I remember my high school Latin teacher, Miss Fillmore, enthusing over the glories of ancient Rome.
Let’s visit a later century, however: the Roman Empire of 370 AD, when the final step was taken to divide it into West (Rome as capital) and East (Constantinople). The extent of empire hadn’t changed much since the heady days of Augustus, nearly four centuries before. Rome had survived civil wars and repelled barbarian invasions. There had been many emperors, some good, many dissolute, nothing new.
But the odor of decay was in the air. Art and literature were in decline since the heroic ages of Cicero, Virgil, Julius Caesar and the great architects and builders of centuries before. The borders of the empire were porous to settlement by barbarians and the legions themselves contained many whose loyalties could not be counted upon. Many young Romans resorted to maiming themselves rather than to serve in the armies. Taxes were burdensome and kept increasing. The currency had been debased to the point where coins, previously of nearly pure silver and gold, were of cheaper metals. But life went on, as it always had.
Within just a few decades, the Empire of the West fell apart. The barbarians conquered province after province and soon Rome itself was sacked by the Goths (410) and later vandalized by the Vandals (455). The last emperor of the West, Romulus Augustulus, a pathetic puppet, was deposed by the victorious Odoacer, King of the Huns, in the year 476.
Empires come and empires go, as they have throughout all human history, but there was something special about the empire of Rome and its precursor, classical Greece, which the Romans admired and copied. Their arts and letters and Roman engineering were unsurpassed for a thousand years and their legacy remains with us today.
The pace of the decline and fall of nations may be accelerating, if you think about it. Those at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897) would have been astounded if they knew that the British Empire, on which “the sun never sets,” would disappear within the span of a human lifetime. Britain, exhausted and bankrupt after two world wars and further drained by the added burden of its welfare state, simply gave up its role as a leader among nations. It’s not a prosperous country today.
And let’s not forget the disintegration of the late Soviet empire after only 70 years.
Is the U.S. special? Surely we are. Our constitution, with its separation of governmental powers and its many provisions for the protection of the individual from arbitrary powers of the state, is special. So is its division of responsibilities between the federal government and the states. As a great world power we have acted, wisely or unwisely but certainly with benign intent, and the fact that much of the world today is free, and not part of a German, Japanese or Soviet empire is much to our credit. We have fostered free trade, a united Europe and democracy throughout the world.
There is now, again, a whiff of decay in the air. It’s amazing to realize that our country has gone from the greatest creditor nation to the world’s greatest debtor within a brief 30 years. And the amount of our debt is staggering, almost beyond comprehension. The dollar’s purchasing power is shrinking rapidly as the printing presses roll.
There’s a growing epidemic of illicit drugs and related crime, and always we have “undocumented” immigration with few in government willing to do much about it. Angry crowds of “Occupiers” protest “the rich” and just about everything, and their maundering complaints appear to call for more government intervention, as if that has fixed anything lately.
Ugly levels of unemployment persist. The institution of family continues in decline. And then, of course, there are the barbarians. Who can forget 9/11 and the other attacks in the name of a religion perverted?
Decline comes before a fall. Can this downward slide and a new Dark Age be avoided? Edward Gibbon, in his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” opines that when a nation ceases to grow morally and spiritually it begins to die. If fall is not to be our fate we have much to address, which must include some serious fiscal discipline. If we don’t choose wisely we shall also fail, just like all the others.
The elections of 2012 will reveal our choice.
Alan Boone is a retired physician who lives in Bangor.