by Adeeba Folami
The fall of ancient Rome and the moral decline of America are often compared by those either predicting the eventual Fall of America or hoping the U.S. can learn from history and avoid Rome’s mistakes. In “Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America,” (2007), Cullen Murphy highlights how the two great powers are more unalike than alike, however, they are disturbingly similar in ways not usually considered.
Cullen asserts it is not rampant immorality that most parallels American society to Roman, it is things like: loss of control of the country’s borders; the arrogance of the citizenry who view themselves and their way of life as the center round which all other nations revolve; the erosion of civil liberties, and a swing toward privatization in various arenas, but most significantly in government. Of the latter, Cullen writes: “Privatization, whether legal or corrupt, is how the gears of government come to break.” Privatization, (or “the externalization of state functions”), manifests as the increasing number of: private colleges, charter schools, hospitals and health programs, and private companies performing tasks such as nuclear waste cleanup, meat inspection, mail delivery and offering insurance coverage. Even the new Medicare prescription plan, Cullen notes, is now controlled by private companies rather than the government.
The field of private security and policing is one where privatization has crept in at an alarming rate. Cullen says individuals have some level of loyalty to their cities “but their true oath of fealty is to Securitas or Guardsmark,” two of the largest private security firms. He adds that, in America, police officers greatly outnumbered private guards in 1960 but now there are 50% more guards than police persons. Private prisons continue to be built countrywide because they offer a less expensive way for government to deal with the ever expanding prison industrial complex. Similarly, “In Rome, private companies sprang up to provide for the torture and crucifixion of troublesome slaves, relieving estate owners of the need to deal with the matter,” Cullen writes.
Many have criticized the role private contractors have been granted in the “rebuilding” of Iraq, that conflict described by Cullen as “the most privatized since the Renaissance,” but as with Julius Caesar in Rome, so in America, those in power grant favors to associates or cronies who profit at the expense of public interest. In Rome, the people, nor government, saw their actions as detrimental but history students – centuries later – are able to use 20/20 hindsight to conclude that this prolonged reliance on outside sources is a “misdirection of government.”
Over time, the Roman army began to allow “barbarians” – the term used to describe people from neighboring nations whose language they could not understand – in their armed forces and empire, similar to America now labeling Mexicans as “immigrants” and allowing them into the country in large numbers. Militarily, because of the poor recruitment rate for the armed forces and the “wars” America is involved in, some Mexican citizens in this country are now offered citizenship if they serve a certain amount of time in the military. As more and more “barbarians” began to pour into Rome it, of course, began to change the empire, the same way the (Caucasian) face of America is greatly changing from what it started out as.
“America’s population would be in decline were it not for replenishment from the outside,” Cullen said, explaining that California – which now “has the demographic character of a Roman frontier province” – is home to 40% of the U.S.’ “immigrant” population. He suggests that during the fourth century, more than one million non-citizens settled in the Roman empire. Eventually, in 476 A.D., a German “barbarian” named Odoacer defeated Romulus Augustus, the military commander and chief over Western Rome, (the empire had been divided in the late third century because it was too large for one ruler to oversee), which is seen as the official end of that empire – even though life continued on as normal for some time and the Eastern empire remained a ruling power for another 1000 years.
The rise of a non-Roman to the highest position in the empire, “over a people who had once asserted their just superiority above the rest of mankind,” apparently was a blow from which the ego of Rome never recovered. It is interesting to parallel that to the current presidential race in which a Black man is being cheered and supported by a large number of Whites as the best candidate to take over the White House. This in a government initially founded under the premise that Blacks were only 3/5 human and in a land where Blacks were once sold as property.
Cullen specifically mentioned another interesting parallel between Rome and America. “The historical symmetry is almost too good to be true – that the last emperor’s name, Romulus, should also be that of Rome’s founder. (Imagine if the demise of America were to occur under a president named George.)” Has this already happened? Some suggest that America will never recover from eight years of George W. Bush’s policies and worldwide bad PR and say Bush will go down as the worst president of all who held the office since George Washington.
The fall, decline and transformation of ancient Rome was gradual, just as the decline of American influence and power has occurred over many decades and continues to this day. Cullen holds out small hope that the U.S. can reverse the trend but acknowledges that the two powers share dangerous characteristics. “Are we Rome?” he asks. “In important ways we’re clearly making some of the same mistakes.”
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