We’re looking at the wrong imperial downfall model

Of this I am convinced.

The conventional analogy most often given for the United States’ rise and (anticipated by some) fall is that of the Roman Empire. That analogy has a lot of problems. Rome began as a bucolic thorp on the western Italian coast, dominated for the first two and a half centuries by Etruscan or Etruscan-backed kings. In time it threw them off, and formed the Roman Republic. This was never a democracy as we would reckon it today, but it was a step up from despotism, and evolved over its five centuries of existence. Yes. Rome was a republic for as long as has passed for us since Cristobal Colón landed in the Bahamas and got lasting credit for discovering an inhabited continent whose land territory he never saw. (How that continent became named for a Florentine latecomer is one of history’s stranger tales. I guess ‘Vespuccia’ just didn’t have that ring to it.)

In those five centuries, Rome consolidated first the Italian peninsula, then nearby islands and territories under its hegemony. In its final century, the Republic became hegemon over the entire Mediterranean. Alexander of Macedon (called ‘the Great’) went east against Persia rather than west against Rome and Carthage, and his former eastern Mediterranean holdings fell under full Roman control about three centuries after he was gone.

Rome did not go from republic to empire in a day, nor was Julius Caesar ever emperor. In its final century as a republic, infighting grew into chronic civil war. Representative government and civil war don’t coexist very well. When everyone was ready for peace, the state bestowed upon a First Citizen (Augustus) enough power to do much as he saw fit. We tend to call this his Emperorhood, but in reality, the role took several decades to realize that title’s full implications. The Roman Empire lasted in unity (most of the time, anyway) for three centuries, until it was reorganized by splitting in two pieces: eastern (which would endure for another millennium as the Byzantine Empire, a Greek state pretending to be Roman) and western (headquartered at Ravenna rather than decadent Rome). After another century and a half, the western half collapsed under the weight of sustained Germanic and Hunnic migrations/invasions (sometimes the line grew blurry), but left the legacy of a Christian Roman imperium which European states would seek to appropriate well into the 1800s.

As an analogy for the United States, this has plenty of problems, starting with the question of splitting the nation into two self-governing halves (one surviving a long time). There’s always noise about that, but little groundswell to think it likely, and especially not voluntarily. Rome either conquered and administered territory or not, which doesn’t fit the pattern of the rise of US power. And while some take satisfaction in the common perception that the western Roman fall came about due to increased economic stratification (with many Romans seeing nothing worth defending), the record does not really bear that out. The record suggests that when Rome began losing battles, armies and provinces to numerous Germanic invaders, that turned the tax base the wrong direction at a time when that was the worst possible news for the state. If Goths occupied Thrace, not only did they stop sending taxes to Ravenna, they might demand bribes to refrain from further violence. Less money–at a time when more was needed to rebuild destroyed armies–was a self-compounding problem leading to more lost tax base. That problem was at times patched by hiring Germanic mercenaries of questionable potential loyalty, especially if used as ballista fodder. When enough provinces turned from payers to non-payers, or became money sinks, the western Empire was finished.

The rise of US global influence and domestic authoritarianism doesn’t fit most of these patterns. Illegal aliens, despite what some think, are not a good analogy for Alaric the Visigoth. And despite republican trappings, Rome had always been oligarchic and plutocratic. Rome also didn’t have allied independent states, for the most part: there were Roman provinces, and bordering lands. Rome either wanted these, to conquer and Romanize, or it did not. And as mentioned, half the Empire didn’t fall at all, and exerted itself very little to keep the other half from Germanic conquest.

Little presented, but more pertinent, is the example of Athens. Perhaps this is because Americans are more ignorant of the Athenian Empire of the 5th century BCE, and perhaps it’s our conceit: Athens’ empire was too small and brief to compare. In size, that is true. In duration, comparison is not so far apart. In 500 BCE, Athens was perhaps the first among equals of the Greek poleis (city-states). By mid-century it was an empire. By 400, it was defeated and eclipsed by other Hellenic poleis. How’d that journey go?

In 500, Athens was pioneering the basics of thimokratia (we pronounce it ‘democracy’). It had rejected the notion of strongmen ruling by force. Not long after, the mighty, enlightened and quite cosmopolitan Persian Empire sought to convert Greece (which included many dozens of city-states in the Aegean and along what would one day become the Turkish coast) into yet another Persian satrapy. Persian dominion was far better than most previous Near Eastern forms, especially the unlamented Assyrian methods, but most Greeks had zero interest in Persian overlordship. This led to the famous battles of Thermopylae (mostly Spartans on land), Cape Artemision (mostly Athenians at sea), Marathon (mostly Athenians on land) and Salamis (mostly Athenians at sea).

By 480, a frustrated Persia had shelved the notion of absorbing most Greeks into its empire, unless opportunity jumped up and bit them. From that time dated the rise of Athenian power and prestige in the Greek world. The analogy is imperfect, but we might see parallels in the burgeoning of US power and prestige as we helped the Soviets and British/Commonwealth defeat the Axis. And as Sparta had been co-belligerent with Athens against Persian invasion, so did the US join with and assist the much-distrusted Soviet Union to lay low Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy.

While Athens had rivals in Thebes, Sparta and Corinth whose power merited respect, it was the great power of its region. Athens wasn’t large enough to dominate all Greece by conquest, but it was the power with whom no one wanted to tangle–not even Sparta, a cautious place deeply concerned with keeping its slaves in check. As an ostensible peace-and-collective-security move, Athens organized many of the Greek poleis into the Delian League. I’ve been to Delos, and it’s hard to imagine those windswept ruins as a major neutral meeting and trading zone, but they once were. The idea was to arbitrate disputes, gather membership dues to deal with major problems, and keep the Persians from picking them off one by one. Seemed prudent at the time.

Athenian concepts of democracy advanced as the century reached midpoint, with free male commoners actually gaining the ability to participate in government (which is ahead of where the USA was at independence). Athenian naval vessels kept the sea safe for Athenian foreign trade. Athens grew rich and prestigious, thinking itself the apogee of human development. Persia was still a potential threat, and the Athenians’ major Greek neighbors did not trust them, but peace and prosperity generally reigned. For Athens, that became more true after the discovery of silver in Attica (the peninsula on which Athens rests).

In between speeches telling Athenians how great they were, Athenian leaders spent the silver on monumental building, fortifications and naval vessels. Athenian domestic politics became more fickle and bitter, with ostrakismos (exile by public vote) the common fate of any great statesman or general. ‘For safekeeping,’ Athens moved the Delian League treasury to Athens, and began dipping into the till. When poleis sought to withdraw from the Delian League, they learned that withdrawal was unacceptable. If Athenian soldiers came to the defense of a League member polis, they came to stay. The Athenian military budget was by far the largest in Greece.

Never an alliance of equals to begin with, this Delian League boiled down to something like Mafia protection. You paid up, shut up and did as told, or you got a lesson. Some people grumbled that the comparison to Persian dominion was disadvantageous. The Athenians didn’t listen, since that was only their jealous inferiors talking, who didn’t realize that what was good for Athens was good for all Greeks. In the Athenian mind, they were spending all this money of their own, asking a pittance from member states, and setting the perfect example of democracy. Those ingrates, who ought to be forever grateful to their obvious betters, had the nerve to complain and question the judgment of the cultural and financial paragons who had saved all other Greeks from the need to cringe and scrape before Eastern potentates.

No alliance that amounts to a senior partner expecting gratitude from junior partners for exploiting and bullying them can long endure, especially if the external threat recedes. The membership will start edging away as soon as the senior partner falters, especially if they get some form of encouragement from the senior partner’s rivals. The Mafia can crush one or three rebels, but it cannot crush them all at one time, nor can it cannot simultaneously crush them all and fight off a serious rival operation.

Hybris is a legacy from Classical Greek. As ‘hubris,’ it is one of tens of thousands in modern English. Today we define it as excessive pride, the sort that goes before a fall. In Classical times, of which we speak, the meaning differed a bit: in general terms, we might describe its Classical meaning as spiking the ball and taunting your defeated rival. Our modern definition perfectly describes Athens circa 440 BCE. Athenians believed that every polis’s most important relationship must be that with the most important city this side of Persepolis: Athens, the pinnacle of wealth, culture and power.

By 431 BCE, the Athenians had ignored the resentful side effects of hubris long enough. Sparta was not a naval power, but on land it was formidable. War came to most Greek-speaking poleis, with Sparta and Athens as the major players. Athens engaged in a far-flung and disastrous expedition to Sicily, a foreign war for wealth and power disguised as protecting an ally. Athens’ Spartan rivals found it expedient to support those ready to make trouble for the Athenian Empire, which had begun as the Delian League. Most Delian cities rested within or ringed the Aegean, and had navies in some form. In union they could challenge the Athenian fleet, without which Athens could not hold its empire.

In 404, the war drew to a close. Exhausted in every imaginable way, the Athenians lay at Spartan mercy. They were amazed when Sparta failed to treat Athens as Athens might have treated Sparta, and had treated its some of its own vanquished over the years. The thug mentality has a fatal flaw: it presumes that everyone else is a thug. When you see the powerful behave as callous, exploitative thugs, doing as they please and using others because they can, you see a hated power that dares not slip or let down its guard.

The example seems instructive, more so than that of Rome.


8 thoughts on “We’re looking at the wrong imperial downfall model”

  1. Hey JKK,

    Nicely sustained analogy throughout, but here’s my favorite line: “The Athenians didn’t listen, since that was only their jealous inferiors talking, who didn’t realize that what was good for Athens was good for all Greeks.”

    If only the Athenians had realized that instead of attempting to bully their inferiors, they could keep them distracted with arguments about gay marriage, flag burning, and public prayer, then they would truly have reached the apogee of civilization. Suck it, Greece.

    USA! USA! USA!


  2. Thank you, JK for a wonderful read. Most people wouldn’t think that taking the 15 minutes out to digest this piece of historical writing would be calming or restorative. They wouldn’t be historians. In a hectic day full of kid issues, this was a bright spot of calmness and restoration for my spirit. Thank you so much!



    1. Indeed there is, Christi; my high school used to play the Thorp Tigers in basketball. Thanks for the kind words, and a joyous T-Day to all people, flora and fauna of Farmlet.


  3. Yow. I like to consider my vocabulary pretty functional, and ‘thorp’ is a new one on me too. Furthermore, I wouldn’t have guessed the meaning just by trying to analyze the word itself.

    Thanks also for justifying my increasing general discomfort with the habit, common among current doomsayers, of likening the US to the late Roman empire. I’m not an historian at all, so it’s good to see a real one dismantle that trope in a blessedly jargon-free manner.

    (I almost signed in here using my FB account, but backed off after seeing what they were going to share indiscriminately with WP.)


    1. Good to see you, kinsman. The more I considered the whole Roman analogy, the less apt it felt. There is rarely a perfect analogy, but some are more flawed than others. In the analysis, Athens seemed so much nearer on many levels.


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