Is the US going the way of the Roman Empire?

A lot of people compare the United States and the Roman Empire, and take it a step further by saying we are showing many of the same traits Rome did before and during its collapse, so we’re on our way down too. Like Rome, our military is overstretched and costly. Like Rome with the barbarians, we can’t stop foreign settlers from moving into our borders. Like Rome, we are suffering from urban sprawl and decay. And finally, we are contending with very specific and dangerous examples of political scandal and incompetence. Maybe the biggest similarity is that, like the Romans, America is heavy handed and somewhat snobbish in its dealings with other nations.

But there are many differences, too. For one thing, Rome was a static slave society, and that reliance on slave labor prevented technological advance. The United States is rapidly producing new technology in every field. Rome’s economy relied totally on continuous conquest of territory, resources, and people, while the US market is consumer driven and our economic base has shifted three times in one century alone. Also, you may feel special interests govern American politics, but the American political system is far more accessible to the common person than the Roman one was. Succession and power in Rome were completely different than the US.

Anyway, what do you think? Are we showing the same signs of impending decline and collapse as Rome, or is the comparison false?

Answer #1

I have been pondering this very idea that the United States may be the new Rome. There are several interesting parralells, and there are several notable differences.

I don’t necessarily think that the US looks like Rome right before the fall, but rather around the time of the Second or Third Punic War. (several centuries before the time of Christ). They dealt with the Carthaginians twice, and conquered it twice. Eventually, they invaded Africa, leveled Carthage to the ground and sowed its fields with salt so that the entire region would be totally unihabitable.

The United States has been faced with similar decisions over the past hundred years. We can either build the wall higher or go out and conquer our enemies, destroying their ability to wage war on us. I don’t necessarily agree with this policy, but it worked in Rome for several hundred years.

It is a common misconception to say that the Roman Empire “fell.” It is more accurate to say that it declined. Most people see the second sack of Rome c. AD 456 to be the point at which the Roman Empire as it had been under the great Roman Emperors was no longer there. However, the Eastern Empire survived well into the next millenium.

There is at least one noteworthy thing that happened before the “fall” of the Western Empire, which greatly contributed to its decline. The population gradually became more interested in sensual pleasures as their wealth and financial securities increased. As a result, military enrollment and the quality of the Roman legions declined as well, so that by the time the Vandals sacked Rome in the middle of the 5th century, they legions were mostly dependant upon mercenary troops rather than the full-blooded Romans with a tradition of conquest and a vested intrerest in the protection of the Italian Penninsula.

The US may be edging towards this trend in the way that the citezens act towards their commitments, and specifically towards the military. I think that American participation in WW2 would have been significantly different if it wasn’t directly after the Great Depression, and if WW1 wasn’t within the living memory of much of the US population.

I must disagree with kingofpop on one issue within his opening statement. he said that Rome was a static slave state whose reliance on slave labor prevented its development of new technology, unlike the innovative US.

Rome was dependent upon slave labor, but I am not fully convinced that that was a hinderance to the advancment of technology. First, Romans were some of the best copiers of other cultures. They saw what worked and made it better and incorporated it into their own culture. They were also experts at meeting specific challenges and finding ways to overcome them. The most notable examples are the aquaducts and Julius Caesar’s bridge that he used to invade Gaul.

Also, remember that slavery not only existed but thrived well into the 19th century. It didn’t end in the mainstream until the industrial revolution in the West, and in many ways it still thrives today.

Second, the US does depend on one specific resource for its survival, without which it would suffer economic disaster and whole-sale social collapse (at least in the short-run). That resourse is OIL. The US currently consumes approximately 25% of all the oil produced and refined in the world. Unfortunatelly, the supply is fixed because it is a non-renewable resourse and it is coming from places that are becoming progressively more unstable (ie the Middle East and Venezuela). The fact that oil production is so cheap (about 1$ per gallon to remove from the ground +costs of refining, shipping, and taxes) that alternative fuels have not been adequatley developed as an oil replacement.

In that sense, the US is quite similar to Rome in its dependence upon one specific resourse at the expense of developing others.

Exellent Question!

Answer #2

Yes but by the United States’ own doing. Everyone is using credit and abusing it then they cant pay their bills and we look like we are about to hit a recession so there goes everything! It’s just a matter of time if you ask me. The political outlook is just as bad as you describe.

Mama K :(

Answer #3

Great question. In addition, I’ve been thinking recently that the USA/UK situation is a bit like the Rome/Ancient Greece one. The Romans seemed to despise the Greeks for being focused on thought, not action. Greece had been the home of philosphers, mathematicians and scientists. Rome had engineers. Greece invented theatre and poetry, and Rome had gladiators and circuses (a parallel with Hollywood - not sure???). Both saw the strengths of their own culture but were unimpressed with the best of the other. And of course Greece had a faded imperial glory rather like that of Britain.

Answer #4

“In addition, I’ve been thinking recently that the USA/UK situation is a bit like the Rome/Ancient Greece one.”

I remember a French historian several years ago complaining that Europeans are to Americans what Greeks were to Romans…”educated slaves”. He also said he felt the only unique cultural talent Europeans could boast anymore was wine tasting. Of course, things have changed qutie a bit since he said that (I believe mid 90s). But I think there is a parallel between the relationships, as you point out. If you point to the UK specifically, the United States also inherited some of its own social and cultural norms from Britain, as Rome did from Greece.

Answer #5

You are correct in noting the misconception about the term “barbarian”. The Romans used the term barbarians to refer to anyone who wasn’t Roman.

As far as the European/US parrallels go: If I understand correctly, the Romans held high esteem for the Greeks. They adopted all the Greek gods; they imitated Greek architecture; their major epic poets (Virgil and Ovid) wrote about in Greek style verse and writing about Greek themes.

The US and Europe have always had a certain level of healthy competition, but I don’t think that it has ever been seriously damaging (yet). The US had tried to stay out of European affairs from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson (with the exception of a heathy naval arms race between the US and the British empire). Even after WW2, the US has never been a “conquering” force. There are still bases in Germany and Japan, but each forgein base that I know of has the permission of the host government to be there (except Guantanimo Bay Naval Base in Cuba). “We have hurled back the invaders and hostile armies, and have claimed only enough land to bury the dead.”

I do see a certain connection between Rome and US. It reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

Answer #6

aarthur001, thanks for your great response!

You’re right, historians aren’t in agreement that the Roman Empire ever did collapse. Some would say it just transformed into something different, and that process happened slowly and without the average Roman citizen really noticing. And the division of the east and west was inevitable, since culturally they had grown apart with the rise of Christianity in the east and remnants of Greek influence there as well.

One thing I think gets overlooked in Rome’s decline is the role of the so-called barbarians. They weren’t barbaric at all, and they were very powerful. Many were actually educated in the Roman Empire and spent time in the Roman legions. Some, like the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, were actually admirers of Roman culture. And it’s not like it was just the “Romans vs the Barbarians” since many Germanic tribesmen were actually serving in the legions in place of ethnic Roman or Italian people, or at the very least, were allied with Rome. I think some parts of the Empire’s decline, like the rise of these powerful alliances of Germanic, Celtic, and Hunnish tribes, were simply beyond Rome’s control. Another external threat that gets overlooked is the Sassanid Persians in the east. Rome had to really strain its empire, mainly in the west, to cope with this threat, and it took years to do so. The damage done to Rome financially in the west would never be repaired.

I should clarify what I meant by lack of technological breakthrough. When it came to engineering and public organization, the Romans surpassed everyone…some would say, even modern things in certain ways. But one of the things that I think drove the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the US was the reliance on science and machinery in daily life, which I believe was in turn driven by the lack of a slave class (remember this happened mostly in the postbellum world). Though they built aquedects, roads and free hospitals, the average Roman citizen relied on slaves to work the land, and make household and business life convenient. The Romans were not also efficient at producing goods, most of their products were very labor intensive, also the result of reliance on slaves, while technology in the US has allowed the production of more quality goods with minimal labor. Actually the Romans produced very few exportable goods at all, and had no consumer market, unlike the US.

You do make a very good point about oil which I had overlooked. This was also a pillar of the Industrial Revolution and of course, our society today. I think if anything has the ability to speed up a collapse of US power, it would be oil problems.

Answer #7

If we’re not careful and prayerful, we may very well be headed that direction.

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