What Rhymes with Rome?
Vol: 134 Issue: 26 Monday, November 26, 2012
”History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes.” – Mark Twain
Ancient Rome doesn’t enjoy a very popular reputation among modern scholars or in popular culture. I don’t recall ever seeing a movie that portrayed Rome in a positive light.
In general, modern history regards the ancient Romans as bad people who crucified Jesus, persecuted the Apostles, threw Christians to the lions, killed uncountable thousands of Jews, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.
When Rome wasn’t outside the Empire seeking to enslave its neighbors, it was crucifying dissidents and runaway slaves inside the Empire.
In many ways, this is an accurate picture of the Roman Empire at the peak of its decadence, which is generally the only Roman Empire that Hollywood or history ever pays any attention to. We think of Rome as it was in Jesus’ time and beyond, almost as if prior Roman history were inconsequential.
The Roman Republic was born almost five hundred years before following the overthrow of the Roman King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. The new Roman Republic abolished the hereditary monarchy and set up a new government that would survive for the next five hundred years.
The Roman Senate had an enormous degree of power over the civil government in Rome. Only the Senate could authorize the disbursal of public funds from the Roman treasury.
The Roman Republic was ruled by two consuls, each elected for a one year term and advised by the Roman Senate. Each consul had veto authority over the other to prevent a misuse of power. Later checks and balances included the institution of an elected assembly and judiciary.
Rome’s supreme leaders were called dictators, but their authority was limited to the military under six month term limits. Roman dictators were also elected officials.
Rome, by the first century was no longer a Republic, but a dictatorship ruled by an Imperator, from which we get the English word, emperor.
But the word imperator meant something more along the lines of a strongman dictator, a fact well-understood by Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who fancied himself Imperator of a new Italian empire modeled after that of ancient Rome.
It wasn’t until after the fall of the Roman Republic and its replacement by the Imperial Roman Empire that the balance of power shifted from the Senate to the Imperator. But once the Emperor controlled the Senate, the Senate was the vehicle through which Roman Emperors exercised their powers.
Rome lasted for one thousand years, as a kingdom, then a republic, then as an imperial dictatorship, and before finally succumbing to what the Roman poet Juvenal called “panem et cirenses” or “bread and circuses.”
Imperial Rome literally spent itself out of existence trying to distract the public from its misery while the Empire collapsed around them.
It was probably Imperial Rome that Alexis de Tocqueville had in mind when he wrote:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”
But it was the Roman Republic that the Founders had in mind when they replaced the British monarchy with the Republic of the United States of America.
If one takes a look around Washington DC, one can see evidence of a conscious effort on the part of the Founders to emulate Rome. The city was constructed like a Roman city, with Roman architecture bearing construction dates using Roman numerals.
Although a dead language for centuries, most educated men of the period were conversant in Latin and many of America’s mottos and slogans are in Latin, as in the 1782 motto on the Great Seal of the United States, “novus ordo seclorum” meaning, “New Order of the Ages.”
The Founders named their principle lawmaking body the “Senate” after the Romans and even chose Rome’s national symbol, the eagle. They chose to model their new nation after the Roman republic rather than an English commonwealth or a Greek democracy.
The Founders hoped that America would adopt the virtues of the ancient Roman Republic, but expected that it would grow into an empire — they spoke regularly about the “rising American empire.”
They hoped the Roman Republic would endure as the American model but they feared it would become the Rome of the Ceasars. Imperial Rome was the first absolute superpower to exist in history. The United States is the second.
Twenty-first century America, having just handed Barack Obama an unrestricted second term, inspires comparisons to the Roman Empire in decline.
It is hard to miss the history rhymes. Rome got bogged down in a quagmire in the Middle East between the Jews of Judea and the surrounding Idumean (Arab) population.
The Romans tried to solve the problem by creating a Jewish state side by side with an Idumean one and appointing an Idumean puppet-King (Herod) to oversee it. That didn’t really work out all that well.
And there were problems in Egypt to deal with . . .
Persian forces swept into the frontiers of the Roman Empire, which were too thinly stretched in terms of its military and other commitments to respond effectively.
The Romans poured Roman blood and treasure into the region until Rome’s ability to project its power was stretched to the limits.
Imperial Rome recovered, and beat back the Persian threat, but it emerged a different kind of empire. The government got so bloated the Empire was forced to split into two legs, an Eastern and Western Empire.
Where Rome had formerly relied on a strong and loyal middle class, Roman society became rigid, formal and politically correct.
Without new conquests to fund everything, Rome imposed heavier taxes on landowners and farmers, further alienating the middle class, who were fed up paying for bread and circuses for the poor.
The Germanic tribes formed new federations and coalitions with other barbarian tribes and swept into the Roman Empire in the West, including Gaul and Britain.
I don’t need to list the rhymes with Roman history. The headlines do it for me.
Substitute “entitlements” for bread and circuses and al-Qaeda barbarians for the Germanic barbarians and Obama for the Imperator and you pretty much have the same scenario playing out all over again, only in fast-forward speed.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch to foresee a struggling US, especially after eight years of socialist Obamanomics, considering a merger with socialist Europe as a way to forestall the collapse of both empires.
“And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” (Daniel 2:44)