Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Politics: That metaphor's getting stretchmarks.

I was going to title this post "Oh, really? Where are our foederati then?", but most folks aren't literate enough on the topic of the late Roman empire to know what "foederati" are. Apparently you can count David Walker, the comptroller general of the U.S., among that number. In an attempt to add pizazz to his "We're All Gonna Die" evaluation of the nation's future prospects, he claimed striking similarities between the U.S.A. of today and the last days of the Roman empire. (I'm assuming he's referring to the fizzling out of the Western Empire and not the storming of Constantinople by the Turks in the mid-15th Century.) According to him, these similar factors are
“declining moral values and political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”.

Where to start? As far as "declining moral values" goes, I can't see that the Western empire was any more decadent in the 5th Century AD than it was in the 1st Century BC. Heck, by the early 400s, gladiatorial combat had been outlawed after declining in popularity for half a century, monasticism was increasing in popularity, and Christianity of an early and austere form was the state religion. This tends to come as a surprise to people who hear "Rome" and immediately think of that bootleg copy of Caligula they watched on their parents' Betamax back in the day. As far as "political incivility" goes, "politics" as we know them were largely unknown in the late empire; the Senate had devolved into a senescent gentleman's club, and the imperial administration was thoroughly autocratic. Rome's military was overstretched, but it was overstretched within its own frontier and not in foreign lands. The manpower shortage in the legions became acute, with citizens of the empire going so far as to cut off their own right thumbs to avoid conscription. Recruits had to be branded to reduce desertion. The desperate gambit of forcing the sons of the men who served in the limitanei, or border militias, to be literally born into the garrison didn't even help. Which brings us back around to foederati.

The Roman army was stretched too thin to prevent constant incursions by Germans, most of whom were less interested in plunder than they were in settling down in Roman territory and enjoying the good life, which they didn't understand came with things like property deeds and taxes attached. Thus came the foederati system. Tribes would be allowed to cross the border and live under their own laws, speaking their own language, in their own areas within the empire, on the condition that they signed a treaty of friendship with Rome and that they provided troops for the army. These troops used their own equipment, fought in their own style and under their own leaders, and by the time of Stilicho or Aetius, it could be hard to tell a Roman army from the Germans or Huns they faced.

In the end, the Roman empire in the west never really fell. It just sort of dissolved, with tribal areas growing like inkblots, and tribes moving into the empire without asking permission. When all was said and done, they just sent the crown back to Constantinople, as there wasn't really an empire in the west any more, only a bunch of Germanic kingdoms with Roman priests and merchants and clerks. So, yes, the end of the empire in the west is fascinating history. I just wonder how much of it Mr. Walker has studied.

(H/T to Cameron Bailey.)

14 comments:

CGHill said...

I suspect he saw a paperbound copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall (not Waugh's - that would be just too perverse) and decided that hey, no one's ever used this comparison before.

Not in the last forty-five seconds, anyway.

Cybrludite said...

"Oh, really? Where are our foederati then?"

Mowing lawns, picking tomatoes, working construction, and generally doing "those jobs Americans won't do"...

Tam said...

;)

pignock said...

Can you recommend one book on the history of Rome? Not Gibbon though - I've read most of the first volume and I have a couple of complaints:

1. I want to know about the rise of Rome too (I know - the word decline in the title should have clued me in)

2. Gibbon was a little too victorian in his descriptions of the debauchery. I want lurid details.


Thanks,

Keith

Tam said...

Storming the Heavens and Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels by Santuosso; Rubicon by Holland; The First Century by Klingaman.

Of the originals, Tacitus or Caesar are probably the easiest reading.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention all those sane, modest, compassionate leaders Rome had.

GeorgeH said...

"Where are our foederati?"

In the part of the US they call 'Aztlan' resolutely speaking their own language and attempting to reintroduce their own laws by switching the areas allegiance to Mexico.

Tam said...

"Not to mention all those sane, modest, compassionate leaders Rome had."

After the early 4th Century, the empire had no "leader". East and West each had their own Augustus, or emperor, as well as their own Caesar, the declared successor of the Augustus. You think Pelosi, Bush, Cheney, and Reid get into spitball fights? Imagine that situation...

comatus said...

You can blame Cicero or Sallust, but every Bartlett-scanner who jerks Rome into the barfight thinks he's a conservative. Usually it's "LBJ conservative," same as Augustus. Adams and Jefferson had a tickle-fest over Rome and ended up agreeing (more or less) that there wasn't really any Republic there to save. At various times, The Irish, the scandis, the heathen chinee and various euro-trash have been cited as the barbarians at our gates (and at various times, I spose, all have been); during the Calhoun era, slavery was cast as no big deal; it just made the US an heir to Rome...

The most fun thing about the matter of Rome is that you can argue about anything with it. To sum up, _________(insert your shibboleth here) delenda est.

Tam said...

"The most fun thing about the matter of Rome is that you can argue about anything with it. To sum up, _________(insert your shibboleth here) delenda est."

...and THAT, ladies and germs, is a quote for the ages. :)

Anonymous said...

On the other hand this IS true

"fiscal irresponsibility by the central government”

Just cross out the central and add an S to government.

Akatsukami said...

Actually, the circumstances of the U.S. (and Western culture in general) are more like the late Republic than the late Empire. The first Emperor of the West probably hasn't been born yet.

Cameron Bailey said...

Thanks for the tip, and I enjoyed reading your analysis of Mr. Walkers report.

Zendo Deb said...

Tam, the reason the Left stopped teaching History and Geography as topics in schools is that it makes it easier for them to argue anything they want to argue. Specifically, they are free to sweep the lessons of history about communism under the rug. (Dead Ukrainians? Cultural Revolution? Great Leap Forward? ... )

And the right jumps in too and says that the constitution is based on the 10 commandments (and ignores little things like Greek Democracy, Magna Carta, and few other things - like the whole of the Enlightenment).

Since no one - or very few - know history, we are bound to repeat parts of it.