.  A generation or so before the birth of Christ, Rome lost her republic to political and cultural decadence.  Although reformers emerged in the political and literary spheres, their efforts failed and ancient democracy faded into oblivion.  Whereas in America, the game is not quite up.

Although the republic of Rome ceased to exist, imperial Rome endured for centuries.  Transmutating into a durable Principate, it continued to  showcase a few trappings of democracy.  In reality, however, it had become an autocracy headed by warlords styled Caesars or Augusti or Emperors.  Thereafter, its appeal to the patriotic sentiments of citizens was based not on liberty, nor on rule by the Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR), but rather on bread, circuses, and military conquests.

Likewise, the United States continues to tout the trappings of democracy.  We hold contested elections, and bow patriotically to what President Gerald Ford proclaimed when Richard Nixon resigned.

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia

Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.  [Swearing-in address, 8/9/1974]

To what extent Ford spoke the truth in the wake of the Watergate scandal is debatable.  Today his words clang like a cracked bell.  Rampant legislation from the bench, where sits an unelected, life-tenured oligarchy bedecked in black robes, hardly resonates with the rule of law.

Neither do plutocratic protection plans for incumbent politicians accord with “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Abraham Lincoln won his single term in Congress during an era when rotation in office was a “‘long cherished'” principle[1].  Nineteenth century Americans would have been aghast at reelection rates enjoyed by today’s Congressmen, as high as 99% in some years.  Moreover, Lincoln was elected in a campaign costing so little that after his election in 1846 he returned most of his $200 war chest.  Maybe old Abe’s vaunted wit would have found something ironically humorous about today’s multi-billion dollar Federal election cycles.

Roman propagandists boasted pridefully about the process of electing magistrates.  But during the dying days of the republic, Julius Caesar rose in the ranks by bribing the electorate; and eventually he managed to make himself dictator.  Which is not to say that Caesar weakened Rome militarily; quite the opposite.  Under his sway the size of the Empire expanded even as republican institutions shriveled.

Much the same process is at work in America.  Democracy atrophies, emptying the republican framework cherished by Americans since the days of George Washington.  But the shell that remains may continue on for generations, or even centuries.  How much longer, however, will citizens fall for the proposition that democracy consists in crowning winners in brawls between two big political machines?

Viewed from the perspective of real democracy within the framework of a genuine republic; what good is the continuation of a electoral process masquerading as rule by the people, when in reality it is run by the few and the very few?  With attenuated powers the Roman senate staggered on until AD 603, but as a sort of debating society, much like today’s British House of Lords.  Democracy is rule by the people, not merely the right of the people to debate and dissent.

Conference in the British House of Lords

As in pagan Rome, our children and grandchildren may prove willing to uphold the parody of a republic – one which boasts a military prowess straddling continents; an economic capability of feeding its citizens via welfare, and of keeping them on wheels; and a culture entertaining the people with hedonistic diversions.  Under such a scenario, “We the People,” the first three words in the Constitution, will be as dead as Roman democracy when Petronius wrote his Satyricon.

About the same time the Stoic philosopher, Seneca, was murdered by order of the Emperor, Nero – “when Sadism sat on a throne brazen in the broad daylight.”  Seneca’s last years were saddened by witnessing the loss of liberty and the downfall of the republic.  Throughout his life he carried republican values which he had imbibed in school not long after his birth in Cordoba, Spain.[2]  Disillusionment, strong enough to overwhelm even Seneca’s Stocism, was described by a 20th century Spaniard, Jose Ortega y Gasset.  “’I say that the end of a civilization is the scene most imbued with melancholy for men.  The possibility that a civilization should die doubles our own mortality.’”[3]  Or triples it when a man has to raise a family in such a morbid environment.

In Roman culture one could find refuge from melancholy, most notably in the rise of Christianity as preached by men of conviction and intellect.  In America, by contrast, religious truth is not gaining but declining in social influence.  We are witnessing, as the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen said in Boston, 1974, not the demise of Christianity but the death of Christendom.  Resurgent paganism would confine us to a sort of cultural arctic circle, with our Judeo-Christian heritage hanging like an ice cycle on an Eskimo lodge.

For Americans, therefore, the long-term looks even more chilling than for Roman citizens anticipating the future.  Christians like the 3rd century writer, Commodian, loathed the Roman Empire, and his verses anticipate its breakup like a balmy breeze.[4]

The death of someone despised brings the temptation to be joyful.  Whereas the impending death of a loved one provides occasion for sorrow.  Hence as Americans who generally cherish our country – or at least its noble past – we suffer a grief proportionate to our patriotism.

Christians in this nation would love to have seen the ignobility of popular culture quashed, and high ethical standards restored to preeminence.  Instead Federal judges worked fiendishly to secularize the public square, thus letting diabolical fires conflagrate society.  It has been agonizing to witness, especially for citizens old enough to remember what times were like before cultural arsonists went to work on America.  While Christ’s agony in the garden was immeasurably more intense, ours has been more protracted.

Evidently the Supreme Court never learned, or else forgot, what the Irish lass said long ago:  “I realize that for nations, as for individuals, true greatness lies in goodness.”  (Eveleen Nicholls, c. 1909)

And so to think about our country’s future is more distressing for us than for Commodian.  He looked on hopefully, as if to a dawn, whenever Germanic invaders crossed imperial frontiers. But he foresaw the future through a glass darkly.

As it transpired, the Constantinian revolution gave the Empire a spiritual shot in the arm.  Reinvigorated as a Christian empire, it lasted another 1½ centuries in the West, and more than a millennium in the East.  And yet it wore a cancer at the heart of its cultural heritage.

According to G.K. Chesterton, Western Europe’s long-term hope was not in improving imperial trends (as in Constantinople and the eastern Empire), but rather in a thoroughgoing “purgation” or “emancipation” from pagan manners and morals.  The only remedy strong enough was the era of the Dark Ages.  The Gothic invasions bequeathed an era of collective mortification in which heathen culture was purged and society emancipated from the obsession with sex, particularly the unnatural proclivities ingrained into Greco-Roman society. (Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, chapter 2).

Accordingly, 3rd century Romans like Commodian might have eschewed the Christian revolution under Constantine, preferring instead what Chesterton described as “the long penitential period.” Chesterton saw many generations of cultural mortification as requisite to “the twilight of morning,” i.e. The 13th, Greatest of Centuries.[5]

I’m not sure whether to rejoice or lament the fact that no comparable opportunity for “expiation” is yet on the horizon for pagan America.  But times change, and now with increasing rapidity.  My children or grandchildren may live to endure it, though I out-die it.

Another grim contrast between Rome and postmodern America is that a clear-eyed perspective on our country’s situation is obscured by starry-eyed super-patriots.  As a case in point, a national talk show host of some prominence brags on every program about “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.”  But like clear-eyed Romans, more level-headed patriots exhibit tough love of America while eschewing triumphalism.

In Rome, moreover, pagan progressives such as Ovid, who admired decadence and despised the rusticitas of his ancestors,[6] began losing influence compared to the surge of brilliant Christian apologists and intellectuals from St. Justin Martyr through St. Augustine.  In America, by contrast, decadence and its advocates are waxing strong, with no indications of a waning cycle.

On the optimistic side, however, the United States is exceptional – as, to a lesser extent, was Rome.  And our institutional advantages, including Article V of the Constitution, could come to the fore if “We the People” ever mobilize for the purpose of turning things around.  Counterrevolutions are not impossible, notwithstanding the proverbial allegation that you can’t turn back the clock.  America’s lofty heritage portends that someday our fellow countrymen might strive for a restoration, calling the USA back to the golden principles from which it sprang.

Diocletian — Archeological Museum, Istanbul

Returning to original principles is a well precedented path to reform, pursued by reformers as far back as ancient Sumer, the earliest civilization.[7]  Pope Leo XIII wrote in 1891 that “when a society is perishing, the true advice to give to those who would restore it is to recall it to the principles from which it sprang.”[8]

But calling Rome back to her pagan roots was a foolish strategy for Diocletian, Galerius, and other imperial persecutorsTheir reforms were abject failures for three reasons.  First, the Greco-Roman pantheon which they proposed to revive was spiritually degrading.  Second, their agenda for restoration included resisting the best thing Rome had going, the upsurge of Christianity.  Third, in the words of Gamaliel, “if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it.  Else perhaps you may find yourselves fighting even against God.” (Acts 5:39)

Restoration would seem, however, to be a sure winner if it is ever attempted in America; with our legacy of a wise Constitution in tandem with religion and morality.  In China, by contrast, or South Africa, there would be no good purpose in restoring the Manchu or apartheid regimes.  Iniquitous historical roots are unworthy of restoration.

How can bad grapes yield good burgundy?
Or rancid soil rhododendrons and roses?

For the same reason the restorative strategy was no option at all for the Christian revolution of the 4th century.  And so Constantine, or rather his successors, took another well-heeled approach as articulated by the Roman historian, Sallust, a contemporary and partisan of Julius Caesar.  Sallust advised Caesar that internal or domestic discord could alone destroy the empire.  Therefore,

‘We must consolidate the benefits of concord
and destroy the evils of discord.’[9]

Theodosius the Great

The Christian revolution under Constantine and his successors took more or less the same approach in a culture war conducted over several decades.  This kulturkampf culminated in the theocracy of Theodosius the Great (379-395) and his final outlawing of paganism, thus securing imperial unity on the basis of the new religion.

The principle of theocratic unity continued to prevail in the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, for many centuries.  Meanwhile, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, AD 476, fragmentation was somewhat mitigated by the unifying effect of the Papacy, and by the common denominator of Roman Catholicism throughout Western Europe.

In conclusion, the history of the Roman republic is similar to that of the “Great Republic” (as Winston Churchill called it when I was a boy).   Just as Rome took the low road into political and cultural decadence, so the USA is well down the same slope.  The Roman Republic never returned, although the Roman Empire remained strong for centuries.

Similarly, America’s status seems secure – at least for the time being – as the world’s sole military superpower.  Whereas, alas, the future of America’s republican form of government is very much in doubt.  No longer are citizens called in domestic matters to “keep it,” as Ben Franklin said of the Republic in 1787, but rather to recover it by restoring the scepter to the written Constitution and by getting back to God.

John F. Kennedy

On the spiritual plane, the more apt historical comparison is the Roman Principate versus postmodern America.  In juxtaposing the two great empires, each home front reveals polarization between paganism and Christianity.  The Christians were on the winning side in the 4th century.  In the United States the culture war has been going the other way, over the half-century since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Prior to Constantine, before the contest was decided in favor of Christianity, some in the Church looked hopefully to Christ’s return in glory; and others, more mundanely, to the Gothic invasions to end the Empire.  Today too we hear otherworldly comments like, “we’ve read the Book, we know who wins in the end.”  Or dire political forecasts like “the future belongs to China.”

How it goes for America in the next two or three generations will depend largely on whether faith, fervor and valor shall reappear, as exhibited by activists during the “Christian Revolution Under Constantine.”


[1] Robert Struble, Jr., “House Turnover and the Principle of Rotation,” Political Science Quarterly 94 (Winter 1979-80): 649-667.
[2] Quotation on Nero from, G.K. Cherterton, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1990), chapter 2, “The World St. Francis Found,” p. 29 — originally published 1924.  On Seneca: Santo Mazzarino, The End of the Ancient World, (NY: Alfred A Knopf, 1966), p. 33.
[3]
Ortega quoted by Mazzarino, ibid., pp. 170-71. 
[4]
Mazzarino, ibid, pp. 44, 46.  Commodian flourished c. 250, A.D. and wrote poetry in Latin.  I’m reminded of the colonial American poet, Michael Wigglesworth, and his Day of Doom.
[5]
Chesterton, supra, pp. 25-26, 31-33, 36.
[6]
Mazzarino, supra, p. 32, citing Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 3.121 ff.
[7]
Mazzarino, p. 31, cf. 27.
[8]
Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum 41 (1891).  Similarly, the Washington State Constitution, Declaration of Rights, sect. 32, states: “A frequent recurrence to fundamental principles is essential to the security of individual right and the perpetuity of free government.”  Would that the people of my home state might take their own Constitution to heart.
[9]
Mazzarino, supra, p. 27, cf. 31.

____

See also my, “Constantine and Christendom: Glory or Calamity?”
And the four part series for the 17th centennial, “Christian Revolution Under Constantine


  • Carlos Caso-Rosendi

    Great article, Bob. It is not hard to see the parallels between the US and Ancient Rome. I prefer to take a step back to see the whole picture. Both Rome and the US declined mainly because of the moral failure of the ruling classes. Aristotle said “Where no one wills to be wicked, no one fails to be blessed” and so the responsibility of the ruling classes is to set a good example. It is easy to condemn Obama now but he would not be there if it was not for the Kennedy’s, the Hiltons, the Rockefellers, and for all the investors that don’t care what Hollywood does as long as they can profit from it, etc. etc. Inevitably we had to arrive to the point where “the people” acted simply as the rabble they are and vote themselves a man who can raid the treasury of the state for their benefit. It’s a short walk from degeneracy to robbery and so it goes.

    As Catholics–and I mean Catholics such as yourself who know both secular and sacred history and the lessons history generously teaches to anyone who cares to listen–we are obliged to see everything in the light of the meta-historical path of creation-fall-redemption-penance-restoration. Just a note: I am not promoting “apokatastasis” here, I am only responding to some of the positions you describe in your article. First, the Roman Empire is an anomaly in Ancient History. Even the Bible declares (in the Book of Daniel) that Rome was going to be extraordinarily strong and that God was going to allow Romans to trample upon His people. That is the reason why John calls the Roman Empire, “Babylon the Great” but I digress. The Roman Empire is exceptional in that account and also in another very important detail: it was during their watch that the Christ appeared. It was their lot to be defeated by the Jewish Carpenter and his Twelve. Yes the Roman trampled Jerusalem, the beloved city of John but in the long run Jesus conquered the ancient hill of the “augures” the Mons Vaticanus, the mount of prophecies where He installed His own prophets for the millennia to come. The purple of Augustus became the purple of the Christian Bishops. And in the tradition of the ancient warriors, the vanquished got their tongue cut off: the ancient tongue of Latium became the language of the Church. The conquest was utterly complete. Christ won. Rome was reduced to dust.

    The United States however, was a different kind of anomaly. The story of the US begins with a miracle: that so many men of courage and integrity were willing to defy the ruling superpower of their day; that they were so inclined to create a system of government not trusting in the nobility of a certain class but distrusting human nature and wanting to set bounds to it by means of legal checks and balances. The US is the first political system to organically acknowledge the fallen nature of the human race. The very history of the first two centuries of the American experience shows the struggle of the young country to be a force for good for themselves and for the world. Today we do not even realize the scope, strength, and substance of what our forefathers achieved. So why is it that we have arrived to this confusing stage where it seems that all the things that used to be our strength are now used to weaken us into servitude and decay?

    I believe we are in a struggle, a struggle that started in 1517 when Luther defied the spiritual paternity of the Pope. Once that was achieved it was a no-brainer for the princes to challenge the rights of the King, and later for the people to challenge the rights of princes. The French Revolution eventually ensued (naturally!) and then the very paternity of God was challenged mainly by Darwin, Freud, and Marx. We arrived at the 20th century Great War where most if not all of the remaining crowned heads of Christendom were emasculated. Once the kings were dead the main question remaining was “how do we slice the pie?” and there the three principal theories of capital emerged, namely (a) Liberal Capitalism (b) Fascism (c) Communism/Socialism. Liberal unbridled capitalism died in the big crash of 1929. Fascism was signed out of existence on the deck of the USS Missouri in 1945. Communism proved that even in this simple matter of dying it was going to be slow and inefficient: it took until 1991 when a member of the Soviet Politburo said matter-of-factly “we can’t continue living like this.”

    For the US the advent of FDR era was the result of trying to patch capitalism with pieces of both socialism and fascism. The experiment enabled the forces of corruption to enter the bloodstream of the Republic and now it the poison is everywhere.

    If we depended only on ourselves we could consider ourselves done, over, buried, sunk, defunct! But the motto of this Republic is unique in the world “In God w trust” and so it is fitting for a patriot to expect that this nation, committed to God’s purposes, should survive by His grace. We can be pessimistic and conclude that decline is inevitable, etc. especially when we compare ourselves with the Romans. But remember the Romans were planted in opposition to God’s purpose while most of this nation it is not. Times of penance will come, with God’s help we shall survive and then… return to the mission that God Himself has given to this land: to be a beacon of liberty for the world. Before we do that though we must understand that this postmodern world is passing and Americans living today will have to lead the world that will emerge from the rubble of five centuries of lies, rebellion, death and destruction.

    Our ruling classes of today will perish just like the Roman upper classes did. Only this time there is a very strong core of the American people that never believed in them nor followed their example. Just as Christendom emerged form the dead husk of the Roman Empire, a new Christian order can emerge after this crisis is over. America will not be defeated, it will be transformed and sent into the future to fulfill her original mission: to make this world a suitable place for the pursuit of happiness by those who put their trust in God.

  • Bob Struble

    Carlos: Thanks for your wonderful insights. May your predictions come to pass.

  • noelfitz

    Bob,

    brilliant thought-provoking article.

    Many thanks!