Comparisons between Rome and the West (or the United States) are ubiquitous. Most are based on simplistic, superficial analogies used to warn of the demise of the West. These comparisons are almost always undertaken to serve ideological ends. A quick review of the youtube videos on this topic confirm this assertion. This type of speculation isn’t very surprising coming from non-experts bent on confirming their ideological predilections, but such superficial comparisons are not expected from experts. Historians cringe at the simplistic comparisons frequently found in popular culture. Unfortunately, the historian Richard Alston is not one of those historians (at least not in this article). Based on a simplistic reading of imperial Rome, Alston concludes, “In our modern attempts at state building, we must remember that for most people, the issue is not so much whether you like the rulers, but whether the regime will feed you and protect you. In the modern West, we assume loyalty to the state and thus fail to consider how states can secure the loyalty of their people. Rome’s revolutionaries reduced politics to its simplest form. They killed their enemies and rewarded their supporters; they fed the people and paid the soldiers. It is a recipe for success that we would do well to relearn.” What a sad, cynical, and ultimately incorrect assessment of the human condition. If things are really bad this kind of regime may be, and usually is, a welcome change, but I don’t think this kind of regime is one that human beings will ultimately settle for. I know I won’t!
Why study the fall of Rome and the emerging states that arose in the aftermath?
The historian Paul Fouracre explains the problems with the mythic version of the fall of Rome and the aftermath. In conclusion, he feels the need to justify the study of this period: “Most West Europeans do live in states that had their origins in what grew out of the Roman Empire and do want to know how this came about. The task is to write about this in a clear and accessible way that comprehends the complications and avoids the crusty value judgments of old. David Rollason has shown the way forward in his recent textbook, Early Medieval Europe 300-1050 (2012), which opens with the question: ‘why study this period?’ Well, because in its complications we see how the complex world in which we live first took shape. Oh, and it is fascinating.” Rollason’s answer applies equally to all other areas of history. It’s unfortunate that we as historians feel compelled to justify what we do, but the value of history is not apparent to many people.
To read Fouracre’s article go here: