By Mark Skousen
Talk delivered on Saturday, September 11, 2021, Kimber Academy in Lehi, Utah and Liberty United Festival in Vineyard, Utah
“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” – Mark Twain
“In the end, there was no money left to pay the army, build forts or ships, or protect the frontier. The barbarian invasions were the final blow to the Roman state in the fifth century, [caused] by three centuries of deterioration in fiscal capacity…”
— Bruce Barlett, “How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome,” Cato Journal (1994)
It was 20 years ago today that my wife and I arrived in New York, where I was installed as president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), and witnessed first hand the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was an unforgettable day of infamy, and has so affected our culture, our liberties and our lives that we observe the date every year.
Looking back, one thing I remember the most was that New Yorkers and Americans in general were completely unified in spirit at this time. For months, residents posted pictures of family members who had died on 9/11. Everyone was kind and friendly, like we were brothers and sisters in this together. A few weeks later, I carried a large box of books downtown, and a New Yorker offered to help carry the box up the stairs from the train station.
The other thing that I noticed is the street vendors in New York never displayed or sold post cards or pictures of airlines flying into the Twin Towers. They respected the depth of sorrow after this event.
The City was shut down for some time and everyone in the New York tried to access the damage and further threats to our security. Smoke filled the city, businesses closed and events were canceled.
The first decision I had to make as the new president of FEE was to determine if we should cancel our annual Liberty dinner scheduled in October. Our keynote speakers was Paul Gigot, the new editor of the Wall Street Journal, and I couldn’t even get a hold of him. (The Journal had moved their headquarters temporarily from Wall Street across the river to New Jersey.)
I gathered my staff the next day to make the decision. Most staff members thought we should cancel or postpone the Liberty dinner. Our phones were quiet. Nobody was calling in to sign up for the dinner. I thought about it, and then said, “My first act as president of FEE is not going to cancel our annual dinner. If that means just all of us sitting around the kitchen table, then so be it.”
It was the right thing to do. Within a week the phones started ringing again, and we had a full crowd of over 200 people at the Harvard Club in October, and Paul Gigot showed up and we had a big success.
Since then, many friends of liberty have asked the question, “Are our freedoms in jeopardy? Is America in decline like ancient Rome?” I have a dozen books on ancient Rome in my library, and after Jake Oaks, the producer of the Liberty United Festival asked me to speak on this topic on 9/11, I read through these books, including Edward Gibbon’s classic 6-volume work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in 1776.
We decided to debate this question at FreedomFest in 2013.
Our theme at FreedomFest was “Are We Rome?” to be held appropriately at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. We had a record turnout that year.
To introduce the theme, we showed this 3-minute. Watch it here: Are We Rome? FreedomFest 2013 on Vimeo
We had quite a group of speakers on this topic:
Steve Forbes, author, “Power Ambition Glory: The Stunning Parallels between the Ancient World and Today.”
Lawrence W. Reed, president of FEE, “The Fall of Rome and Modern Parallels.” (Afterwards, he spoke numerous times around the country on this question, and write a pamphlet, “Are We Rome?” published by FEE: https://fee.org/resources/are-we-rome-by-lawrence-w-reed/)
Marc Eliot, Hollywood’s #1 biographer, on “Ben Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra, Gladiator: Epic Films of Roman Times.”
Paul Cantor, University of Virginia professor of English literature, on “Empire and the Loss of Freedom: What Shakespeare’s Rome Can Tell About Us.”
Doug Casey (author and investment writer) vs. Harry Veryser (economist at the University of Detroit-Mercy and Catholic historian) will debate “Did Christianity Cause the Fall of Rome?”
Pat Heller, Liberty Coin Co., “The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Money — And What It Means for America Today.” He has samples of Roman coins to show attendees.
David Boaz, Cato Institute, “George Washington, a Modern-day Cincinnatus: The Man Who Would NOT be King.”
Jo Ann Skousen, professor of English literature at Mercy College and director of Anthem film festival, on “Greek and Roman Mythology in 50 Minutes.”
Jim Gwartney and Randy Holcomb (Florida State economists): “The Decline of Economic Freedom in America: Are We on the Path to Rome?”
Tom Palmer: “Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar” and “Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Citizen” — Tom is always knowledgeable on all things historical.
J. C. Bradbury, top sports economist (Kennesaw State University), on “Who Are The Modern-Day Gladiators? Sports as an Alternative to War.”
Valerie Durham, Isadora Duncan dance instructor, “Music and Dance in Roman Times.”
We are Different….
Of course, we are different from ancient Rome in a thousand ways. Theirs was largely agrarian. Our standard of living and technological advances are 100 times higher than the average Roman citizen of 2000 years ago. Life expectancy was only 41 for Roman men and 29 for women. Life was cheap. Over half the population in the Roman empire were slaves. Women could not vote. Romans worshiped a plurality of gods, and only became Christian near the end. They loved blood sports where for entertainment the masses enjoyed watching slaves and gladiators and even Christians die. Dictators often killed their enemies (Cicero and Cato being prime examples.)
There was virtually no middle class – only rich and poor. After the republic, Rome was ruled mainly by tyrants and dictators. And Roman leaders like Caesar and Augustus would be baffled by how the United States treated the conquered nations of Germany and Japan after World War II. Finally, we are babes in the woods compared to Rome. Our republic has lasted nearly 250 years; Rome lasted 1,000 years.
…And We Are Alike
But in other ways, we are much like ancient Rome. Both nations were born in a revolt against monarchy – the American colonies against a British sovereign, Rome against its own kings – and replaced it with a republic. Like Rome of old, America dominates the world militarily, culturally, and economically. American English is the language of commerce and science. Like ancient Rome, we are a melting pot of ethnic groups. Fifty states are united into a gigantic free-trade zone, and we’ve enjoyed decades without world war.
As Adam Smith once said, “Little else is required for a nation to go from the lowest barbarism to the highest level of opulence but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice.”
Books and Speeches on Ancient Rome and Today
The question “Are We Rome?” remains a popular debate topic for Americans since we became a superpower in the 20th century. Hollywood, in particular, has been fascinated with the story of ancient Rome, and many films with Roman themes have become classics, such as Ben Hur, Spartacus, and Gladiator.
I have the first edition of a book, The New Deal in Old Rome, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1939, in which the author, H. J. Haskell, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, contends that the decline and fall of the Roman empire was being reenacted in the United States after we went off the gold standard, adopted a welfare state, and pursued world war.
“The spending for non-productive public works, for the bureaucracy, and for the army, led to excessive taxation, inflation, and the ruin of the essential middle class and its leaders,” Haskell writes in the preface.
The book proved to be a bestseller at the beginning of World War II.
The latest book is Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, by another journalist, Cullen Murphy, published in 2007 by Houghton Mufflin.
He answered, “Are we Rome? In important ways we just might be. In important ways we’re clearly making some of the same mistakes” (p. 206).
Benefiting from Roman Traditions
It’s worth pointing out that America has drawn upon many Roman traditions. I have a book entitled “Why We’re All Romans,” by historian Carl J. Richard. He notes the following: We use the Roman alphabet (rather than Greek, Chinese or Arabic). Our months of the year, from January to December, are Roman. July is named after Julius Caesar, August from Caesar Augustus. Christmas grew out of an ancient Roman pagan festival honoring the agricultural go Saturn. Most of the most influential Christian philosophers, including St Paul and Augustine, were Roman citizens. The Bible was translated in the Latin Vulgate, and Latin was the official language of the Catholic mass until the 1960s.
Fortunately, the West rejected the cumbersome Roman numerals and replaced them gradually with the far more productive Arabic numerals. Ah, the benefits of cultural appropriation!
The founders adopted many aspects of Roman law and politics, and the early years of the Roman republic were an inspiration to the American Constitution. We have a Senate representing an upper-class group of legislators, and an assembly elected by the people (House of Representatives). Rome and the United States share the symbol of the eagle (but so did the Nazis). Our government building and Capitol are often an imitation of Roman architecture.
The Rome That We Admire
The founding fathers were familiar with the history of the Roman empire and often sought to imitate their good traits.
There are aspects of Roman leadership that we greatly admire, such as their building of their roads, bridges and aqueducts. At the height of the Roman Empire, they had 370 separate highways stretching 53,000 miles, about the length of the US interstate system. The roads were built to last, paved of stone and iron, and 10 feet deep. Can we say the same for America’s infrastructure? Many Roman roads, bridges and aqueducts can still be seen today, an engineering wonder. How many presidents can say, as Augustus Caesar did, “I found it brick and left it marble”?
We admire the Roman Empire as a gigantic free-trade zone, and even though Augustus Caesar was a dictator, he lived frugally and modestly, and focused on a competent and efficient administration.
For a period of time, Rome allowed free speech. Anyone could criticize the emperor as long as he spoke inside the Forum.
It has been a tradition to write or speak on liberty when visiting the Forum. In 1854, John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet visited the Forum and Mill came up with the idea of writing his libertarian tract, On Liberty, published in 1860. In 1954, Friedrich Hayek followed in Mill’s footsteps and at the Forum decided to write his book The Constitution of Liberty, published in 1960. Continuing this tradition, in 2009 I wore a toga and spoke freely in favor of “persuasion over force” in the Roman forum. See
Rome depended on the rule of law based on the Twelve Tables. The United States created a Constitution that drew upon the ideas of Roman statesmen, including the idea of representative government, checks and balances, a judiciary, and limits (veto power) on our leaders.
The founders admired the great statesmen, military leaders, orators, and philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome. George Washington admired Cincinnatus, the Roman general who twice rescued Rome from attack, and each time retired to his farm. John Adams sought to imitate Cicero, the famous orator, and Cato, the Young, public servants who spent their career battling the likes of Julius Caesar. “Pushed and injured and provoked as I am, I blush not to imitation the Roman [Cicero],” said Adams.
King George III was compared to Julius Caesar. “We will have no Caesars in this country!” declared Benjamin Rush.
One of the purposes of the US Constitution was to contain the power of ambitious and avarice leaders. Benjamin Franklin warned, “We see the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more. I am apprehensive, perhaps too apprehensive, that the government of these states may in future times, end in a monarchy, and a King will sooner be set over us.”
Lessons from Rome’s Mistakes
What lessons can we learn from Rome’s decline and fall?
The founders saw that ancient Rome had no succession plan. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, 23 emperors were murdered. It was always uncertain who would take their place. The American founders provided a way to get rid of bad rulers through the impeachment process, and if a president died in office, to replace him with the vice president.
Ancient Rome had a constitution based on a powerful devotion for centuries to custom, precedent and consensus, but which was not written. That make it easier for an overzealous politician to bent the rules or simply disobey them. For centuries Rome had two consuls running the government who were elected each year, and there were term limits. But at the end of the Republic, ambitious generals ignored this tradition and sought to become dictators for life.
This was one reason the founders insisted on a written constitution, although even then we know how easy it is to get around it.
Historians point to over 200 reasons for Rome’s fall. Rome destroyed itself internally and externally. Gradually its citizens became rich and decadent, demanding more free benefits from the government. “Bread and circuses” were the rallying cry. The welfare program offered free grain, olive oil and wine, and eventually eliminated a means test so that everyone qualified.
Internally, the growing and expensive welfare state destroy not only destroyed the character of the Roman citizens, but its fiscal sanity. The welfare state led to confiscatory taxation, excessive debt, inflation, and wage-price controls.
We Americans are no fans of excessive government bureaucracy that Rome was famous for – tax collectors, administrators and soldiers were all a drain on the economy, and eventually leading to runaway inflation (coin clipping), and draconian wage and price controls edict under Diocletian in 301.
Ancient Rome was also done in by costly foreign wars. Just as Rome spread itself too thin around the ancient world, today the United States has 2.5 million troops stationed at over 700 bases in sixty countries.
Will America split in two like Rome did into East (Constantinople) and West (Rome)?
Mindful of these destructive policies in ancient Rome, our founders created the US Constitution to reduce the chances that America would follow the same fate. Unfortunately, the Constitution can only do so much.
As a student of history, I conclude that it is premature to say America is destined to collapse like the Roman empire. But we are headed in that direction. We are in many ways in decline. Certainly China – the most serious threat to America’s dominance as the world’s #1 military and economic prowess – believes that the West is in decline and is doing everything in its military and economic power to take its place and achieve world domination by 1949, the 100th anniversary of the Communist takeover of China, what President Xi Jinping calls “the long game.”
To summarize my view, I’m reminded of the story of a young man who approached Adam Smith, the venerable professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University, and author of “The Wealth of Nations.” The young man informed Dr. Smith that the British had lost to the Americans at Sarasota in 1777, a turning point in the War of Independence, and declared, “We are lost!” To which Adam Smith replied, “There is much ruin in a nation.”
There’s a great many good people residing her in America; let’s not sell America short.
But let us not be blind to our growing problems. We are in the early stages of decline, but there is no reason why we can turn things around. All we need to for good men and women to fight for our rights and our liberties. To quote a line from Shakespeare’s Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Interestingly, the first Roman king was named Romulus. Fittingly, a thousand years later, the last emperor of Rome was also named Romulus. So beware if we have a future president by the name of Washington.