free fall: pax americana?

The idea of decadence is hardly novel, in fact it has been carry on luggage since expulsion from the Garden. But what exactly constitutes decadence, and whether we are, in our time suffering its effects is not so easy to discern.When, in the wake of political polarization, war and the declarations of some experts that we are in the throes of a terminal illness, the proposition merits examination. The departure point is usually the historical record which is at best not a fixed and certain story; rather it is an account of mistily understood events whose context is difficult to comprehend; events onto which we tend to project preconceptions, hopes and a fair share of anxieties. …

The Roses of Heliogabalus. One of the most decadent of all the Roman emperors was Heliogabalus who fell heir to the throne in 218 A.D. He dressed in flowing robes, painted his cheeks red, and took a "centurion" for a wife. What stoked the imagination of Laurnce Alma-Tadema, the late Victorian English painter, was the legend that Heliogabalus once staged an orgy in which the participants were smothered to death in a cascade of rose petals. His painting depicts a bevy of voluptuaries, all quite decorously garbed, floundering in the petals while the emperor toasts their impending fate.

“Writing in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville attributed the United States’ commercial success to American merchants’ willingness to face uncertainty and danger. Europeans, he said, wait for good weather and return to port if the ship is damaged; the American “departs while the tempest still roars . . .while on the go, he repairs his ship, worn down by the storm.”

The American settler, Tocqueville said, was “a very civilized man . . . who plunges into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, a hatchet, and newspapers.” When Anthony Trollope traveled down the Mississippi in 1860, he found people living in sod huts and laboring from dawn to dusk. There was no prospect for an immediate improvement in their condition, yet they were optimistic about the future and felt not the slightest desire to return to civilization.”…Read More:

These pictures contrast sharply with that of Americans being expected to take comfort from Secretary Tom Ridge’s “message of
reassurance and confidence” about the Department of Homeland Security’s vigilance over a holiday weekend. They contrast also with the picture of people standing in lines at the airport, removing their shoes, and waiting meekly for an approving nod from a dull federal employee.The old attitude of self-reliant independence has died. It is not simply that the world has changed, but that Americans have. It is not simply that our government has become intrusive, but that we do not resist its intrusions. ( Harold B. Jones ) Read More: a

Fellini. Satyricon 1969 read more:

But what is a sick society exactly? The problems of framing an answer only begin by studying the fall of Rome, which is the most often cited equivalent to the American situation. Gibbon called the fall of Rome “the greatest perhaps most awful scene in the history of mankind.” But if, as the homily goes, Rome was not built in a day, then it clearly did not crumble and die in twenty-four hours either. The wages of sin may be mortal, but in the case of Rome the death penalty, the American penchant for capital punishment was perturbingly delayed.

Ilya Somin:  Anyone who really wants to know the extent to which our problems are similar to those of the Romans should read British historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s recent book How Rome Fell. Goldsworthy shows that the main cause of Rome’s collapse had little or no parallel in the modern United States. That cause was constant civil war. Over the last 250 years of the Western Roman Empire, more emperors were killed by rivals for the throne than died of natural causes. Even more importantly, Goldsworthy argues that more Roman soldiers were killed in civil conflict than by foreign enemies such as the Huns and Persians. Given the constant threat of a coup, most emperors had to focus their efforts on survival, often at the expense of defense against external threats. For example, military commanders and provincial governors were chosen on the basis of personal loyalty to the emperor rather than ability.

"Ever since Caligula in 1980 - a movie so blue Oscar-winner Helen Mirren refuses to talk about it - producers have seized on the chance to rewrite history with as much blood, gore and sex as they can cram in. Gladiator and Troy maintained the tradition but it was the TV series Rome in 2005-07 which used BC debauchery most flagrantly to sell millions of box sets for HBO. Ciaran Hinds played Caesar, Polly Walker an unforgettable Atia of the Junii and there was more naked flesh on show than a Spencer Tunick photograph. Now even that seems to have been surpassed by a new sword-and-sandals epic, Spartacus, which is so rude campaigners are trying to block it from British screens. Read more:

In a fine application of public choice theory, Goldsworthy notes that late Roman emperors often were afraid to allow subordinates to win victories against barbarian enemies, because the successful general might then use his victories create a power base which he could use to overthrow his master. Obviously, the massive loss of life and economic resources caused by civil war undermined Rome as well. Read More:

From 753 B.C. the traditional date of Romulus’s founding of the city on the banks of the Tiber, to the death of Marcus Aurelius, that last ” good emperor” in 180 A.D. – a date that may be taken as marking the onset of the winter season of the empire- is a span of 933 years. Bit from Marcus’s death to the ultimate fall of East Rome, or Constantinople in 1453 A.D. is a span of thirteen hundred years. In its battle to survive, Rome bled and rallied, to outlast a good many of the self-confident peoples who battered to get in. And in that battle too, it won the nearly universal regard as the barbarian peoples themselves came to aspire to the lofty plateau of entering into the dying empire’s inheritance.

Jones: Among the proper functions of government, Adam Smith listed military defense. The desperate condition in which the Empire
found itself late in the third century was not entirely unrelated to the fact that after the death of Trajan and again after the death of
Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s armies were withdrawn from their positions along the northern frontiers. As soon as the pressure on the
borders eased, barbarian hoards began to sweep across them.

Viewed in this light, President Bush’s aggressive “war on terror” is an act of genius. Terrorism is like every other human endeavor
in that it labors under the constraint of limited resources. These resources can be deployed more conveniently in assaulting soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than in attacks on Western targets. The recent bombing of Spanish train stations, while frightening, is probably less dreadful than what would be happening if the battle had not been moved into Islam’s own backyard. Like Rome at its height, the United States is protecting itself by means of relentless pressure on those who threaten it. But there is more to the story than that. The Empire’s invaders were driven by economic rather than ideological interests. Read More: a

The temple columns tumble to the ground as a symbol for the fall of a proud civilization. Francois de Nome, King Asa of Judah Destroying the Idols. 1625. read more:

The political fantasy of Rome would not die. Its memory haunted the Middle Ages and when the Renaissance springtime of Europe- an age that rediscovered the inner spirit of the pagan world; people looked back to Rome as being even glorious in her ruin. There was a gallantry about the empire’s dying that was absent in Rome’s ugly and brutal ascension where civilized contemporaries such as Carthage and Macedonia were destroyed and drained with an establishment of a vulgar monoculture that replaced a diverse late classical culture.

It was only at the end of its life-span when the Romans were reduced to penury and anxiety that the other Rome emerged. This was the Rome of the ideal of universal order. This was the Rome that played midwife to the church and to the world, and not the young and vulgar Rome of excess and triumph. It was the young Rome of power that was profligate, or to reverse the proposition: it was the Rome of profligacy and cruelty that was supreme in its time. There is justified talk of a Pax Americana- Afghanistan, Budget Deficit, etc- but an equal case can be made for America as a Rome “manque” .

Sex would hardly seem to be the point. The greatest womanizer in the White House would compare fairly limply with Tiberius:

“On retiring to Capri he devised a pleasance for his secret orgies: teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions. Its bedrooms were furnished with the most salacious paintings and sculptures, as well as with an erotic library, in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required. Then in Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this “the old goat’s garden,” punning on the island’s name.”( Suetonius)Read More:

Goldsworthy also considers other possible causes of Rome’s decline. For example, he effectively rebuts the traditional view that it was caused by the rise of Christianity, pointing out that Christian emperors pursued policies that were similar to those of their pagan predecessors, except on the issue of religion itself. Some of the causes that he does give credence to do have modern parallels. Thus, he notes the growth of an increasingly expensive and inefficient government bureaucracy, and burdensome taxation. Roman taxes and government bureaucracy were not onerous by modern standards; but they were a major burden on the far more limited resources of an ancient state. However, Goldsworthy stresses that these factors were far less important than the massive civil wars. Moreover, a large part of the taxation was imposed because of the need to finance civil wars, and pay for the loyalty of key generals and military units that might otherwise support usurpers. Read More:

Suetonius: …He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles. Unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by both nature and age rather fond of this form of satisfaction. Left a painting of Parrhasius’ depicting Atalanta pleasuring Meleager with her lips  on condition that if the theme displeased him he was to have a million sesterces instead, he chose to keep it and actually hung it in his bedroom. The story is also told that once at a sacrifice, attracted by the acolyte’s beauty, he lost control of himself and, hardly waiting for the ceremony to end, rushed him off and debauched him and his brother, the flute-player, too. Subsequently, when they complained of the assault, he had their legs broken.Read Post:

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