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Impearls: The Lessons of Rome in an Age of Terror

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Earthdate 2003-01-14

The Lessons of Rome in an Age of Terror

Victor Davis Hanson has a fine piece in the 2003-01-13 OpinionJournal called “‘Bomb Texas’: The psychological roots of anti-Americanism.”  (The article also appeared in the 2002-12 issue of Commentary.)

It's a competent article on its subject's theme, delving into phenomena of and explanations for the rise of anti-Americanism among what used to be called the intelligentsia (now grown into the hundreds of thousands of Cassandras amidst the horn of plenty).  The article is well worth reading in its entirety.

Hanson really comes into his own, however, in my view, when he unbundles his historical acumen to relate the present situation of widespread demoralizing and corrosive cynicism with that of an earlier age.  Hanson writes:

The anti-Americans often invoke Rome as a warning and as a model, both of our imperialism and of our foreordained collapse.  But the threats to Rome's predominance were more dreadful in 220 b.c. than in a.d. 400.  The difference over six centuries, the dissimilarity that led to the end, was a result not of imperial overstretch on the outside but of something happening within that was not unlike what we ourselves are now witnessing.  Earlier Romans knew what it was to be Roman, why it was at least better than the alternative, and why their culture had to be defended.  Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared.

The example of Rome, in short, is an apt one, but in a way unintended by critics who use passing contemporary events as occasions for venting a permanent, irrational and often visceral distrust of their own society.  Their creed is really a malady, and it cries out to be confronted and exposed.

I'm no historian myself, but I've read fairly extensively in Roman (especially late Roman) history, and I can affirm that Hanson's precisely right on here.  What killed Rome was not the sort of debauchery usually supposed by the historically naive, as exemplified perhaps by the shenanigans dramatized in the justly-acclaimed miniseries I, Claudius.  Those days occurred, in fact, at the very beginning of the Roman Empire, when it was near the height of its power.  By the time the (Western) Roman state fell to the barbarians, more than four centuries later, the bulk of the Empire had been converted to Christianity, and the mood in general was much more somber and certainly less sensual.

Hanson's summation, “Later in ignorance they forgot what they knew, in pride mocked who they were, and in consequence disappeared,” is an accurate portrayal, as best I can make out, of those times.  The Roman Senate was strongly pacifist in outlook, for example.  The concept that the dangers of the day demanded upright citizenship, unity and responsibility, was an idea and ideal often lost in the bedlam, the intellectual confusion, and as we see today, corrosive cynicism of the institutions on which their society was built.  As Hanson says, it was primarily that, not a lack of military strength per se, that drove the (Western) Roman Empire to its doom.

The Eastern Roman Empire, by the way, survived an additional thousand years, a fact often overlooked — and certainly reason to think that the fall of Rome wasn't “foreordained.”


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