Is America Declining Like Ancient Rome?

Pur­sued to any depth, the ques­tion of whether the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca counts as an empire becomes dif­fi­cult to address with clar­i­ty. On one hand, the coun­try has exert­ed a strong cul­tur­al influ­ence on most of the world for the bet­ter part of a cen­tu­ry, a phe­nom­e­non not unre­lat­ed to the mil­i­tary pres­ence that extends far beyond its bor­ders. (In Korea, where I live, I once met a for­mer KATUSA, the branch of the Kore­an Army sec­ond­ed to the US Army, who told me he’d joined because he “want­ed to see what it was like to be a mod­ern Roman sol­dier.”) On the oth­er hand, we can’t quite say that it rules the known world — at least, not in the way that the Roman Empire did twen­ty cen­turies ago.

Yet the temp­ta­tion to draw par­al­lels between Amer­i­ca and Rome remains irre­sistible, not least when it comes to the sub­ject of impe­r­i­al decline. In this video from Told in Stone, his­to­ri­an Gar­rett Ryan eval­u­ates “the idea that mod­ern Amer­i­ca is des­tined to decline and fall like ancient Rome.” The argu­ments for this motion tend to involve “an increas­ing­ly unset­tled inter­na­tion­al land­scape” and  “domes­tic divi­sion,” lead­ing to the dis­so­lu­tion of Pax Amer­i­cana — the suc­ces­sor of Pax Bri­tan­ni­ca, which itself suc­ceed­ed Pax Romana. Amer­i­cans, Ryan explains, “have a sense that Rome is in their polit­i­cal DNA. The con­sti­tu­tion, after all, rep­re­sents an attempt to cre­ate a new and per­fect­ed Roman Repub­lic. Anx­i­eties about Roman-style decline have been present since the begin­ning.”

Rome and Amer­i­ca: each “was the great­est pow­er of its time,” each “had a strong legal sys­tem and a soci­ety that left room for social advance­ment,” and each “pro­fessed to be guid­ed by Chris­t­ian prin­ci­ples.” Their polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, tech­no­log­i­cal con­di­tions could hard­ly be more dif­fer­ent, of course, but when observers “say that Amer­i­ca is falling like Rome, the under­ly­ing assump­tion is not that Amer­i­ca is specif­i­cal­ly like Rome; it’s that all empires, ancient and mod­ern, fol­low a sim­i­lar course from great­ness to grave.” The Roman Empire fell because “Ger­man­ic tribes over­came its fron­tier defens­es,” because “a series of ruinous civ­il wars sapped its strength,” because “it had lost the loy­al­ty of provin­cial elites,” and for many oth­er rea­sons besides — few of which are like­ly to play major parts in a notion­al Amer­i­can col­lapse.

But the fact that “the decline of Rome has no pre­cise par­al­lels in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry does not mean that it has no lessons to offer mod­ern Amer­i­ca.” To learn those lessons, we could do worse than to turn to eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry his­to­ri­an Edward Gib­bon, whose The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is the sub­ject of the School of Life video above. “The immense sto­ry that Gib­bon tells us moves from one dis­as­ter to anoth­er, cen­tu­ry after cen­tu­ry,” says nar­ra­tor Alain de Bot­ton: failed reforms, insti­tu­tion­al cor­rup­tion, break­downs in civ­il-mil­i­tary rela­tions, plagues, poor har­vests, eco­nom­ic col­lapse. And yet the Renais­sance, the Enlight­en­ment, and the arrival of moder­ni­ty, as we know it, all lay ahead. “You aren’t going to like what comes after Amer­i­ca,” Leonard Cohen once wrote, but maybe our descen­dants will like what comes a mil­len­ni­um or so after Amer­i­ca.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Splen­did Book Design of the 1946 Edi­tion of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Rise & Fall of Roman Civ­i­liza­tion: Every Year Shown in a Time­lapse Map Ani­ma­tion (753 BC ‑1479 AD)

Howard Zinn’s “What the Class­room Didn’t Teach Me About the Amer­i­can Empire”: An Illus­trat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Vig­go Mortensen

When Iggy Pop Pub­lished an Essay, “Cae­sar Lives,” in an Aca­d­e­m­ic Jour­nal about His Love for Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1995)

Do You Think About Ancient Rome Every Day? Then Browse a Wealth of Videos, Maps & Pho­tos That Explore the Roman Empire

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    The answer is “YES!” This coun­try is in total decline because we have let it decline. No bor­ders, no morals, in debt up to our eye­balls, and we keep dig­ging deep­er. 248 years. It was a good run, but all things must come to an end.

  • Estevan says:

    So it’s not just joe pota­to then..

  • Windsor Viney says:

    “the known world”: Known to whom? Cer­tain­ly not Aus­tralia, Chi­na, Japan, Poly­ne­sia, Rus­sia, sub-Saha­ran Africa.… (It’s time to retire that west­ern-euro­cen­tric expres­sion from his­tor­i­cal dis­course.)

    “but maybe our descen­dants will like what comes a mil­len­ni­um or so after Amer­i­ca”: Sup­pos­ing that any­one, anywhere—of any species whatever—has descen­dants on this plan­et in a thou­sand years’ time.

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