April 29, 2000

Strakon Lights Up

Going the way of Rome ... and going ... and going ...

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Nullus interitus est rei publicae naturalis ut hominis, in quo mors non modo necessaria est, verum etiam optanda persaepe.

— Cicero

Every time I turn around I hear someone in the libertarian community or on the Right predicting the early fall of the U.S. Empire. Patrick Buchanan and other anti-interventionist commentators periodically dispatch urgent warnings about American "imperial overstretch" and the disasters likely to ensue from it. More and more foreigners (those who have stayed in their own countries, at least) are said to hate the United State, and we're told that sooner or later the world out there just isn't going to take it — U.S. imperialism — any more. And as for degradation, decadence, disintegration, discord, deracination, and any other "de-" and "dis-" words you can think of, I've been hearing for forty years that "we're going the way of Rome."

But we just keep going, or, rather, the Empire does. For that matter, so did Rome. If you think about it, the Roman way to destruction was very long indeed.

When I was a college freshman I wrote a paper arguing that the fall of the Roman Empire in the West was inevitable owing to fatal flaws in its moral premises and political-economic structure, most of which flaws existed already at the time of Augustus, founder of the principate. It was a pretty fair tour d'horizon given its brevity — about 25 pages — and my own post-aural humidity, if you know what I mean. But what my history professor wanted to know, after digesting my argument, was how in the world, then, I could account for the empire's lasting  as long as it did. Well, that set me back on my pins, I must say.

I wasn't the only one impatient with the Late Empire, though. The epic movie "The Fall of the Roman Empire" portrays not Odoacer's overthrow of Romulus Augustulus in A.D. 476, or Attila's invasion of the 450s, or Alaric's great sack of Rome in 410, or even the catastrophe at Hadrianopolis in 378. No, it deals with the death of the saintly Marcus Aurelius and the succession of the demon Commodus — in 180!

The message — a caricature of Gibbon's, it seems — is that all the goodness of Rome died with Marcus Aurelius, and the fall was then inevitable. But the question is not the loss of goodness or the inevitability of events in the far future; the question is how the empire survived as a powerful, extensive polity century after century. Almost three hundred years elapsed between Commodus and Romulus Augustulus, and three hundred years is too much history to treat as an epilogue, even if we do afford Constantine a paragraph or two. It's worse than that, actually. In the cursory treatment of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire in many college survey courses, we can detect a presumption that it was all over once the Western Empire fell. But 1,000 years — 476 to 1453 — is too much history to treat in a footnote.

The moviemakers were on to something, but it wasn't the fall of the empire. It was the transformation  of the empire — and the fall of Classical civilization. In The Might of the West,  Lawrence Brown writes that "all vital elements of Classical society disappeared between Marcus Aurelius and Diocletian." (p. 101) And he writes: "Marcus Aurelius died a Roman emperor; Diocletian came to the throne a Byzantine." (p. 87) In the Levant, the Byzantines defended Pompey's old frontier militarily until the Muslim tide swamped it in the seventh century; but it had been pierced culturally long before that. Classical civilization was rotting, being hollowed out, as early as Augustus's time, and Levantine civilization was beginning to succeed it, even in Italy, even in Rome herself. (Eventually Germanic civilization would dilute the influence of the Levant in Italy.)

It would be foolish — sophomoric, if not actually freshmanic — to try to demonstrate that the current stage of evolution of the U.S. empire parallels a particular stage of the Roman Empire's. That's the sort of thing that makes professional historians cringe. The whole notion of parallels may be invalid given vast changes in culture, demography, and technology, including the technology of rule.

In any case, as soon as one parallelizer, reminding us that the Roman Republic ran a pretty good empire, de facto, for centuries before Augustus, has us convinced that the United State is still in its Augustan age, or Tiberian, or — what with Bill Clinton — Caligulan, another parallelizer will have us peering over the walls for the Visigoths. It's quite possible, of course, that in some ways (militarily, financially) the U.S. Empire is in its age of Augustus and in other ways (culturally, demographically) in its age of Romulus Augustulus. But even that is too simple. Augustus may have found Rome built of brick and left it built of marble, but republicans then and now would remind us that there was plenty of decadence, viciousness, impiety, and chaotic multiculturalism during his administration, too.

So I don't really know where, or when, we are in terms of Rome. But if someone pressed a gun — or a gladius  — to my temple, I'd have to say it's worth our while to take a look at Diocletian (r. 284-305), the first Byzantine according to Brown.

The empire came close to breaking during the crisis of the third century, but Diocletian restored it. He did so not by introducing "free-market reforms," reviving republican institutions, or limiting the power of government. He did it, rather, by rationalizing and refounding the bureaucracy; introducing new taxes and economic regulations including wage and price controls; reforming the military; and systematizing formal castes and caste responsibilities that tended to tie peasants to the land and office-holders to their offices.

In addition to imperial overstretch, a related problem that some of America's Old Republicans warn of (or eagerly anticipate the dire consequences of) is overcentralization. Our man Diocletian went to work on that, too. Centralized imperial rule had broken down in the empire. At the same time Diocletian was creating what historian Michael Grant calls "a totalitarian state ... theoretically almost as thoroughgoing as the police system advocated by Plato," he decentralized  the imperial structure. He established a tetrarchy — a system whereby one duarchy consisting of an "Augustus," backed by an heir-apparent "Caesar," would rule in the West, and another would rule in the East. (A few decades later, Constantine, building on that system, would formalize the division of the Empire into West and East.) Diocletian also multiplied the number of provinces, shrinking their size, and inserted a new political subdivision — the diocese — between the provinces and the imperial capitals.

Diocletian's statist economic reforms led to the disappearance of goods from the market, the renewal of inflation, and the accelerated impoverishment of the lower and middle orders. His decentralization policy led, not to any increase of freedom, but rather to greater administrative efficiency in attacking internal and external opposition. Ordinary people became more miserable; but who among the ruling elite cared? The Roman state survived.

We see our civilization rotting away and being succeeded by a civilization or anti-civilization that is easy to characterize (as savagery) but difficult to name. I suspect that even as we recognize that our entrenched rulers are deracinated and anti-Western, some of us still proceed from the half-conscious premise that the collapse of our civilization somehow entails the collapse of the U.S. Empire. To me it seems much more likely that the empire will survive, but that our descendents will mean something different by "American," if they are permitted to speak of an American Empire — just as Justinian and Charlemagne meant something quite different, in referring to the "Roman Empire," from what Marcus Aurelius meant.

The old republican institutions eventually might be discarded formally as they have been discarded substantively; the ruling class might come to speak a language other than English, at least the conventional English some of us still speak; the imperial capital might even move from New York to a new Constantinople; but none of that would necessarily signal the fall of the U.S. Empire as a great structure of oppression. None of it would mean that those living under its rule were any freer.

Is the empire senescent or merely changing — adapting, like a healthy if monstrous organism, to new circumstances? Low-level phenomena such as the degradation of commando and carrier-fighter forces in pursuit of political correctness are easy to see, but their importance is easy to overestimate. What is happening in the ruling class is difficult to see, but the importance of what happens there is hard to overestimate.

If we should see our rulers becoming, not merely deracinated with respect to Old American culture, but demoralized and incompetent with respect to their own alien premises and agendas, that would be a sign of senescence. If we were to see them becoming less and less able to manage the circulation of elites — the process whereby vigorous, creative new members are co-opted and educated — then that, too, would be a sign of senescence. If, owing to some catastrophe either internal or external, their hands should slip from the levers of power, that would signal not merely their senescence but our hope for redemption as a free people.

But, Old Romans, let's not hold our breath.


Annihilation is not natural for a state as it is for a man, for whom death is not only necessary but also often desirable.

— Cicero

April 29, 2000

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