Are we Rome?

Among my potpourri of personal disciplines is the discipline of not recycling comments. By that I mean resisting the temptation of taking something I’ve written as a comment on someone else’s blog post and promoting it to a blog post of my own. I like reminding myself that I’m responding to someone else, not simply using them as a jumping off point for my own thoughts. And I like reminding myself that my writing is pretty disposable—my own readers will not suffer if they miss out on something because I didn’t post it here.

On the other hand … I use my blog (and my email) as a personal database, a collection of thoughts that I will often mine for my own purposes, and because of that I will sometimes write things down in a blog post just so I can find them later. And there are times when I go searching through blogs I read for a comment I made which is now relevant, and end up frustrated when I can’t find it. So there is some value in having all my writing available in one place—but only to me.

Here’s a comment I’m promoting to a blog post for that reason. A friend posted a link to this article (PDF) which spends some time drawing parallels between the arcs of the Roman empire and modern life. Now, it’s not original to draw the comparison, but the article is valuable because the writer gets down to specifics, and they are intriguing. And he draws the parallels from a helpful perspective:

The paramount lesson of the Roman experience is actually not peculiar to Rome. It may be, in fact, the most universal lesson of all history: No people who have lost their character have kept their liberties

Character? The character of a people? Okay, I’m interested.

As always, I encourage you to read the article before my commentary, so you can make up your own mind. It turns out that I agree with the writer that the greatness of Rome depended on the character of its people, but we disagree about what constituted its greatness and what engendered its loss.

Some numbers to keep in mind:

The history of ancient Rome spans a thousand years—roughly 500 as a republic and 500 as an imperial autocracy, with the birth of Christ occurring during the transitional years in between.

Roman society at the time of the Republic’s founding was basically agricultural, made up of small farmers and shepherds. By the second century B.C., large-scale businesses made their appearance. Italy became urbanized. Immigration accelerated as people from many lands were attracted by the vibrant growth and opportunities the bustling Roman economy offered.

That is, Rome started as an agrarian culture, and over the course of 300 years became something else, an urban, merchant-driven economy. 200 years later the imperial autocracy replaced the republic, and 500 years after that the whole enterprise collapsed.

The writer considers the urban phase of the republic to be the peak of Rome’s greatness.

The growing prosperity was made possible by a general climate of free enterprise, limited government, and respect for private property. Merchants and businessmen were admired and emulated. […]  Rome’s remarkable achievements in sanitation, education, banking, architecture, and commerce are legendary. The city even had a stock market. With low taxes and tariffs, free trade and considerable private property, Rome became the center of the world’s wealth.

And he is straightforward in placing the blame

All this disappeared, however, by the fifth century A.D.; when it was gone, the world was plunged into darkness and despair, slavery and poverty.

Why did Rome decline and fall? Rome collapsed because of a fundamental change in ideas on the part of the Roman people—ideas which relate primarily to personal responsibility and the source of personal income. In the early days of greatness, Romans regarded themselves as their chief source of income. By that I mean each individual looked to himself—what he could acquire voluntarily in the marketplace—as the source of his livelihood. Rome’s decline began when the people discovered another source of income: the political process—the State. In short, it was a character issue.

I don’t disagree that it was a character issue. But I disagree that the urban merchant-based economy was a full flowering of the Roman character—it could just as easily mark the introduction of the critical corrupting factor, namely a shift from self-reliance to other-reliance, from simple living to complex living, from subsistence farming to cash cropping.

I also agree with the writer that there was a critical shift in thinking that took the Romans from republic to autocracy, namely looking to the political process for their living and their security. But I think that became inevitable following the earlier, more fundamental shift in thinking about the source of living and security. Only in an agrarian society can one look primarily to oneself for those things. Urban existence by its very nature requires us to outsource them. And once you’ve accepted the possibility of outsourcing them, it makes little difference to the average person whether they’re outsourced to a market economy or a political enterprise. The important thing is that someone else is now responsible for those things, not you. You just need to show up when and where they tell you to, and do whatever they tell you to do.

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