The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea

From The Wall Street Journal:

This is a history of Rome in which the first name is that of Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan’s name almost the last. President Trump earns his place with his inaugural address promising to “make America great again,” President Reagan with a speech in 1969 on the theme of “decline and fall” in which the greatest empire in Western history collapsed in bureaucracy, excessive welfare payments, taxes on the middle class and long-haired students wearing makeup. Edward J. Watts, a professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, is a scholar of the later ancient world, who takes his readers from republican Rome to Republican Washington with a resounding theme that anyone promising to restore lost greatness is probably up to no good.

Throughout the years of his story he finds a range of cases where politicians first claim that society is “becoming worse” than it was during a great past and then “suggest a path toward restoration that consists of rebalancing society to address the problems they identify.” His modern abusers of history come from Spain and the Philippines as well as the U.S. When “radical innovation” is dressed as the “defense of tradition” he sees a trail of victims—immigrants, dissidents and the young.

Roman history, he argues, is the most abused in this fashion because it is absolutely at the heart of Western culture. President Trump, after his appearance in Mr. Watts’s first line, is not mentioned by name again and no one has ever suggested him as a student of Classics. Yet Mr. Watts is not the first to point out the real-estate magnate’s instinctive grasp of rhetorical themes—populist anti-elitism as well as nostalgia—that were well-tested over the Roman ages.

This is a powerful lens through which to view the past, both for those who already think they know it well and those who have practical uses for it. The first villains in the book are identified even before Rome has an emperor, led by the “cynical” Marcus Porcius Cato, who blamed immigrant Greeks for corrupting the Roman young in the early second century B.C. Cato is followed by the down-at-heel aristocrat Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who in the 80s B.C. slaughtered thousands of his fellow citizens in a program of turning back the clock toward a better age. By the end of the book, Mussolini in Ethiopia and Rodrigo Duterte in Manila have joined other villains in what Mr. Watts sees as a pattern of disguising brutal policies within disingenuous history.

There are surprisingly generous words for leaders regularly seen as the worst of their kind, the emperors Caligula (A.D. 37-41) and Nero (54-68), both of whom “prized stability and continuity” with the immediate past instead of embracing the “language of Roman decline and renewal.” These men may have been vicious fantasists, claiming divinity and artistic genius for themselves, but they did not inflict a political fantasy of restoration.

It is hard to make heroes of Caligula and Nero. A firmer positive verdict goes to Antoninus Pius (138-61), a “savior and restorer” in the eyes of those to whom he sent disaster relief, and to the first African emperor, Septimius Severus (193-211), who restored the fabric of Rome at the end of the second century without claiming to be restoring any grander concept. This is the model that Mr. Watts approves. In his final paragraph, he offers his readers two approaches to what he perceives as pressing modern crises—modern “political instability, environmental degradation, wealth inequality and climate change.” Some, like Sulla, create scapegoats. Others, like Antoninus Pius, aim to bring society together. President Trump was certainly a Sulla: whether his successor is an Antonine, Mr. Watts does not say.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

3 thoughts on “The Eternal Decline and Fall of Rome: The History of a Dangerous Idea”

      • Followed by the ninth century cooldown, a general downwards trend, and the Little Ice Age.

        Global temperature history is complicated. The world *is* warming…for now… But previous big warming periods were all followed by ice ages and we *are* in an interglacial period and will remain in it as long as Antarctica is atop the south pole and the north poke is surrounded by land, with limited current flows from the south.

        Predicting future weather hinges on assumptions and the data used (or rejected). More so the longer the scale of the baseline data. But that doesn’t serve the idiot politicians’ interests in finding an agenda to hitch their careers to.

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