Fumbling in the dark



I have been sitting in on a colleague's Roman history course this semester. We are now five weeks in and have finally arrived at the last days of the Republic, a turbulent period in which polarized factions and wealthy interests vied for advantage. The rich and privileged were determined to hang on to their power, while the lower classes and their various demagogues were seething with discontent.

Comparisons are always inexact, but I can’t help seeing parallels between the Roman Republic in its depraved senescence and America in its own late-empire paroxysms. Like Rome we are unrivaled in military prowess, spending five times as much as China, which like some distant Parthia stands as the only possible challenge. The U.S. military is scattered around the world defending far-flung outposts and preserving the peace or stirring the animosity between various warring tribes.

There are other odd parallels, too. In my lifetime I can recall fruits and vegetables having seasons. No more. You can buy asparagus in February, which means we have abandoned self-sufficiency and happily import goods from throughout the world, thereby creating an unsustainable profligacy. Corporate farms, like the Latifundia of ancient Rome, dominate agriculture. Corruption is rampant. Indeed, Archer-Daniels-Midland, one of the largest food processing companies in the world, recently had to pay a $400 million fine for conspiring to fix the price of high fructose corn syrup, a widely used food sweetener. Interestingly, the Romans also had widespread corruption in their commodities markets.

As I write this the U.S. Senate is gripped by intractable partisanship and the Supreme Court has opened the door to corporate ownership of politics. Sometimes, too, when I am reading ancient historians, they mention odd portents: the birth of two-headed goats and ominous freaks of the weather. And sure enough, today we get tales of Octo-Moms, talk of genetic cloning and disturbing reports of global warming.

In my humanities course, I often liken learning about the past to creating a mental map of a darkened room. I tell the students that before they can refine the details on their map, it helps to figure out where the big pieces of furniture are. What disturbs me is that the more time I spend fumbling around in the darkened room of the late Roman Republic, the more I get the feeling I'm standing in my own living room.

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