I have been asked numerous times over the years if the American republic is doomed to failure or if it’s headed the route of the Roman Empire. I have been asked if history really does repeat itself. To the latter question I respond in my opinion history does not ever truly repeat itself, although there are many similarities and conclusions to be drawn from those. To the former I respond it is hard to say. Looking at the two questions together it is impossible not to draw eery similarities between the Roman Empire and the United States.
First, this two part blog is not going to be about doom and gloom to the United States. It is simply an acknowledgement of the current state of affairs and recent trends. Second, it will simply explain comparisons that stand out between two of history’s greatest democracies.
Rome ceased to exist as an empire by 476 CE. The fall was due to a plethora of reason, both internal and external. These reasons were all tied together. A simplistic mind would try to categorize and explain the two as mutually exclusive when they are not. The Roman Empire fell apart due to its vast expanse, its diverse population, tax policies, and corrupt leadership.
One staple of the Roman Empire was expansion and diversity. As the Romans expanded they naturally came across different cultures. This conquered territory would stretch from Scotland in the north all the way to North Africa in the south. It stretched east to west from present day Spain to Jordan and Syria.
The Roman practice of toleration continued throughout its time as an empire. This practice required citizens of conquered territories to pledge allegiance to the Roman leaders and put no other god before the emperor. They allowed conquered citizens to keep their culture, language, customs, gods, local leaders, etc. In return the Romans brought infrastructure in the form of roads and some technological advancements. Also, the Romans brought economic stability with uniform currency, as well as law and order through a professional, trained army.
Naturally, as the empire expanded, so did the need to protect these borders. Obviously the army also had to grow, leading to a two-fold problem. Number one, how to pay for the army. Secondly, who to recruit? There were only so many people within Italy to recruit. The solution would appear simple, raise taxes and recruit from outside of Italy.
Taxes have always been the key to financial solvency for any nation. Nothing is free. With taxes, comes the weight of economic frustration and sacrifice on the backs of those who pay the taxes. Initially, taxes were relatively light at 1-3%. However, by the later stages of the Republic (not the empire), Rome had grown vastly. New resources such as Spanish gold and silver became keys to maintaining stability. At the same time, it became evident taxes could be passed off to new territories and Rome proper could remain tax free. The Romans also discovered having the various provinces collect taxes could become very profitable.
Tax farming emerged. Publicani (tax farmers) would collect the tithes for their province. When Rome would put the collecting of taxes in certain provinces up for auction every few years, the Publicans would size the opportunity to collect. They would “pre-pay” taxes to Rome and then set about collecting whatever they could. Anything collected in excess of what had been paid to Rome would become profit for the Publicani. Naturally, corruption ensued and excessive taxes were collected and put in the pockets of the tax farmers.1 These tax farmers in turn would loan money to the banks of the time for exorbitant rates, leading to economic instability.
Eventually direct taxation replaced tax farming and led to wealth and poll taxes. However, this would lead to further government expenses in order to get an accurate census. Speculation on this would think direct taxing was far more efficient and equitable for the time.
Diocletian capped prices on consumer goods while also bringing back the land tax that had been utilized during the late Roman republic period. The burden for paying this tax fell on the local senators who had to insure taxes were collected and sent to Rome.2 If enough tax revenue was not collected, the senators were personally responsible. Emperor Constantine added to the economic stress when he turned the senator and its position into a hereditary title.
The economic implications are mind-boggling in a system that was rife with corruption that was set on the shoulders of a social class that was wealthy, but fearful of losing that wealth. It is no wonder senators enforced higher taxes in order to protect their personal wealth.
As the empire expanded in size, so did the tax base. However, as the empire expanded so did the need to protect those expansive borders, protect them, and enforce the laws. So tied into the increasing expenses of the expanding empire was maintaining a professional army. This would include food, clothing, equipment, and salary for that army.
Roman soldiers committed at least 25 years of their life to military service. In the end, they could receive a pension or land. Initially soldiers were recruited from within Italy. As needs changed, recruitment included Africa, France, Germany, the Balkans, Spain and even the middle east.3
It would be fair to say ones loyalty lies with their region of the world. A person can claim their loyalty to the United States, but their ultimate allegiance might lie with their roots, Texas perhaps? Likewise a person born in Afghanistan may claim allegiance to the government, but if their tribe were to split off from the government, that person would likely do the same. It takes no stretch of imagination to assume Roman soldiers would do the same.
In this vein of thinking, a Roman soldier born in Germany would remain loyal until barbarians began to attack their homeland and even their families. Soldiers would naturally desert to defend their families. (This conclusion is based simply upon observation of human nature).
As the Empire expanded, so did the need for soldiers. Initially these soldiers could be recruited from Italy. Eventually this source would be tapped out and recruitment would have to be expanded in other conquered territories. These new recruits would eventually lead to a watered down source of manpower.
By the third and fourth century, Diocletian and Constantine had built a massive army to defend the borders and held another in reserve in the event of a major invasion. Many Germans began joining the ranks in order to fill the numbers that were needed for the army. These Germans were often seen as barbarians while the Romans were civilized soldiers.4
Non-native Romans entered battle in support of the Roman army against the Goths, but did not act in a civilized manner, instead opting to literally butcher the Goths. Distrust in foreign soldiers manifested itself within the Roman legions.
Eventually wars in the eastern part of the empire would erode faith in the army. Instead of destroying the Goths, payments were made by the Roman government on an annual basis to stop the attacks. In addition, the Roman government provided them with land inside of the empire. The enemy was given land and money as well as still maintaining their own military commanders. The Goths were not Romanized.5 Essentially, the Romans paid the Goths to defend the empire they were attempting to destroy.
Goth commanders even conspired to ambush and murder Roman soldiers, leading to further distrust among not just the army, but also loyal Roman citizens.
Rome had come to depend upon foreign mercenaries to defend itself from foreigners. These same foreigners destroyed the army from within. These soldiers were loyal to their commanders, loyal to their money, and only loyal to Rome so long as it fit their desires. Mercenaries were expensive. The taxes to pay for these armies were high. On top of the taxation was corruption among tax collectors. Money, excesses, and a massive mercenary army collapsed the Roman Empire.
1 “Taxes in the Roman Empire.” Mainpage of UNRV History. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.unrv.com/economy/roman-taxes.php.
3 “BBC – Primary History – Romans – The Roman army.” BBC News. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/romans/the_roman_army/.
4 “Rome’s Barbarian Mercenaries.” HistoryNet. June 22, 2016. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.historynet.com/romes-barbarian-mercenaries.htm.
5 “Rome’s Barbarian Mercenaries – history’s great warning on multicultural outsourcing – The Phora.” The Phora RSS. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.thephora.net/forum/showthread.php?t=26419. (On this source I must apologize for linking to a discussion board. Sadly, the article were this was taken is no longer online. Only the text that was copy and pasted to the discussion is available.)