Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

Parallels between Rome and U.S. politics

Is America following the path of the ancient Roman Republic? Will we, as one of the greatest superpower in human history, one day crash and burn like the Romans did in the fifth century?

Is America following the path of the ancient Roman Republic? Will we, as one of the greatest superpowers in human history, one day crash and burn like the Romans did in the fifth century?

In addition to our excesses, over-indulgences and moral decadence, there are many serious problems that confront America - war fatigue, illegal immigration, our dependence on foreign oil, health care, education and huge budget deficits, just to name a few.

However, our politics may be the one single factor that could hasten our decline.

Whether Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal, it seems that there is one thing that most can agree on: politics in Washington has gotten more partisan and corrosive.

With the 2012 elections on the horizon, parties have become polarized, and partisanship has taken control of the Senate and the House.

Most voters feel that some of the most pressing and complex issues of the day are being kicked down the road because lawmakers have neither the will nor desire to work in a bipartisan way to come up with solutions.

"Both parties are doing what they think is best for this country," said Jim Barron, a history and classics teacher at the Germantown Friends School.

"The problem is that both sides have two totally different views of what America is - what it means to be American," Barron said.

What does it mean to be American? The Founding Fathers thought that they knew that when they laid the groundwork for the running of the United States in the Constitution.

"The Founding Fathers were very much against partisanship," said Mortimer N.S. Sellers, currently a Regents' professor of the University System in Maryland.

Sellers, who graduated from the Germantown Friends School and went on to study at Harvard University, noted, "[if they could see the United States today], the Founding Fathers would have been shocked."

In the eighteenth century, knowledge of the classics was an essential part of any education. Revolutionaries and politicians were well-versed in Latin and Greek, the languages, and the history of the two civilizations.

"The Founding Fathers, when writing the Constitution, were very aware that partisanship destroyed the Roman Republic, as well as the English Revolution," Sellers said.

"The Senate was once a forum for discussion," explained Barron, "and it worked quite well - the Senators would try one thing and then another, until an issue was resolved." In fact, the United States system of government, with the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the President, was modeled from the system of the Roman Republic. "You cannot truly understand the United States and the Constitution if you haven't read the classics," Sellers said.

After the Roman republic defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars in 146 B.C., however, the senators' values began to shift. "There was a disparity in wealth. Granted, there always was, but it grew, and because of that, the Roman senators' interests changed with the disparity of that moment."

The senators' goals once were to protect the republic, but with the accumulation of vast wealth, came a shift. The Senators wanted nothing more than to protect their wealth.

"This change was not the cause of the decline - rather, it was an indication of it," Barron said. "The Senators were always under the impression that they were doing what was best for the republic."

Today, United States senators and representatives are doing exactly that: attempting to do what's best for the country. "The problem wasn't that it created two sides," Barron said, "it was, and is, the objectification of what it means to be American. Nowadays it's either that it means doing something this way, or doing it that way. No compromise can be reached."

With the 2012 campaign season underway, politics in the United States appears to no longer be about what's best for the country. "It's about 'Who is right?'," Barron said, "because no one is willing to consider that there is more than one way to resolve a conflict."

Where does that leave us? What is to become of the lawmakers in Washington?

As both Barron and Sellers noted, stalemates and vying for the majority vote has become the norm. But is there hope for change? "I'm not sure what is going to happen," Barron said, "I don't know how these politicians can move past their irreconcilable differences in objectification."

"We have to reach some kind of crisis," he said, "that's when true change will occur." For the Roman republic, the crisis was the return to monarchy when Julius Caesar took control. But what will be the tipping point for the United States?

"It won't be about China surpassing us, or any international event," Barron said. "The crisis that will reunite us will be a turning point, and it will be internal."