Parallels Between the Decline of the Roman Empire and the Decline of the United States of America

There are many parallels between the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and the decline of the present- day American economy.

An English author, Edward Gibbon, published a book in 1776 called "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Have you ever read this book? It's very interesting, quite a heavy tome. I was dusting off my bookshelves and books, and came across this weighty masterpiece of English literature and history of Classical Antiquity...I haven't looked in it for maybe a decade or so. As I did, I was shocked to discover what the decline of the Roman Empire and our current economic situation here in the United States had in common.

I paused to flip through it once again. It grabbed me, sort of . That always happens when I'm dusting or re-arranging my books. A book will suddenly demand my attention, when I've had it on my shelf for years without opening it. That's why dusting the books takes me a week or two to complete the task!

There are definitely parallels between what happened then, to those last, decadent Romans as their economic and political system collapsed in ruins about their feet, and what is happening in America, today, as our decadent and overly self-indulgent society seems to be on the very brink of economic and political collapse...

Why did Rome fall? The Roman Empire during the period of Classical Antiquity (which pre-dated widespread Christianity, and was artistically most significant in the pantheons of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses) was a very powerful and widespread Empire. The ruler was the Caesar (a line of 12 Caesars ruled the Roman Empire: the first was Julius Caesar, the last was Romulus Augustus); his rule was autocratic and absolute. In its essence, the Roman Empire in its heyday was a military dictatorship, heavily supported by a slave economy, and with arms out-flung to the outer reaches of Europe. There seemed to be, on the face of it, no outward reasons for this successful model of government and economy to cease to be successful. The inner reasons are speculative and numerous. Historians, including Mr. Gibbons, do not have the definitive answer. Here are just a few:

  • Invasions by Germanic hordes of people
  • the coming of Islam
  • The sack of Rome
  • General malaise of the people
  • the decadence of the ruling classes
  • the growing influence of Christianity
  • a collapsing and no longer workable economy. "The economy of the Empire was a plunder economy based on looting existing resources rather than producing anything new."
  • loss of civic virtue
  • Excessive taxation spurred by a huge and overweening military budget
  • Decline in agriculture; deforestation which led to drought; withdrawal of land from agriculture. Small farmers driven onto the dole; the elite who owned vast tracts of land tilled by slaves were exempt from taxation.
  • Decline in the production of exportable goods; discouragement of entrepreneurialism; discouragement of technical innovation
  • Unsound economic policies (maybe the most key factor)
  • Debasement of the currency
  • crop failures
  • disease



Does any of the above list of reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire sound familiar? The unsound economy? The mismanagement of natural resources and agriculture? The overweening military budget? The elite sheltered from taxes while the small farmers are going under? The general malaise of the people; the loss of civic pride and civic responsibility?

I thought, very uneasily, yes, it sounds familiar. It could be America, today, instead of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century, AD. All except for the part about the barbarian hordes of Germanic people invading, of course.

I also came to realize that societies, countries, "empires", have a natural terminus as well as individuals and businesses do. The Bell curve is swooping upwards from the inception of the complex society (or individual, or business); the thing is growing all the time, reaching its maximum peak, its heyday. From then on, there is a natural reactive decline, until, in the end, the person, or society, or business...dies. Ceases to exist. Fades out completely, and is no more.

An American anthropologist named Tainter presented a theory in his book, entitled, "The Collapse of Complex Societies", which sounds a LOT like the anthropological version of chaos theory.

He says, in effect: there are diminishing returns to an increasingly advanced, increasingly complex, and increasingly technically sophisticated society. Societies become increasingly advanced, increasingly complex, and increasingly technically sophisticated at the expense of their resource base, to the point where the resource base can no longer accommodate the complex society and the society is no longer sustainable.

Once the complex society is no longer sustainable, it collapses into smaller, less complex units, which ARE sustainable with the available resources. And the cycle of increasing complexity begins all over again. This would explain why we, the human race, seem to be condemned to repeat history, over and over.

The collapse may be a violent collapse, or it may be a peaceful collapse. The collapse may be sudden; or it may be gradual. A case may be made for the survival of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire well into the European medieval period. It didn't officially expire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

What does this mean for us? Where is America going, now? We have outrun our resources, as evidenced by the current debt crisis. What happens next?


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Comments 35 comments

Jay C OBrien profile image

Jay C OBrien 2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

I believe we could right the economic ship by:

withdrawing our military forces from around the globe;

reducing the military budget;

cease paying off foreign governments;

avoiding foreign wars;

become closer to Mexico and Canada (merge?); and

taxing assets rather than income.


Petra Vlah profile image

Petra Vlah 4 years ago from Los Angeles

The fall of the American Empire is NOT a question of IF, it is only a question of WHEN


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 4 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you very much for the interesting and infomative comment! I think I learned more from your comment than you did from my article. Thank you again.


randslam profile image

randslam 4 years ago from Kelowna, British Columbia

The correlation of America and the Roman Empire is not new, but the most recent decade have certainly shown the cracks in the system, and the similarities of the two empires...good hub...wonderfully written.

I watched an interesting documentary last night surrounding the last forty years focussing on the book, The Limits of Growth by Paul Ehrlich.

An interesting point was the installation of solar panels by President Carter with their quick removal by Ronald Reagan a few years later--one tried to start a culture of resource conservation, the other on American prominence and entitlement, "screw the resource use...we have a right to resources...especially those of us who are wealthy."

As the planet has finite resources, no matter how powerful the military machinery...without oil or the financial resources...the machinery does stop moving.

It is an American fear, to work together as socialized cooperative citizens of the planet, Republicans seem to think it's communism, but in all matters physical...if we don't learn to sustain our resources and renew them...they will reach a point of extinction. The scientific community can only do so much when the oil/resources run out and the empire is broke.

Interestingly enough, Germany nurtures its green resources, ie. forestry, manages their finances...and certainly don't demand entitlements because of their citizenship, yet because the nation is a "socialized democracy" Americans, especially Republican citizens, demanding individual freedoms and frivolous use of resources with no concern for American debt ratios or other countries quality of life. It is quite sad.

Unless we enter into a period of constraint and responsibility, the end game may already be destined for the American era--it is a difficult time, but if politicians continue to bow to the corporate powers that be, it won't be a very fulfilling time for the average citizen--it will be just another Greek tale of tragedy with an American twist.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for the comment, Infinite. I also appreciate that irony.


Infinite712 5 years ago

Early America was heavily influenced by Roman government, architecture, etc and now it looks likes this "New Rome" will end in the same way. It's only fitting, I suppose.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

That is true--we are a young country, and still have resources, including arable land. We're far from done, yet, but I think we're in for some re-organization. Thank you for the comment, meow!


meow48 profile image

meow48 5 years ago from usa

yeah, wowowowowow. what else can i say... except this is like a foreshadowing, but maybe we can turn things around, or something will turn things around for us... but as a country we are still quite young...


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you, epi, for those kind words.


epigramman profile image

epigramman 5 years ago

...lol lol lol ..man oh man you know you've hit the big time when you receive a personal comment from Edgar Allan Poe himself, lol lol - but the humble epi-man must post this major work of hub greatness to my Facebook page with a direct link back here - as this is a subject which should be taught (courtesy of you) in every virtual classroom in this cyber universe .....bravo

lake erie time 9:39pm


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

That is also true, though most of the people supported by the government were once small farmers.


wba108@yahoo.com profile image

wba108@yahoo.com 5 years ago from upstate, NY

Anther reason Rome fell was that its citizens were supported by the government and were unemployed. The empire went broke on entitlements.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

We'll hurl together! Bush was a NIGHTMARE!


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

I agree with you about how President Obama is doing the best he can in a not so good situation. I just wonder if the Republicans will ever realize a lot of decisions they made contributed to this debt. I am not letting either party of the hook, but I want to hurl every time I hear them mention that they are the fiscally responsible ones.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Sweetie Pie: Truer words were never spoken. The people in power have their own interests at heart, not the general populace's. I really would except President Obama from this statement. I think he's doing the best he can in a very bad situation. I don't think anybody could do better. The end to rampant greed and overspending, runaway government and personal debt, was written, long ago.

Thanks for the comment, Dynamic$. We do seem to be in a downward spiral, and I see nothing on the horizon that can reverse it.


DynamicS profile image

DynamicS 5 years ago from Toronto, Canada

Very interesting comparison. History is full of examples of dynasties rising and falling and America is but one such that has been declining over the last century. Similar to Britain, US is declining and Asia is rising. It seems inevitable.

Very well written post. Rated UP!


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

Thanks for wanting to use my comment in a new hub, you come up with good ideas! I just noticed a few years ago when I was a teen most people could not give a darn about learning history. When I tried to talk with current events with most people my age, they would say, I don't care about that. Then come 2008 all of a sudden people I know who never cared about politics in the past were enraged, because we now have a president who is part African American. They would never say so to your face, but you could tell from little comments they made like "we want our country back". Those comments sort of bothered me because I am thinking, what do they want to take our country back to? Before the Civil War when humans were treated as property? After World War II I think we made the mistake of thinking we had to be everywhere all the time. Also, I believe a lot of businesses became greedy over the years deciding they could outsource rather than figure out ways to save money while keeping jobs here. Not that we need to be the leading nation in the world, but back when things were good the corporations and their lobby in government did not have our best interests at heart. They definitely do not right now either.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Sweetie Pie, what you said about not being a leading country of the world (not being a superpower, is how I translated in my own mind) having its benefits, really struck me. I thought your comment was very striking and original, and may use both your ideas, the other one being changing the focus of American youth to INFORMATION rather than the more time-wasting aspects of youth obsessions, in a couple of new hubs, giving you credit for your inspirations, of course.

Platinum Owl, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbons is still in print. The inexpensive version (the one I own) is a Penguin classic. "Nothing happens that is not planned". I thought that is a profound statement--that what we are experiencing now has been in the making for 5 decades, and isn't accidental, which means the powers that be, the ones in financial control of the country, pulling the strings behind the scenes, did not and do not care about the outcomes on the general populace of their mechanizations.

Gypsy Rose Lee--my hat is off to you for going to Latvia in the first place. You're a brave woman. I wish you could make it home. Maybe you will be able to, soon. I have no idea of the conditions there but can imagine they are even worse than here. That is true of many places in the world right now. It seems to be rough all over.


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

I think it's time for Americans to reunite. Within the big cities there is so much crime and while people are killing, fighting and terrorizing each other who's got time for considering where we all are heading? But I still have faith in the good ole' U.S.A. 'cause that's my homeland and living now here in Riga, Latvia that what is happening in this country well it's almost beyond words. I can't get back to the states now but I still keep saying I'd rather be there standing side by side with my fellow Americans than here.


platinumOwl4 profile image

platinumOwl4 5 years ago

This is an excellent hub of which I enjoyed greatly. I would like to know how you came by a book written in 1776. We are headed toward serfdom unless as a people we unite on common issues and stop bickering over petty nonsense. As one of our Presidents once stated, "nothing happens that is not planned" What we are experiencing was planned at least fifty years ago. If you read document from pass Presidents you can glean this information.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

Well I was happy I figured this fact out at fifteen when most kids were obsessed with going to the movies and such. I believe in treating kids like an adults and encouraging them to learn things. The more we know earlier the better, thus my comment :). I am equally as hard on corporations and government, because I see the former as having way too much influence on the Tea Party/Republican political agenda. Besides, perhaps not being a leading country of the world has benefits. It might help us to stop focusing on what everyone else is doing all the time. Focus on our people more. It does not have to be doom's day scenario. We will still be around, it will just not be like it was in 1850, and I would not want it to be.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you both, akirchner and Druid Dude, for your comments. I don't know where we're going now...I wonder if the people running the government do, either!


Druid Dude profile image

Druid Dude 5 years ago from West Coast

In the last hundred years, we have lost much of the resource base that, at the same time was making the U.S. a major world player. Very well written hub. Voting it up!


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

I've heard this comparison a lot - who knows where we are headed~ Pertinent subject though!!


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thank you, Storyteller, for the comment. Also for the tip on Rufus Fears. He's new to me. Thanks again for that.


Storytellersrus profile image

Storytellersrus 5 years ago from Stepping past clutter

Paradise7, I have commented on this several times in political hubs where folk completely disregard history, so I find it refreshing to find you hubbing on this subject and so thoroughly! Thank you!

Have you read any Rufus Fears? His arguments support what you are saying. Here is a link: http://antiquities.blogs.com/antiquities/2006/01/d... He says, "I would say we’re very much like Rome around 88 B.C. We’re still a republic, we still have our free elections, and we still have a great deal of opportu­nity. But in 88 B.C., the full dimension of Rome’s involvement in the Middle East and its role of superpower began to come home to it. They chose to go down a road of intense partisan politics, fighting over small issues rather than seeing the big vision and, for a while, lacking leaders with a kind of foresight..."

PS I read your comment above, and it doesn't matter when you figured it out, but that you did!


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Thanks for the comment, Sweetie Pie. A lot of people are on the same page with this, it seems, and noticed the parallels long before I did.


SweetiePie profile image

SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

There are parallels for sure, but I knew about this when I was fifteen because I was studying AP history at the time. People did not believe this could happen to the US, but I attribute it to our need to play world empire, and the need of our corporations to outsource. The British empire has a rise and waning, and now we are as a super power. China will be the leading power in time, they already are becoming so economically.


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Ah, Marellen...my mom says, and she's right, "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst." It was browsing through that book that brought this whole thing to mind, and I'm actually quite serious about the survival kit. Please prepare, everyone, and let's hope we don't need it! It'd be just awful to think of all my friends, both actual and virtual, getting caught in a national crisis with say, no water...or no means to be self-sufficient in nature, or (because I live in the frozen North), outside in the winter and unprepared. If I could, I'd just give everyone in the US a survival kit and then rest easy, knowing we have something going for us, no matter what happens when.


marellen 5 years ago

very informative hub and the comparisons are amazing. Yes, it does scare me that this very well could happen in our lifetime especially after reading another hub about preparing a survival kit....


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Peter, thank you so much for the comment, and I hope we're both wrong, too!


Paradise7 profile image

Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York Author

Der Meister, I know this is an oversimplification of an idea that has been around for a while. There are other people making the same comparison. What struck me most forcibly was the inevitability of the decline of any complex social system. I hadn't quite realize that it is both inevitable and irreversible once it starts. That scares me.

Phil, you made the point (which scares me even more, selfish old me) that we will likely experience this contraction within our lifetimes, and it won't be fun.

Thank you both for the comments, and if you are as trepiditious as me, let's get our survival kits ready!


PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

Hi Paradise, This is a very insightful article and a stricking parallel to our country. I don't think ours will be a gradual decline since things and events seem to happen at warp speed. My Hub "Welcome to the Former U.S.A." takes it to the next step. I hope we're both wrong. Outstanding piece of work,

Peter


Phil Plasma profile image

Phil Plasma 5 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

Der Meister, it may be nothing new, except that it is quite possible, if not extremely likely, that this falls within our lifetimes and will affect each of us directly.

It is one thing to read theories and historical reports of past civilizations that have failed. It is altogether a different thing to live through that.

We are facing an enormous contraction which will most likely be extremely painful for many people. Doesn't sound like fun to me.


Der Meister profile image

Der Meister 5 years ago from Virgo Supercluster

I've thought this for years. It's nothing new, though. Empires having been rising and falling for thousands of years. It's not that hard to see a decline if one is paying attention. The dynastic cycle, Spengler, etc.

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