This isn’t like the fall of the Roman Empire. It’s worse.

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by Fabius Maximus 

Summary: Many people ask if America is falling as did the late Roman Empire. The good news is no, we are not. The bad news is that the Republic is falling as the Roman Republic did in its last generation of life. Rome’s people grew weary of carrying the burden of self-government, extinguishing a light that took more than a thousand years to reignite. We walk the same path. But we can change course, if we act soon. This is a revised and expanded version of a post from 2016.

What can preserve our liberty? “I answer, the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and, above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America; a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it.”
— James Madison in #57 of The Federalist Papers.

SPQR - the symbol of the Roman Republic

The Senate & People of Rome.

The original Star Trek taught us that humanity was not meant for slavery (one reason it is so disliked today). In it we always rose up and fight for freedom. Unfortunately, history shows that rebellions against ruling elites are rare. Successful revolutions are still more so (as are even partial successes, such as France in 1789). Subjects in well-managed societies (e.g., tyrannies, oligarchies) usually wear their yokes comfortably.

Emperor Octavian.

Emperor Octavian.

Although democracies (i.e., self-government) are rare, they tend to degrade over a few generations, a bitter slide of people from citizens to subjects. The most famous example is the fall of the Roman Republic, a history familiar to our Founders. The Roman people grew weary of self-government, of carrying its burden of responsibility and self-discipline. SallustLivyCato the Younger, and others warned about the erosion of the character and morality of the Roman people. As a result, Rome experience broad institutional breakdown.

But the state must be ruled. Sheep attract wolves. Civil wars determined who would place the bridle on Rome’s people. Christian Meier’s Caesar: A Biography vividly tells the story of the Republic’s last days (I strongly recommend it). Humanity has produced few people greater than Caesar – wise, brave, a charismatic leader. But he failed to establish a new regime during his five years ruling Rome. As so often happens, the chaos created by decay and reform consumed the first wave of reformers.

His successor, Octavian, logically decided that if Caesar could not restore the Republic – he could not do so, and build an Empire on its ashes. The people of Rome had extraordinary good fortune: two great leaders arose to replace the Republic. They avoided both the usual result of regime collapse – catastrophe – and the alternative arrival of a charismatic leader from Hell (as the Germans got after WWI and the Great Depression washed away the foundations of their society).


The Founders built America on lessons learned from Rome’s history. America might suffer the same fate if we forget their insights. I fear we are following Rome’s path to ruin.

The Roman Republic falls, again

Their Republic lasted almost five centuries (509 BC–27 BC), followed by five centuries of Empire (in most respects, a period of decline for the people of Rome). The story of Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire is well known. Seldom mentions is how its people retained their self-respect.

First, they pretended nothing had changed by retaining the outward forms of the Republic. The Senate still met, Rome’s laws still remained in force. “SPQR” (Senātus Populusque Rōmānus: the Senate and People of Rome) still appeared on coins, on public documents, on monuments and public works, and on the standards of the Roman legions. Avoiding mirrors, they marched into the future behind their tyrants.

Second, they hoped for a miracle that would restore the Republic. Better times are coming! A good emperor will come and restore Rome’s past glamour, or Rome’s people will rise up (as they had in the past). Dreams are cheap, albeit ineffective.

Third, they adopted philosophies of passivity and withdrawal – combinations of irony, detachment, and resignation. These became StoicismEpicureanism, and Hedonism. The religiously inclined adopted one of the mystery religions (Mithraism was popular in the Army), or something radically different like Judaism or Christianity.  (This insight stems from Hegel, developed by Nietzsche.)

The United States

“{Liberty} must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all, as intimated upon another occasion, must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights.”
— Alexander Hamilton in #84 of The Federalist Papers.

We’re following in Rome’s footsteps in many ways, and this adjustment as well. First, we’re ignoring the rapid erosion of the Constitution and the civil rights it provided. The Executive’s powers grow with each new generation. The Courts become their cheerleaders, treating the Constitution as a Scrabble set with which they can make new rules. Congress retreats into irrelevance, mugging for the cameras and playing ombudsmen for rich constituents.

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Second, instead of beginning the hard work of reform – organizing and educating our fellow-citizens, as done by previous reform movements – we dream of better days.  People hope for organizational solutions — magic organization charts (moving the pieces around changes them!) or a constitutional convention — without describing how these changes occur, or how they improve America without a change in its people.

Other Americans dream of revolution – the Great Day in the Future When We Rise and Smite Our Foes. This ignores the decade of mobilization that preceded successful revolutions, such as 1776 America or 1789 France. This also ignores commitment of those revolutionaries to freedom, no matter what the cost.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Rather than organizing and working for change, we fill our minds with modern amusements: porn, video games, TV, drugs, and info-tainment (giving the middle class a sense of being engagé).

Political Debate - Dreamstime_75395411

ID 75395411 © Skypixel | Dreamstime.


“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
— Attributed to Otto von Bismarck.

What comes next? I believe we approach something like a singularity in physics – a transition point beyond which we cannot see. Personally, I dislike Stoicism. I find it difficult to choose between Epicureanism and Hedonism as the best means to enjoy watching the US Republic fall.  Perhaps I’ll try both, and then choose one.  Followed eventually by a conversion to Christianity in my dotage or on my deathbed.

The Campaign 2016 and the circus that followed shows what happens when we treat politics as entertainment Rome’s fate reminds us of the eventual consequences. The machinery bequeathed us by the Founders remains idle but powerful, awaiting only our energy to set it in motion. Lawrence of Arabia tells us that “nothing is written” (in the 1962 film). We can still forge a different fate for us than that of Rome. But the clock is running and the hour is late.

For a another perspective, see A new, dark picture of America’s future.




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