Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Are We Rome?" Discussion















One of the most interesting discussions I've come across recently is the diavlog between Rod Dreher, author and journalist with the Dallas Morning News, and Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome?, found here. The periodic comparisons of our ongoing American cultural decline to that of ancient Rome always makes for a good debate. Personally, I believe strongly and unequivocally that...well, it is...and then it isn't. Similarities abound, certainly, but these are sometimes simplistic and superficial, and there is obviously much that is dissimilar between the course taken by the two empires.

I have some major reservations with the hypothesis. First, Rome really didn't fall, as such--or at least not the way generally thought, or when generally thought. Certainly there were times when the barbarians were literally at the gates, so to speak. But there was never a time when a Roman citizen of southern Gaul, for example, would stop and say, "my, haven't things been crappy since Rome fell." From my readings, I find no sense of such a sudden change. Societies changed and evolved, and in many ways declined, but the transformation was slow and often imperceptible and life went on.

Also, the end of Rome is either tagged at 410 AD (Visigoths), 455 AD (Vandals), or 476 AD (death of Romulus Augustus). But by the time Rome "fell," it had already been superseded (and eclipsed) by the New Rome (Constantinople.) These Romans of the East thought of themselves as exactly that, the "Romaioi." They would have been puzzled if anyone had addressed them as a Byzantine. And not only that, but this New Rome-for centuries, the marvel of civilization-continued on until 1453. So, even if one were to buy into the whole America=Rome theory, the date used for comparison is about 1,000 years shy of the final fall. The Roman experience is instructive for any culture, in any time, but one should be cautious in drawing too many comparisons.




















That said, comparisons are easy to come by, even with the Eastern Romans. I am currently reading Michael Arnold's Against the Fall of Night, a 1975 fictional account of the Comnenian Revival of 12th-century Constantinople. In many ways, the era (1080-1204) marked the very pinnacle of Byzantine civilization. But behind the glitter and pageantry, the rot had already set in, their projected power something of a deceptive facade. For centuries, Constantinople had maintained a defensive posture--simply trying to maintain its borders, or what had once been theirs. This changed with the latter Comneni, who were aggressive militarily, which quickly exacerbated the underlying weakness of the empire. But even after the catastrophe of 1204, the Byzantines came back and held on for another 200 years.

American culture may have even more in common with Rome than we realize. But these things work out over extremely long periods of time. Even if true, we have a bit of a run yet, and I doubt if things will play out exactly as the doomsayers often predict.

12 comments:

Mimi said...

Hum. That's an interesting question, and I have to say I agree with your answer.

Off to put that book on my Wish List at PBS.

How are you feeling?

John said...

I'm feeling a little better every day. Thanks for asking.

Theron said...

John,

You may have found these already, but here are several well-done podcasts on 12 Byzantine Emperors.

http://www.anders.com/lectures/lars_brownworth/12_byzantine_rulers/

John said...

Thanks, theron. I look forward to listening to them.

The Scylding said...

My own favourite (tongue firmly in cheek?) comment is that all civilisations go through 3 stages: Barbarism, Greatness, decadence. America missed the middle stage.....

Lucian said...

So ... "The Fourth Rome Theory", huh? :-)

John said...

Good point, scylding. We hear much in our public discourse about our greatness. If a civilization is truly great, it will be largely self-evident, and there will no need to constantly proclaim it.

lucian--that's apparently what some would have us believe...

Ad Orientem said...

I think the 4th Rome concept is a bit silly. The concept of Third Rome (Moscow) was more of a religious idea based on Russia being the only major Orthodox Christian nation after the fall of New Rome in 1453. A lot of Russians still rankle at the canonical status of the Patriarch of Constantinople (with maybe a few thousand Christians left in his dwindling flock) as Primus inter Pares among Orthodox hierarchs. America just does not fit into that picture.

From a more secular POV we are ignoring other great empires that have come and gone, sometimes in the historical equivalent to the blink of an eye. The Spanish Empire lasted until the end of the 19th century. But the British Empire really came and went in less than three centuries. All of them had their own peculiar characteristics in their imperial rise and fall.

John said...

ad orientem, of course the secular POV is the only way one would ever consider the US a "4th Rome." As you note, there have been other world empires that have had 300-400 year runs. I guess my main point is that the Roman Empire, didn't really "fall" in the 5th century. It had already shifted to the East, where it carried on for another 1,000 years. And the Wes, went through a rough, turbulent transformation, certainly, as it absorbed the Goths, but didn't really totally collapse per the popular perception (as depicted by the 2 over-the-top paintings in the original post.)

Mimi said...

Ooooh, Theron, thank you for that link. I shall be listening to them.

Brian said...

Even if we consider the Byzantine Empire as the continuation of Rome, that Empire still never regained the hegemony of the former state centered in Rome proper, though briefly under Justinian it captured much of its former territory. Also, the old Roman polity was essentially exhausted long before that time, and ultimately was replaced by the theme system,.

By the time of the Arab advances in the 7th century, Byzantium was thereafter limited to being a regional power whose core territory was the southern Balkans and Anatolia. By the 13th century, Byzantium was a minor state well on its way to oblivion.

Parallels can be drawn with Spain and Britain, still-prosperous states which have only a tiny fraction of their previous influence. Who knows how long they will last with their eroding native populations?

I don't think many expect the USA to collapse into a facsimile of some African feral state any time soon, but clearly hegemony such as ours is fleeting, and the dawn of the 22nd century likely will bring to light a chastened, diminished USA. Our political and cultural choices have consequences, and the day of reckoning is bound to come. In addition, there is no guarantee our Constitutional form of government will endure, nor even our territorial integrity will remain unsplintered. When these things are taken for granted is when their seeming impenetrability is eroded.

John said...

Brian, I agree with most of what you say. There was indeed considerable transformation of the Empire between Constantine's time and the reign of Justinian. But the people viewed themselves as the unbroken continuation of Rome--though their self-image may have been as delusional as our own!

I do disagree about Byzantium being just a regional power after the 7th century. In the mid 11th century, they were bumping up against Armenia--and of course their disaster at Manzikert in 1071 was in far eastern Anatolia. In the mid 12th century, they had a presence in southern Italy, and almost a successful reabsorption into the Empire. Also during this century, they still retained Bulgaria, were able to call the shots as far away as Hungary, and had great influence in Rus. The Emperor's opinion still carried weight throughout Europe, and they remained a major player in European affairs. For example, Manuel I Komnenes and Henry II of England were great correspondents. Admittedly, much of this interaction was a by-product of the Crusades. I would not assign them "regional power" status until 1204.

I am in total agreement with your last paragraph. I don't expect any sudden collapse. We have great staying power. But you are exactly right--our policies and actions have consequences. Like you, I do not expect our territorial integry to last the century, nor perhaps our particular form of government. Both are considered inviolate in this country. But unless you have a tight-knit, homogeneous population, living on an island, then history just doesn't work that way.