No, Really, Are We Rome?

History suggests that corrosive change can be hard to see while it’s happening.

Illustration of Joseph-Noël Sylvestre's painting ‘The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Vandals’ with Trump and Q paraphernalia
Illustration by Nicolás Ortega; Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Vandals (1890). Fine Art Images / Getty.

This article was published online on March 11, 2021.

The scenes at the Capitol on January 6 were remarkable for all sorts of reasons, but a distinctive fall-of-Rome flavor was one of them, and it was hard to miss. Photographs of the Capitol’s debris-strewn marble portico might have been images from eons ago, at a plundered Temple of Jupiter. Some of the attackers had painted their bodies, and one wore a horned helmet. The invaders occupied the Senate chamber, where Latin inscriptions crown the east and west doorways. Commentators who remembered Cicero invoked the senatorial Catiline conspiracy. Headlines referred to the violent swarming of Capitol Hill as a “sack.”

Outside, a pandemic raged, recalling the waves of plague that periodically swept across the Roman empire. As the nation reeled, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the role of a magister militum addressing the legions, issued an unprecedented advisory that put the sitting ruler on notice, condemning “sedition and insurrection” and noting that the inauguration of a new ruler would proceed. Amid all this came a New York Times report on the discovery and display of artifacts from the gardens of Caligula, an erratic and vengeful emperor, one of whose wives was named Milonia.

Ever since Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the prospect of a Rome-inflected apocalypse has cast its chilling spell. Britain’s former American colonies, which declared their independence the year Gibbon’s first volume was published, have been especially troubled by the parallels they discerned. The Founders feared the stealthy creep of tyranny. Half a century later, the narrative progression of The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole’s allegorical series of paintings, depicted the consequences of overweening ambition and national hubris. Today, as ever, observers are on the alert for portents of the Last Days, and have been quick, like Cato, to hurl warnings. And of course there are some Americans—including the January 6 attackers—who would find national collapse momentarily satisfying. “Sack Rome?” a barbarian wife says to her husband in an old New Yorker cartoon. “That’s your answer to everything.”

The comparisons, of course, can be facile. A Roman state of some sort lasted so long—well over a millennium—and changed so continuously that its history touches on any imaginable type of human occurrence, serves up parallels for any modern event, and provides contradictory answers to any question posed. Still, I am not immune to preoccupation with the Roman past. A decade and a half ago, I published a book called Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, which looked closely at the age-old Rome-and-America comparison. The focus was mainly on themes that transcend partisan politics, but it was also written at a particular moment, and reflected certain brute realities: The country was mired in Iraq and Afghanistan; fear and suspicion of foreigners were on the rise; and public functions of all kinds (maintaining highways, operating prisons, providing security) were being privatized. All of this had echoes in Rome’s long story.

It’s not as if the themes I wrote about then are obsolete. But they have a new context. The comparisons that come to mind now are not only about realities on the ground but about unrealities in our heads. The debasement of truth, the cruelty and moral squalor of many leaders, the corruption of basic institutions—signs of rot were proliferating well before January 6, and they remain, though the horde has been repelled.

If I were writing Are We Rome? today, one new theme I’d emphasize emerges from a phrase we heard over and over during the Trump administration: “adults in the room.” The basic idea—a delusion with a long history—was that an unfit and childish chief executive could be kept in check by the seasoned advisers around him, and if not by them, then by the competent career professionals throughout the government. The administration official who anonymously published a famous op-ed in The New York Times in 2018 offered explicit reassurance: “Americans should know that there are adults in the room.” Various individuals were given adult-in-the-room designation, including the White House counsel Don McGahn and Chief of Staff John Kelly. I sometimes imagined these adults, who included distinguished military veterans, wearing special ribbons. The obvious flaw in the arrangement was that the child could summarily dismiss the adults with an intemperate tweet.

For long periods in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, the Roman empire was literally in the hands of children, as reigning emperors died unexpectedly and sons as young as 4 and 8 ascended to the most exalted rank. Adults in the room were appointed to serve them—often capable generals such as Stilicho (who served Honorius) and Aetius (who served Valentinian III). The idea was to acknowledge imperial authority as sacrosanct but at the same time have people in charge who could handle the job. And often it worked, for a while. The diplomat and historian Priscus described what happened when Valentinian grew up. The emperor’s intemperate tweet took this form:

As Aetius was explaining the finances and calculating tax revenues, with a shout Valentinian suddenly leaped up from his throne and cried out that he would no longer endure to be abused by such treacheries … While Aetius was stunned by this unexpected rage and was attempting to calm his irrational outburst, Valentinian drew his sword from his scabbard and together with Heracleius, who was carrying the cleaver ready under his cloak (for he was a head chamberlain), fell upon him.

There is no substitute, it turns out, for actual leadership at the top. Even so, when the adults are gone, the next line of defense is bureaucratic heroism. A civil service is one reason entities as large as the Roman empire—or the British or American one—have had staying power. Watch the behavior of imperial functionaries in the fifth century, when much of the Roman world was falling apart, and you see the ability of bureaucratic procedure and administrative competence—food goes here, gold goes there—to hold bits of the rickety scaffolding together when no one seems to be in charge. I’m not aware of ancient references to a civitas profunda, but the “deep state” is neither a modern nor a malevolent invention.

Yet these behind-the-scenes efforts at preserving normalcy do eventually falter, and a second new theme might be the dangers that apparent continuity, including symbolic continuity, can conceal. Corrosive change—in values, behavior, infrastructure—is often hard to observe; things look the same, until they don’t. Even before January 6—or November 3—many worried that the outward forms of American democracy might prove more robust than the thing itself. Inaugurations lift the spirit, but among Millennials in the U.S., fewer than a third believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy (this from findings reported by the political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk). Congress has ceded authority to the president across a wide front, preserving mainly its capacity to hinder, acclaim, and conspire. The power to declare war survives only as an artfully arranged fig leaf; it was in fact relinquished decades ago. For all that, the Capitol is still reverenced as “the people’s house.”

Octavian, Julius Caesar’s adopted son, made himself Rome’s first emperor, ruling under the name Augustus. But he understood the utility of make-believe, maintaining the fiction that he had preserved republican government. Augustus did not proclaim himself an autocrat; the title princeps would do—the “first man.” In the manner of Donald Trump’s 1776 Project, but adroitly, he invoked the blessing of ancient sentiment to conceal radical intentions. The Senate would go on meeting, enjoying what the Roman historian Tacitus called “pretenses of freedom” long after it ceased to play any important role; in fact, it went on meeting after the empire was gone. Tacitus is always a delight:

This was a tainted, meanly obsequious age. The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.

Form endures when substance is gone. In time, the city of Rome became as much a fiction as the vestiges of the old republic. Augustus adorned the capital not only with temples but also with election facilities. (And he showed up in person to vote, though the process was a charade.) Centuries later, Rome continued to look like an imperial capital, and extract wealth like one, even after becoming an empty shell. The real action and power had shifted elsewhere. Generals and armies roamed the provinces, responding to emergencies (and the ambitions of one another). Rival cities rose. But grain shipments to Rome continued. Monuments were cherished as touchstones of enduring greatness. Distinguished families lived in splendor. Senators plotted.

A third new theme might take up the idea of “alternative facts.” The term was coined by the Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway to put a gloss on one set of lies; it soon became shorthand for all of them. The administration’s reliance on falsehood needs no belaboring. It gave life to conspiracy theories, undermined faith in a national election, and stoked acts of insurrection. Allies on television and on social media helped all of that along. The Romans had a word for such allies: panegyrists.

Social media in ancient Rome was of the old-fashioned kind—word of mouth. While serving overseas as a provincial governor, Cicero designated an associate named Caelius to keep him up-to-date about rumors back home. Caelius informed Cicero that he was paying special attention to the susurratores (“whisperers”), the political gossips who lurked in the Forum. There were truth-tellers throughout Roman history, but as the centuries wore on, the telling of official lies became a recognized art form. Panegyrists were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated. The narrative arcs—about the prosperity of the empire, about success in battle—bend toward glory. The panegyrist Mamertinus evokes the glowing nimbus of Maximian’s hair. The panegyrist Claudian describes how Honorius will make Rome great again:

Oak groves shall drip with honey; streams of wine well up on every side, lakes of olive oil abound. No price shall be asked for fleeces dyed scarlet, but of themselves shall the flocks grow red to the astonishment of the shepherd, and in every sea the green seaweed will laugh with flashing jewels.

We will be tired of so much winning. The fulsome phrases of the panegyrists made Edward Gibbon squirm. But by empire’s end, giving praise to the ruler was the dominant form of rhetoric. And to many eyes, Gibbon knew, the portrait painted by the panegyrist was synonymous with history.

I subscribe to an academic news feed that drops research about Rome into my inbox—a history-book version of the beer-of-the-month club. Scholars engage in heated arguments about the Roman empire, but one thing we know for sure is that it is gone. And, unlike Brexit, no one was aware of the “end” as it was happening. Rome was sacked, as were other cities, and armed conflict at times brought turmoil, but decay occurred over centuries, and for many the transition from one thing to another was not stark. The human life span puts blinders on perception.

But that same life span concentrates human concerns in a useful way. Think of it as the inertia of the ordinary, a final new theme. For all the images of Roman calamity, the makings of a quieter set of images sit on a table near my desk—mundane odds and ends from the ancient world, given to me over the years. Most of them are from imperial Rome: a clay oil lamp, a delicate glass vase, colored marble from a villa’s floor, curved white limestone from a window’s arch, a grinding stone, a writing stylus, a key in the shape of a ring, a votive figurine. And coins—a silver denarius from the reign of Marcus Aurelius, for instance, and another from the reign of his unfortunate son, Commodus.

What the antiquities represent are not triumph and glory, but basic human needs—food, shelter, safety, knowledge, commerce, beauty, the life of the spirit—and the organized activities that secure them. These activities have, so far, always survived calamity—a bridge from every past to every future. Human society is resilient. And tending to basic needs can be a source of aspiration. America’s Constitution defined the promotion of “general welfare” and “domestic tranquility” as part of the country’s very purpose.

But resilience does not prevent calamity. And being blindsided in slow motion is the hardest fate to avoid. The historian Ramsay MacMullen once distilled the long arc of the Roman empire into three words—“fewer have more”—but only the time-lapse perspective of a millennium and a half allows us to understand such a thing with brutal clarity. The sack of Washington unfolded suddenly, in a way no one could miss. The greater dangers come in stealth.