Thoughts on Rome
Rome's sad fate was sealed sometime during its wars with Carthage. When Carthage wad destroyed, the Romans acquired the lands once controlled by Carthage -- Spain, Libya, Morocco, Corsica and Sardinia. Carthage was the center of a trading empire, and so Rome seized a great deal of wealth through the conquest. The spoils of victory had a destabilizing effect on Rome's class system, adding domestic chaos to foreign entanglements. As the Punic Wars dragged on, the military gradually increased in prominence in Roman society. The Roman institution of the dictatorship -- an institution that was much feared, and for good reason -- allowed Julius Cesar to first claim the title of dictator rei gerendae causa, and then dictator perpetuus.
The moment the Senate voted Cesar dictator perpetuus, the Roman republic was dead. If the Senate had refused, and Cesar had destroyed it, perhaps the republic could have been re-formed after Cesar's death. Instead, the republic chose to chain itself to the emperor, and the fate of leadership without accountability is always inevitable decline. That is why republics exist in the first place -- they are a hedge against human vices and vanities.
Turning to the American republic, the huge importance of the military in society throughout the twentieth century is troubling. The domestic unhappiness (not yet chaos) caused by the uneven distribution of America's great expansion of prosperity is troubling. The current executive's efforts to undermine the powers of its coequal branches of government are troubling, especially since these efforts are justified in the name of emergency conditions and extraordinary circumstances.
Whenever George Bush talks about "these troubling times" and the "war on terror," I remember that the Roman republic died so that someone could wield emergency powers, and fate of Rome itself eventually reflected the fate of its republic. During the Dark Ages, Rome was essentially abandoned. Farmers planted fields where the Senate once met.
When I look at the old battered Pantheon, I can't help but hope that someone will always tend to the paint on the US Capitol. I hope that no one ever wanders through Washington D.C., snapping pictures of the awesome bones of a defunct empire. I want Americans to hold their noses and vote, year after year, for a government that belongs to everyone. I want Washington to remain forever a mildly contemptible town where Americans get down to the business of governing, and that it never becomes the seat of a great empire.
Most of all, I hope that our republic is built of stronger stuff than Rome's.