Defining political systems in the modern era has become a tricky endeavor. The difference between a “liberal democracy” and an authoritarian state in everything but name has shown itself to be rather tenuous. Though today’s citizens in Western countries tend to view certain democratic norms (such as free elections, religious plurality, and legal apparatuses that generally uphold the basic rule of law) as a forgone conclusion, the line separating an open society from tyranny is more fluid than we would probably care to believe.
Blinded by Bias
This tendency to assume that open, democratic political institutions will always be a rock-solid feature of the world order also relies on a number of biases and fallacies held by many otherwise well-informed people today. Chief among these logical fallacies are the availability heuristic, normalcy bias, and something called the Semmelweis reflex.
The availability heuristic crops up when recent or intense memories unduly inform our expectations about the likelihood of future events. For instance, considering that most everyone alive in the U.S. today has only known or experienced an American-led post-WWII world order, we tend to overestimate the permanency of this circumstance.
Normalcy bias occurs when an impending catastrophe or change is vastly underestimated and even dismissed out of hand simply because it doesn’t normally happen, or hasn’t happened before. (Does the entire 2016 news cycle come to mind?) This phenomenon is most dramatically demonstrated by the fact that people residing closest to the site of natural disasters are frequently (and counter-intuitively) the least prepared and most in denial about the seriousness of the situation precisely because they cannot fathom it actually happening.
Finally, the Semmelweis effect or “reflex” is the tendency for people to cling to prevailing paradigms or norms and reflexively reject new information that contradicts that view, no matter how convincing, well-reasoned, or backed by evidence the new idea may be.
The logical errors underlying the fallacies above (regarding the possibility of the empire’s decline) say something about how the culture of Rome’s elite had grown blind to the order’s own increasingly obvious weaknesses. From the Late Republic through the rise of the Roman Empire, the political class blissfully ignored the deleterious effects of its agenda and lifestyle on the state and its growing pool of imperial subjects. (Think: mounting debt, bureaucratic overreach, worsening economic inequality, and too many geopolitical entanglements in the contemporary U.S.) Overconfidence and complacency by leaders, as well as a widening disparity between the agency of these state officials and the public, left the empire vulnerable from within as well as without.
These logical fallacies, and the overlap between them, ought to inform our understanding of the way the Roman and (in praxis) American Empires similarly sowed the seeds of their decline even as the empire ascended. In both cases, such false assumptions defined how Romans saw themselves, their government, and the world.¹ If indeed there is any explanatory power in the parallels between Ancient Rome and the United States, contemporary observers would be remiss not to learn the lessons that can be gleaned from centuries of rich historiography on the great empire’s downfall.
Wealth Gap Widens
There is little doubt that increasing inequality and wealth disparity played a role in creating the tensions that led to instability and civil war in Rome. The growing disparity between the wealthy and the average citizen became especially pronounced during the Roman Empire, when the population under its control reached its peak of 70 million (circa 150 CE). By this time, the city of Rome itself was home to more than a million inhabitants!
According to research conducted by a pair of historians, the distribution of wealth in Ancient Rome was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite—senators, equestrians, and other government officials. Not only did the upper crust of Roman society control a significant portion of the empire’s wealth, but it was a notion practically built into the system: in order to serve in the Senate, a personal wealth of at least 1 million sesterces was required. (One is reminded of the land ownership requirements for voting rights during the early American Republic.)
Meanwhile, most of the working classes had just enough money to feed themselves; discretionary income was virtually nonexistent. This makes the motto of the Roman Republic, SPQR (an abbreviation for the Latin phrase “Senatus Populus que Romanus,” meaning “the Senate and People of Rome”) a rather ironic invocation of the imperial order. The average citizen could hardly have related to the lifestyle and political power of a senator.
To put this in perspective, income inequality during the height of the Roman Empire was roughly comparable to contemporary America² (as measured by the Gini coefficient). In fact, the U.S. is slightly worse on this count than the Ancient Romans. Still, we don’t get the entire picture if we idealize the distant past of antiquity in this regard: estimates of GDP per capita during the Roman Empire places the average Roman citizen beneath today’s typical Congolese worker, the world’s poorest on average.
Nonetheless, the justification of wealth concentration is a common feature of both societies. A look at the taxpayer bailout of the financial system during the 2008 crisis reveals how little of this aid went to struggling homeowners; instead, trillions were used to line the pockets of the country’s biggest banks.
Civil War and Caesar
Similarly, both Rome and the U.S. came to rely upon a bloated bureaucratic class. This was not just to maintain the great productive and technological infrastructure of the ever-growing empire, but also reinforced the expanding gap between the power of the people versus the state. The concentration of money and power is perhaps first expressed in the aftermath of America’s Civil War in the person of our own Julius Caesar—16th president Abraham Lincoln.
While Lincoln is today celebrated for helping pass the 13th amendment that granted emancipation to slaves, his use of executive power during the war is sometimes overlooked. Lincoln was seen by some as a tyrant, oversaw unrest and a fracturing of national unity, and turned federal troops against Americans in an attempt to maintain order. This use of military force to coerce the population was clearly demonstrated by the imposition of martial law on the Southern states during the post-war Reconstruction period. However, like Caesar’s surprising clemency toward his vanquished adversaries, Lincoln wisely attempted to strike a conciliatory tone with the defeated Confederacy.
This extension of an olive branch—after such a bloody victory—couldn’t prevent the assassination of either man, however.
The actor and semi-celebrity John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln just days after General Lee surrendered to the Union, which effectively ended the war. This also followed Lincoln’s reelection as president, another blow to Booth’s vision of Southern redemption. Regardless of the myriad causes of the Civil War, one could hardly argue that its result was the concentration of more power into fewer hands, allowing for its more arbitrary exercise. It’s no coincidence that the acceleration of American imperialism truly began in the latter quarter of the 19th century.
Even in a dramatic sense, the connections between the U.S. and Ancient Rome were not lost on Americans of the time. When Booth assassinated President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, witnesses reported that he dramatically uttered “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” an abbreviated Latin phrase for “Thus always I bring death to tyrants.” (Some also reported hearing him add, “The South is avenged.”) The view of Lincoln, like Caesar, as a tyrant was not uncommon.
Even at the time, many Southerners saw (and spoke of) Booth as “our Brutus“—an allusion to one of the principal conspirators in Julius Caesar’s murder on “the Ides of March,” Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger.
The parallels between Lincoln and Caesar—each is celebrated by many, yet reviled by others—dovetail with the shifting political systems that followed a civil war in both cases.
It’s difficult not to see the growth of America’s international prestige following the Civil War as an important turning point for the republic. It signaled the beginning of a period marked by a progressive loss of political agency for the common people, the greater use of coercive force by the state, and polarization between the social classes.
With the gift of hindsight, we know all too well how this played out for Rome. What compelling evidence is there to support the belief that America won’t suffer the same fate?
- Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co. 2015.
- Tim De Chant, “Income Inequality in the Roman Empire.” Per Square Mile. 16 Dec 2011. <www.persquaremile.com>