Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.
by Barbara Graham
Since historian Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, some have compared ancient Rome with the United States of America. They see portentous parallels between conditions that prevailed during Rome’s collapse and conditions prevailing currently.
It has been said that those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. What can we learn from the past? The reasons presented for Rome’s fall by scholars of ancient Roman and European history are as varied as the scholars themselves. Yet, certain conditions do parallel modern American society and should be noted.
Perils of wealth: Having conquered much of the world, Rome’s coffers overflowed with gold. Land was amassed into enormous estates where conquered peoples became slaves. Materialism crept in and the blessings of wealth became a curse. “With wealth came luxury…. In the train of luxury came vice; self-restraint was broken down; the power of self-government was lost….”1
Political corruption: In her beginning as a small republic, Rome provided a vote and voice for her citizens. A Senate represented the common people. However, by 200 bc, ensuing conquests presented complex problems that the republic could no longer resolve. Where laws could not be passed by honest votes and practices, they were enacted through subterfuge. Often, unwanted candidates and elected officials were assassinated. Government catered to the rich and exploited the common people. Rome’s unconquerable army also became a political tool. “The Romans ceased to govern themselves, and they had to be governed. They lost the faculty of self-government, and with that vanished the republic, and its place was supplied by an imperial tyranny supported by a military despotism.”2
Waning economy, taxation, and class divisions: Rome’s economic system gradually reduced her society to two classes, the rich and the poor. “And as these two classes were growing farther apart, the rich growing richer and the poor, poorer, there ceased to be any middle class to maintain order in government and society by holding the balance of power…. The rich despised the poor and the poor envied the rich.”3 Increasing taxes were imposed to support the military and popular circuses, and provide free wheat for the people.
Public idleness and sordid entertainment: As conquests brought wealth and luxury, public entertainment became a popular opiate for all classes. Unfortunately, the entertainment consisted of violent, competitive sports and events that featured killing, torture, and other sordid behavior.
“During festivals, huge crowds would converge on Rome’s great amphitheater and many circuses to attend a day of games. In the vast Colosseum, up to 50,000 people could watch gladiators fight wild beasts or other gladiators.” “These brutal spectacles were usually staged by the Government, and one of their chief purposes was to divert the menacing hordes of Roman unemployed.…” “Eventually, as emperors continued to proclaim festive occasions, more than half the days of the year became holidays.”4
False religion: Roman religion began as a blend of fetishism, magic, and animism. As time passed, a pantheon of gods and goddesses developed, greatly influenced by the empire’s conquests. “By recognizing foreign gods, the Romans also found it easier to secure the loyalty of conquered peoples.… Rome was remarkably tolerant toward both the political and the religious practices of conquered peoples, and wherever possible she left these intact.”5 Although tolerant of other religions, Rome still demanded that they acknowledge her gods. When Christianity commenced, around ad 34, the true followers of Jesus Christ refused to obey this mandate, holding fast to their Master’s teaching: “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.” Matthew 4:10. The government viewed this as treason, and Roman tolerance of the early Christian Church soon gave way to persecution.
For a graphic look at “modern Rome,” we need only turn to the media. Nothing better confirms that the United States is following in the steps of its ancient sister. Within the past decades, but especially since September 11, 2001, significant freedoms of American citizens have been rapidly eroding. Major cities now have “lockdown” procedures which could halt free access into or out of an area. Computers can provide detailed records of “private” information which can be released, under certain conditions, without the individual’s consent. Money, materialism, and majoritarianism have become the driving forces for legislative decisions, rather than justice and integrity.
American media have created a violent culture which has gone beyond the screen into everyday life. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Colorado “Batman Shooting,” and the Virginia Tech massacre testify to an increase of senseless violence. Traditional American concepts of marriage and family have been virtually destroyed by popular and legal acceptance of same-sex unions, cohabitation, and rampant divorce. The US Census showed 11 million Americans in “unmarried partner households” in 2000. The unfortunate sex scandal involving President Clinton further eroded respect for marital fidelity. At one time, America’s public values and standards were strongly influenced by biblical principles. Now, the popular media present many unbiblical practices as acceptable and, in too many instances, even respectable: Harry Potter novels that extol the occult, homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle, the legalization of abortion, sexual promiscuity and pregnancy outside marriage, and the widespread use of alcohol and tobacco.
As painful as it may be, we must ask why the history of Rome is repeating itself in America’s decline. One historian wrote about “the pride of Rome.” Both biblical and secular history show that wherever pride is fostered—in an individual or nation—and God’s moral principles are rejected, the ultimate end is disastrous ruin. “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18. In contrast, when nations consented to be governed by God’s principles, they were blessed. Such was America’s case during its inception.
THE GOOD NEWS!
So why is this tragic history repeating itself? Because the underlying cause of the tragedy is repeating itself. The Bible states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9. Nations have changed for the better when the hearts of their leaders and citizens have changed.
Jesus lived during the reign of Rome, yet how did He relate to that proud, heathen nation? “The government under which Jesus lived was corrupt and oppressive; on every hand were crying abuses—extortion, intolerance, and grinding cruelty. Yet, the Savior attempted no civil reforms.… He did not interfere with the authority or administration of those in power.… Not because He was indifferent to the woes of men, but because the remedy did not lie in merely human and external measures. To be efficient, the cure must reach men individually, and must regenerate the heart.”6
The good news is that God has promised to give a new heart to all who desire one. Ezekiel 36:26, 27. When human pride—individual or national—bows in humble submission and obedience to God’s divine law, then true righteousness will reign. “Righteousness exalteth a nation….” “…For all Thy commandments are righteousness.” Proverbs 14:34; Psalm 119:172.
1. Alonzo T. Jones, The Two Republics or Rome and the United States of America, p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 23.
4. Great Ages of Man: Imperial Rome, Time–Life Books, p. 45.
5. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 6, pp. 90, 91.
6. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 509.
Barbara Graham was the associate editor of Last Generation magazine when she wrote this article.