About The Fall Of Rome….

Pundits increasingly compare America in the 21st Century with Rome–as in “the fall of Rome.” The comparison isn’t usually a happy one, but a few days ago, I came across an article suggesting that although we may be experiencing a decline much like that of the Roman Empire, we should take heart from the fact that Rome’s various parts didn’t do all that badly in the aftermath.

James Fallows has been traveling the U.S. for The Atlantic and writing stories about cities and towns with innovative programs and civically-engaged populations. In this article, he revisits what we know about the period following Rome’s fall, and wants us to be more upbeat about what comes after “empires” disintegrate.

It’s time to think about the Roman empire again. But not the part of its history that usually commands attention in the United States: the long, sad path of Decline and Fall. It’s what happened later that deserves our curiosity.

 As a reminder, in 476 a.d., a barbarian general named Odoacer overthrew the legitimate emperor of the Western empire, Romulus Augustulus, who thus became the last of the emperors to rule from Italy.

 The Eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, chugged along for many more centuries. But the Roman progression—from republic to empire to ruin—has played an outsize role in tragic imagination about the United States. If a civilization could descend from Cicero and Cato to Caligula and Nero in scarcely a century, how long could the brave experiment launched by Madison, Jefferson, and company hope to endure?

The era that began with Rome’s collapse—“late antiquity,” as scholars call it—holds a hazier place in America’s imagination and makes only rare cameo appearances in speeches or essays about the national prospect. Before, we have the familiar characters in togas; sometime after, knights in armor. But in between? And specifically: How did the diverse terrain that had been the Roman empire in the West respond when central authority gave way? When the last emperor was gone, how did that register in Hispania and Gaul? How did people manage without the imperial system that had built roads and aqueducts, and brought its laws and language to so much of the world?

It turns out, Fallows tells us, people actually did quite well.  The breakup of Rome’s empire gave birth to what became modern countries, and generated a good deal of what we now consider modern and valuable in contemporary culture–from new artistic and literary forms to self-governing civic associations.

A recent book, Escape from Rome, argues that removal of centralized control ushered in “a sustained era of creativity at the duchy-by-duchy and monastery-by-monastery level” and eventually led to broad cultural advancement and prosperity.

Here is where Fallows’ trips around the country provide him with a degree of optimism. He acknowledges that our federal government is broken, paralyzed by partisanship and unable to accomplish much of anything. But he points out that our counterparts to the post-Rome duchies and monasteries—our state and local governments—are still mainly functional.

You need to click through and read his whole analysis, but because I’m reluctant to see the Decline and Fall thesis tested,  I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

Five years ago, after writing about a “can do” attitude in local governments in Maine and South Carolina, I got an email from a mayor in the Midwest. He said that he thought the underreported story of the moment was how people frustrated with national-level politics were shifting their enthusiasm and their careers to the state and local levels, where they could make a difference. (That mayor’s name was Pete Buttigieg, then in his first term in South Bend, Indiana.) When I spoke with him at the time, he suggested the situation was like people fleeing the world of Veep—bleak humor on top of genuine bleakness—for a non-preposterous version of Parks and Recreation.

Fallows quotes a former member of the George W. Bush administration for the proposition that national-level politics has become an exercise in cultural signaling—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on”—rather than about actual governance.

Meanwhile, the modern reserves of American practical-mindedness are mainly at the local level, “where people have no choice but to solve problems week by week.”

If we are going to make one more effort to fix our national government, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping to emulate the duchies left after Rome collapsed, maybe we should elect someone like Mayor Pete, who has a track record of problem solving and who has demonstrated a commitment to–and talent for– actual governance.

It’s a long shot, I know–but a girl can hope…..


  1. I can only think that Indiana’s local government has to be doing something, because our gerrymandered State government is, when doing anything, mainly doing it wrong.
    I too am hoping for an election that moves Mayor Pete to DC – ah! – to again have someone with integrity and the ability to form a complete coherent sentence in our White House!

  2. “It’s time to think about the Roman empire again. But not the part of its history that usually commands attention in the United States: the long, sad path of Decline and Fall. It’s what happened later that deserves our curiosity.”

    What has held my curiosity since the infestation of Trump is regarding his repeal of so many regulations in all areas of government; who has disregarded the repeal and continued following protective legislation…if they did so prior to Trump? The EPA regulations to protect the environment and our lives remains uppermost in my mind. His repeal of regulations did not include replacement with laws ordering the former regulations be no longer followed. Interesting information on Cosmos from Rolf Schmidt, palaeontologist at at the Melbourne Museum; “There have been 5 major extinctions on earth, biologists suspect we are living through the 6th, seen when species go missing. Most had something to do with rapid climate change.” Not only do the Republicans disbelieve climate change; they want creationism to be taught as a science. What will be left of our public education system IF or when the current administration has “fallen”?

    Locally; we have the very active Ten Point Coalition working to abate crime in high crime areas of our city, they are joined by Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett and specific officers in IMPD. What happens if Merritt is elected this November regarding the work being done in those areas. Of course the morning shooting report on local news appears to show that the crime rate has simply spread into pocket areas of crime, including downtown Indianapolis, rather than predominantly in specific areas. My own granddaughter was shot this past Friday night; becoming one of the Indianapolis morning shooting report statistics. What will happen here if our small hold on government in the Mayor’s Office has “fallen” into Republican hands again?

    “… we may be experiencing a decline much like that of the Roman Empire, we should take heart from the fact that Rome’s various parts didn’t do all that badly in the aftermath.”

    Our cities and states are part and parcel of our “various parts”; Rome could not have fallen without the smaller factions of the Empire hanging on to what amounted to democracy in that era. So; I am back to pushing the importance of the local and state elections in 2019 November before getting to the 2020 election…as of today, we are not sure of who will be the nominee in either party.

  3. Or…….We could elect someone like Elizabeth Warren.

    She has shown that she is willing to fight the Corporate thieves, Wall Street thieves and Big Bank thieves in order to protect the average hard working citizens who go to work every day while those thieves lobby Congress to get permission granted for new ways to steal from honest citizens.

    She has proven many times over that she has no fear of those deep pocketed gangsters and I imagine her election as our next President is their worst fear. She would prioritize going after them and their ill-gotten gains.

  4. These observations by Fallows are certainly interesting. Over a long period of time they may well prove to be the course this country takes. But what happens if the “Nero” in charge is not only out to destroy the existing federal government, but he is trying to cement into place a new kind of dictatorship packaged as a world alliance of dictators? Take for instance the ongoing legal battle between Trump and the State of California over environmental rules.
    As the earth chokes on pollution, Trump tweets.

  5. The problem with the analogy with Rome is that its empire fell because of invasion from outside, whereas ours is crumbling due to internal rot. And the ultimate cause of the rot is the local governments – the states. They send to Washington men and a few women who seem to have little regard for running the system set up by the Founders. They are interested only in being reelected, and that means they have to cater to the vested interests which find the existing regulatory structure intended to protect the public, burdensome. Regardless of what individual states do in their own bailiwicks, if they keep sending egomaniacs to Washington, they will not be able to overcome the rapaciousness of industrial operators who want to plunder everything.

  6. “It’s a long shot, I know–but a girl can hope…..”

    I’m afraid we’re much more affected by the history of Nazi Germany than the Roman Empire.

  7. The principal way in which we are affected by history seems to be in our continuing inability to learn from it. And please remember that it won’t do anyone any good to put either Warren or Buttigieg, or any other democrat in office without also turning the Senate blue. Only unified government can turn this ship of state around.

  8. If you added the fall of the U.K. and U.S.A from the world’s stage, it would be more appropo to compare to the Roman empire. Both countries are intentionally withdrawing from the stage instead of watching it burn down.

    As for the “weekly problem-solving,” I think he meant survival or maintaining. This goes back to the Urban vs. Rural analysis we touched on last week — Red states vs. Blue states. Too many Americans are in survival mode to care about regional or national matters.

    What’s interesting is the Mafia took many of its ideas from how the Roman Empire was structured. With the corruption in the statehouses and national body politic, we’ve replicated that structure in the USA — Oligarchy rule. La Familia. Same thing.

    It also doesn’t help when the Commander in Chief threatens a Civil War if his criminality and corruption cause his demise. It doesn’t sound like he is even striving for unity. 😉

  9. Peggy,

    “Only unified government can turn this ship of state around.”

    That’s the only answer. There is no other alternative to saving this SINKING ship of state. However, unification, at his point in time in our nation’s history, can only be accomplished through other means than partisan politics.

  10. Peggy; THANK YOU for joining me in reminding people how vital this 2019 November election is to our survival as a united nation.

  11. Todd,

    “With the corruption in the statehouses and national body politic, we’ve replicated that structure in the USA — Oligarchy rule. La Familia. Same thing.”

    Nothing can change without neutralizing the “deviant elite,” since Donald Trump has obtained his power from “hijacking” their movement, which was created out of the mentality of the old RACIST southern oligarchy. See “The Southern Oligarchy” by William H. Skaggs (The Devin-Adair Company, New York, 1924).

  12. It’s much more complicated than any of this, and yet as simple. Rome was gutting itself for centuries. I finally couldn’t afford to pay its far-flung terrorist armies and the invaders basically walked into Rome and took their seats.

    There is no mention here of Milton Friedman’s cult in the University of Chicago social studies/economics department that spread ultra-right wing ideology around the world. Chile, Argentina and Uruguay were doing very well before the CIA decided they were too left-leaning and replaced the duly elected governments with right-wing dilators who embraced the Chicago boys. Only a few got very wealthy and the societies of those countries cratered. Our Ronald Reagan, of course, though trickle down economics was great and damned near shattered our society as well.

    Sadly, it’s about the money. Always the money. The rich always want more than their fair share and the poor just want to eat and sleep in a dry place. Who bridges that gap?

  13. Thanks again for another well informative read and YES, we need to make Mayor Pete our next President……….

  14. Rome was in decline and it was rapid near the end (after Constantine’s adoption of Christianity for the empire) irrespective of the “barbarians at the gate.” Indeed at the end there was a question of who were the barbarians, Rome or the tribal alignments, who some historians write were more Christian than post-Second Council 381 A.D. Rome (assuming adoption of Christianity or any other religion to be a measure of relative barbarism based on their records before and since – perhaps a stretch).

    I think Fallows’s observations interesting but do not think we are necessarily following the Roman example in that there are other ways the destruction of federalism could wind up. Take pre-1870 Germany, for instance, before the consolidation of the German states, which (other than an earlier 100 Years War and a later Kaiser and a bout with fascism) was an administrative success. I still hold out hope that a federalism that will work with a fair distribution of power as constitutionally allotted can work if we elect men and women of good will who are more interested in governing than fighting for the sake of fighting under cover of pretended policy choices, recognizing that hope alone won’t bring us to such a political nirvana.

    Fallows is right to put down the present system in which politicians are more interested in “winning” and exercising power than governing. Thus Republicans are not our enemies; it’s what they do and don’t do and what they favor and don’t favor in policy terms that bring us to the fray, The current corruption at the federal level and the cretin in charge are, I (again) hope, are exceptions to my generalized view of the current federal-state impasse and that they, too, will pass (with our unrelenting help).

    Fallows and Pete are right in their joint observation that Parks and Recreation, zoning and the like are before our eyes and directly affect us every day; trade policies are not, but we are necessarily involved in both in this day and age and must somehow look to good government to fairly and honestly represent all of our interests in dealing with these and other issues. How? We can start with electing those who will fairly and honestly represent the interests of all of us at all levels – federal, state, county, township etc. No dictators need apply.

  15. Sheila,
    Thanks for the link to Fallows article. His thoughts on individual creativity in times of governmental decay create a new way of looking at our government’s evolution.

  16. I have no idea what “history books” Mr. Fallows read – He could not be more wrong. The Roman Empire in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries C.E. were period of constant wars at various points with invaders. There were also a series of Roman Emperors who were killed in battle or were assassinated.

    This transition from empire to the break up and it’s aftermath in the West was not peaceful by any means. Wars among the invaders began almost immediately. Odoacer deposed the last Roman Emperor in the West. Odoacer was invited to a banquet of reconciliation by Theoderic the Great and there had Odoacer killed.

    More wars followed throughout the centuries in Western Europe.

  17. The Army’s of Rome were mostly private armies, (Kind of like what Donald Trump wanted to do with Blackwater i.e. Eric Prince). When the political infighting reached its zenith, the Roman state turned to surrogate armies and soldiers of fortune. Rome could not continue to pay the surrogate armies, so they came into Rome and took their payment.

    If Rome had not been fighting amongst themselves politically for power and prestige, it would’ve remained an almost undefeatable power. Rome absolutely rotted from the inside, the Grecian Empire rotted from the inside, as a matter fact, if you really study history, most of the great world powers were destroyed from the rotting of civil society, which made them vulnerable to outside influences and powers.

    Mankind never learns its lesson from history, they continue to make the same mistake over and over, basically trying to reinvent the wheel. And then, you have the corruption aspect which is just as old as humanity. Corruption destroys governments and corruption destroys then uses religion. When the next generation of grifters figures out how to manipulate the population through government control or religious control, the downfall of that society is sealed!

    Now you can see why, this administration, and especially this president, could not be removed due to some sort of psychological or physical malady, i.e. the 25th amendment. It could not happen with this administration, because the cabinet members are just as corrupt or more so than their leader who sits in the Oval Office.

    This brings about another issue that was discussed a few articles back, if this president does not want to leave office, who is going to make him? He obviously has the support of quite a few in his administration, will the law enforcement obey his orders or obey the rule of law? My confidence does not rally around the latter!

    All good points Todd, Vernon, Marv!

  18. Here is my interpretation of President Buttigieg’s first crack at bringing giant corporations to heel:

    Buttigieg: “Honestly, I see tons of evidence that point to massive investigations of corporate activity by many of you seated here. I’m just saying it shouldn’t be ordered up by the President. And it won’t. The less anti-trust and regulation enforcement has to do with politics the better. Our enforcement departments should think for themselves, and if they are too weak to enforce rules, you can be assured that my highest concern will be to insure there is no contention, no friction, no clash of interests, no conflict, and that business will continue as usual.”

    Which is why it is important to nominate and elect a president with more guts and more fight than Mayor Pete has ever exhibited or promised. It is useless to elect a multi-lingual democrat to the presidency if in all umpteen of his languages he only expresses cool (and gentlemanly polite) ways of caving in to the bad guys. Even if he can play the piano…while Shell and Monsanto and J.P. Morgan and Boeing and Springfield and the NRA take over the country.

    Note: Females across the nation are dancing in the streets, positively giddy that our new president completed an entire paragraph without using one swear word.

  19. The fall of empires almost always mean their replacement with autocratic governance of many descriptions; duchy, lord, war lord, aristocrats, royalty, anarchistic pockets where the strongest and most powerful were ruthless in their forced acquisition of wealth. Using whatever claim to power they can finance through force or through enabling ambitious sociopaths, the end results gravitate to autocratic rule. With Citizens United, the war was lost and the oligarchs and plutocrats rose to absolute control.
    The call to arms tweeted out yesterday was treasonous. Those who answer that call are traitors not patriots. They are also domestic terrorists, not freedom fighters. Putting them in control is an illusion on their part. Like bulls in china shops, they do nothing but destroy, themselves and those they force to conformity. What is left is the spoils to be gathered by the most powerful who are able to buy the loyalty and labor of those who are followers or just trying to survive.

    The legal definition of domestic terrorism:

  20. Pete Buttigieg, he should have ran for Governor of Indiana to determine if he has what it takes to go on to higher office. We need more than a feel good candidate to challenge President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence.

    Warren or Sanders have long history of Progressive Politics and a willingness to stand – up.

  21. While learning from history does offer some insight into how humans behave collectively there are many pitfalls in assuming that what was will become what is and eventually what was again.

    We have never been before at or past a sustainable human population. We never have been before even remotely close to having sufficient numbers and technology to change the climate that we built our civilization adapted to. We have never had the option before of destroying everything that was life’s good fortune to have on planet earth that created the Goldilocks conditions that created life.

    All the diversity of place that allowed survival through a few existential crises created human diversity over time has been reduced to a collision of everyone everywhere.

    The political fall of the English speaking world is only one precedent for the fall of life. That’s why we owe both us and everyone the end to our fall next year before it spreads around the world.

    It’s no longer just about us.

  22. And then there’s Elizabeth Warren. She, too, has a track record of problem solving [remember what brought her to national prominence in the first place? The agency she created from scratch in the wake of the Great Recession, the Consumer Protection Bureau.] You know the Republican senators are kicking themselves for refusing to confirm her as its head after she built it. But no — she was the person President Obama wanted so her nomination was dead before it hit the Senate floor. So she became a senator and has been a thorn in their sides ever since. Because — nevertheless, she persists.

    And she, like Mayor Pete, knows how to govern. Furthermore, she got her chops at the national level which, I’m guessing, might help her navigate the system more effectively, early in her term, than someone whose experience is at the city level. And, let’s face it, whoever wins the election, will need to hit the ground running if they’re to clean up the mess before it engulfs us all.

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