Re-reading what I wrote about modern Rome -- seeing mostly decline, decadence, inefficiency, surliness and corruption -- maybe I am just an arrogant American, as my own country will be hard pressed to make nearly the long-term contribution to Western if not world civilization, to art, architecture, religion, government, and cuisine -- that Rome has done over the centuries. The Roman Empire lasted 500 years in Western Europe, and a thousand years in Asia Minor, dominating both continents, as well as the Middle East and northern Africa. The fall of the Western Roman Empire around 500 A.D. led to the Dark Ages in Europe, 800 years of cultural stagnation before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment began to form modern Western thought.
If the American Empire fell -- if it faced economic collapse and the "united" states like California, Texas, and Alaska seceded and declared their independence -- does anyone believe that would lead to another Dark Ages? Perhaps. With a global and interdependent economy, in ways we all rise or fall together. Or would countries like China and India easily step in to the vacuum left by America's economic collapse?
Certainly from the perspective of the early 21st century, America looks far more solid and unified than the Greco-Roman empire ever was. We don't have the long tribal history, the "Tower of Babel" split into hundreds of languages and cultures, and we've benefited, at least since the early 20th century, from mass communication. Our language -- English -- is dominant in the world of business, at least until and unless the Chinese become far bigger players.
America grew out of the Greco-Roman tradition, and has been influential on the world stage less than 250 years. Is there any chance that we will match the glory of Rome, or even of the Italian Renaissance, which lasted 300 years, longer than America has existed?
Since returning from our trip, we've started to watch the HBO series "Rome." The Roman emperors in this series don't seem too different from popular perceptions of Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and the Bushes, and our media celebrities not too different from Roman gods. In 2000 years, will there be a popular dramatic series called "America" that has as many episodes as "Rome"? Or will the story of America be seen as history repeating itself, Rome redux, only shorter? Who's to say that the decline, decadence, inefficiency, surliness and corruption that I observed in Rome won't be the fate of America in 25, 50, or 100 years?
The Roman Empire grew and maintained itself through military might, amassing wealth from its subjects and political dictatorship. My own view is that if America is to endure on the world stage, its power will not come from military might and amassing great wealth from client states, toppling governments and trying to impose democracy, in the process spending trillions, going deeply in debt and killing tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands as we did in Iraq. America's strength will come from the power of its ideas and ideals of equality, respect for diversity ("Out of many peoples, one people. From one people, many cultures that contribute to the whole"), individual freedom, economic opportunity, democracy, self-government, and self-determination.
I could be wrong, of course. If Iraq develops into a stable democracy in the Muslim world, a friend and ally of the United States and source of cheap oil, one of the lessons could be that hard power and military might of the kind practiced by the Roman Empire still works, and the squishy soft whiners who didn't want America to topple the despot Saddam, invade and occupy Iraq and remake it in our image lacked the kind of self-confidence that is necessary to maintain American wealth and empire.
Whatever positive influence America has in the world is based on democratic values and commitment to human rights. In order to continue that influence, we probably must develop more fiscal and spiritual discipline. Otherwise, we could go the way of the Roman Empire, as well as the Ottoman and British Empires. Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson wrote an intriguing piece for Newsweek: "How Great Powers Fall: Steep Debt, Slow Growth, and High Spending Kills Empires, and America May Be Next."
Previous Or Related:
- Vatican, Colliseum and Italian Wine Are Awesome, But Rome Is Really Expensive and Service Sector Seemed Surly, Inefficient »
- Our Tour of Ancient Roman City of Pompeii, buried by the Vesuvius volcano near Naples.
- Modern Rome from a Tourist's Perspective
- Discussion of Parallels Between Ancient Rome and Modern America
- Modern America and Ancient Rome
As the Romans Did Cullen Murphy, the author of Are We Rome?, talks about the American empire's parallels with the ancient republic and how we can learn from the caesars' mistakes.