I started University with the intent to graduate with a degree in English. I was fascinated by the idea of transmitting ideas through literature and the written word, and thought that this was the best way to explore that fascination. Instead, I found myself sleeping through lectures, disagreeing with my entire tutorial over how a certain poem should be read (e.g.: how could I have not noticed that a certain passage in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land was a sex scene instead of a general montage of rampant death and destruction?). Then, I discovered another passion.
My knowledge of Greco-Roman history was scant. Other than a small unit on the Greeks and Romans in 6th grade (ages 10-11 for those not familiar with the American education system) and a few factoids from my teacher in Latin about the Roman Republic, I knew nothing about Ancient History. Of course, there was also Rome: Total War, a strategy game set during Roman times that got me further interested in classical antiquity. However, the decidedly Amerocentric nature of the US education system prevented me from having an in-depth look at history before the Renaissance because what importance does anything before the Age of Exploration have for America, anyway?
Thus, I decided to switch majors and do Ancient History. Before I finalised my degree, I did some Mediaeval History on the side along with some Philosophy. Rather unlikely, my respect for Islamic culture stemmed from a module in Mediaeval History detailing the rise of the Caliphate and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, allowing me to see past the media’s portrayal of Middle Easterners as violent, backwards savages with AK-47s and suicide bombs.
While things such as the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian Wars were nice, I was more interested in the Roman Empire, how it developed, and how it tackled issues. It was an interesting tale of humble beginnings, decisive wars against powerful foes, and territorial expansion. However, one major policy that I have found in the Roman Empire, along with most successful empires for that matter, was a policy of tolerance.
Of course, it would be folly to think of the Romans as fuzzy care-bears that just wanted to huge everyone and everything; Christians were persecuted until the 4th century A.D. However, executions would not be carried out because of the bloodthirstiness of the Romans, but because of the conviction of the persecuted.
The Romans did not try to impose their culture on others. Rather it was a symbiotic process whereby Roman culture would assimilate a local culture into its own, while that local culture would in turn become Romanised. Part of the reason why the Romans had so many gods in their pantheon was because they kept on co-opting local gods. One can even notice the influence of foreign culture down the minute details, such as the military equipment, with the gladius derived from an Iberian (pre-Roman Spain) sword and the Roman helmets taking notes from Gallic (pre-Roman France) helmets. The Roman Empire was built on tolerance and assimilation.
Then, however, the Empire started to decline. Some point to the fact that it got too big, while others point to some other facts, like their over-reliance of lead, and some in the case of Edward Gibbon blame it on the Empire’s adoption of Christianity as its official religion. However, they have lost sight of the bigger picture: decadence.
Roman government vastly expanded, with Emperors such as Diocletian introducing new levels of bureaucracy. Of course, some argue that government expansion was needed for a rapidly expanding Roman Republic, whose territorial expansions outpaced its administrative expansions. However, the Roman Empire stopped growing, while its bureaucracy continued to grow.
There was also the fact that, for defence, Romans started to rely on their own citizens less and upon foreign mercenaries (foederati) more. Of course, even during the height of its power, the Romans employed auxilia, or non-citizen infantry (i.e.: an Egyptian without Roman citizenship fighting for the Roman Empire). But the main difference was that while the auxilia were regularly employed under Roman command and ordered with a purpose to extend Roman influence (they would often be stationed in a province other than their own, to encourage integration), the foederati were no more than just mercenaries under barbarian command that just so happened to fight alongside the Romans instead of under them, therefore making them less reliable in terms of loyalty. In fact, it was a foederatus that hammered the final nail in the coffin, dethroning the last Roman Emperor in the West. Why? The Romans could not find the funds in their now-empty coffers to pay off the usurper.
However cavalier it might sound, I would like to think that America today is like the Roman Empire, just as how Britain was during the 18th-19th centuries. Of course, many powers have styled themselves as the ‘next Roman Empire’ several times, in the case of the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon’s Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, with Mehmet II proclaiming that he was the rightful heir to Caesar after bringing Constantinople to its knees.
However, the story of America, following a general path, bears a striking resemblance to the story of Rome; it was born out of scepticism of absolute rule, driving out a king to establish a republic. Aside from a few notable facts, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Trail of Tears, America had mostly built itself on a doctrine of tolerance, bringing together all sorts of people from different nations, religions, and backgrounds. The English, Scottish, German, Dutch, Spanish, and French of the land did not refer to themselves as such; they were all collectively Americans. Eventually, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the waves of immigration from Asian countries, non-Europeans would soon find themselves calling America home, my parents included.
However, the American Empire is now beginning to face the same problems that have plagued not only the Roman Empire, but all major empires. America is suffering from decadence. Its government’s reach, both domestic and foreign, has overextended, and as of this writing, is facing a major debt crisis. Government spending is ever increasing, and the possibility of defaulting on debt (that is, being unable to pay one’s bills on time) is becoming very real.
An Arab historian whose name escapes me brought up the idea of a cycle of wolves and sheep. The wolves take over the sheep’s land, gaining comforts and luxuries previously unknown to them. However, those comforts and luxuries make the wolves complacent, allowing them to turn into the very sheep they conquered.
How has America become too complacent, decadent, and glutinous? Find out next time, as such an explanation would warrant another post.