Nathan Pilkington is a lecturer in the department of history at Columbia University.
The rise of Donald Trump supposedly heralds the decline of the American idea, according to many of his critics, who’ve taken the opportunity to compare this moment to the fall of Rome’s republic in 31 B.C. or its empire in the 5th century A.D. Any historian is happy when their period of study comes into vogue, but these requiems leave a false impression of Roman antiquity and the causes of its greatest crises.
These comparisons are common. Former Supreme Court justice David Souter has said that embracing an all-powerful figure who promises to solve the nation’s problems is “how the Roman republic fell.” Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, ended democracy “because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved,” Souter said in the 2012 quote, which resurfaced during this fall’s campaign. Along those same lines, a Huffington Post headline claimed: “Rome Had Caesar. America Has Trump. The People Were and Are Desperate.”
But such comparisons are light on scholarship. Simply put, most experts believe there is little to compare. Yes, the United States has seen a rise in populism, but it hasn’t experienced a microgram of the violence that accompanied the fall of the Roman republic. The end came only after numerous civil wars over offices and honor , decades of gang violence in the capital, and waves of sanctioned political murder. By that measure, Trump is no Caesar.
In a recent article in the Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry claimed that “what historians now refer to as the crisis of the Roman Republic had a deeper, class-based component.” And as in Rome, he wrote, in modern-day America “there is definitely a patrician class and a plebeian class” that are “at loggerheads.” In the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky also found an analogue for America’s turbulence under Trump in Rome’s past: “The patricians and the plebeians had clashed for decades,” he wrote. “It was a class struggle pure and simple.”
But the struggle between patricians and plebeians took place more than 250 years before the republic’s collapse. During an early republican period known to historians as the Conflict of the Orders , between 494 and 287 B.C., plebeians won the right to have their own magistrates — the tribunes — and to hold their own assembly to make laws for the entire Roman state. Patricians were excluded from this assembly but bound by its laws. Plebeians also gained election to the consulship, the highest office in Rome. After 366 B.C., normally one of the two consuls was a plebian.
Patricians and plebeians were not “classes” in the modern sense of the term. According to Roman myth, the patricians were descended from the original senators appointed by Rome’s founder, Romulus, to assist him in decision-making. Patrician status was inherited, and plebians made up the rest of society. After the Conflict of the Orders, many plebeians became wealthy and powerful, while certain patrician families saw their fortunes decline and disappeared from history. Pompey the Great, for all his riches and power, was a plebeian from an area colonized in the 3rd century B.C. Emperor Augustus was born a plebeian; it was only when he was adopted by Julius Caesar in his will that he became a patrician.
Professor Jerome Nriagu offered this theory in 1983 , and its popularity is rising again because of recent investigations of lead contamination in Rome’s harbor. A 2014 article in Science wondered, “Did Lead Poisoning Bring Down Ancient Rome?,” concluding that it quite possibly played a role; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested in an episode of “Cosmos” that lead had a hand in the decline of the empire. Supposedly lead shrunk the population by poisoning the water, leaving the empire weakened and vulnerable.
It’s just not true. The argument is predicated on the belief that most Romans used lead pipes to deliver water, lead cauldrons to boil wine, lead as a sweetener and lead in makeup. But the majority of Romans were rural farmers who lived at or barely above subsistence levels; they drank from local or personal wells and lacked the means to regularly indulge in makeup and sweetened wine.
Even if the city of Rome did have fairly high levels of lead in its public water system, which some recent skeletal evidence may support, it represented only one-sixtieth of the population of the empire. Lead contamination was never widespread enough to cause fertility problems, mass poisoning or other debilitating illnesses on a sufficient scale to diminish the Roman population and leave it powerless against invading armies.
In a recent Huffington Post article, political scientist Joseph Nye compared the decay of America to the fall of the Roman Empire, fretting that “an absolute decline in [Rome’s] society, economy and institutions . . . left it unable to protect itself from hordes of invading barbarian tribes.” Likewise, a Utah State University guide to Rome claims that “barbarian forces overran western Europe, spelling the end of an era.”
Yet Rome didn’t succumb to a sudden influx of barbarians at the gate. Nor were Goths or other Germanic peoples “barbarian” in the modern sense of the term. They had regularly interacted with the Roman Empire for 200 years and, in many cases, were educated, trained and employed inside its perimeters before they succeeded in destroying imperial authority in Italy, France, the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa during the 5th century A.D. At various times over these two centuries, the tribes served in Roman armies.
Alaric, who famously led the Visigothic migration through the empire to the gates of Rome (395-410 A.D.), started his military career commanding Gothic troops serving in the Roman army. His primary opponent was Stilicho, a half-Roman, half-Vandal who commanded the armies of the western half of the empire. The eventual rout was no invasion of unknown “hordes,” as Nye put it.
In his monumental study “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” Edward Gibbon famously proposed that Christianity sparked a decrease in civic duty and a corresponding unwillingness to sacrifice for the empire in its period of greatest stress, ultimately leading (along with barbarian invasions) to its collapse. Because of the widespread acclamation accorded to it, both at the time and by later generations, Gibbon’s work has had unusual longevity.
But no modern scholar believes Gibbon’s thesis, if only for the simple fact that a Christian Roman Empire in the east survived the Germanic migration and lived on as the Byzantine Empire for nearly another millennium. Gibbon was also aware of the fact that the Goths were Christian, but he chose to ignore this when assailing the Roman Empire for its adherence to a new faith. All parties at the end of the Roman Empire were Christian.
Thanks to Peter Brown’s magnificent work “The World of Late Antiquity,” most scholars now consider the collapse of the Western Roman Empire to be part of a larger process of transformation, not a decline and fall. Rome had become peripheral to the empire it created, whose center of political and economic life shifted to Constantinople, modern Istanbul, over the course of the 4th century A.D.