In the Footsteps of Rome... to the Bitter End

Americans, sadly, often know little of their own history. Yet it is far worse to lack historical imagination altogether. Hence trying, often desperately, to analyze what is happening, and where our bitter civil strife might take us, naturally leads to the easy cliches of civil wars past. We catch a few of these and ask ourselves: is America on the road to civil war? Yet all we see are pictures lit by a carousel of Union and Confederate, Blue and Gray cliche.

Victor Davis Hanson, in contrast, is all historical imagination: it’s what he does best. His recent commentary at American Greatness—“Is America Becoming Rome Versus Byzantium?”—really resonates with me. He raises a subtle specter of an imperial nation on the edge, not of civil war, or even secession, but rather, of a longer and deeper historical process of separation, a sort of untangling of the American nation, indeed of the whole American idea or American way of life. In short, Hanson foresees an agonizing, unstoppable divorce that will seem inevitable only after it is long over.

The Roman Empire, over more than three centuries, realized just this outcome: a transformation on a civilization-wide scale. In this essay I offer Hanson’s meme even more ammunition.

The process of separation

Rome was very much a world empire, nearly an oikoumene (reaching the very margins of the known world). Yet in contrast, our Pax Americana makes Pax Romana look small.

It is a wonder that their empire held together for three centuries, and its division, as Hanson points out, was not only pragmatic and practical, but also natural as well: Latin West and Greek East were more effectively managed, and defended, as separate enterprises. Yet together they still represented a single empire for another three centuries. Moreover, there were several serious efforts to reunite East and West forcibly. Two were successful, if only temporarily. Furthermore, the Eastern emperors felt free to intervene constantly in Western politics. Centuries later, with the Crusades, Western popes likewise felt equally free to intervene in Eastern politics.

In other words, the Greco-Roman world may have divided, yet at some level each continued for centuries to feel related to the other, and also, reserved the right to bring to heel a wayward Roman brother.

An American empire divided—Red and Blue instead of East and West—would likely engage, in its future history, in similarly aggressive, even violent, political behavior. This is the legacy of imperial unity that continues to hover over a successor moiety, however officially peaceful the original split.

The dream of reunification persists. For Byzantines, this dream was finally interred in the 750s, with the loss of Rome and Ravenna. For the Latin West, it lived on until the very fall of Constantinople itself, in 1453.

An America split, like Rome, into two different worlds—both culturally and politically—would still pine for the increasingly mythic ideal of a “united states.” No matter how alienated from each other in practice, each half could argue that only its world was the legitimate representative of Rome (America), and true Romanitas (the American Way).

What this might mean in practice might include some areas of domestic cooperation and some level of international solidarity—as a titular United States—perhaps perpetuating the legal fiction of a single constitution.

Migrations of people and wealth

Splitting up the Roman empire also meant shifts in wealth and political power. In Late Antiquity, most of the wealth was in the proto-Byzantine East, Hanson’s metaphor for Red America. Today however, the equivalent concentration of wealth is in Blue. In the Greek East as well were the mega-cities of Alexandria and Antioch, soon to be joined by the greatest Greek cosmopolis: Constantinople. [See Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity]

Thus, the Greek half of the Roman Empire mirrored Blue today, with the urban sprawls of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC. Blue America also mirrors the Greek East, with 80% of the nation’s wealth.

Hanson’s metaphor still works, however, in this sense: moving the imperial capital to Constantinople meant a migration of people and wealth from the old city of Rome to the New Rome. Constantinople’s rise paced an equivalent decline in the old capital. Rome went from 500,000 inhabitants down to 60,000, while Constantinople swelled to 500,000 people. These was an enormous urban migration for Late Antiquity, and marked an enormous shift in wealth as well. [see Bertrand Lancon, Rome in Late Antiquity]

If we look at COVID not simply as a plague event, but also as manifestation of national decoupling, we see another great migration underway. People—and their wealth—are moving out of failing Blue cities to thriving places in Texas, Florida, and other Red states.

Hence, the riving of America, like the splitting of Rome, will tend to make a Red continental empire more economically equivalent to the Blue bi-coastal (and achipelagic) realm. Moreover, disentangling a United States will also, eventually, mean a decades’ long recalibrating of governance, supersizing in Red, and receding in Blue, as the centralized Federal state eventually disaggregates.

From Brother to Other

The strongest match between Late Rome and America is in the acute (and often hysterical) demonization today by Blue and Red of each other. This is, effectively, a process of cultural transformation. In other words, the American Ethos itself is being torn in two, long before the onset of either violent civil conflict, or a constitutional separation, or both. Moreover, the process of separation is—in corporate culture and in customary behavior—well advanced. Furthermore, it has surfaced and proliferated, in viral form, for only about a decade.

In Late Antiquity, the split between Latin and Greek was a couple centuries in the making, and underscored by the difficulty in integrating Greeks curiales (city leaders) from the East into the core social elite of Rome, its senatorial class. Ultimately, not only was there a new imperial capital now in the East, but the very legitimacy of the Eastern emperor demanded his own social elite in Constantinople. Hence, the creation of a second Roman senate of Greek curiales by Constantius II after 350 can be seen as a division of congressional authority. No matter that —in times when there was a single emperor — he was affirmed and supported by both bodies. When there were (most often) two emperors, however, two senates tended to move the dynamics of imperial authority in different directions, and later, opposed directions. [see Muriel Moser, Emperor and Senators in the Reign of Constantius II]

For example, when the Eastern emperor, Leo I, sent Anthemius to fill the vacant imperial seat in the West, he was despised by the magister militum Ricimer (who was a Goth!) and called “Greekling” (Graeculus). This became an epithet of Latin contempt for centuries’ worth of Byzantines: Christian of Mainz, for example, calling out the emperor Manuel I in 1165, for delusions of godhood, “even though you Greeklings think that you are God.” [see Paul Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Comnenus]."

Likewise, for Blue, MAGA America is irredeemably “deplorable,” or worse, white supremacist fascists — while Red reserves equally spicy epithets for Blue. Remember, Anthemius called his barbarian bête noire a “hide-wearing Goth” (pellitus Geta)! [See Max Flomen, The Original Godfather: Ricimer and the Fall of Rome]

“Othering” on an imperial scale is more than a token of disunion; it is a dangerous prefiguration of actual civil war. It is worth remembering that even in 1861, many Americans referred to the coming fury as “brother against brother.” Today, however, the passions are far more existential. What we are seeing—as in the day of Constantius’ creation of a rival senate, a separated Greek elite—are the protozoic beginnings of a new, Red elite, separate and rival to the dominant Blue elite, which has deserted half of America.

Alien Identities, Alienated Faiths

Ultimately, centuries after the “fall of Rome,” the split between East and West became increasingly existential, as each world came to view the Other as alien. Moreover, by the 12th century, cultural alienation no longer sprang from the different language or different manners, or even cultural or ethnic stereotypes.

For example, in 968, Bishop Luitprand of Cremona wrote a report to Otto the Great of his mission to Constantinople. One of his gentlest insults to all things Greek: “To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable.”

Twitter trolls of all Red and Blue persuasions today outdo even the fiercest rhetoric of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Internet—modernity’s deus ex machina—has amplified the bile and anger the two warring identities hold toward each other. On the digital battlefield—as in any religious war—no blow is too wicked to erase its virtue; nothing may be held back; and the battle itself becomes the instrument of transformation, which may no longer even be arrested, let alone called back.

It took centuries to sunder for good the bonds between Greek East and Roman West, and the decisive blows came long after the end of the Western Empire. Even then, separation became schism over a tearing of faith, where Christianity itself became “weaponized” between Catholic and Orthodox and their passionate irreconcilability.

Such weaponizing is the very leitmotif driving schism again, in America. Moreover, the deal will be sealed by the power of two uniquely different religious visions, and how they become implemented into everyday life. Just as in Rome and Byzantium. [see Fergus Millar, A Greek Roman Empire]

With Hanson, then, I expect our imperial American transformation, like Rome’s, to take time, to go back and forth, to try and come together before deciding again to come apart, to fight perhaps spasmodically during these episodes, and only eventually to become two separate identities, forever severed. Two pieces before two peaces.