Rome began as a republic of yeoman farmers, each with his own plot of land. You had to be a landowner to join the Roman army; it was a great honor, and it wouldn’t take the riffraff. When the Republic was threatened—and wars were constant and uninterrupted from the beginning—a legionary might be gone for five, ten, or more years. His wife and children back on the farm might have to borrow money to keep things going and then perhaps default, so soldiers’ farms would go back to bush or get taken over by creditors. And, if he survived the wars, an ex-legionary might be hard to keep down on the farm after years of looting, plundering, and enslaving the enemy. On top of that, tidal waves of slaves became available to work freshly confiscated properties. So, like America, Rome became more urban and less agrarian. Like America, there were fewer family farmers but more industrial-scale latifundia.
War turned the whole Mediterranean into a Roman lake. With the Punic wars, Spain and North Africa became provinces. Pompey the Great (106-48 BCE) conquered the Near East. Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) conquered Gaul 20 years later. Then Augustus took Egypt.
The interesting thing is that in the early days, war was actually quite profitable. You conquered a place and stole all the gold, cattle, and other movable property and enslaved the people. That was a lot of wealth you could bring home—and then you could milk the area for many years with taxes. But the wars helped destroy Rome’s social fabric by wiping out the country’s agrarian, republican roots and by corrupting everyone with a constant influx of cheap slave labor and free imported food. War created longer, faraway borders that then needed to be defended. And in the end, hostile contact with “barbarians” actually wound up drawing them in as invaders.
Rome’s wars radically changed society, just as America’s have. It’s estimated that at times 80-90% of the population of the city of Rome was foreign born. It sometimes seems that way in many U.S. cities. I always look at the bright side, however: after every foreign misadventure, the U.S. gets an influx of new restaurants with exotic cuisines.
The stream of new wealth to steal ended with the conquest of Dacia in 107. The advance in the east stopped with the Persians, a comparable military power. Across the Rhine and Danube, the Germans—living in swamps and forests with only tiny villages—were not worth conquering. To the south there was only the Sahara. At this point, there was nothing new to steal, but there were continuing costs of administration and border defense. It was inconvenient—and not perhaps just coincidental—that the barbarians started becoming really problematic just about when Christianity started becoming popular, in the 3rdcentury. Unlike today, in its early days Christianity encouraged pacifism… not the best thing when you’re faced with barbarian invasions.
Remember, the army started out as a militia of citizen soldiers who provided their own arms. It eventually would accept anyone and morphed into a completely mercenary force staffed and led largely by foreigners. This is pretty much how the U.S. armed forces have evolved. For all the “Support Our Troops” propaganda, the U.S. armed forces are now more representative of the barrios, ghettos, and trailer parks than of the country as a whole. And they’re isolated from it, a class unto themselves, like the late Roman army.
Even though the Roman army was at its greatest size and cost in the Dominate period, it was increasingly a paper tiger. After its rout at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the Western empire went into a death spiral. The U.S. armed forces may now be in an analogous posture, comparable to Soviet forces in the 1980s.
Although the U.S. has won many engagements and some sport wars, it hasn’t won a real war since 1945. The cost of its wars, however, has escalated hugely. My guess is that if it gets into another major war, it won’t win, even if the enemy’s body count is massive.
Recall Osama bin Laden’s plan to win by bankrupting the U.S. He was very astute. Most U.S. equipment is good only for fighting a replay of WW II—things like the $2 billion B-2 bomber, the $350 million F-22, and the $110 million V-22 Osprey are high-priced dinosaurs. The Army lost 5,000 helicopters in Vietnam. How many Blackhawks can the U.S. afford to lose in the next war at $25 million each? World War II cost the U.S. $288 billion, in 1940 dollars. The pointless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan are guesstimated at $4 trillion, a roughly comparable amount in real terms.
In the future—unless it completely changes its foreign and military policies—the U.S. will likely be confronting scores of independent, nonstate actors, rather than other nation-states. We won’t really know who they are, but they’ll be very effective at attacking hugely expensive infrastructure at near-zero cost, by hacking computers. They won’t need a B-2 when a stolen Pakistani nuke can be delivered by freighter. They can take out a $5 million M-1 tank with an essentially zero-cost improvised incendiary device. While the U.S. bankrupts itself with defense contractors whose weapons have 20-year development times, enemies will use open-source warfare, entrepreneurially developing low-cost, unconventional weapons with off-the-shelf components.
This is actually analogous to what Rome confronted with invading nomads. Let me relate an anecdote offered by Priscus, a Roman ambassador to the court of Atilla in about 450 AD. While there he met a Greek who had joined the barbarians. This will give you a flavor of the story he tells Priscus. I’ve put some words in bold because they’re especially relevant to other aspects of our story.
After war the Scythians live in inactivity, enjoying what they have gained, harassed very little or not at all. The Romans, on the other hand, are very liable to perish in war, as they have to rest their hopes of safety on others, and are not allowed, on account of their tyrants, to use arms. And those who use them are injured by the cowardice of their generals, who cannot support the conduct of war. But the condition of the subjects in time of peace is far more grievous than the evils of war, for the exaction of the taxes is very severe, and unprincipled men inflict injuries on others, because the laws are practically not valid against all classes.
Wars destroyed Rome, just as they’ll destroy the U.S.
But what about the barbarian invasions that Gibbon perhaps correctly pointed out were the direct cause of Rome’s downfall? Do we have a present-day analogue? The answer is at least a qualified “yes.” It’s true that the U.S. will bankrupt itself by fighting the ridiculous and chimerical “War on Terror,” maintaining hundreds of military bases and operations around the world and perhaps getting into a major war. But from a cultural point of view, it’s possible that the southern border will present an equally serious problem.
The U.S.-Mexican border is a classic borderland situation, no more stable and just as permeable as the Rhine-Danube dividing line was for the Romans. The problem now isn’t invading hordes, but a population that has no cultural allegiance to the idea of America. A surprising number of the Mexicans who cross over to the U.S. talk seriously about a Reconquista, in reference to the fact the Americans stole the land in question from people they presume to be their ancestors.
In many parts of the Southwest, the Mexicans form a majority and choose not to learn English—and they don’t need to, which is a new thing for immigrants to the U.S. Most are “illegal,” as you might say the Goths, the Vandals, and the Huns were in Rome’s final days. My guess is that in the near future, there will be a lot of young Hispanic males who actively resent paying half of what they make in income, Social Security, and Obamacare taxes in order to subsidize old white women in the Northeast. I wouldn’t be surprised to see parts of the Southwest turn into “no go” zones for many government agencies over the next several decades.
Could the U.S. break up the way the Roman Empire did? Absolutely; the colors of the map on the wall aren’t part of the cosmic firmament. And it needn’t have anything to do with military conquest. Despite the presence of Walmarts, McDonald’s, and Chevrolet dealerships across a country whose roads are as impressive as the nearly 50,000 miles of highway laid down by the Romans, there’s evidence the country is disintegrating culturally. Although what is occurring in the Mexican borderland area is the most significant thing, there are growing cultural and political differences between the so-called “red” and “blue” states. Semi-serious secession movements are at work in northern Colorado, western Maryland, and western Kansas. This is a new phenomenon, at least since the War Between the States of 1861-65.