I came for the content but stayed for the author. Duncan has a professional but colloquial tone that is just perfect for traversing the dozens of consuls, emperors, barbarians and chaos across hundreds of years.
There are no words that can summarize all of this, from Rome nearly falling to Hannibal’s elephants in 200 BC to salting the fields over the burnt remains of Carthage after the 3rd Punic War. From the (possibly fake) “Et tu brutus?” of Caesar’s assassination to Augustus’s full transition from republic to dictatorship. From the Jewish revolts, which actually happened after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ himself, to Diocletian’s purges, to Constantine’s mandate of Christian equality 300 years later, to Christianity becoming the official religion under Theodosius few decades later. From Hadrian’s wall and the crisis of the third century to Aurelian to Diocletian’s bureaucratic reforms we see a long and chaotic history.
Despite brutal, ridiculous, stupid, and incompetent leaders in Roman history, the empire chugged on. Sometimes we panic about crazy actors in the modern world, but the world has survived through so much more.
Comparing the Fall of Rome to Modern America
Rome and America are often compared because it was the republic and hegemon of it’s era. Inevitably, the fall of Rome is a persistent harbinger for the fate of the USA.
Is modern America anywhere near the Fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century? It probably isn’t even close.
Is modern America anywhere near the fall of the Roman Republic right around 50AD? Closer – as there are more references and henceforth potential of a collective self-fulfilling prophecy. Shakespeare in the Park got in some trouble depicting the assassination of a Trump-esque Caesar in modern day times.
Politically, convention is constantly being broken for game theory. This is what Duncan cites as one of the reasons for the fall of the republic:
“Take the Gorsuch thing, denying the Supreme Court seat for a whole year. You can’t undo something like that. From now on, it feels like if you don’t have the presidency and the Senate controlled by one party, we’re just going to have empty Supreme Court seats. Because neither party now has any incentive to give in. So what’s that going to start doing to the judiciary? —- Mike Duncan interview with The Nation, What the US can learn from the fall of Rome“
This single thing won’t tip the scale, but time will tell how this momentum and precedent pans out in the next 50 years.
Why bother with history?
Learning history is like a defensive patent. We need to learn history when it isn’t politicized, so we can have a critical eye when history is actually used to push an agenda.
Otherwise you get garbage like this (speech in 1979 denouncing government programs):
“The Christians were the last to resist the tyranny of the Roman Welfare State. Until 313 A.D., they had been persecuted because of their unwillingness to worship the emperor. But in that year they struck a deal with Emperor Constantine, who granted them toleration in exchange for their acquiescence to his authority. In the year 380, a sadly-perverted Christianity became the official state religion under Emperor Theodosius. Rome’s decline was like a falling rock from this point on. Reed, Fall of Rome and Modern Parallels, 1979“
This is non-sensical rhetoric. Christians weren’t resisting the welfare state, they were resisting paganism. How does gaining religious tolerance translate to succumbing to welfare? Arguments like these simply mix and match historical half-facts, attribute causation willy nilly, and simply serve to rile people up.
Going down this rabbit hole there is still so much to learn.
This also makes me want to play more historical games like Civ. Roman game references, literature references, all sorts of references that make so much more sense now.