Pundits increasingly compare America in the 21st Century with Rome–as in “the fall of Rome.” The comparison isn’t usually a happy one, but a few days ago, I came across an article suggesting that although we may be experiencing a decline much like that of the Roman Empire, we should take heart from the fact that Rome’s various parts didn’t do all that badly in the aftermath.
James Fallows has been traveling the U.S. for The Atlantic and writing stories about cities and towns with innovative programs and civically-engaged populations. In this article, he revisits what we know about the period following Rome’s fall, and wants us to be more upbeat about what comes after “empires” disintegrate.
It’s time to think about the Roman empire again. But not the part of its history that usually commands attention in the United States: the long, sad path of Decline and Fall. It’s what happened later that deserves our curiosity.
As a reminder, in 476 a.d., a barbarian general named Odoacer overthrew the legitimate emperor of the Western empire, Romulus Augustulus, who thus became the last of the emperors to rule from Italy.
The Eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, chugged along for many more centuries. But the Roman progression—from republic to empire to ruin—has played an outsize role in tragic imagination about the United States. If a civilization could descend from Cicero and Cato to Caligula and Nero in scarcely a century, how long could the brave experiment launched by Madison, Jefferson, and company hope to endure?
The era that began with Rome’s collapse—“late antiquity,” as scholars call it—holds a hazier place in America’s imagination and makes only rare cameo appearances in speeches or essays about the national prospect. Before, we have the familiar characters in togas; sometime after, knights in armor. But in between? And specifically: How did the diverse terrain that had been the Roman empire in the West respond when central authority gave way? When the last emperor was gone, how did that register in Hispania and Gaul? How did people manage without the imperial system that had built roads and aqueducts, and brought its laws and language to so much of the world?
It turns out, Fallows tells us, people actually did quite well. The breakup of Rome’s empire gave birth to what became modern countries, and generated a good deal of what we now consider modern and valuable in contemporary culture–from new artistic and literary forms to self-governing civic associations.
A recent book, Escape from Rome, argues that removal of centralized control ushered in “a sustained era of creativity at the duchy-by-duchy and monastery-by-monastery level” and eventually led to broad cultural advancement and prosperity.
Here is where Fallows’ trips around the country provide him with a degree of optimism. He acknowledges that our federal government is broken, paralyzed by partisanship and unable to accomplish much of anything. But he points out that our counterparts to the post-Rome duchies and monasteries—our state and local governments—are still mainly functional.
You need to click through and read his whole analysis, but because I’m reluctant to see the Decline and Fall thesis tested, I was particularly struck by this paragraph:
Five years ago, after writing about a “can do” attitude in local governments in Maine and South Carolina, I got an email from a mayor in the Midwest. He said that he thought the underreported story of the moment was how people frustrated with national-level politics were shifting their enthusiasm and their careers to the state and local levels, where they could make a difference. (That mayor’s name was Pete Buttigieg, then in his first term in South Bend, Indiana.) When I spoke with him at the time, he suggested the situation was like people fleeing the world of Veep—bleak humor on top of genuine bleakness—for a non-preposterous version of Parks and Recreation.
Fallows quotes a former member of the George W. Bush administration for the proposition that national-level politics has become an exercise in cultural signaling—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on”—rather than about actual governance.
Meanwhile, the modern reserves of American practical-mindedness are mainly at the local level, “where people have no choice but to solve problems week by week.”
If we are going to make one more effort to fix our national government, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping to emulate the duchies left after Rome collapsed, maybe we should elect someone like Mayor Pete, who has a track record of problem solving and who has demonstrated a commitment to–and talent for– actual governance.
It’s a long shot, I know–but a girl can hope…..