I’ve tended to stay away from these types of questions for two reasons. First is that I’m not that smart. Second is that to really begin to explore them would take journal-length articles. These kind of things are quite complex. If I was going to discuss the evidence in any kind of detail I’d end up with 20,000 words (or more). Instead I’m going to try to provide a brief description of my thoughts and hope it makes sense.
Yesterday I was eating with a few friends – not lunch exactly and not dinner either. What is it when you eat at 3:30 PM?
So we’re having our usual pseudo-philosophical discussion (one of the usuals anyway – I think we’ve solved every problem the world has ever had at one point or other) and this statement comes up, “The United States is on its way down. If you compare us with the ending of the Roman Empire there are all kinds of parallels. We’re going to go the same route.”
Ok, this came from a friend and at least he’s thinking about history so I was gentle with him, but this happens to be a pet peeve. Funny thing is, even though it’s a peeve, I sort of half-believed it 20 years ago. Kind of cool that the world keeps repeating itself, huh? The question of why something I sort of believed has become a peeve may raise some interesting questions about myself but I’m ignoring that here too.
So here, on this blog, I’m going to explain why I believe the above statement, or any similar statement, is fundamentally wrong. I don’t think my friend reads this so if I verge into rant mode I won’t be jeopardizing my party invites – the guy cooks a pork loin that is insanely good. Plus he’s smart, funny, helps me carry heavy stuff upstairs sometimes, and wrong about this.
Now I realize that my friend’s Roman Empire statement is a nice conversation-starter and, hopefully, makes people think. Unfortunately, as viewed from my self-appointed status as the thought police, at least when it comes to ancient/medieval history among my friends, it’s wrong and promotes wrong-thinking (think-speak anyone?) by providing a cute statement which does not encourage closer examination. If I thought that statement would inspire people to really look into its validity I’d feel less bad about it. And that’s before debating whether it’s even factually true since in the east the Empire was alive and well for over another century and alive if reduced for nearly a millennium.
So I’m going to re-phrase my friend’s statement into a more general one and take a look at why I disagree with it. That statement is, “By examining the evolution of a culture/society from the distant past we are able to accurately predict the course of a modern culture/society.”
I need to add a couple of qualifiers here. First, I’m talking about large-scale societal transformation on the scale of societies/polities/nation-states and when applied to a specific culture/society. I’m not talking about whether a lecturer on military tactics can use, say, Julian’s 363 invasion of Persia and subsequent disaster as an example of why it’s essential that any military commander a) secure his line or lines of retreat and b) ensure that his lines of supply and communications are open. We can look at smaller-scale events and learn some things and use them as an object lessons. We can even look at issues such as the roots of prejudice and discrimination or the tendency of threatened societies toward ultra-conservatism (in this case conservatism means a tendency to look inward and retreat to the core values of the society while reacting defensively to external influences) or the outcomes when a more technologically advanced society encounters a more technologically primitive society and learn from these.
Second, I am not saying this means we shouldn’t look at past events and learn everything we can from them. I just think that the sort of predictive statement I opened with doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Examine the past but be careful how we apply it to the present. 1
I haven’t seen a lot of this put up by professional historians, but the Rome-USA comparison pops up quite frequently. Rather than putting up links, I invite you to do a web search using the term, “United States Roman Empire parallels” and see what comes up.
Instead of quoting websites as examples of this train of thought, let me provide this excerpt from the dust jacket of Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like no Other:
Hanson’s perceptive analysis of events and personalities raises many thought-provoking questions: Were Athens and Sparta like the United States and the Soviet Union, two superpowers battling to the death? Is the Peloponnesian War echoed in the endless, frustrating conflicts of Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and the current Middle East — or was it more like America’s own Civil War, a brutal rift that rent the fabric of a glorious society, or even this century’s “red state-blue state” schism between liberals and conservatives, a cultural war that manifestly controls military policies? Hanson daringly brings the facts to life and unearths the often surprising ways in which the past informs the present. 2
When I get in discussions about this (I almost framed this post as a dialogue) I tend to throw out a laundry list of societal differences and why this makes meaningful comparisons, to the point of predicting the future course of events, useless. For example, I’ll ask:
Did the Romans have:
International commodity markets
A representative democracy 3
A large, relatively informed middle class
Universal education (at least in theory) for young people
Statutory protections for the under-privileged and under-represented
A society that operated far above subsistence level for the bulk of its population
A relatively uniform society which spoke the same language throughout and shared the same general values
and so on. I then follow up with, “With all of these differences between the two societies, not to mention the differences in the people themselves, how can you think that this sort of statement is valid?”
I could list aspects of Roman society which we do not have as well. Of course the Romans did have some of these, as well as social welfare programs but in their form they were very different from those present in today’s society, enough so to, in my opinion, to make a predictive analysis pretty useless. There are just too many differences — major, fundamental differences — between these two societies to make these sorts of comparisons valid. 4 There are also differences between the people inhabiting the societies but I’m planning another post related to this (addressing another of the common statements, “People ‘back then’ were just like us”).
My other point would simply be that societies are just too complex to draw these kinds of parallels. There are far too many unknowns, uncertainties and possibilities. As an example, in the 1930’s the United States was an inward-looking country reluctant to get involved in the affairs of others, to the point of refusing to join The League of Nations. By 1950 we were willing to maintain a huge standing military and involve ourselves in armed conflicts half a world away. This exertion of military and economic force is a massive sea change when compared to our post-WWI past. Would anyone have predicted it? With hindsight you may be able to draw a parallel with the US being bombed at Pearl Harbor and Rome and the Punic Wars and the impact these events had on the respective polities’ projection of force (I think this is a pretty big stretch myself) but in, say, 1932 would anyone have predicted how altered US foreign policy would become in less than two decades?
I don’t want this post to become an essay or anything but I wanted to provide a couple of reasons why I believe that looking at past events and trying to predict future behavior from them is a useless endeavor. The differences between ancient/medieval societies and people and those of our time are simply too great, and our level of knowledge about those societies too meager. 5
To sum this up, I believe that studying history can give us insights into how people in the past behaved, why they made decisions and, on a larger scale, giving us at least some information on the transformation of societies (I refuse to use the term “rise and fall” here). It can provide us with some information on the decision-making processes of states and even individuals. However I believe that it is a mistake to try to apply this knowledge in a predictive way to future events. When we’re talking about the distant past, there’s just too much that is unknown and the societies involved, both past and present, too complex and containing too many variables. 6
1 I also think, in general, that history does repeat itself, imperfectly. However it’s a huge leap to go from looking at extremely broad, general trends and decide these make predictions of a specific culture appropriate.
2 Hanson, Victor Davis, A War Like no Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House (2005). Dust Jacket (how do you reference the dust jacket?) ISBN: 9-781400-060955. I received this book as a gift while recovering from surgery a few years ago. It’s a good read and I learned a fair amount from it (hopefully stuff I shouldn’t unlearn) but I recall how frequently Hanson makes these types of comparisons. I was ready to look through the book for examples to quote when lo and behold, the dust jacket gave me everything I wanted.
3 Technically, because the US has a constitution which provides certain protections to certain people and groups we’re not a 100% Representative Democracy but a Constitutional Republic but I find if I use that term in a conversation I end up having to explain what it is and I lose my message.
4 I’m not even going to get into whether the characteristics these people commonly attribute to the later Roman Empire are valid or, if valid, whether they should be considered a major contributor to its end.
5 I want to again stress that this doesn’t mean I don’t think we can learn anything from history, just that using it in this sort of predictive manner doesn’t work in my opinion. I also want to stress that there’s a big difference in looking at societies separated by hundreds or thousands of years compared with, say, looking at American policies from the 1970’s to inform us on what may happen today or predicting an individual’s future behavior based on his or her past behavior.
6 One other item related to historical method is how important I’ve come to believe it is to examine different aspects of history independent of other aspects first and not make comparisons or group different events/aspects until an issue/event/aspect has first been examined independently in detail. I’ve mentioned before how influential Chris Wickham’s studying societies on a smaller regional level, “each on its own terms,” in Framing the Early Middle Ages has been for me. I’ve also talked about Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 and how well he explained the need to examine different pieces of evidence independently of one another and not allowing other evidence to infringe on (contaminate is a very good word) the initial examination. See pages 153-61 though Halsall raises this point several times. Some day, when I’m smarter, I want to make some posts about how different historians utilize evidence in their work as this absolutely fascinates me.
Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-780521-435437.
Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965