Former Wright State University professor, Dr. Janice J. Gabbert wrote of the classical world in “A Compendium of Ancient and Medieval History.”
She began the tale following “the death of the last of the Five Good Emperors,” Marcus Arelius, a name best known in our era as a character in the film Gladiator. Of course, by this point, the Roman Republic had already gone by the wayside, having given way to dictators, or Caesars (a course with some relevance to modern America). Where Gladiator was historically accurate was with Marcus’s son, Commodus, who did, indeed, succeed him as Caesar.
The reign of Commodus began a series—often in rapid succession—of faulty rulers who made fatal policy errors that led to the split of the Roman Empire. Understanding that the comparisons are not perfect, one can still note some similarities to the policies of the last Caesars/Emperors and those in recent US history.
For instance, the Caesars provided “free grain and oil to the unemployed and underemployed persons of Rome.” Over the past four years-plus, the federal government has paid and fed an abnormally high number of unemployed and underemployed Americans. While there is great compassion behind social welfare policies, there is also the great danger of moral hazard if the benefits are too generous or extended for too long. The argument goes that if one subsidizes joblessness, one gets more joblessness.
Septimius Severus began an uncommon practice: “the debasement of the coinage.” What he did was literally cut notches out of Roman coins and mint new coins in order to inject more money into the Roman economy. This had a predictable result: “A consequent rise in price,” or inflation. The Federal Reserve’s loose money policy has slowly but surely resulted in creeping inflation, which has already resulted in rising prices, or more money chasing the same number of goods.
Late in the Empire, the diversion of Roman economic resources led to neglect of the military. In turn, this invited foreign invasions, for which Roman military forces were ill-equipped. When invasion did occur, cities “used all of their resources in the construction of city walls, and allowed other public works to decay.” While the US military is in no way short on funds these days, defense cuts will most likely be a significant part of any effort to balance the federal budget, much as they were in the mid-1990s. Moreover, while the United States is a long way from this condition, it is visible in Europe already. Columnist Mark Steyn has said in the past that “Belgium can be Belgium because America is America”—by which he means European countries are able to maintain small armies and focus resources on their welfare states because of the US security blanket.
As the Empire concluded, Rome experienced a major cultural shift as Christianity gained tolerance, then prominence. At the time, Christianity provided answers in difficult times. Gabbert put it this way: “As life on earth got more and more difficult, a belief and a hope for something better after death became more important.” Today, the United States is arguably undergoing a broad cultural shift away from values that predominated during the height of its power.
Lastly, Gabbert wrote that Emperors Diocletian and Constantine preserved the empire but at great cost. They had “restored order,” but “the price of order was freedom. Economic security was bought: the price was prosperity.” In the last election, the American people appear to have opted for more economic security in exchange some liberty. Higher taxes reduce one’s economic liberty, but they go to fund the economic security of others. The health care law forces everyone to buy a health care policy or face a fine.
Again, these parallels are imperfect, but they can be instructive. The Roman Empire and the United States are drastically different entities; however, they are similar in many ways. Hopefully current US policy does not lead to a similar decline.