"There was once an ancient city. The ancient city fell."
-- Virgil, The Aeneid
Increasingly, parallels are being drawn between the Roman Empire and the current American Empire. Yet while some may look to Rome as an inspiration, others believe it casts a dark shadow over us and our supposedly imperial aspirations.
Indeed, the comparisons to the Roman Empire are rarely favorable. For example, Cullen Murphy, author of Are We Rome? (2007), argues that the most alarming parallels are "the blinding, insular culture of our capitals; the debilitating effect of corruption; the paradoxical issue of borders; and the weakening of the body politic through various forms of 'privatization.'" Murphy sees the eventual decline of the American Empire as inevitable, describing three possible scenarios for the future: there is the "Fortress America" scenario, where everything revolves around national security and the power of the president expands to near dictatorial strength; the "city-state scenario," where the central authority weakens and city-states emerge; and finally the "boardroom scenario," where corporations privatize all crucial functions of the government and essentially rule -- what is commonly called fascism.
David Walker, former comptroller of the United States, has also drawn daunting comparisons between America and Rome. Walker believes that the American economy is standing on a "burning platform" of "unsustainable policies and practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration and overseas military commitments." Today, America is in a "$53 trillion hole," which translates to $455,000 per household.
Undeniably, spending is out of control. This irresponsible spending has resulted in the devaluing of the dollar and untold damage to the economy. As acclaimed historian Chalmers Johnson points out, America's misguided economic policy, with its emphasis on frequent wars and military spending, has led to the decline of vital domestic areas, including the education system, manufacturing capabilities and health care. At the same time, the Department of Defense's planned spending for 2008 is "larger than all other nations' military budgets combined and will exceed $1 trillion for the first time."
With more than 500,000 military service people stationed abroad in more than 130 countries, America has become what Johnson describes as a foreign imperialist. This poses its own dangers, such as massive standing armies, an almost constant state of war, an increasing dependence on the "military-industrial" complex, the dramatic economic drain of military spending and an excessive military budget. If left unchecked, these will lead to the eventual decline of democracy. And as resources are drained, the republican nature of American government will break down, and the principles inherent in a democratic society will necessarily be compromised by what is needed to sustain such a militaristic empire.
The breakdown is already underway. Until recently, David Walker served as the head of the Government Accountability Office, Congress' chief investigative and audit arm which investigates waste and fraud in government programs and also details the long-term budget problems facing the government. Walker warns that "declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government" all helped to contribute to Rome's downfall and are prevalent in America today.
One of the worst contributors to today's problems is what Walker calls "a leadership deficit" where today's leaders are shirking their responsibilities. They are concentrating on providing political quick fixes for the present, while giving little thought to how to create a better tomorrow. And with such irresponsible spending, America is "mortgaging the future of our country, our kids and our grandkids" and leaving a legacy of a future of "lower standards of living and with some major, major financial burdens."
Moreover, we face "a growing intellectual bankruptcy that is one of the symptoms of a dying culture," writes author Chris Hedges.
"In ancient Rome, as the republic disintegrated and the Caesars were deified, as the Roman Senate became little more than an echo chamber of the emperor, the population's attention was diverted by a series of frontier wars and violent and elaborate spectacles in the arena. The excitement of entertainment consumed ancient Rome's emotional and intellectual life. It poisoned civic and political discourse. Social critics no longer had a forum in which to speak. They were answered with ridicule and rage. It was not the prerogative of the citizen to think."
But we are not Rome -- at least, not yet, and it is still our prerogative to think and to act. In this regard, we have been woefully negligent. One of the most untenable political positions for a nation is in its attempts at preserving a domestic democracy while promoting a foreign empire. Additionally, vast resources are required to maintain an empire, as we are learning the hard way, to the detriment of our domestic economy.
"We the people" have not held our government accountable and have been content to lose ourselves in television, the Internet, cell phones and the technological gadgets that distract us from reality. We have, in the words of author Nicholas von Hoffman, become "bobbleheads in bubbleland."
Clearly, America is at a crossroads. Thus, we have a decision to make: Do we want a democracy or do we want an empire, because as history has shown, it's not possible to have both.