Yes, the history of Rome often sounds like our own. But then, it sounds like most every other civilization that has existed in any part of the world at any time in history.
The bad news for Americans wondering if we are “like ancient Rome” is that all civilizations come to an end. This often happens on the heels of great success.
Nowhere was this truer than with the Roman Republic. The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus burst into tears as he and his troops finally and thoroughly destroyed the city of Carthage. We are told,
After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Troy, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia . . . without any attempt at concealment Scipio named his own country . . . when he reflected on the fate of all things human.
Remarkably, Scipio seemed to be something of a prophet in 146 B.C., as the Roman Republic soon began to unravel. Rome had been rooted in local rule, agrarian pursuits, selfless citizenship, and republican virtues. Now they fought over land, wealth, luxuries, slaves, and the power that came with empire.
Over the following century, political assassinations, mob rule, and the rise of tyranny became the norm. At the end of it, the fate of the republic was left to emperors who, for all intents and purposes, were kings posing as traditional Romans.
At the end of the first century A.D., the historian Tacitus considered the death of the first emperor, Augustus. He wrote,
. . . the Republic had been revolutionized, and there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality. Stripped of equality, all looked up to the commands of a sovereign . . . as the end was near and new prospects opened, a few spoke in vain of the blessings of freedom, but most people dreaded and some longed for war. The popular gossip of the large majority fastened itself variously on their future masters.
The history that followed certainly had moments of genius. However, the ultimate sack of Rome in A.D. 410 arose from long centuries of internal struggles very much like those that destroyed the republic.
Added to greed, avarice, and incompetence was a mix of climate change, unstable borders, and an elite population soaked in corruption. All told, you have a basic understanding of what destroyed the Roman world.
Yes, the history of this civilization often sounds like our own. But then, it sounds like most every other civilization that has existed in any part of the world at any time in history. There is something consistent and familiar everywhere you travel in human history.
Believe it or not, this is where the good news is found. Yes, America is a republic, but it is not, by any means, Rome. This observation was made in correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in 1819. Jefferson wrote,
I ask myself What was that government which the virtues of Cicero were so zealous to restore, & the ambition of Caesar to subvert? . . . I do not say to restore it, because they never had it . . . if their people indeed had been, like ours, enlightened, peaceable, and really free, the answer would be obvious. ‘restore independance (sic) to all your foreign conquests, relieve Italy from the government of the rabble of Rome, consult it as a nation entitled to self-government, and do it’s will.
What is important here is that the American Founders were not naïve about the weaknesses of Rome. In particular, they despised the emperors and sought whatever good they could find in the old republic.
The American Founders admired the Roman virtues of citizenship and piety, and the Roman government balanced by the citizens, Senate, and magistrates. However, there was no idea of “rights” among the Roman citizens. Only power.
The Romans would never have created a “Declaration of Independence” in which these beautiful, high-minded words would be announced: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This sort of thinking could only have emerged after the prohibition of the gladiatorial bloodlettings of the Roman world, or the imperialistic greed of the emperors. It could never have been written by a society that believed the enslavement of human beings to be the norm. While some signers of the Declaration, like all humans, struggled with hypocrisy, their ideals have made America great in a way that Rome could have never imagined.
America, like all republics, has freedoms that allow citizens the right to go insane. No free nation will be free of human nature. The current internal and external threats to America do not have to bring, out of necessity, its destruction.
The good news is that America has stronger foundations than Rome ever knew, and those foundations not only seem to be holding, many Americans are rediscovering those foundations in the midst of a modern contest for the soul of the nation.
Dr. Kenneth Calvert is a professor of ancient history at Hillsdale College. His lectures on Rome can be found in the Hillsdale online course: “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Republic,” free at online.hillsdale.edu. The course was introduced on the Ides of March, 2022.
Reporting by The Federalist.