America as the new Rome: Polybius and us

Anybody seen Polybius?

Anybody seen Polybius?

In my previous post on Polybius, I promised to tell you why he is so important to us Americans in particular. Here is why:

His ultimate explanation for Rome’s greatness was that Rome had a constitution that was uniquely and perfectly balanced between the three types of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy.

An excess of any of the three, Polybius thought, was bad. Monarchy led to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, and democracy to mob rule. (Worth pondering, you anti-elitist Palinistas out there.)

But Rome achieved balance: the consuls were the monarchical element, the senate the aristocratic, and the popular assemblies the democratic.

Our founding fathers agreed with Polybius completely. And so they set out to create that same, perfectly-balanced constitution. Arguably, they succeeded. So we are the modern Rome of Polybius!

(I can tell you what the American analogs to the consuls, senate and assemblies are, but I’ll let you guess first.)


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10 thoughts on “America as the new Rome: Polybius and us

  1. Since the USA is the modern Rome of Polybius, one can only conclude that he would have regarded the US’s system of government with approval.

    How would Polybius have regarded the British parliamentary system of government? through which Britain accumulated a world-wide empire far bigger than that of Rome, and, unlike Rome, managed the dissolution of its empire relatively peacefully, with its democracy intact.

    With the coming dissolution of its world-wide empire, will the USA follow the path of Britain, or of Rome?

  2. I think Polybius would have admired the British system as it stood at the height of the Pax Britannica. Britain started out with a pure monarchy, then–with the Magna Carta–added the element of aristocracy, then (Glorious Revolution and all that) added the element of democracy. Like Rome, Britain evolved into a balanced system.
    The difference in America was that the founding fathers started with a clean slate and tried to draw up a balanced system from scratch. Which they did quite well.
    Regarding the comparisons of empire: In the case of Rome, the balanced system that Polybius so admired disappeared in all but name under Augustus. So Roman imperial might and Rome’s subsequent decline did not occur under the republican system that Polybius admired. I think he might have blamed the imbalanced system FOR Rome’s decline, at least in part. Britain, in this respect, declined much more gracefully, as you said. All this is debatable, I realize. Feedback welcome.

  3. It was probably only its geography (being surrounded by water) which enabled imperial and post-imperial Britain to survive as a democracy.

    So Britain was more fortunate than Rome, which, in addition to not being wholly surrounded by water, didn’t have another mighty power (the equivalent of the US) to twice bail it out from catastrophic military defeat (or invasion) and the consequent end of its political sovereignty.

    As for the US, will its democratic institutions survive another massive terrorist attack? The fact of the PATRIOT Act, and its destruction of Habeas Corpus, is a cautionary tale.

    On the other hand, the US congress did subsequently emasculate some of the dictatorial presidential powers accumulated by Richard Nixon.

    But will the Congress do likewise, post-George Bush?

    And will the US eventually return peacefully to being the non-imperial republic it once was?

  4. All great questions. I don’t know. But you’re very perceptive in this respect: Most people, such as Cullen Murphy in “Are we Rome?” are drawing parallels to the decline and fall of the Roman empire. I think the relevant time in Roman history for comparisons is the late republic. Are we now in the US somewhere between Marius and Sulla? I don’t think so, but I find those debates more fruitful. And that’s where your comment was going, I think.

    Incidentally, one more point about Polybius’ context: What he admired was that Rome, with its constitution and culture, was able to withstand its near-extinction at the hands of Hannibal. Even Britain during the Blitz never came close to the disaster that Rome faced after Cannae (I make a lot of this in my book). Any OTHER city would have given up. Rome didn’t. That’s what Polybius was trying to explain.

  5. Just a stab, as you say. I admire the way the British Empire gracefully declined. But there’s no possible comparison with the sudden (non graceful, yes) death of the Western Roman empire. Too many differences.

    I say sudden death for 2 reasons. 1) The Western Roman Empire suddenly collapsed because of some serious mistakes it made (virtue factor) and for bad luck (fortune factor). 2) Many historians have today changed their view of ‘late antiquity’ and are inclined to believe (according to tons of new evidence) that there was no decline at all in the Western Empire, apart from moments of crisis.

    Truth is, the West Empire was actually stabbed, assassinated by your ancestors, Andreas (in small part my ancestors too), while prosperous and healthy. The Eastern Empire or ‘Second Rome’, in fact, not making any of those mistakes (and Goddess Fortune allowing), lasted for another millennium.

    Let me add this, as an advocate of my people lol.

    The Roman conquest of Britain corresponds to a small fraction of the entire life span of ‘Rome’. Even this small fraction though is incomparably longer than the entire duration of the British empire 😉

  6. I forgot Polybius. His reasoning is elegant but abstract. That balance was only apparent since the real power and wealth was in the hands of 200 gentes or clans. So the res publica was not so publica after all. And when this elite became corrupted and abandoned the ‘old ways’ that really made this small town so powerful and amazingly unique (yes, Cato’s ways, sorry to disagree with you), Caesar devised a new solution to avoid disintegration: an enlightened absolute monarchy supported by the people who allowed ‘Rome’ to last 1500 years longer.

    America should learn that democracy rtc. is not a solution good for all ‘cultures’. And pobably without Caesar (Octavian’s mentor, btw) the Greco-Roman world could have perished many centuries earlier with massive consequences.

    No Roman palaces (or constitution) would exist in America by now 😉

  7. I’m gonna echo some of Man of Roma’s points … I see the US Congress and its shenanigans, and I can’t help but think the Founding Fathers gave a little too much power to the aristocracy. And then I remember that they didn’t exactly come from humble origins themselves.

    I wonder how you prevent a republic from inevitably becoming an oligarchy when every single (or, at least, near enough every single) government representative (even those in the House of Representatives) is a member of the elite upper-class who, thanks to the party system, has strong ties to every other representative. I agree that mob rule is (of course) undesirable, but … c’mon! I wish we had a proportional representational system. At least that would trip up the two major parties. I’m excited for the UK’s near-future. Unfortunately, for any kind of reform like that to be possible in the US, we’d need politicians to willingly give up some of their power….

    I just had a thought … the tension seems to be between various levels of complexity at the government level (monarchy, oligarchy, democracy). And as Man of Roma pointed out, reverting to an absolute monarchy (a much simpler form of government) allowed Rome to endure for another five hundred years and the Eastern Roman Empire another thousand on top of that. Of course, the question becomes is endurance a good in itself? How do you guarantee a viable standard of living for the lower classes in an authoritarian system?

    Bah, I’m rambling … my thought was this: At what point does a republic (or any form of government) become so complex that it cannot respond to shifting pressures, that collapse becomes eminent?

    Sheesh. I need to give myself a word limit on these comments….

    • Aha. You linked this thread to my complexity thread. Like it.

      I see America a bit differently, though: In 24 states, especially California, we have four branches of government, the fourth being “direct democracy” (initiatives, referenda and recalls). This happens to be firmly at the center of my beat at The Economist now. It’s largely that fourth branch that causes California’s paralyzing complexity and makes it ungovernable…. So in parts of America the balance has tilted too far toward mob rule, IMHO.

      Amen on proportional representation, btw.

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