The Same Direction as Rome?
Last week I discussed the parallels between the late republican period of Rome, just before it morphed into an explicitly autocratic empire, and the United States today. This week’s question: is the U.S. headed down the same path as the late Roman republic?
I left off in the year 133 BC, which marked the beginning of a century of intermittent political violence and civil war, until Octavian/Augustus emerged as the complete master of all Rome. Rome during the republican period was outwardly quite democratic, with the most important positions up for election yearly. The reality was that a few prominent, wealthy families controlled the commanding heights of the polity (sound familiar?).
I am not going into a blow-by-blow detailing of this violence or the machinations amongst these influential families. For a complete overview of this period see the wonderful work SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. What was notable was the increasing acceptance of violence as a viable solution to intractable political problems. This was also a period whereby an influential family headed by Tiberius Gracchus and then his younger brother Gaius Gracchus stirred up a populist movement of those seeking land reform and an overturning of the unrestrained rule of the leading families. Both Gracchi brothers were assassinated.
This is a clear parallel to the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders, who based their appeal on the dissatisfaction of the working class. They both, like the Gracchi brothers generated significant (in Trump’s case extreme) pushback from those wealthy elite who control the U.S. economy and polity, even if in the end they did not want a complete overturning of the power structure.
This has occurred against a backdrop of the systematic growth of the U.S. government, both domestically and internationally. This means that the stakes are much higher to gain and maintain control of the governing apparatus, as there had been in ancient Rome. Not surprisingly there is a growing acceptance by many in the U.S. for the use of violence to achieve political goals. These studies confirm this disturbing trend. One does not need to believe that the January 6th. riot was a preplanned coup attempt to see that it was a violent uprising perpetrated by those unwilling to give up power.
The question that arises is whether these trends will morph into open civil war and/or armed insurrection. One of the variables is whether a figure who truly wants to grab authoritarian power rises. The disturbing fact is, that like Rome, all the pieces are in place for the rise of an emperor/dictator. Extreme concentration of executive authority, broad “emergency” powers that can be called upon, almost total control of the military. Additionally, like the increasingly spineless Roman Senate during this period, the legislative branch in the U.S. increasingly demands strong executive action, rather than attempt a legislative solution to the nation’s problems. All that is missing is someone with a true will to power. Clearly, given his lack of a work ethic it is not likely to be Donald Trump. Yet, someone is out there, unseen at present, just as Octavian/Augustus was lurking as the quintessential imperial Darkhorse.
The Notable Differences
No historical analogy is perfect, and there are notable differences between Rome and the United States. While the U.S. will likely descend into violence and chaos, the end of which is the rise of an authoritarian/dictator, these differences may make the U.S. situation different than Rome, which should not give anyone comfort.
First, Rome during this century of political violence and instability was an empire still growing. During this period, the relatively wealthier eastern Mediterranean was absorbed, including Judea. Also this period saw the western portion of the empire mostly completed, as Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (France) and made incursions into Britain. Rome was still adding territories to the empire that increased its wealth. This was not sustainable as capitalist growth is, instead relying on the addition of territories and extracting wealth from the newly subjugated peoples. This was a game that would run out of steam, but not for a couple hundred more years. In the meanwhile a growing empire masks a lot of other problems.
The U.S. on the other hand, is very likely at “peak empire”. That concept is a whole other post. Suffice it to say that the U.S. is massively in debt and careening toward a fiscal meltdown that could make the Great Depression look mild by comparison. The brute fact is that the U.S. is up against the maximum height of its power, and there is no more room to increase that power. We have reached the point of “Imperial Overstretch”, as was outlined in this book. This means that the scramble for authoritarian power within the U.S. will be greatly disturbed by an increasing inability of the U.S. to maintain economic prosperity and to influence international events. A toxic combination to be sure.
This problem is especially acute in the U.S. compared to Rome. Rome, at least, knew where its limits were. The were up against them continually. The Romans were acutely aware of the Germanic tribes to their north and east, and they understood that they were not able to conquer them. Rome also bumped into the Parthian Empire, and lost multiple battles in an attempt to invade Parthian territory, this empire was comprised of large parts of the old Persian empire. Rome may have also been dimly aware of the existence of Han China, which rivaled Rome in size and scope during roughly the same period. The point is Rome knew its limits.
The U.S. apparently does not. Unlike Rome, the U.S. has a truly global reach. This was especially true after the end of the Cold War. There is no place on the planet that the U.S. does not claim some vital interest. We can see this in the Ukraine, whose existence does not matter a whit to legitimate U.S. security concerns. We now see this regarding Taiwan, which could sink to the bottom of the South China Sea and the U.S. would be just as safe. Yet, empires are always “threatened”, and they always see trouble. However, at least Rome saw where it’s authority ended, the U.S. does not. This brings up the second and more gruesome difference.
The U.S. is not surrounded by countervailing powers that merely pose a limit to its growth. No, the U.S. is faced by adversaries that, like the U.S. itself, could incinerate the planet and extinguish the human species. A U.S. imperial ideology that knows no boundaries, taken over by an explicitly authoritarian imperial dictator could very well spark the utter catastrophe of a global nuclear war. This risk is heightened as the U.S. economic and fiscal structure crumbles and the world may see a dying U.S. empire thrashing about with nuclear weapons.
A Saner Alternative
While this is a dark scenario I have outlined, nothing is written in stone. We can change course. The U.S. can turn away from imperial adventure, take the hard steps necessary to place its fiscal house in order, shifting the resources of the welfare/warfare state to peaceful, sustainable economic growth.
This may involve some devolution of political power to states and/or localities. It may even involve the breakup of the U.S. into a multitude of entities, which would make the world safer by virtue of these entities not having the global scale of the current U.S. regime.
None of this will be easy, nothing of lasting value ever is. It starts when people stand up and demand, first a conversation, then a course change. God’s people can and should be at the forefront of this demand. It is beyond blasphemous that we would allow the various empires of the world to threaten all of God’s children and all His creation that He has given us in stewardship.
The proper response to the gifts of grace upon grace that God has given us is to stand up on behalf of a peaceful and prosperous humanity. The only empire that should exist is God’s as it is the only one that will provide peace, toleration and sustainable prosperity for the vast majority of His children. It is time to stand and recognize that the only battle worth waging is the one for peace.
Praise Be to God