|"The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!|
|Where burning Sappho loved and sung,|
|Where grew the arts of war and peace,|
|Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!|
|Eternal summer gilds them yet,|
|But all, except their sun, has set."|
|— George Gordon, Lord Byron, "Don Juan"|
I sometimes wonder what they will write about us 2,000 years hence, the historians and poets (the best of whom, then as now, will be a bit of both) who chronicle the decline and fall of America.
Will they say it was simply the “organic nature” of empire, that if it does not grow it must rot, that doomed America, as it did ancient Greece and other long-vanished civilizations? Will they blame instead a succession of incompetent presidents/dictators/emperors? The accumulation of ruinous public debt? The collapse of civic virtue? The championing of “diversity”and its concomitant failure to assimilate immigrants and other new Americans into the body politic? The mis-education of our children? The coarsening of the culture, evidenced by our music, our architecture, our film and television wastelands? The shocking moral depravity of abortion that led to the murder, in uterus, of so many million hapless “fetuses”?
Oh, they will find a lot to write about, these historians and poets. And if they are wise as well as poetic, they will recognize in the failure of the great American experiment the seeds of their own society's disintegration.
Does it have to be, this much feared decline and fall of America? Rome, that longest-lived ancient empire, survived for more than 2,000 years from the founding of the city Rome to the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the eastern empire. America is only in its third century.
Rome lived on despite the excesses of its 12 Caesars, several of whom almost certainly were insane as well as despotic. Caligula famously made his horse a member of the Roman Senate. Perhaps that's not as outrageous today as it might seem. We sometimes elect to our Senate those who, in office, certainly act like the nether part of a noble equine. That should give us pause when we feel moved to disparage our current administration's appointees to head important government departments. But then again, maybe not.
Rome was not immune nor are we to the hubris that leads to foreign wars where national interest is not at stake. Yet military failure in what is now Germany and the Near and Middle East did not spell the end of the Roman empire until many hundreds of years later.
Perhaps the nearest parallel that can be drawn between America and ancient Rome is the cultural one. Rome had its public spectacles, gladiators butchering each other for the entertainment of cheering masses. Nero is said to have performed (but not as a gladiator) for the same masses. When he lay dying he is said to have cried out, “What an artist the world is losing!”
We have football and television. The former is a bit more civilized than what used to go on in Rome's Colosseum and other theaters in the empire. But the blood lust is often disturbingly the same. And I sometimes suspect that Nero's singing and acting was no more brain-rotting than much of what passes for entertainment today.
And then there's the obsession with sex. Roman orgies were notorious. What will historians say about ours? That our performers were more ... demure? Refined? Ah, the comedy of reproduction!
The great philosophers of the ancient world foresaw the end of the civilizations they were part of. Plato, in “The Republic,” relates a discussion he had with Socrates concerning democracy and tyranny: “Come now, my good friend,” said Socrates. “What is the character of tyranny? In respect of its origin, it is pretty clear that it comes from democracy ...”
Is it not also pretty clear that in our own age the greatest danger to democracy is the relentless growth of a dependent class that elects and re-elects those who promise to make them even more dependent on “government”? Rome had its bread and circuses. We have our 99-week unemployment insurance and Obamacare.
Does anyone really believe that government creates the wealth it distributes? It clearly does not. All it can do is redistribute wealth created by others. It does this either by taxation or, more subtly, by debasing the paper earnings of the working classes.
The Romans were unacquainted with paper currency. They were expert, though, at debasing the gold and silver coins that passed for currency in earlier times. They melted their coins down and recast them with more plentiful base metals (hence “debasement”).
In America we do not rely on metallurgists to cheapen our currency.
We just have the Federal Reserve print more.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.
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