By Doug Casey, Founder, Casey Research
As some of you know, I’m an aficionado of ancient history. I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss what happened to Rome and, based on that, what’s likely to happen to the US. Spoiler alert: There are some similarities between the US and Rome.
But before continuing, please seat yourself comfortably. This article will necessarily cover exactly those things you’re never supposed to talk about—religion and politics— and do what you’re never supposed to do, namely, bad-mouth the military.
There are good reasons for looking to Rome rather than any other civilization when trying to see where the US is headed. Everyone knows Rome declined, but few people understand why. And, I think, even fewer realize that the US is now well along the same path for pretty much the same reasons, which I’ll explore shortly.
Rome reached its peak of military power around the year 107, when Trajan completed the conquest of Dacia (the territory of modern Romania). With Dacia, the empire peaked in size, but I’d argue it was already past its peak by almost every other measure.
The US reached its peak relative to the world, and in some ways its absolute peak, as early as the 1950s. In 1950 this country produced 50% of the world’s GNP and 80% of its vehicles. Now it’s about 21% of world GNP and 5% of its vehicles. It owned two-thirds of the world’s gold reserves; now it holds one-fourth. It was, by a huge margin, the world’s biggest creditor, whereas now it’s the biggest debtor by a huge margin. The income of the average American was by far the highest in the world; today it ranks about eighth, and it’s slipping.
But it’s not just the US—it’s Western civilization that’s in decline. In 1910 Europe controlled almost the whole world—politically, financially, and militarily. Now it’s becoming a Disneyland with real buildings and a petting zoo for the Chinese. It’s even further down the slippery slope than the US.
Like America, Rome was founded by refugees—from Troy, at least in myth. Like America, it was ruled by kings in its early history. Later, Romans became self-governing, with several Assemblies and a Senate. Later still, power devolved to the executive, which was likely not an accident.
US founders modeled the country on Rome, all the way down to the architecture of government buildings, the use of the eagle as the national bird, the use of Latin mottos, and the unfortunate use of the fasces—the axe surrounded by rods—as a symbol of state power. Publius, the pseudonymous author of the Federalist Papers, took his name from one of Rome’s first consuls. As it was in Rome, military prowess is at the center of the national identity of the US. When you adopt a model in earnest, you grow to resemble it.
A considerable cottage industry has developed comparing ancient and modern times since Edward Gibbon published Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1776—the same year as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the US Declaration of Independence were written. I’m a big fan of all three, but D&F is not only a great history, it’s very elegant and readable literature. And it’s actually a laugh riot; Gibbon had a subtle wit.
There have been huge advances in our understanding of Rome since Gibbon’s time, driven by archeological discoveries. There were many things he just didn’t know, because he was as much a philologist as an historian, and he based his writing on what the ancients said about themselves.
There was no real science of archeology when Gibbon wrote; little had been done even to correlate the surviving ancient texts with what was on the surviving monuments—even the well-known monuments—and on the coins. Not to mention scientists digging around in the provinces for what was left of Roman villas, battle sites, and that sort of thing. So Gibbon, like most historians, was to a degree a collector of hearsay.
And how could he know whom to believe among the ancient sources? It’s as though William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, H. L. Mencken, Norman Mailer, and George Carlin all wrote about the same event, and you were left to figure out whose story was true. That would make it tough to tell what really happened just a few years ago… forget about ancient history. That’s why the study of history is so tendentious; so much of it is “he said/she said.”
In any event, perhaps you don’t want a lecture on ancient history. You’d probably be more entertained by some guesses about what’s likely to happen to the US. I’ve got some.
Let me start by saying that I’m not sure the collapse of Rome wasn’t a good thing. There were many positive aspects to Rome—as there are to most civilizations. But there was much else to Rome of which I disapprove, such as its anti-commercialism, its militarism and, post-Caesar, its centralized and increasingly totalitarian government. In that light, it’s worth considering whether the collapse of the US might not be a good thing.
So why did Rome fall? In 1985, a German named Demandt assembled 210 reasons. I find some of them silly—like racial degeneration, homosexuality, and excessive freedom. Most are redundant. Some are just common sense—like bankruptcy, loss of moral fiber, and corruption.
Gibbon’s list is much shorter. Although it’s pretty hard to summarize his six fat volumes in a single sentence, he attributed the fall of Rome to just two causes, one internal and one external: Christianity and barbarian invasions, respectively. I think Gibbon was essentially right about both. Because of the sensibilities of his era, however, he probed at early Christianity (i.e., from its founding to the mid-4th century) very gently; I’ve decided to deal with it less delicately. Hopefully neither my analysis of religion nor of barbarian invasions (then and now) will disturb too many readers. I’ll be happy to study any differing interpretations you may wish to send me at [email protected].
In any event, while accepting Gibbon’s basic ideas on Christians and barbarians, I decided to break down the reasons for Rome’s decline further, into ten categories: political, legal, social, demographic, ecological, military, psychological, intellectual, religious, and economic—all of which I’ll touch on. And, as a bonus, toward the end of this article, I’ll give you another, completely unrelated, and extremely important reason for the collapse of both Rome and the US.
You don’t have to agree with my interpretation, but let’s see what lessons are on offer from the history of Rome, from its semi-mythical founding by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE (a story that conflicts with Virgil’s tale of Aeneas and the refugee Trojans) to what’s conventionally designated as the end of the Western empire in 476 AD, when the child-emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer (a Germanic general who was in charge of what passed for the Roman army—which by then was staffed almost entirely with Germanic mercenaries who had no loyalty to the idea of Rome). It looks a lot like the American experience over the last couple of hundred years. First conquest and expansion, then global dominance, and then slippage into decline.
It’s somewhat misleading, however, to talk about a simple fall of Rome, and much more accurate to talk about its gradual transformation, with episodes of what paleontologists describe as “punctuated disequilibrium.” There were many falls.
Republican Rome fell in 31 BCE with the accession of Augustus and the start of what’s called the Principate. It almost disintegrated in the 50 years of the mid-3rd century, a time of constant civil war, the start of serious barbarian incursions, and the destruction of Rome’s silver currency, the denarius.
Rome as anything resembling a free society fell in the 290s and then changed radically again, with Diocletian and the Dominate period (more on this shortly). Maybe the end came in 378, when the Goths destroyed a Roman army at Adrianople and wholesale invasions began. Maybe we should call 410 the end, when Alaric—a Goth who was actually a Roman general—conducted the first sacking of Rome.
It might be said the civilization didn’t really collapse until the late 600s, when Islam conquered the Middle East and North Africa, and cut off Mediterranean commerce. Maybe we should use 1453, when Constantinople and the Eastern Empire fell. Maybe the Empire is still alive today in the form of the Catholic Church—the Pope is the Pontifex Maximus wearing red slippers, as did Julius Caesar when he held that position.
One certain reflection in the distant mirror is that beginning with the Principate period, Rome underwent an accelerating trend toward absolutism, centralization, totalitarianism, and bureaucracy. I think we can argue America entered its Principate with the accession of Roosevelt in 1933; since then, the president has reigned supreme over the Congress, as Augustus did over the Senate. Pretenses fell off increasingly over time in Rome, just as they have in the US.
After the third century, with constant civil war and the destruction of the currency, the Principate (when the emperor, at least in theory, was just the first among equals) gave way to the Dominate period (from the word “dominus,” or lord, referring to a master of slaves), when the emperor became an absolute monarch. This happened with the ascension of Diocletian in 284, and then, after another civil war, Constantine in 306. From that point forward, the emperor no longer even pretended to be the first among equals and was treated as an oriental potentate. The same trend is in motion in the US, but we’re still a ways from reaching its endpoint—although it has to be noted that the president is now protected by hundreds, even thousands, of bodyguards. Harry Truman was the last president who actually dared to go out and informally stroll about DC, like a common citizen, while in office.
In any event, just as the Senate, the consuls, and the tribunes with their vetoes became impotent anachronisms, so have US institutions. Early on, starting with the fourth emperor, Claudius, in 41 AD, the Praetorians (who had been set up by Augustus) showed they could designate the emperor. And today in the US that’s probably true of its praetorians—the NSA, CIA, and FBI, among others—and of course the military. We’ll see how the next hanging-chad presidential election dispute gets settled.
My guess is that the booboisie (the Romans called them the capita censi, or head count) will demand a strong leader as the Greater Depression evolves, the dollar is destroyed, and a serious war gets under way. You have to remember that war has always been the health of the state. The Roman emperors were expected, not least by their soldiers, to always be engaged in war. And it’s no accident that the so-called greatest US presidents were war presidents—Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR. We can humorously add the self-proclaimed war president Baby Bush. Military heroes—like Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eisenhower—are always easy to elect. My guess is that a general will run for office in 2016, when we’ll be in a genuine crisis. The public will want a general partly because the military is now by far the most trusted institution of US society. His likely election will be a mistake for numerous reasons, not least that the military is really just a heavily armed variant of the postal service.
It’s wise to keep Gibbon’s words about the military in mind: “Any order of men accustomed to violence and slavery make for very poor guardians of a civil constitution.”
One additional political parallel with the US: up to Trajan in 100 AD, all the emperors were culturally Roman from old, noble families. After that, few were. The US now has its first Kenyan president—just kidding, of course.
Like the Romans, we’re supposedly ruled by laws, not by men. In Rome, the law started with the 12 Tablets in 451 BCE, with few dictates and simple enough to be inscribed on bronze for all to see. A separate body of common law developed from trials, held sometimes in the Forum, sometimes in the Senate.
When the law was short and simple, the saying “Ignorantia juris non excusat“ (ignorance of the law is no excuse) made sense. But as the government and its legislation became more ponderous, the saying became increasingly ridiculous. Eventually, under Diocletian, law became completely arbitrary, with everything done by the emperor’s decrees—we call them Executive Orders today.
I’ve mentioned Diocletian several times already. It’s true that his draconian measures held the Empire together, but it was a matter of destroying Rome in order to save it. As in the US, in Rome statute and common law gradually devolved into a maze of bureaucratic rules.
The trend accelerated under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, because Christianity is a top-down religion, reflecting a hierarchy where rulers were seen as licensed by God. The old Roman religion never tried to capture men’s minds this way. Before Christianity, violating the emperor’s laws wasn’t seen as also violating God’s laws.
The devolution is similar in the US. You’ll recall that only three crimes are mentioned in the US Constitution—treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. Now you can read Harvey Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day, which argues that the average modern-day American, mostly unwittingly, is running his own personal crime wave—because federal law has criminalized over 5,000 different acts.
Rome became more and more corrupt as time went on, as has the US. Tacitus (56-117 AD) understood why: “The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the nation.”
Along with political and legal problems come social problems. The Roman government began offering useless mouths free bread, and later circuses, in the late Republic, after the three Punic Wars (264-146 BCE). Bread and circuses were mostly limited to the capital itself. They were extremely destructive, of course, but were provided strictly for a practical reason: to keep the mob under control.
And it was a big mob. At its peak, Rome had about a million inhabitants, and at least 30% were on the dole. It’s worth noting that the dole lasted over 500 years and became part of the fabric of Roman life—ending only when wheat shipments from Egypt and North Africa were cut off by the Vandals at the beginning of the 5th century.
In the US, there now are more recipients of state benefits than there are workers. Programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and numerous other welfare programs absorb over 50% of the US budget, and they’re going to grow rapidly for a while more, although I predict they’ll come to an end or be radically reformed within the next 20 years. I recognize that’s a daring prediction, given the longevity of the dole in Rome.
The Empire appears to have suffered a demographic collapse late in the 2nd century, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, at least in part because of a plague that killed on the order of 10% of the population. Ancient plagues are poorly documented, perhaps because they were viewed as normal happenings. But there may be other, subtler reasons for the drop in population. Perhaps people weren’t just dying, they also weren’t reproducing, which is much more serious. The rising Christian religion was puritanical and encouraged celibacy. Especially among the Gnostic strains of early Christianity, celibacy was part of the formula for perfection and knowledge of God. But of course, if Christianity had been effective in encouraging celibacy, it would have died out.
The same thing is now happening throughout the developed world—especially in Europe and Japan, but also in the US and China. After WW II, American women averaged 3.7 children. Now it’s 1.8; in parts of Europe, it’s 1.3. Part of that is due to urbanization And part to an understanding of birth control, but a growing part is that they just can’t afford it; it’s very expensive to have a kid today. And I believe another major element is a new religious movement, Greenism, which is analogous to early Christianity in many ways. It’s now considered antisocial to reproduce, since having kids raises your carbon footprint.
The essential anti-rationality of early Christianity poisoned the intellectual atmosphere of the classical world. This is true of not just religions in general, but the desert religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in particular—each more extreme than its predecessor.
In late antiquity, there was a battle between the faith of the Fathers of the Church and the reason of the philosophers. Christianity halted the progress of reason, which had been growing in the Greco-Roman world since the days of the Ionian rationalists Aniximander, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and others, right up to Aristotle, Archimedes, and Pliny. Knowledge of how the world worked was compounding, albeit slowly—then came to a stop with the triumph of superstition in the 4th century. And went into reverse during the Dark Ages, starting in the 6th century.
Christianity used to hold that anything that seems at odds with revealed truth or even with the extrapolations of revealed truth is anathema, the way much of Islam does today. The church drew generations of men away from intellectual and scientific pursuits and toward otherworldly pursuits—which didn’t help the Roman cause. It can be argued that, if not for Christianity, the ancient world might have made a leap to an industrial revolution. It’s impossible to make scientific progress if the reigning meme holds that if it’s not the word of a god, it’s not worth knowing.
For nearly a thousand years, revealed beliefs displaced science and reason. This started to change only in the 13th century with Thomas Aquinas, an anomaly in that he cleverly integrated the rational thinking of the ancient philosophers—Aristotle in particular—into Catholicism. Aquinas was lucky he wasn’t condemned as a heretic instead of being turned into a saint. His thought had some unintended consequences, however, which led to the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and today’s world. At least until Aquinas, Christianity slowed the ascent of man and the rise of rationalism and science by centuries, in addition to its complicity in the fall of Rome.
As the importance of science has grown, however, religion—or superstition, as Gibbon referred to it—has taken a back seat. Over the last 100, even the last 50 years, Christianity has fallen to the status of a back story for Santa Claus and quaint, albeit poetic, folk wisdom tales.
Wars made Rome. Wars expanded the country’s borders and brought it wealth, but they also sowed the seeds of its destruction, especially the three big wars against Carthage, 264-146 BCE.
Rome began as a republic of yeoman farmers, each with his own plot of land. You had to be a landowner to join the Roman army; it was a great honor, and it wouldn’t take the riffraff. When the Republic was threatened—and wars were constant and uninterrupted from the beginning—a legionary might be gone for five, ten, or more years. His wife and children back on the farm might have to borrow money to keep things going and then perhaps default, so soldiers’ farms would go back to bush or get taken over by creditors. And, if he survived the wars, an ex-legionary might be hard to keep down on the farm after years of looting, plundering, and enslaving the enemy. On top of that, tidal waves of slaves became available to work freshly confiscated properties. So, like America, Rome became more urban and less agrarian. Like America, there were fewer family farmers but more industrial-scale latifundia.
War turned the whole Mediterranean into a Roman lake. With the Punic wars, Spain and North Africa became provinces. Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE) conquered the Near East. Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) conquered Gaul 20 years later. Then Augustus took Egypt.
The interesting thing is that in the early days, war was actually quite profitable. You conquered a place and stole all the gold, cattle, and other movable property and enslaved the people. That was a lot of wealth you could bring home—and then you could milk the area for many years with taxes. But the wars helped destroy Rome’s social fabric by wiping out the country’s agrarian, republican roots and by corrupting everyone with a constant influx of cheap slave labor and free imported food. War created longer, faraway borders that then needed to be defended. And in the end, hostile contact with “barbarians” actually wound up drawing them in as invaders.
Rome’s wars radically changed society, just as America’s have. It’s estimated that at times 80-90% of the population of the city of Rome was foreign born. It sometimes seems that way in many US cities. I always look at the bright side, however: after every foreign misadventure, the US gets an influx of new restaurants with exotic cuisines.
The stream of new wealth to steal ended with the conquest of Dacia in 107. The advance in the east stopped with the Persians, a comparable military power. Across the Rhine and Danube, the Germans—living in swamps and forests with only tiny villages—were not worth conquering. To the south there was only the Sahara. At this point, there was nothing new to steal, but there were continuing costs of administration and border defense. It was inconvenient—and not perhaps just coincidental—that the barbarians started becoming really problematic just about when Christianity started becoming popular, in the 3rd century. Unlike today, in its early days Christianity encouraged pacifism… not the best thing when you’re faced with barbarian invasions.
Remember, the army started out as a militia of citizen soldiers who provided their own arms. It eventually would accept anyone and morphed into a completely mercenary force staffed and led largely by foreigners. This is pretty much how the US armed forces have evolved. For all the “Support our Troops” propaganda, the US armed forces are now more representative of the barrios, ghettos, and trailer parks than of the country as a whole. And they’re isolated from it, a class unto themselves, like the late Roman army.
Even though the Roman army was at its greatest size and cost in the Dominate period, it was increasingly a paper tiger. After its rout at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the western empire went into a death spiral. The US armed forces may now be in an analogous posture, comparable to Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Although the US has won many engagements and some sport wars, it hasn’t won a real war since 1945. The cost of its wars, however, has escalated hugely. My guess is that if it gets into another major war, it won’t win, even if the enemy’s body count is massive.
Recall Osama bin Laden’s plan to win by bankrupting the US. He was very astute. Most US equipment is good only for fighting a replay of WW II—things like the $2 billion B-2 bomber, the $350 million F-22, and the $110 million V-22 Osprey are high-priced dinosaurs. The Army lost 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam. How many Blackhawks can the US afford to lose in the next war at $25 million each? World War II cost the US $288 billion, in 1940 dollars. The pointless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are guesstimated at $4 trillion, a roughly comparable amount in real terms.
In the future—unless it completely changes its foreign and military policies—the US will likely be confronting scores of independent, nonstate actors, rather than other nation-states. We won’t really know who they are, but they’ll be very effective at attacking hugely expensive infrastructure at near-zero cost, by hacking computers. They won’t need a B-2 when a stolen Pakistani nuke can be delivered by freighter. They can take out a $5 million M-1 tank with an essentially zero-cost improvised incendiary device. While the US bankrupts itself with defense contractors whose weapons have 20-year development times, enemies will use open-source warfare, entrepreneurially developing low-cost, unconventional weapons with off-the-shelf components.
This is actually analogous to what Rome confronted with invading nomads. Let me relate an anecdote offered by Priscus, a Roman ambassador to the court of Atilla in about 450 AD. While there he met a Greek who had joined the barbarians. This will give you a flavor of the story he tells Priscus. I’ve put some words in bold because they’re especially relevant to other aspects of our story.
“After war the Scythians live in inactivity, enjoying what they have gained, harassed very little or not at all. The Romans, on the other hand, are very liable to perish in war, as they have to rest their hopes of safety on others, and are not allowed, on account of their tyrants, to use arms. And those who use them are injured by the cowardice of their generals, who cannot support the conduct of war. But the condition of the subjects in time of peace is far more grievous than the evils of war, for the exaction of the taxes is very severe, and unprincipled men inflict injuries on others, because the laws are practically not valid against all classes.”
Wars destroyed Rome, just as they’ll destroy the US.
But what about the barbarian invasions that Gibbon perhaps correctly pointed out were the direct cause of Rome’s downfall? Do we have a present-day analogue? The answer is at least a qualified “yes.” It’s true that the US will bankrupt itself by fighting the ridiculous and chimerical “war on terror,” maintaining hundreds of military bases and operations around the world and perhaps getting into a major war. But from a cultural point of view, it’s possible that the southern border will present an equally serious problem.
The US-Mexican border is a classic borderland situation, no more stable and just as permeable as the Rhine-Danube dividing line was for the Romans. The problem now isn’t invading hordes, but a population that has no cultural allegiance to the idea of America. A surprising number of the Mexicans who cross over to the US talk seriously about a Reconquista, in reference to the fact the Americans stole the land in question from people they presume to be their ancestors.
In many parts of the Southwest, the Mexicans form a majority and choose not to learn English—and they don’t need to, which is a new thing for immigrants to the US. Most are “illegal,” as you might say the Goths, the Vandals, and the Huns were in Rome’s final days. My guess is that in the near future, there will be a lot of young Hispanic males who actively resent paying half of what they make in income, Social Security, and Obamacare taxes in order to subsidize old white women in the Northeast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see parts of the Southwest turn into “no go” zones for many government agencies over the next several decades.
Could the US break up the way the Roman Empire did? Absolutely; the colors of the map on the wall aren’t part of the cosmic firmament. And it needn’t have anything to do with military conquest. Despite the presence of Walmarts, McDonald’s, and Chevrolet dealerships across a country whose roads are as impressive as the nearly 50,000 miles of highway laid down by the Romans, there’s evidence the country is disintegrating culturally. Although what is occurring in the Mexican borderland area is the most significant thing, there are growing cultural and political differences between the so-called “red” and “blue” states. Semi-serious secession movements are at work in northern Colorado, western Maryland, and western Kansas. This is a new phenomenon, at least since the War Between the States of 1861-65.
Now to gratify the Druids among you. Soil exhaustion, deforestation, and pollution—which abetted plagues—were problems for Rome. As was lead poisoning, in that the metal was widely used for eating and drinking utensils and for cookware. None of these things could bring down the house, but neither did they improve the situation. They might be equated today with fast food, antibiotics in the food chain, and industrial pollutants. Is the US agricultural base unstable because it relies on gigantic monocultures of bioengineered grains that in turn rely on heavy inputs of chemicals, pesticides, and mined fertilizers? It’s true that production per acre has gone up steeply because of these things, but that’s despite the general decrease in depth of topsoil, destruction of native worms and bacteria, and growing pesticide resistance of weeds.
Perhaps even more important, the aquifers needed for irrigation are being depleted. But these things have all been necessary to maintain the US balance of trade, keep food prices down, and feed the expanding world population. It may turn out, however, to have been a bad trade-off.
I’m a technophile, but there are some reasons to believe we may have serious problems ahead. Global warming, incidentally, isn’t one of them. One of the reasons for the rise of Rome—and the contemporaneous Han in China—may be that the climate cyclically warmed considerably up to the 3rd century, then got much cooler. Which also correlates with the invasions by northern barbarians.
The Casey Report is focused on economic issues, and I believe such issues were a major factor in the collapse of Rome, one that Gibbon hardly considered. It’s certainly a factor greatly underrated by historians generally, who usually have no understanding of economics at all. Inflation, taxation, and regulation made production increasingly difficult as the empire grew, just as in the US. Romans wanted to leave the country, much as many Americans do today.
I earlier gave you a quote from Priscus. Next is Salvian, circa 440:
“But what else can these wretched people wish for, they who suffer the incessant and continuous destruction of public tax levies. To them there is always imminent a heavy and relentless proscription. They desert their homes, lest they be tortured in their very homes. They seek exile, lest they suffer torture. The enemy is more lenient to them than the tax collectors. This is proved by this very fact, that they flee to the enemy in order to avoid the full force of the heavy tax levy.
Therefore, in the districts taken over by the barbarians, there is one desire among all the Romans, that they should never again find it necessary to pass under Roman jurisdiction. In those regions, it is the one and general prayer of the Roman people that they be allowed to carry on the life they lead with the barbarians.”
One of the most disturbing things about this statement is that it shows the tax collectors were most rapacious at a time when the Empire had almost ceased to exist. My belief is that economic factors were paramount in the decline of Rome, just as they are with the US. The state made production harder and more expensive, it limited economic mobility, and the state-engineered inflation made saving pointless.
This brings us to another obvious parallel: the currency. The similarities between the inflation in Rome versus the US are striking and well known. In the US, the currency was basically quite stable from the country’s founding until 1913, with the creation of the Federal Reserve. Since then, the currency has lost over 95% of its value, and the trend is accelerating. In the case of Rome, the denarius was stable until the Principate. Thereafter it lost value at an accelerating rate until reaching essentially zero by the middle of the 3rd century, coincidental with the Empire’s near collapse.
What’s actually more interesting is to compare the images on the coinage of Rome and the US. Until the victory of Julius Caesar in 46 BCE (a turning point in Rome’s history), the likeness of a politician never appeared on the coinage. All earlier coins were graced with a representation of an honored concept, a god, an athletic image, or the like. After Caesar, a coin’s obverse always showed the head of the emperor.
It’s been the same in the US. The first coin with the image of a president was the Lincoln penny in 1909, which replaced the Indian Head penny; the Jefferson nickel replaced the Buffalo nickel in 1938; the Roosevelt dime replaced the Mercury dime in 1946; the Washington quarter replace the Liberty quarter in 1932; and the Franklin half-dollar replaced the Liberty half in 1948, which was in turn replaced by the Kennedy half in 1964. The deification of political figures is a disturbing trend the Romans would have recognized.
When Constantine installed Christianity as the state religion, conditions worsened for the economy, and not just because a class of priests now had to be supported from taxes. With its attitude of waiting for heaven and belief that this world is just a test, it encouraged Romans to hold material things in low regard and essentially despise money.
Today’s Christianity no longer does that, of course. But it’s being replaced by new secular religions that do.
I’ve already made a quite a few references to Christianity, which Gibbon thought was a major factor in Rome’s decline. I think he was right; the rise of Christianity abetted the collapse of Rome. But obviously, Christianity can’t be blamed for the decline and fall of the US, since it was part and parcel of its rise. The US used to be an extremely Christian country. Or maybe not—we have to look at how the religion has changed. Christianity was a very, very different thing in the 1st-4th centuries—when it was complicit in the fall of Rome—than it has been for the last four centuries, during the rise of America.
Christianity is still the dominant religion in American culture, although it’s fading. But unlike in antiquity, when it was pacifistic, it’s now quite warlike—and has been for a long time, in fact, ever since it became the official religion of the West in the 4th century. The Crusades, religious wars, songs like Onward Christian Soldiers, and the conservative’s belief in “God and guns” would have been incomprehensible to early Christians. It’s a paradox that the US military, of all institutions, is now a hotbed of Christianity. Today’s religion is also quite money and material-prosperity oriented—the Catholic Church, fundamentalist preachers, Calvinists, Mormons—in fact, Christians of every description, all support making money, another 180-degree change from its early days. Christianity has become a very conservative force, antithetical to its founding principles.
I’d suggest that Christianity today occupies the place of classical religion in late Rome. In those days, everyone paid lip service to the gods, but relatively few sincerely believed in them anymore. I think that’s true of Christianity today in the US—and even more so in Europe. Very little of its theology—things like the Trinity, the immaculate conception, the virgin birth, the assumption, the ascension, and the numerous miracles of Jesus—is taken seriously as actual events. They’re now just cultural trappings… when they’re even mentioned at all.
Very much as classical religion was replaced by Christianity, traditional Christianity is being replaced by new, secular religions. Marxism has always been a secular religion; its explicit doctrine is fading, but its ethos of statism and collectivism permeates thinking everywhere. Democracy is now completely dominant as a political/intellectual doctrine that nobody dares to gainsay. Meanwhile, Greenism and Environmentalism are the really hot tickets as secular religions. They’ve insinuated and integrated themselves into every area of thought and action; saying or thinking anything that doesn’t put Earth first is tantamount to heresy or blasphemy. And for those who want a personal god, Islam is by far the world’s fastest-growing religion.
The process is much further along in Europe than in the US (as are all the trends I’m discussing). The collapse of the old-time religion is important, because for a civilization to survive, it must have common core beliefs. And just as the Romans lost their spiritual rudder, the Europeans already have, and the Americans are far along the way. I’m not, incidentally, endorsing the values of today’s conventional Christianity any more than I do Christianity’s original values. I far prefer the attitudes and virtues of the ancients and find it perverse and ironic that today’s Christianity is a critical pillar of support for traditional Western Civilization—which I’m quite fond of. And it serves that purpose mainly by having integrated many of the classical values it overcame into its own fabric.
Here we must look at the essence of Christianity to see how it helped destroy Rome. I’m not just talking about its myth system—things like a virgin birth, Jesus rising from the dead and then ascending to heaven, the miracles of the saints, and so forth. Classical religion has plenty of amusing tales. Jesus’ miracles, however, were taken seriously until fairly recently. If the reporting in the Gospels is accurate, we have to assume that he was the David Copperfield or Chris Angel of his day. Or maybe an Apollonius of Tyana, another contemporaneous sage and miracle worker, who also said many wise things. Apollonius, however, lacked the misfortune of being crucified as a political rabble-rouser and never picked up a PR agent with the commitment of Saul of Tarsus.
Christian Virtues and Rome
But the real problem with Christianity isn’t its anti-rational origins and theology, but rather its moral and ethical principles. These things are, perversely, what Christians most revere about it. But I believe they are actually among its most destructive characteristics. Any civilization has to have an ethical foundation if it’s going to survive. Let’s look at what Christians value—or at least, what they valued in the centuries starting with the founding of Christianity, before it became the state religion in the 4th century.
Faith, hope, and charity are its cardinal virtues. These things are fine to season daily life, on a personal basis. But it’s destructive to base a belief system on them. As principles of life, they aren’t virtues—they’re actually character flaws. Let’s define and examine them.
Faith is the unquestioning belief in something for which there is no proof or evidence. It is essentially belief in the unknown, the unknowable, and unbelievable.
Hope is often defined as “the desire for the kingdom of heaven as happiness, placing trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” Hope is clearly based on faith. To the objective observer, it amounts to counting on magic to kiss everything and make it better.
Neither is a good formula for success in the material world.
Charity, the most cardinal virtue, almost always promotes the dissipation of capital—time, money, energy, and emotion—to aid those who’ve generally done little to deserve anything.
A rich civilization like ours can tolerate such confusions for a while; a preindustrial civilization like Rome couldn’t afford them. But as Christianity gained traction, it replaced traditional Roman virtues with its own.
Even the Christians’ seven deadly sins—anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, gluttony, and envy—are poorly envisioned and misdirect believers’ moral emphases. The very concept of sin (a transgression against the law of Jesus or Yahweh) was, incidentally, alien to either classical religion or philosophy. Questions of right and wrong were reasoned out by philosophers, not dictated by religious texts.
Anger can certainly be a fault, if it’s irrational or excessive. But it can as often be righteous, justifiable, and a pro-survival emotion.
Greed can actually be good, when it represents a drive to be productive.
Pride, unless we’re talking about hubris—which is a different thing—is properly just self-esteem and actually a virtue.
Gluttony, sloth, and lust are really no more than bad habits. They’re simply an excess of essentially good and pleasurable things.
Only envy—the motivation that makes one resent the good fortune of others and want to deprive them of it—is an actual vice (which can be defined as a destructive and evil action or attitude).
How about the Beatitudes? Everyone is supposed to love the Sermon on the Mount. The first three are objectionable. The Romans would have had no problem with the last five. I’m tempted to quip that almost two out of three ain’t bad.
Blessed are the poor in spirit. Really? It’s ignoble to bless those without self-respect and the ability to accomplish things to make you rich in spirit.
Blessed are they who mourn. The Romans who heard this had to conclude that Christianity was a sad-sack, whiny religion.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land. This is an overt untruth. The meek are generally those without backbone. They generally don’t get the land; they get what they deserve.
Look at the vows most Christian priests take:
Poverty, chastity, obedience
Poverty is despicable. It makes you a liability to others. To the Romans, it made you one step up from a slave.
Chastity takes away one of the great pleasures of life. And the failure of Christians to reproduce, in order to practice it, was a cause of population collapse.
Obedience is another slave characteristic. Free men don’t see obedience as a virtue.
The noble Romans looked down on Christians as losers and irrational fanatics, practicing a religion that only slaves would consider. And in fact, it was most popular among slaves.
The pagans separated religion from ethics. Religion was essentially a question of giving cult (the origin of our word culture) to the gods. The gods were, in effect, personifications of nature and concepts. The determination of what is right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil was left to philosophers. Their answers to these things were determined from reason and experience, not the dogma of very often aberrant religious zealots.
Pagan virtues were things such as honor, courage, hospitality, generosity, fortitude, foresight, strength, perseverance, respect, forbearance, honesty, wisdom, and justice. It was destructive of classical civilization that the Christian values enumerated above overcame the classical virtues. Note that the classical virtues are now accepted by today’s Christianity. But they are not elements of Christianity itself as spelled out by Jesus.
Incidentally, I’m not necessarily opposed to religion per se. For one thing, it depends on how you define the word and what you mean by it. If it’s simply an inquiry into the spiritual nature of man or speculation on what may happen after we shed this mortal coil, it seems to me valid and beneficial. Even giving public cult to gods (who represent admirable qualities) as a matter of social bonding can be healthy. But that’s not at all what religion means to Christians, for whom it’s dogma.
So, although we can’t say that Christianity is responsible for the collapse of Rome—dozens of other factors conspired—we can certainly say that it was a strong degrading and contributing factor in almost all of the ten areas I mentioned above—especially in its moral influence. And as Napoleon said, in conflict the moral is to the physical as 3 is to 1.
New Religions as Analogues of Early Christianity
Even though I don’t endorse them, I think everyone should have his choice of bad habits and superstitions. The ancient Romans allowed everyone to worship his own gods, as long as they simply respected the gods of others. There was therefore never any religious conflict in the empire… at least until the Christians institutionalized religious persecution in the 380s, a couple of generations after Constantine. Was there ever persecution of Christians? Yes, sporadically. Most famously under Nero, Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and Diocletian. But few individuals were actually killed. In any event, it was never because of their doctrines per se; the Romans couldn’t have cared less whom someone worshipped. It was mainly because Christians failed to pay respect to the cult of the emperor, something which equates to failing to stand for the national anthem or say the Pledge Of Allegiance in today’s context.
As for myself, I grew up in a cannibalistic death cult—Roman Catholicism—although I discarded it when I reached the age of reason. As Saul of Tarsus, perhaps the first religious fanatic of the Common Era, said in Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Paul was an excellent rhetorician and propagandist, although much of his message is quite at odds with that of Jesus. Whom, incidentally, he never met, making it quite inappropriate to call him an apostle, as many do.
The problem arises when a sect is sure there’s only one true god, he’s written a book, and he tells you and everybody else what is right and wrong and what they have to do. It’s true not just of Christianity, but of all the monotheistic cults that arose out of the Middle Eastern desert. The Jews are now the mellowest of them, probably because they’re the oldest, although Judaism has also mutated extensively over the centuries. Whatever happened to the Pharisees and the Sadducees and burnt sacrifices? The Christians have almost certainly gone through their most aggressive stage—it was a long one, from roughly 400 to about 1900. Now Islam, as the youngest religion, is the most virulent. And probably the most dangerous yet, since the Koran is a relatively short book, written by Allah himself. These monotheistic desert cults are the only religions in world history that have chronically resulted in wars, pogroms, persecutions, and wholesale murder.
Early Christianity told man that he’s basically evil, that he must constantly repent and abase himself, and that he needs to feel guilt for being born and shame for having a body. This was a far cry from classical religion, in which the opposite views were implicit. My own read on it is that just as being inculcated with repressive ideas makes for a psychologically sick individual, it also makes for a sick society. And that’s exactly what happened with Rome.
And it’s exactly what is happening today in the US. I would submit that Greenism (or Environmentalism), now the fastest growing of new religions and which seems to worship Gaia, is having the same influence on Western civilization that early Christianity had on Rome.
The same is true, in different ways, of the pseudoreligion of democracy. Democracy doesn’t have strictly defined tenets, other than a belief that the majority should rule. Unfortunately, that notion can collide with values such as personal liberty, private property, free thought, and free markets—which are actually the energizing values of Western civilization. In essence, democracy overthrows all of these things and amounts to little more than mob rule. Even worse, since the masses of people in a democracy generally lack a clear agenda, one is provided to them by a ruling cadre.
Classical religion implied that man had to save himself—which encouraged personal responsibility. Christianity still tells you to rely on Jesus, or the Holy Spirit or perhaps the saints, encouraging irresponsibility. Greenism tells you to sacrifice yourself to the planet, and democracy to the collective. In recent centuries, the original Christian message—of love, peace, and otherworldliness—has been de-emphasized and replaced with Christian righteousness and triumphalism. Now Greenism is replacing Christianity as a source of guilt and as a reason for self-abasement.
In Roman times, Christianity encouraged celibacy and monasticism. Now it’s Greenism that encourages yuppies not to reproduce, since people are killing Gaia.
In almost every area, early Christianity and its attitudes were termites eating away at the foundations of ancient civilization. But there were many otherworldly mystery cults that rose out of the East at Rome’s peak and contradicted classical values; Christianity was just one, albeit the one that triumphed. Today it, in turn, is being replaced by variants of Marxism, democracy worship, Greenism, Islam, and numerous other practices. You may think that’s good or bad—but it definitely undermines the foundation of a culture. And Western civilization today is in the same position as classical civilization was in antiquity.
Again, as Napoleon said, in conflict the moral is to the physical as 3 is to 1.
Rome—Or Something Else
Despite all our similarities with Rome, and even equipped with our understanding of why Rome collapsed, we can’t avoid Rome’s fate just by trying to avoid Rome’s mistakes. Yes, we have an analogue of early Christianity chewing away at our civilization’s foundations. And yes, we have a virtual barbarian invasion to contend with. But there’s another factor, I think, that worked against the Romans and is working against us… one Gibbon didn’t consider.
We can’t evade the second law of thermodynamics, which holds that entropy conquers everything and that over time all systems degrade and wind down. And that the more complex a system becomes, the more energy it takes to maintain it. The larger and more complex, interconnected, and interdependent it becomes, the more prone it is to breakdown and catastrophic failure. That includes countries and civilizations.
The Romans reached their physical limits within the confines of their scientific, engineering, economic, and other areas of knowledge. And the moral values of their civilization, their founding philosophies, were washed away by a new religion. We may reach our technological limits. And our founding values are certainly being washed away.
Our scientific knowledge is still compounding rapidly—because more scientists and engineers are alive today than have lived in the previous history of mankind put together. That statement has been true for at least the last 200 years—and it’s been a gigantic advantage we’ve had over the Romans. But it may stop being true in the next few generations as the population levels off and then declines, as is happening in Japan, Europe, China, and most of the developed world. It’s compounded by the fact that US universities aren’t graduating Ph.D.s in engineering, mathematics, and physics so much as in gender studies, sociology, English, and J.D.s in law. As it degrades, the US will not only draw in fewer enterprising foreigners, it will export its more competent natives.
My solution to America’s decline and fall? The solution for declining civilizations is less command and control, less centralization, and less legal and regulatory complexity. And more entrepreneurship, free minds, and radically free markets. Unfortunately, although a few might agree with that, it’s not going to happen. Not even if most people agree.
Why? Because there are immense governmental institutions that exist, with many millions of employees— at least 20 million in the US. And many tens of millions more in their families and throughout the private sector that depend on them. And many tens of millions more that rely directly on the state for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other direct payments. And millions more associated with quasi-state institutions like NGOs, think tanks, law firms, lobbying groups, and the like. The parasitic mechanism of the state has become key to their survival. Even if many in their ranks see the dysfunction now planted in America, they’re hardly going to break their own well-filled rice bowls.
Every institution, like every living thing from an amoeba on up, has one thing in common: they all obey a prime directive—survive! They will try to do so at any cost to society at large. They intuitively know that, as a corollary, you either grow or you die. So you’re not going to see any dysfunctional organization dissolve itself. It’ll keep trying to grow until it self-destructs or an outside force destroys it. Beyond a certain stage, any serious reform is impossible. In the case of the US, it’s now host to a completely inoperable cancer, as the government and its satellites grow faster than ever, while the productive economy contracts.
The second law of thermodynamics is a concept of physics, but it has applications in most areas of human action, including what’s been called “imperial overstretch”—the point where the resources gained from growing is less than the energy expended in the process. Rome ran up against imperial overstretch. So did Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler. The Spanish, French, British, and Soviet empires all did as well. It’s a natural thing, with all living organisms, to try to grow until they can’t grow any further, until their energy expenditures exceed their inputs, and/or they’re too large and complex to be controllable, at which point they either rot from within or fall to external predators. It’s as though the Peter Principle applies to all of nature: everything rises to its level of incompetence, at which point it becomes vulnerable.
But does it really matter if the US declines? It’s already morphed from America—which we all loved—into something else. And it’s morphing even more in the wrong direction, at an accelerating rate, as did Rome. The US is declining in all the areas I’ve touched on. But it’s not unique; it’s following the course of all states and all things.
Rome was arrogant and thought it was unique, the center of the world, and eternal. Just like the US. Or China, for that matter.
Rome was corrupt; it departed from the values that made it great and so deserved to collapse. The US is increasingly corrupt. That’s completely predictable, for exactly the reason Tacitus cited—a profusion of laws. In market-based systems, corruption is rare and occasional. But in large, complex, politically based systems, it’s not only commonplace, it’s salubrious, because it allows workarounds. Corruption becomes like an oxygen tank to an emphysema victim—awkward but needed. Rulers, however, never attempt to cure the underlying disease by simplifying the complex systems they’ve built. Instead they pass more laws, making the system ever more like a Rube Goldberg machine, with even more complexities and inefficiencies. That’s always counterproductive, since compounded complexity makes the eventual collapse even worse. And harder to recover from. And more nearly inevitable.
So what’s your takeaway from all this, assuming you agree with my thinking? There are several possibilities to consider, based on what we know about Rome.
One is that you stay put as civilization declines around you and barbarians—of whatever kind—take over. That may be your only, or best, option—perhaps because of your age or financial circumstances or family obligations. If so, it nonetheless may be a mistake to stay in Detroit or Chicago, because there could be easy and much better alternatives. We have evidence that life in parts of the Roman Empire—parts of rural Portugal and Mauretania, for instance—actually improved even as things were collapsing in Italy, Britain, and Gaul, largely because the taxation and regulation infrastructures collapsed, but the roads, aqueducts, and cities stayed intact. So you might improve your own situation considerably just by moving down the road a bit.
A second possibility is that you consider what Priscus and Salvian said and get away from the storm’s epicenter by leaving the empire. Welcome to Cafayate, where I plan on spending an increasing amount of my time.
A third is more philosophical: you simply recognize that the rise and fall of societies has been going on since Day One. Don’t be too stressed by mega events. Life isn’t just full of problems: it is problems. We’re looking at a giant crisis, but a crisis is a combination of both danger and opportunity. Look at the bright side while you try to dodge the negative effects. See it as an adventure, an education, and even free entertainment.
I hope seeing America reflected in the distant mirror of Ancient Rome helps to put things in perspective.