I occasionally run across those who like to use the Roman Empire as a warning. It reminds me of a poster I saw once: “Maybe the reason for being is to serve as a warning to others.” The short form of the dire message I here goes like this: “the Roman Empire fell because of moral decline.” Next, my instructor will make comparisons with some hideous offence that he or she sees in America today, followed by the warning that if we don’t straighten up and fly right, we’ll go the way of the Romans.
I’m still trying to figure out when the Romans had any morality that they could abandon. For instance, before he seized power, Julius Caesar boasted of slaughtering over 100,000 people in just one of his trips into Gaul. Not 100,000 on the battlefield either. Julius Caesar’s body count came from razing villages, where he hacked off the heads of children, women, old men, and the disabled. When he got home, there were no newspapers decrying his abuse of human rights. Instead, this slaughter was celebrated by everyone in Rome as a part of Caesar’s greatness. There were speeches praising him, triumphal celebrations, and murals and statues were made to show in gory detail how Caesar and his troops had raped barbarian women and sliced barbarian children's heads off.
All that, and Rome's greatest days were yet ahead of her.
Meanwhile, the political corruption in the Roman Republic (which continued in the time of the Empire that followed Caesar’s death), would have made Enron executives green with envy. Bribery was a normal cost of doing business. Government posts were openly sold to the highest bidder. Politicians switched sides weekly, depending on who was paying them at the moment. Votes were bought and sold over and over again. Some citizens in Rome made their living simply by selling their votes.
In his early days, Julius Caesar received a nice post as governor. The pay for such a post was modest. And yet somehow, in the year or two he was governor, he went from being the equivalent of several million bucks in debt to having a vast fortune of millions. He didn’t manage that by the wise investment of his paltry salary. He stole, he took bribes, he plundered the people he was supposed to be governing.
Emperors had to watch their friends, wives, and children carefully and most of them still wound up dying from either poison in their food or a misplaced knife. And then when the wife or child took the dead emperor’s place, the other children, sisters, brothers, mothers, uncles and aunts, had a tendency to turn up dead very quickly.
And then there’s the issue of marriage and sex; these two things were not closely related among the Romans, and marriages were made and unmade quickly and repeatedly. Marriages and sexual liaisons were made for material gain, or to solidify a political pact. Caesar’s soldiers referred to him affectionately as “the bald adulterer” and sang songs warning towns they were entering that the men should lock up their wives and daughters and mothers because Caesar was coming.
The bottom line is this: there was no decline in Roman morality. It was bad to the bone from its earliest beginnings until the day it ceased to exist. Not that their morals were much better or worse than those of any other nation that one would care to study. People, especially people in power, tend toward corruption, greed, and vice. And yet their nations still endure and prosper.
As to American morality, there are those who will argue that in America we've fallen into wickedness and hedonism and that we got what was coming to us on 9/11 or from Katrina. This strikes me as really odd. How can it be that there are those in the US who agree with the Islamo-fascists’ opinion of us? Do we really think someone who cuts off people’s heads or blows themselves up so they can kill children on a bus has great insight on issues of morality? Can terrorists offer us legitimate and thoughtful critiques of American morality?
So when the British sacked Washington DC and burned the Capital and the White House during the War of 1812, that was because we’re sinners? And the bombing of Pearl Harbor was that really because of our moral decline?
I tend to think that our morals have improved over the years. I just ask myself, would I rather be a black man living in Selma in the 1950’s or today? Did anyone talk about or worry about spousal abuse or child abuse in the 1950’s? Think it didn’t exist then? Think again. It’s just that no one considered it an issue needing any attention.
Or how about this: is an America with or without slavery a better place? Do we think the Romans ever worried about killing civilians when they fought wars? Had they, or anyone, prior to the twentieth century developed the concept of war crimes? How about the Geneva Convention? I’m doubtful that Genghis Khan would have even been able to understand our disgust at those pictures from Abu Ghraib.
When someone tells me that America is in moral decline, when someone tells me that the world is going downhill, when I start to feel depressed by the bad news on TV, I just pick up a history book and take a look. It reminds me that things have been far worse.