What Americans Can Learn From The Fall Of The Roman Empire

There are few societies in the world whose histories do not deal, in some part, with the Romans. In the West, we see references to them again and again in our literature, our songs, our films, and even in our language via phrases such as, “Rome wasn’t built in a day!” Even Roman practices, like a public school system, permeate our society. This is not a coincidence. The beauty of Rome is in its story; in one civilization, we see all the possible outcomes a civilization can have. From its transition from republic to empire, to its moments of prosperity and chaos, to the relationship between rich and poor, ethnic and non-ethnic, there are almost no problems a society can face which the Romans have not already faced themselves. For this reason, the Romans are especially relevant to America in 2022. As we will see, there are several issues in our country today which resemble issues the Romans faced during the decline of the Empire, specifically in the areas of society, culture, and politics.

The Council of Nicea in 325 resulted in a major shift in Roman culture. Emperor Constantine initiated this meeting to settle a dispute which had divided Christians for some time: consubstantiality. At this time, there were two major groups of Christians. There were the Arians, who believed that Jesus was subordinate to God, and the Paulines, who believed that Jesus and God were of the same essence. At Nicea, Constantine confirmed the beliefs of the latter; Jesus was in fact of the same essence as God, meaning that the Trinity was valid. Further, the emperor decreed that the cross would symbolize Christianity, and that Christ’s birthday would be celebrated on December 25th, the same birth date of the Roman sun god, Sol. Despite Constantine’s efforts, the Council at Nicea did little to ease tensions between Christians. In his video, Parallels Between the Roman Empire and the USA, internet historian Tominus Maximus explains that one’s allegiance to either Arian or Pauline Christianity became a core part of their identity, and impacted every aspect of their life. The Greek teacher Libianus recalls that he could not even buy a loaf of bread in Constantinople without the baker asking what he thinks about Christ’s substance. The divide between Christians was so severe that after 325, there was rarely a Mass which did not end in a violent outburst. 

However, the influence of Christianity spread beyond churches and basilicas. In pre-Christian Rome, abortion and female infanticide were disturbingly common. In an infamous letter from a Roman man to his wife, he is said to have written, “If you give birth to a boy, keep it. If it’s a girl, throw it away.” The regular disposing of baby girls caused the Roman population to be unbalanced in the late empire, with 40% of citizens being female and 60% male. Roman women had no say in this barbaric custom; rather, the majority of abortions and infanticides were carried out by their husbands and fathers. This practice directly opposes Christian values, which forbids abortion in all circumstances. Naturally, this made Christianity appealing to many Roman women because of the protection it offered them. In this sense, Christianity could be considered a rather liberal ideology within the late Roman Empire. 

As the centuries went on, there were others who believed that the presentation of Christianity – namely, through iconography – was heresy. This sentiment was popular in the eastern part of the empire, Byzantium, and led to the rise of Iconoclasm. This movement, which literally translates to “image breaking,” emerged from the fear that Christians were worshiping pictures, statues, and objects instead of God. In response to this fear, the Iconoclasts carried out two major waves of destruction in the eighth-century. They raided countless churches, destroying portraits, crucifixes, and mosaics, as well as tearing down numerous statues which represented biblical figures. The Iconoclasts were finally subdued in the early ninth-century. Constantine’s interest in Christianity introduced a radical new set of beliefs to the Roman people. While it was aware of Christians before, this pagan empire was not prepared to incorporate a monotheistic religion into its culture, demonstrated by the social tension which followed for centuries. In the United States, we also find ourselves divided over social issues, only ours have to do with race, sex, and American history.

Polls from the 2020 presidential election revealed a nearly 50/50 divide among voters. Biden won 51.3% of votes cast, while Trump won 46.8% (the remaining 1.8% going to third-party candidates). Much like the Arians and the Paulines, we find ourselves having to identify with either one group or the other – both of which are driven by radical ideologies, with little tolerance for any moderate views. Just as tension between the Christians of the late empire erupted into violence, we too are experiencing civil unrest over matters of social justice. Two summers ago, cities across America were vandalized and looted during the George Floyd protests. It is estimated that the riots resulted in nearly $2 billion worth of damage, double the record set during the LA riots of 1992. However, these are only the insured losses, which indicates that this number is probably far higher. To make matters worse, more than 15 people were killed during the 2020 unrest. 

We have also seen feminist demonstrations in recent years, such as the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C. The activists wished to draw awareness to several issues. Among them was abortion, a topic that was as controversial in the Roman Empire as it is today, nearly 2,000 years later. However, the nature of this controversy today could not be more different than it was in Rome. As stated above, Christians were liberators of Roman women in a sense, because they sheltered them from a savage tradition which they had no control over. It is ironic that now Christians are widely considered enemies of feminism due to their pro-life stance. The reason for this lies in the fact that Christianity, once considered a radical ideology, has established itself in the dominant culture of the West over the course of centuries. Now it finds itself in another ironic position – that of the pagans in the late empire – being challenged by a different but equally radical ideology: social justice. 

The radical nature of this movement is demonstrated in its behavior, not dissimilar to the Iconoclasts of the eighth-century. 168 Confederate monuments throughout the US were destroyed in 2020, all but one following the murder of George Floyd. The social and cultural tension in the United States today is eerily similar to that of the late Roman Empire. While the ideologies contributing to these issues differ in both time periods, the reaction to these issues is very much the same. Unfortunately, our similarities do not end here; in both the late empire and now, the actions of politicians agitated – and even encouraged – division among the public.

Maximus describes the relationship between a ruler and his “keys to power.” He explains that regardless of how brilliant a ruler’s ideas might be, they will have no impact unless he can convince his “keys” – i.e. subordinate branches of government – to put them into action. Such was the dilemma late emperors faced when they ascended the throne. At this point in the empire, the emperor’s “keys” were his legions. Nearly all state funds went to the legions, giving them a significant amount of influence over the emperor. If an emperor wanted to keep his position, he needed to make sure that the legions were pleased first and foremost. As a result, late emperors paid little, if any attention to the plight of the common people. Emperor Caracalla tried to gain the favor of the Roman public through the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212, which declared all free men in the empire citizens. The edict backfired, however, since Roman citizenship and all of its privileges had now become worthless. Rather than unify the empire, the Constitutio worsened social and cultural tensions. 

More sinister, however, was the fact that late emperors actively encouraged discord among the various demographics in Rome. The logic of this was that one could gain the support of one group by exploiting their hate of another. Maximus explains, “Christians against pagans, provincial citizens against Italians, European soldiers against eastern legions, Latin-speaking Romans against Greeks… It became more important to defeat your opponent within the realm, than to defeat your true enemies waiting outside.” However, an emperor could not rely on the prejudices of his subjects alone. To compensate, coins were utilized as a source of propaganda. Each new emperor modified Roman coinage to display his profile, surrounded with cheap, shallow slogans such as Unitas (“Unity”), Pax Aeterna (“Eternal Peace”), and Clementra Temporum (“Merciful Times”). Considering the disarray that the emperors helped create, their efforts were brazen, laughable even. Yet as ridiculous as they might seem, we still encounter them today – not on our money, but through the speeches and campaign slogans of our own politicians.

The core issue of political debates now is that our politicians, as Maximus states, only put emphasis “on the ‘keys’ (voters) that can vote them out… [As a result,] US politicians cannot reach across the aisle to the opposing party to solve the real issues of the American Empire, which requires a bipartisan effort.” The presidential election of 2016 and the years that followed are notorious for the ways in which our candidates tried to gain popularity. Instead of marketing themselves using their own skills, achievements, and ideas, the presidential candidates relied on stereotypes of their opposing party to make themselves look better in comparison. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton’s most infamous moment was her “Basket of Deplorables” speech in September 2016. Clinton stated, “You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call ‘the basket of deplorables.’ They’re racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, islamaphobic, you name it.” This statement clearly plays on the stereotypical image of an American conservative. By saying such a thing, Clinton encouraged her voters to embrace their prejudices, not only as true, but as morally justified. Further, her campaign slogan was “Stronger Together,” alarmingly similar to the discrepancy between an emperor’s words and the motto on his coins. 

The Republican side of the election was just as guilty. Even after Trump was named President of the United States, he did not hesitate to remind the public about liberal flaws. During a speech in North Dakota in 2018, Trump stated, “We got more money. We got more brains. We got better houses, apartments. We got nicer boats. We’re smarter than they are. And they say, ‘the elite.'” This statement is an appeal to the conservative “underdogs” of America. By mocking “the elite” – college-educated, white-collar Americans – Trump validates feelings of contempt commonly held by blue-collar, working class Americans. He purposefully speaks with incorrect grammar, using the stereotype of uneducated rural Americans to his advantage in order to appear “relatable” (despite how insulting this is to rural America, in reality). His slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is just as ironic as Clinton’s. A great country cannot be built by laborers or scholars alone, but through an equal contribution of unique skills from each group. Trump and Clinton, like the late emperors, are prime examples of politicians who claim to strive for unity, but in reality seek to manipulate division in society for their own gain.

Studying Roman civilization is vital for all societies, but especially for the United States. Like Rome, we have had our moments of greatness, but it seems now that we are weakening as a country, mostly through our own doing. If our country and everything it stands for is to last, then we must learn from the mistakes of Rome, lest we too become a cautionary tale for some other great nation in the future.