Many who argue that America is in decline like to point to a perceived parallel with the decline of Rome, where citizens went from ruling the world to surviving by eating mouse dung and weeds in the streets.
They are pointing to the wrong flaw, and if their lesson is heeded, America will indeed be in trouble.
The alleged script goes like this: After a series of remarkable conquests, when Rome ruled the world, it came to rely on ‘foreign’ armies for its power. These armies killed Rome.
Only it didn’t. It didn’t fall at all. And that is the more serious comparison with America. The Western Roman Empire declined gently into insignificance. It did not fall; it faded.
The Huns were horse warriors of central Asia; an early version of the fearsome Mongol tribes. They learned horsemanship at age three when their faces were cut with a sword to teach them to endure pain. To create a fearsome appearance they put binders on their children’s heads, which gradually deformed their skulls and gave them a menacing look. They swept into Europe and crushed the Germanic tribes, the Goths, by 400 AD.
By 451, they had an immense army gathered on the plains of France at Chalons, east of Paris, facing the Romans. The Visigoths, or Western Goths, were allied with the Romans under their general Aetius. Three invincible armies, churning up the dust. It was Game of Thrones, Master Class.
The battle raged all day and into the night. The Huns were driven back by the wings of the Roman army, with the Visigoths in pursuit. King Theodoric I of the Visigoths was slain, but instead of disheartening the Visigoths, it infuriated them. Before the enraged Visigoths could overrun Attila he managed to reach his baggage train and used the wagons to save himself. It was the bloodiest battle of the ancient world. Attila later died in northern Italy, of a nosebleed. How the mighty fall.
Rome did not fall by conquest. It was instead sacked ten years later by Rome’s allies the Visigoths under king Alaric, who was infuriated by a failed Roman assassination attempt.
Emperor after emperor scrambled to gather the reins of power. In 476 AD, Visigoth commander Odoacer forced the teenaged Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustus to resign his office. After that, the Visigoths rekindled the glory of Rome: “The Senate continued to meet just as it had for nearly a millennium. Latin remained the language of administration. Roman law governed the land. Roman armies continued to fight and win victories on the frontiers. And Roman emperors appeared on the coins that Odoacer minted.” (Edward Watts).
So why does everyone think that Rome fell in 476?
Because of a propaganda campaign launched by the Eastern Roman Empire!
The fabrication was woven in Constantinople by Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, to give him an excuse to attack Italy. This he did in 535, and his troops entered Rome in 536.
He struggled to keep his possession. Italian wars did not conclude until 562 after the Goths had recaptured Rome four times. It was in one of these sieges that residents of the city survived by eating weeds and mice. It is estimated that Rome’s population fell from perhaps 500,000 in the mid-5th century — the largest city in the world — to as little as 25,000 in the 560s.
Rome did not fall. It faded under the pressure of a propaganda campaign. From within, in a sense.
The Eastern Roman Empire was every bit as Roman as the West. It came to be called “Byzantine” by modern scholars, but that concept would have been foreign to the citizens of Constantinople. They were Roman.
The propaganda campaign launched by one Roman against another justified a war that killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed the prosperity that had once unified the continent of Europe.
It is notable that the Eastern Roman Empire itself did not fall until 1453, shortly before Columbus discovered America in 1492. If you count the Viking discovery of America in 1021, the Roman Empire still thrived for 500 years after America was discovered. In a sense, the Roman world extended into our own time. In its extent and impact, it has been the most amazing and successful empire the world has ever known.
But it extinguished the better part of itself when it lied to conquer…when political goals subverted the truth. If media are driven by profit, for example, are they likely to tell the truth? Or to tell an enriching lie.
Today the nations with media that have well-funded public broadcasters — Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Germany, UK, Uruguay — are very strong democracies. The U.S. has CPB, PBS and NPR, but their public audience share is only 2%, and the degree of funding granted is tiny. If you want to survive, you need to agree that well-funded and institutionally secure public media can enhance public engagement with political processes, as a crucial dimension of any “virtuous circle” relationship between public media and their democracies.
Rome stopped being a nation the moment its elements turned upon themselves. And this is the real lesson for America: You are not likely to perish from outside enemies, but from your own politicians spinning a story for momentary gain.
If you can hold onto the larger version of America, there is no reason why you should not surpass that Roman record.
You have landed on the Moon; you have enriched the world. Keep thinking big, and your systems will unite the planet yet.
Instead, you let a person become so rich that he was able to propose to buy an entire social media outlet. I refer to the Elon Musk/Twitter affair. The barbarians are not just at the gate, you paid for them to come inside.
Something serious has to change in America.