Waiting for the barbarians
A once-great empire, Rome fell into catastrophic cultural and economic decline. Morris Berman on chilling parallels with modern America
Saturday October 6, 2001
When I wrote my recent book, The Twilight of American Culture, my focus was on what might be called "inner" barbarism, the structural factors endemic to American society that were, I believed, bringing about its disintegration.
The contemporary American situation could be compared to that of Rome in the Late Empire period, and the factors involved in the process of decline in each case are pretty much the same: a steadily widening gap between rich and poor; declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organisational solutions to socioeconomic problems (in the US, dwindling funds for social security and medicare); rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness; and what might be called "spiritual death": apathy, cynicism, political corruption, loss of public spirit, and the repackaging of cultural content (eg "democracy") as slogans and formulas.
What I overlooked, however, was perhaps the most obvious point of comparison; obvious, at least, with the benefit of hindsight. This is the factor of external barbarism, destruction from without. The events of September 11 brought that possibility home, in stark relief.
In the case of Rome, the historical outline is clear enough. The Goths began pressing against the border of the Roman empire from the late third century, and scored a decisive victory in AD 378, when Roman legions were resoundingly defeated at Adrianople.
"The battle", wrote historian Solomon Katz, "did more than expose the weakness of Rome to the barbarians and encourage them to return to the attack again and again, for never afterward did they leave Roman soil".
From that time on, siege and potential invasion became facts of Roman life. The Visigoth leader Alaric invaded Italy in 401, and finally captured and sacked Rome in 410. The city was further sacked by the Vandals in 455, and in 476 barbarian mercenaries deposed the last Roman emperor and put the Germanic chieftain Odoacer on the throne, making him king of the western empire.
America, too, now has barbarians at the gates, and also, it would seem, within them. It, too, is committed to a war to the finish, "total victory", defined by President Bush as the point at which there are no longer any terrorist organisations capable of international reach - which some would say is a formula for permanent war.
One photograph of the shell of the World Trade Centre eerily resembles pictures of the Roman Coliseum. But there are many more concrete similarities between the invasion of Rome and the attack on America. As American military personnel have recently suggested, September 11 is not likely to be the end of it. The US can expect further terrorist attacks on its soil.
More poignant, the destruction of the WTC showed that America is not invincible. In the case of Adrianople, things were never the same thereafter. The sharks smelled blood, and they kept coming back. America can expect something similar. (Note also that just as the barbarians used Rome's excellent network of roads to mount their invasions, so did the terrorists of September 11 use America's aviation schools, banking systems, internet accessibility and the like to mount theirs.)
The response of the empire is to regard the attackers as the ultimate Other. ("Barbarian", comes from an ancient Greek anecdote, that those who couldn't speak Greek just uttered strange sounds - "bar bar" - that didn't amount to a real language.) In the main, the Romans had no understanding of non civilisation: of different values, nomadic ways of life.
Similarly, America views Islamic terrorism as completely irrational; there is no understanding of the political context of this activity, a context of American military attack on, or crippling economic sanctions against, a host of Arab nations - with unilateral support for Israel constituting the central, running sore.
Instead, the enemy is characterised as "jealous of our way of life", "hateful of freedom", and so on. Hence President Bush, no less than the Islamic terrorists, uses the language of religious war: we are on a "crusade"; the military operation was initially called "Infinite Justice"; and the enemy is "evil itself".
Along with this is the belief that the pax Romana/Americana is the only "reasonable" way to live. In the American case, we have a military and economic empire that views the world as one big happy market, and believes that everybody needs to come on board. We - that is, global corporate consumerism - are the future, "progress".
If the "barbarians" fail to share this vision, they are "medieval"; if they resist, "evil". Most historians see a relationship, in the case of Rome, between its internal decay and its susceptibility to invasion. By the fourth century, if not much before, Rome had lost its central value, the legacy of Greek culture, and was effectively existing for the sake of military and administrative purposes.
As it overextended itself, creating a huge standing army and a bloated military budget, the middle class began to disappear, and there was a reciprocal, reinforcing interaction between internal decadence and instability on the one hand, and external vulnerability on the other. I n the case of the United States, the nation no longer stands for the enlightenment tradition, but rather for military-political hegemony and the total commodification of life.
It is hardly an accident that the terrorists' targets were the WTC, symbol of American global finance, and the Pentagon (although the White House was apparently the original target in this case). Consider how remarkable, even bizarre, it would have been if the terrorists had selected instead the Jefferson memorial and Columbia University.
But the latter no longer represent the United States; Wall Street does. What is likely to happen, as obtained in the case of Rome, is increasing budgetary appropriations for military expenditures, leaving (in the American case) fewer and fewer funds for education, the rebuilding of cities, health care and social welfare. As in the case of American involvement in Vietnam, this could eventually bleed the country morally and financially.
In addition, military action versus Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Arab nations will sow the seeds of more intifadas. By the third century, nearly every Roman denarius collected in taxes was going into military and administrative maintenance, to the point that the state was drifting towards bankruptcy. The denarius, which had a silver content of 92% in Nero's reign (AD 54-68) was down to 43% silver by the early third century.
The third century saw even greater increases in the size of the army and the government bureaucracy, followed by further debasement of the coinage and enormous inflation. The standing army rose from 300,000 troops in AD 235 to about 600,000 a mere 70 years later. By the time the fifth century rolled around, Rome was an empire in name only. Spiritual and intellectual collapse were unavoidable in such a demoralised context, expecially because the economic life of the cities was virtually destroyed.
For centuries, the aim had been to hellenise or romanise the rest of the population - to pass on the learning and ideals of Greco-Roman civilisation. But as the economic crisis deepened, a new mentality arose among the masses, one based on religion, which was hostile to the achievements of higher culture.
In addition, as in contemporary America, the new "intellectual" efforts were designed to cater to the masses, until intellectual life was brought down to the lowest common denominator. This, according to the great historian of Rome, MI Rostovtzeff, was the most conspicuous feature in the development of the ancient world during the imperial age: primitive forms of life finally drowning out the higher ones.
For civilisation is impossible without a hierarchy of quality, and as soon as that gets flattened into a mass phenomenon, its days are numbered. "The main phenomenon which underlies the process of decline," wrote Rostovtzeff, "is the gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses and the consequent simplification of all the functions of political, social, economic, and intellectual life, which we call the barbarisation of the ancient world."
Religion played a critical role in these developments. By the third century, if not before, there was an attitude among many Christians that education was not relevant to salvation, and that ignorance had a positive spiritual value (an early version of Forrest Gump, one might say).
The third century saw a sharp increase in mysticism and a belief in knowledge by revelation. Charles Radding, in A World Made By Men, argues that the cognitive ability of comparing different viewpoints or perspectives (quite evident in Augustine's Confessions, for example) had disappeared by the sixth century.
Even by the fourth century, he says, what little that had survived from Greek and Roman philosophy was confused with magic and superstition (much as we see in today's new age beliefs or in the so-called philosophy section of many bookstores). Only a warped version of the classical culture of antiquity remained.
"Short of the mass destruction of the libraries", writes Radding, "a more complete collapse of a classical civilisation is hard to imagine." And so the proverbial lights went out in western Europe. The parallels with contemporary America are not identical, but they do seem disturbing. The factors of hype, ignorance, potential bankruptcy and extreme social inequality are overwhelming, and they make a kind of spiritual death - apathy and classicist formalism - ultimately unavoidable.
The phrase "Twilight of American Culture", however, implies an eventual dawn, and at some point we are going to emerge from our contemporary twilight and future darkness, if only because no historical configuration is the end of history. After centuries of stagnation, the culture of the Latin west became a viable option once more, thanks to the medieval monasteries, especially Irish ones, which began to stow away nuggets of intellectual achievement from Roman civilisation.
That, however, is a whole other story. In terms of the current American situation, recovery at the external level probably depends on a reconsideration of American foreign policy but also a reconsideration of internal purposes. The United States does not seem to grasp the impact of its current foreign policy on the have-nots of this world. Without such an understanding, an Israeli-style scenario would seem to be inevitable: a garrison state, and a condition of endless siege. It is a chilling thought, the possibility that for the remainder of the new century, America will be waiting for the barbarians.