Thinking About Rome

Thinking About Rome

“How often do you think about the Roman Empire?” This summer, countless TikTok videos and Twitter threads featured American women asking the men in their lives this very question. To the shock of the naive questioners, the answer was quite often. Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Jordan Davis opined on the sublime nature of Roman aqueducts, bathhouses, and grapes. Mark Zuckerberg quipped that he was “not sure” about the frequency of his reflections on Rome, only to ask what his three daughters Maxima, August, and Aurelia might think. If Zuck’s haircut is any indication, we may see a Res Gestae Divi Zuck pop up soon in downtown Palo Alto (funny enough, the Meta titan could plagiarize the first few words from the original with no problem).

As the trend implies, the Roman Empire has been top of mind for at least half of America recently. But this fixation on Rome stretches far beyond grapes and aqueducts. Implicit in American men’s affinity for Rome is a chilling recognition that our empire is mirroring its descent from glory. 

The economic decline of the Roman Empire was a critical factor in its eventual downfall. This period was characterized by significant inflation and fiscal mismanagement, particularly evident in the military and public sectors.  For example, a soldier’s pay went from 900 sestertii a year under Augustus to 2,000 sestertii a year under Septimius Severus all while grain prices tripled. This inflationary spiral was a result of the empire's excessive expenditure and failure to manage its vast resources effectively. The economic policies during this time, marked by a lack of financial discipline and overreliance on the debasement of currency, offer a cautionary tale of the perils of economic mismanagement in a powerful empire.

The American consumer can surely relate to such a drastic decay in purchasing power. Like Cicero’s Rome, America has developed an addiction to transfer payments and excessive expenditure—with the national debt at $33 trillion and rising fast, both foreign and domestic spending may need to be curtailed lest America follows Rome’s path towards fiscal failure. 

Such economic opulence has social ramifications as well. By preventing any negative fiscal consequences within a nation through excessive minting of new currency, an unwarranted and cancerous luxury is prone to arise. Montesquieu, when commenting on Rome’s demise, argued that “The greatness of the state caused the greatness of personal fortunes. But since opulence consists in morals, not riches, the riches of the Romans, which continued to have limits, produced a luxury and profusion which did not.” Montesquieu's argument, echoing Cicero's warnings, highlights the dangers of excessive luxury and its potential to lead to complacency at both the individual and societal levels, ultimately hindering a nation's progress and a breakdown of the social order.

Just as Rome declined over centuries, our nation could slowly be hollowed out by those who choose empty decadence over hard work and civic engagement. Such decadence is of great concern due to its sponsorship of careless behavior—why should an individual or an organization conduct themselves with diligence if they are guaranteed a backstop of near-zero interest rates and government assistance if anything goes wrong?  Careless economic governance ultimately leads to ruin because it breeds a cycle of inefficiency, undermining the integrity and sustainability of the very systems it oversees. Like the Romans, we are victims of our own success, falling prey to the same hubris and excess that once heralded the decline of a prosperous civilization.

Thankfully, we have the chance to sober up from the bacchanalia that consumed the Romans. As interest rates are hiked and remain so, America has an opportunity to embrace austerity and become disciplined fiscally. Living within one’s means both individually and as a nation offers the promise of long-term stability and preserving America’s historical success. The road ahead is rocky, and as economists debate over “soft landings” and “hard landings”, looking past to the Romans gives resolve to stay on the path of fiscal responsibility. For if we do not, America too shall reckon with the forces that laid ruin to a once great empire. 

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