What's Rome Got To Do With Us?

    It happened again today.  Some columnist and wisdom-giver on C-Span started comparing the U.S.A. to the Roman Empire.  The so-called logic says that Roman moral decay led to the disappearance of the Roman Empire, so the apparent moral decay of America will lead to our disappearance.   This comparison is usually followed by a smug "I-told-you-so" look on the part of the commentator, and today's commentator, a former Georgian no less, was no exception.  

     Well, I hate to rain on the Righteously Indignant, but I'm getting a little fed up with this line of reasoning, which seems to have been going on as long as I can remember.  My objection has to do with two basic issues: the comparison of an "empire" with a "republic" and the definition of "moral decay."

     First of all, the comparison of the Roman Empire with America is off the mark.  The Roman Empire was, as the name clearly states, an empire.   The Roman Republic  had been getting along fairly well until a group of conservative Romans decided that republicanism was leading to moral decay, so they relinquished power to a strong leader, producing an Empire ruled by totalitarian emperors which lasted for several centuries  until it succumbed to outside conquerors acting  just as ruthlessly to the Romans as the Romans had acted to them.

     Should U.S. republic care what happened to an Empire?  Shouldn't we care more about what has happened to past Republics? That may tell us more about the dangers facing us today.
     Not long after the U.S. Republic began, the French formed a republic.  The Republic quickly turned into an Empire, led by a totalitarian emperor, an aggressive military and a dominating culture.  When that happened, it's days were numbered.

     The British also had a form of republican government, but it became an Empire in the 19th Century.  The sun finally set on that Empire in the 20th Century, despite the best efforts of Winston Churchill, perhaps one of the greatest statesmen of all time, who felt that the British Empire was a force for moral good.  Unfortunately, many of the subjects of the empire were not convinced of that, although subsequent disasters in India, Africa and the Middle East may make the dissolution of the British Commonwealth a discussion point for a long time to come.

     Judging by this historical record, it would be safer to say that no one knows how long a truly democracy-based republic can last, as long as it remains a democratic republic.  What we can conclude is that once a republic becomes an empire,  it's days are numbered.  As for us, we can hope that  as long as we are, in Abraham Lincoln's words, a nation "of the people, by the people, and for the people" we have no historical record to give us a prediction of  how long we can survive and thrive as a nation.  However, if we become a nation of the leader, by the leader and for the leader, we know that the end will come -- sooner or later,   morally or immorally.  But it will definitely come.
   As for the issue of moral deterioration leading to political decline, there are some historical points to be made here.  The early Romans' personal morality was centered on service to the state and service to the family.  Which came first, state or family, seemed to be an undecided issue for many Romans, but the ideal of dedicated service to something greater than one's personal pocketbook was an issue of Roman morality, but I don't think this is the morality meant by the pundits of today's commentators.  "Morality" as is it defined by today's evangelical-types  has to do with such personal issues as drug abuse, sexual behavior and abortion.  The pundits never call a military non-participant an immoral person; in fact, the non-participant during Vietnam days was often considered more clever than the military volunteer.   A non-participant was certainly never punished professionally or socially for their lack of military service.  
   From this viewpoint, the decline of Rome and the possible decline of America may have a similarity.  As time went on, the Roman armies became professional organizations made up primarily of non-Romans.  Today's American military is an all-volunteer, totally professional organization, consuming a tremendous portion of our national budget.  Will the military, which is definitely not a democratic institution, come to dominate the democratic state of which it is a part? This is what happened to Rome.  Only time will tell if it will happen in America.