Sandpoint and the Roman Empire

A comparison of the modern changes in cities and towns across the world to the fall of the Roman Empire

By Mark Reiner
Reader Contributor

My wife and I are two of those “back-to-the-land” hippies Ben referenced in one of the earlier “Redoubt” articles.

A large portion of us moved back to the land because we saw a consistent pattern of lies coming from all governments, and can see a crash coming due to mankind’s irresponsible living. We recognized that we must take care of ourselves first, as government itself is too flawed to find real solutions. It always has been. The ultimate solution is within us — not in fighting against, but in building a viable alternative.

Along with every other city and town, Sandpoint is on the front lines of a massive shift. This shift will force us to find alternatives. The turmoil regarding refugee asylum in the City Council chambers as well as demonstrations globally are the symptoms that proves it.

Photo illustration by Ben Olson.

Like it or not, change is taking place. Similar turmoils took place 2,000 years ago with the fall of Rome. The minor details have changed, but the overall movement is the same. A quick review of the similarities will demonstrate it.

Across the globe people are wrestling with the changes, and these struggles are pouring into the streets. Racial, gender and economic injustice abounds. Civil disobedience and the role of government may form the starting points for many conversations and confrontations, yet these are the symptoms of deeper causes. These causes are not new.

A number of history books all point to the same reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. We have to remember we are dealing in generalities, and text books only give very generalized reasons. Anyone, politicians included, can find, or pay, another person to act as the symbol for whatever point or grievance they wish. Thus, we should not allow a small group of facts to draw large conclusions. Instead, we should pay attention to the statistical, massive flow of history, for it forms patterns that we see both in history and in our present lives. We should also ponder whether we choose to follow fear or love.

The Roman Empire was not always governed fairly or efficiently, especially in the latter fourth of its life span. Dishonesty, corruption or plain stupidity undercut many important decisions. The arrogance and privileged attitude of many of the Roman emperors, especially in the last 250 years of the empire, are well known to most readers. Nero is usually the first to come to mind.

Others, like Didius Julinus, who bribed his way to the purple robe, or Septimius who in “his 18 years as emperor … gave 12 to war” according to Will Durant in “Caesar and Christ,” are just two of many infamous emperors.

One need not look far to see a similar pattern today, although now we are often dealing with groups with self-interest. Gerrymandering and voter suppression form some of today’s tools for politicians. In “The Pageant of World History” Gerald Leinwand stated, “The seeds of destruction may have taken root as early as the first century BC when the army was used to fight a civil war.” This last fact reminds me of the shootings at Kent State in the 1960s by the Ohio National Guard, not to mention the military and “military style” government presence in many of today’s confrontations. There are also cases of our government using the military to quell labor disputes in the 20th century, and we can not forget the civil war of the 1860s. We see similar events across the globe.

“Political anarchy accelerated economic disintegration; and economic disintegration promoted political decay; each was the cause and result of the other,” wrote Durant.

Reflected in Durant’s words is our government’s inability to work along more than party lines. The legislative arena is more or less frozen in minority dogmas, not the needs of the majority of citizens. There is also a minority of people who feel the Constitution must be rigidly interpreted as they imagine the founding fathers did: a set of binding rules, not as “a stream of precedent, giving direction without preventing change.”

Durant also writes “increasing despotism destroyed the citizen’s civic sense and dried up statesmanship at its source.” As “statesmanship” may be defined as the ability to blend varied positions into a usable framework for action, we can see that our legislative and administrative branches fall well short. It must also be added that there are many despotic leaders springing up with simplistic and often egregious solutions, ready to sacrifice others to maintain their own level of comfort and power. Although we tend to focus upon the last 10 years, we must look back into history and recognize other scandals, such as the ‘Teapot Dome’ affair surrounding oil production in the early 1920s, as well as many earlier large corruptions of government. All of these operations still promote political and economic decay.

We are also seeing economic disintegration in the growing split between the rich and poor as the middle class fades away. Here is another quote from Durant: “Men lost faith in the state, not because Christianity held (the people) aloof, but because the state defended wealth against poverty… taxed toil to support luxury, and failed to protect its people from destitution.” The statement also brings to mind the demonstrations by the 99 percent on Wall Street and other cities, including Sandpoint.

Regarding the efficiency of governance, the Department of Defense (DoD) budget, even under Obama, was $582.7 billion per year. Now it has risen to $639 billion under Trump. That is over $1,966 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. for just one year.

This problem is not new. The day before the Sept. 11 attacks, Donald Rumsfeld, director of the DoD at that time, announced that the DoD cannot track $2.3 trillion dollars in transactions. Obviously, that is not the result of a single year’s occurrence. This reminds me of the emperor Septimus, who told his successor Caracalla, “Make the army rich, and do not bother about anything else.”

To bring this up into modern terms, Dwight Eisenhower gave Americans a warning of the military-industrial complex’s growing influence back on Jan 17, 1961, in his farewell address. Referring to the military-industrial power and to the Cold War, he said, “[While] we recognize the imperative need for this development, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence.” It is a fact that today the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of weaponry. For us “hippies” the following quote comes to mind: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

Want other examples? Look at our list of endless wars even before Sept. 11. We are not just dealing with Afghanistan or Iraq. Our bombs, chemical and cyber agents have acted across the globe for much longer period of time. Somalia, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba. More recently the cyber attack in Iran comes to mind.

Most people remember the fall of the Roman Empire being about the invasions of the “barbarian” tribes. What most people don’t remember is the fact that many Germanic tribes “entered the Roman Empire to protect themselves from the attacks of warring peoples from Asia,” according to Daniel Roselle in “A World History.”

This is happening today with the millions of refugees pouring into the West out of the Middle East and Africa. Roselle goes on to state that many of them became soldiers in the Roman legions, but the laws of Rome never let them rise to the highest levels by legal means though a few even became emperor by using the army as leverage.

Generally, foreigners were treated very poorly, taxed heavily, misused and eventually became the enemies of Rome. Many global communities are faced with the prospect of receiving refugees, also escaping from war, as well as many who simply see no hope for a good life where they were born. Is your perception of them based upon fear? Are we going to treat them poorly? Will they learn to hate the U.S.? There is no doubt that their entrance into our lives will make a difference. Even though 99 percent of them may be stable citizens, even one immigrant criminal will start the enmity against all of them all over again unless we see the big picture and integrate them with love.

We are not just dealing with cultural differences, religious differences and learned behaviors. There are also emotions, both theirs and ours. I highly recommend a “This American Life” episode entitled “Fear and Loathing in Homer and Rockville.” The issues and tone, both pro and con, remind me of the confrontations in Sandpoint’s City Council some time ago. Are we so mistrustful of our abilities to handle justice fairly to criminals, regardless of immigration status, that we must exclude almost all? Even those in favor of immigration are using the same rationale that the Romans used 2000 years ago, echoing the benefit from increased taxation. Few, if any, speak to treating one’s neighbor as themselves.

Remember, in Roman times money was actually made from bronze, gold or silver and had a value in and of itself. With the expansion of the empire, gold and silver mines became the property of Rome. Consider the following quote by Durant: “The precious metals were running low. Faced with this dearth when war was almost continuous, the emperors from Septimus Severus onward repeatedly debased the currency to pay for state expenses and military supplies. Prices rose rapidly.” The media reports government data indicating that we are experiencing very minor inflation. They do this by picking specific goods and industries as their indicators, called the consumer price index, which overall do not show great inflationary tendencies. But ask any housewife about the spiraling cost of food and medicine, or builders about the cost of building supplies. More importantly, remember that our dollar, unlike silver or gold, is based upon nothing but the faith in it.

The supplies of money today have not only “run low,” but are non-existent. Our own government owes trillions of dollars, and guess who is going to have to pay it?

“There were heavy, unfair taxes and high unemployment; and huge estates were held by a few rich families, while the poor had no land at all,” wrote Leinwand. Again, read the following quote by Durant with an eye towards our situation today. “(There was a) … loss of provincial markets to provincial competition, inability of Italian industry to export the equivalent of Italian imports and the consequent drain of precious metals to the East; the destructive wars between the rich and poor, the rising cost of armies … (and a) depreciation of the currency.”

The dollar of 2018 is now worth less than a dime of 1900. Forget the gold in Fort Knox or other repositories. It cannot begin to equal the national debt. Compare the value of our exports to the value of our imports, especially with China.

The comparisons do not end there. There was environmental degradation in Italy 2000 years ago. In central and southern Italy there was deforestation and erosion. No doubt the deforestation and erosion was nowhere near the environmental problems we face today, which makes today’s global problems even worse.

Durant adds: “Large tracts of fertile land had been withdrawn from cultivation for residential estates. Many peasant proprietors and free rural workers abandoned the farms for the city. Italian industry was thrown back upon its domestic market, and found the people too poor to buy the goods they could make.” Sound familiar?

One last generality needs to be put forward.

“Moral standards fell,” wrote Roselle. “Since the Romans saw scoundrels profit by dishonest acts and go unpunished, some of them lost their confidence in the value of truth and honesty.”

Some of us have been seeing corruption for quite a while, not only in government, but also in the daily life of our fellow citizens. This is often made manifest in crudity of speech and action as well as an interest in drugs and prurient expressions of sexuality. Consider the pornography and content of many blogs on the internet, not to mention the lack of civility in discourse and the smear campaigns that replace discourse.

Hopefully, you are beginning to see the patterns, but we need to turn now to look at what may lay in store for us. Again, all we have to do is to study what happened 2000 years ago. Regarding the Roman Empire, Durant states, “…it resembles significantly, and sometimes with menacing illumination, the civilization and problems of our day.” Just because the causes are strikingly similar does not mean we must circle again through the ancient pattern.

“Confronted by enemies on every side, the Roman state did what all nations do in critical wars; it accepted the dictatorship of a strong leader, taxed itself beyond tolerance, and put individual liberty aside,” Durant wrote. “The Senate, losing ever more of its power and prestige … relapsed into indolence, subservience or venality.”

In short, the Roman Empire killed itself.

These quotes showed what happened then. What are our moves now?

We may follow the path of Rome, or we may stand back and look at the causes. Are we going to sink into dictatorship or allow government to set aside our liberty? “… Need forced men to try and settle the conflicts that rose between them,” wrote Roselle. “During these [Roman] years… men had a need for protection against invaders. What was the result? People organized themselves into a protective system known as feudalism.”

Today, growing disasters caused by global climate change will probably become the issue creating the need. The call for environmental responsibility is not new, and despite the scientific facts, there are many who try and obfuscate in an effort to keep the status quo with fossil fuels, and keep the society frozen in worn out platitudes and entertainment.

The Romans said, ”Give them bread and circuses.” Yet, the disasters are offering us an opportunity to help our fellow man. The thousands of men and women who go to areas that have been destroyed, as well as millions of dollars donated, show that the heart of mankind is still sound.

It is this growth of giving back to the community that will carry us through. It is our sense of community, not castle walls, where we must place our efforts. Reliable relationships are built on mutual interests, and differences dissolve in trust. This is why we must examine our attitude to see if it is based upon fear or upon love.

Perhaps, there is some human truth in each and every independence movement mentioned in earlier articles. Perhaps government should not be directing our lives so completely. Should we give our liberties and monies to some government to protect us from the droughts, the storms, the food shortages? If government is not the answer, then should we not be looking into ourselves, correcting our own materialism, rampant desires, pet dogmas, and shoulder the bitter pill of personal responsibility?

Stop looking to others to make our decisions for us, live to our highest ideals, help our neighbors, and become good stewards of this Earth. In this regard it is our neighbors who form our community. Yes, there are those who will use the present chaos to enhance their own financial, social, or political agendas, but they only thrive with your support.

One way or another mankind will move into the future. The history books all show the long range benefits of the Roman civilization despite its collapse. The main one we need to look into is the establishment of greater law and order (often also considered as ‘civilizing the barbarians.’) Upon what will we base our laws? Perhaps we still have enough time to leave a legacy of stability and peace. The establishment of love as the foundation of law and order is not easy in the present state of fear, but we certainly cannot leave the future to others to lead us out of this moral and economic chaos. We all must start shouldering the responsibilities held within the ideals of all religions and all ethical and moral guidelines. It is love.

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