If you haven’t seen Dr. Ben Carson take Barack Obama to school at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast, here’s the clip. In his speech Dr. Carson touches on a wide ranging number of subjects, including issues at the forefront of the American political and social scenes, healthcare and taxes not being the least in any reasonable assessment of his half hour or so. By no stretch is he an enormously intelligent and articulate man, an accomplished physician and God-fearing patriot in his own way. He is not however, in any way, judging by his comments, an authority on Roman history.
Anyone who compares, as did Dr. Carson, the United States to the Roman Empire in any but the most rudimentary ways is truly ignorant of the historical facts. The only real comparison between Rome and the United States is awesome, far-flung military power which brings sometimes massive cultural change to those under its aegis, more so with Rome as assimilation into the Roman system if not its core society was imposed. When making his comparison, Carson erred in the most common and historically egregious way revealing a familiar ignorance that simplifies the fall of Rome (which took over 400 years) to a Hollywood rendition of Emperors in orgiastic excess and the general population’s decay into total amorality. This conception is not only entirely wrong, it is unjust. Rome fell, not from internal decay, but from the limitations of organization in a time of enormous distances and totally inadequate means of communication and therefore effective governance. This in addition to the overwhelming cost of protecting its distant borders while at the same time fending off attacks on the peninsula itself led to the decline of the empire, but not its end.
To ascribe that old myth of decadence and decay to the demise of the world’s greatest empire is to reveal a common ignorance which is almost always overlooked. But with someone of Dr. Carson’s intellect, one expects him to be reticent on subjects he knows nothing about. A better comparison would have been with ancient China, a place rife with corruption and internecine war for hundreds of years ultimately leading to its collapse. The best comparison however would be none at all since ours is a country so entirely different from those throughout history, no meaningful comparison can be made without purposely inviting error.
It is a mistake in any case to portray Rome at its height as a morally decrepit enterprise. At the pinnacle of its power, Rome was Christian, and though at the top of Roman society there were those who considered themselves above any reproach, the average Roman lived by a very moral code. The evidence is in the extant body of Roman law from which the West borrows so extensively it is considered the foundation of our own legal system. More to the point, the history of Rome is replete with images of Stoicism, duty, honor, determination, discipline and a devotion to religion in whatever form it may have taken. This was not a society with thousands of years of history previous to the age of Empire wherein the fundamentals of chivalry were established only to be discarded later on.
If a comparison does exist it is at the most common level. The average Roman was little different than the average American in that he worked, supported a family and lived as best he could until he died whereupon he was buried just as most of us bury and will be buried today. But this comparison is more universal than particular to Rome and The United States.
There is a case to be made for Rome’s dependence on slaves to do the day to day work as a causality for its decline. If there is a slight comparison to be made for that culture’s ending up with more slaves than freemen, it would be well to consider how our own society views the necessity of labor on any number of levels, especially the personal. The complaint that Americans will not do the work illegal immigrants are willing to do echoes, however faintly, a Roman inclination. The difference is that Romans could not do the work of slaves, had they, the system would have collapsed far sooner. The symbiosis between master and slave which arose as a function of Roman conquest became more dangerous than anyone could have predicted. In its inexorability the problem of too many slaves and not enough work, indeed insufficient economic activity, to keep them occupied created the inevitability of instability at the foundation of Roman society. It wasn’t the only problem by any means, but the slavery problem was part of the confluence of exigencies the Roman system, in fact any system at the time was incapable of handling.
Call it Rome’s welfare system, one of its greatest challenges became keeping all the slaves busy, for where there are idle hands there is brewing rebellion against those who feed you. If we need to compare our two societies, let it be there.
The history of ancient Rome is not only far too vast to cover on any but the nanoscale here, it has not been fully decided. We are learning new things about ancient Rome, its society, culture and government every day, but of one thing we can be sure, Rome was unique in the history of the world, no nation can compare and so is the United States of America unique, incomparable and far from its potential apex. When history tells America’s story it will either tell of collapse as a result of very real moral decay or it will discuss the rebirth and resurgence of a nation and people who decided they would not go the way of Rome or any other empire.