Watching the Train Wreck
I've been watching the HBO miniseries, Rome, but I have mixed feelings about the program. For starters, Rome compares poorly to I, Claudius which is an all-time classic in my opinion. I, Claudius was a sharp satire on government and human frailty while Rome plays it straight and relies too heavily on sex and nudity to maintain interest. The main problem for me, though, is watching the collapse of the Roman Republic; it's far too close to present-day America. I don't claim to have any formal training in Roman history but I do have some interest in the subject. In many ways, we are very close to Rome. Western culture is a direct descendent of Rome but the U.S. seems to have more in common with it than the rest of the world. Rome was an Etruscan-dominated monarchy which was alleged to be morally corrupt. The Romans claimed they revolted against the Etruscans for reasons of piety, patriotism, civic virtue, etc. The revolution resulted in a type of representative democracy which favored the aristocracy while giving a limited voice to the plebians. In some degree, this is reminiscent of the Puritans in the Colonial Era and the American Revolutionary War. In any case, Rome grew to dominate its neighbors. Her armies brought home plunder in the form of gold, slaves, and tribute. Rome conquered Egypt, whose farmers could bring in two crops per year. The grain surplus fed the Roman populace. Slaves from conquered nations fueled industry like oil does today. Rome's greatest rival was Carthage, which was eventually defeated in the Punic Wars. For Carthage, one could liken it to the USSR. After the defeat of Carthage, Rome grew far more prosperous and its aristocrats became incredibly wealthy. The vast majority of Roman citizens lived in poverty with high unemployment rates. They survived on a welfare system underwritten by war conquests and aristocrats who bought votes and support with their wealth. The people were pacified with bread and circuses, not unlike Monday Night Football and American Idol. Traditional Roman virtues decayed and sexual mores loosened. Divorce rates skyrocketed and lawyers became wealthy as Roman citizens constantly sued each other in civil lawsuits. Government corruption and cronyism was rampant. In a society like Rome which based its power on military conquest, reverses on the battlefield created fear and panic in their people. This made Roman society susceptible to ambitious aristocrats who sought more and more wealth and power. Generals battled each other and civil war raged for decades. Eventually, the senatorial ranks were decimated until there was little opposition to a monarchy/dictatorship which could provide stability to a war-weary country. Are we there yet? No, Bush is too incompetent. The U.S. military wouldn't follow him in a coup to topple the government. Who will follow Bush? In the aftermath of an economic breakdown, a demagogue could seize power by promising to reform government corruption. Bush isn't the fascist we should fear. It's the competent fascist who comes after him that scares me.