In the Victorian era the British were fond of comparing their empire to the Roman, confident that their own territories were significantly larger. Nowadays, comparisons tend to be made to America. Countries like China and India have their own very ancient and civilised past to draw upon and are far less likely to concern themselves with the more Western idea of Rome as the great empire of history. The United States in the early twenty-first century is not the same as Queen Victoria's empire, and neither of these are identical to Rome. The world has changed enormously. Looking at the globe today - or indeed at a photograph taken from space - the former territories of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent do not look quite so big. The Roman world had only three continents, and the size of both Africa and Asia was massively underestimated. Technology was primitive and the pace of invention and change seems to us incredibly slow. It was a world that accepted slavery as normal, killed animals and people for entertainment, and celebrated military glory as one of the highest human achievements. Today we live on a planet whose population dwarfs that of the Victorian era, let alone the ancient world. At the same time travel is far faster and communication from one side of the planet to the other can be virtually instant.
The closer you look at Rome, then the more obvious it is just how very different it was to any modern state, let alone the United States. We should be very glad indeed of these differences, for there was much about the Roman Empire that was brutal and unpleasant, even if it was no worse and in most respects better than its neighbours. At the time of writing the Republican and Democratic Parties in America are selecting their presidential candidates. Before this book is released this process will be complete and someone will have been elected and installed in the White House as president. We do not yet know who this will be, but we can at least be sure that the defeated candidate will not try to rally part of the United States Armed Forces and plunge the country into civil war.
Apart from cultural and institutional differences, it is easy to list many profound contrasts in the situation of Rome and modern America. Rome was effectively a superpower, but it existed in a world that did not include a serious challenger. Parthia and then Persia were strong sophisticated kingdoms, but it was only after the division of the Roman Empire - and really then only after the collapse of the west - that it could be seen as Rome's equal. The United States is the sole superpower in the modern world, but there are many other powers amongst just under 20o recognised countries. None of these other powers are yet America's equal, but they cannot be ignored. The economic and military strength of some Asian countries is clearly growing and states like India will in time gain more and more influence in world affairs. China may become a true superpower. A growing number of countries now possess nuclear weapons, capable of devastation on a scale far beyond the worst conflict of the ancient world. The United States faces challenges to its dominance unlike anything experienced by the Roman Empire. At the same time there is no equivalent for America of the tribal peoples who lived beyond Rome's borders. Illegal migrants are a very different proposition to bands of raiders or groups intending to seize and occupy land by force.
Recently, Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007) drew some broad similarities between the Roman and American experience. Interestingly, he focused in particular on the Late Roman Empire and the reasons for its eventual collapse. Without ever pushing the analogies too far, he noted broad similarities in attitudes in both government circles and the wider population. Even more serious was the extension of government functions to many private or semi-private agencies, all much harder to control and inevitably with priorities and aims of their own. As part of this he also highlighted the huge reliance of America and its allies on private companies to provide the manpower to support its war efforts. Only in part is this the result of a shortfall in recruiting for the regular army. Private companies do not need to be paid when not being used, nor does the government directly pay pensions and other benefits to their employees. Superficially, this can make them seem far cheaper (especially since at government level the payment may well come from a different part of the budget), and in the very short term this might even be true. In the long term it is likely to make the regular forces lose some of their capability. What was once a choice then becomes an unavoidable necessity and alongside this goes a loss of control.'
In the Late Roman Empire, government became primarily about survival. Senior men wanted power - that was why there was never a shortage of men ambitious to become emperor. At all levels in the civil service and army, promotion brought rewards and privileges. With these came considerable risk, which increased as a man rose in rank. Everyone in imperial service, including senior army officers, was far more likely to be killed or tortured and imprisoned on the orders of other Romans than to suffer at the hands of foreign enemies. Although only a minority - and logic would dictate overall a very small minority - would actually suffer such punishment, these risks were very real. There was little incentive for genuine talent. Officials and officers understood that ability would not matter if they came under suspicion of disloyalty. It was not a recipe for efficiency.
At a basic level the emperors and government officials of the Late Roman Empire had forgotten what the empire was for. The wider interests of the state - the Res Publica, or `public thing', from which we get our word `Republic' - were secondary to their own personal success and survival. This was not at root a moral failing. There had been plenty of selfish and corrupt individuals in earlier periods of Roman history, just as there have been in all other societies. The difference was that by the late empire it was difficult for them to behave in any other way. Emperors lived lives of fear, fully aware that they stood a good chance of meeting a sudden and violent death. Officials were equally nervous and suspicious of colleagues, as well as their imperial master.
It is only human nature to lose sight of the wider issues and focus on immediate concerns and personal aims. In the Late Roman Empire this was so often all about personal survival and advancement - the latter bringing wealth and influence, which helped to increase security in some ways, but also rendered the individual more prominent and thus a greater target to others. Some officials enjoyed highly successful careers through engineering the destruction of colleagues. Performing a job well was only ever a secondary concern. Even emperors were more likely to reward loyalty over talent. Officials and commanders needed only to avoid making a spectacular mess of their job - and even then enough influence could conceal the facts or pass the blame onto someone else. None of this was entirely new, but it became endemic. When `everyone' acted in the same way there was no real encouragement to honesty or even competence. The game was about personal success and this often had little connection to the wider needs of the empire.
It was not a phenomenon unique to the Late Roman Empire, nor are its implications only of significance to the United States or indeed any other country. All human institutions, from countries to businesses, risk creating a similarly short-sighted and selfish culture. It is easier to avoid in the early stages of expansion and growth. Then the sense of purpose is likely to be clearer, and the difficulties or competition involved have a more direct and obvious impact. Success produces growth and, in time, creates institutions so large that they are cushioned from mistakes and inefficiency. The united Roman Empire never faced a competitor capable of destroying it. These days, countries and government departments do not easily collapse - and Western states do not face enemies likely to overthrow them by military force. In the business world the very largest corporations almost never face competitors that are truly their equal. Competition within the commercial market at any level is obviously rarely carried out on entirely equal terms.
In most cases it takes a long time for serious problems or errors to be exposed. It is usually even harder to judge accurately the real competence of individuals and, in particular, their contribution to the overall purpose. Those in charge of overseeing a country's economy generally reap the praise or criticism for decisions made by their predecessors in office. Often both they and their predecessors will be inclined to act for immediate political reasons. For the vast majority of people, their work is less open to the public gaze, but is similar in that the real consequences of what they do are not obvious. Comparatively few people these days actually make or even sell something, or work in a profession where at least some of the goals are obvious. A doctor or nurse knows if their patient recovers. A hospital manager operates at a completely different level, dealing with numbers and budgets and not individual patients. Such distance is inevitable and in many walks of life the wider goals are even less clear.
By their nature bureaucracies tend to grow. This was true in the Roman Empire, let alone with the massively larger government agencies of modern countries. Individuals within a department obviously have to focus on their particular task. It is only natural to believe that with more people they could deal with this more effectively. The larger they grow, then the more distant most members will be from the reality of the overall function of the department, and they will become even more removed in their way of thought to anyone outside. This is not inevitably a bad thing, but does mean that they will continue to expand unless restrained, since their problem or concern is the only one they will see. In Britain, and to some extent in the USA, the number of people employed directly or indirectly by the government is now staggeringly large. For much of history states have usually employed more soldiers than civilian officials. Successive governments in Britain have drastically reduced the size of the Armed Forces. Perhaps this might have been justified if they had not subsequently committed them to several major overseas operations.
Given that it is difficult to deal with a major and distant task, it is normal to break this up into many separate and much smaller tasks. Certain individuals are given limited objectives that can more easily be measured. Once again this is reasonable, but can easily be taken too far. The limited goal can too easily become the end in itself. The culture of targets has been especially prevalent in the United Kingdom for some time. In part it is a result of the desire to spread the efficiency of business management into many more walks of life. Sadly, what has been introduced is not the skill of the genuinely gifted business manager - something that would obviously be difficult to duplicate - but a far more rigid facsimile of supposedly general rules for running a business. Talent is hard to teach and the methods employed tend to reinforce the distancing of the individual from the real function for which they are employed. Management is simply turned into a taught skill, which with minor modification brings success in any environment.
This is especially dangerous in large institutions, where the individual's real contribution is so hard to measure. Targets themselves will over time tend to distort this sense of the wider goals even further. The temptation, most especially in government, is to make them readily achievable so that success can be declared. As often, the targets are chosen because they are something that can be measured. How can you really judge how good a school or a hospital is, especially if you are an administrator only able to see evidence in written form? The targets become ends within themselves, robbing individuals within the system of any initiative. Improvements in communications make it easier for those at senior levels to intervene and send instructions to those lower down and this has a similar tendency to destroy initiative. Even more damage has been done to this as a side-effect of the widespread reliance on computers, where the system makes most of the decisions on an automatic basis.'
At no point does anyone in authority appear to have wondered whether the business model is actually appropriate for all situations. An army, for instance, is by its very nature not a profit-making enterprise. Targets and other government initiatives have to succeed, since no government can admit repeated failures. Such things quickly develop a life of their own, almost wholly independent of reality. Everything is supposed to be improving and yet institutions prove incapable of the simplest tasks. Thus in Britain we have a National Health Service in which the number of administrators has increased as the number of beds for patients has fallen. Seemingly incapable of such basic tasks as keeping wards clean, as an institution its attitude at times seems ambivalent to the fate of patients, concerned only with numbers passing through the system.
It is very easy for a large institution to lose sight of its real function. This is especially true if the task is large, complex and unending. Government can all too easily become a question of trying to stay in power under any circumstances. It would be tempting to see democracies as especially susceptible to this were it not for the fact that all types of regime readily fall prey to the same thing. Individuals within the institutions tend to start thinking along similar lines, putting personal ambition and advantage above everything else. Real success or failure is hard to measure, especially in the short term. Targets and personal gains are attractive alternatives.
In public life a scandal of some sort - whether someone is revealed as corrupt, deceitful or simply incompetent - no longer prompts resignation if there is any chance at all that brazen denial and/or an apology will suffice. `I take full responsibility' must now stand alongside such things as `This is totally unacceptable' as ministerial statements that mean the exact opposite of what they actually say. In other instances, the guilty parties demand that a code of conduct be created for them to understand how they should behave. Apparently, simple honesty and common sense are inadequate. In government or business it is quite possible to be very successful and richly rewarded without ever having been efficient. Meeting short-term targets or making short-term savings or profits, all of which may be done in ways that in the long run actually weaken the institution, can be sufficient.
The generally slow pace of real events helps to make this possible, and this is something the Roman example illustrates well. For all the inefficiency and corruption of the Late Roman Empire, its sheer size and in-built strength meant that it was a very long time before its weaknesses became more obvious and serious in their consequences. Today the media regularly employs terms like `meltdown' or `crisis' about businesses and government departments alike. Rarely does this lead to the predicted catastrophes. Like the Romans, the bodies involved are usually just too big to come to immediate and final collapse. Life continues, and so does the institution or company. In-built strength helps to carry them through. In bodies like the National Health Service or Armed Forces, there are usually still enough talented and dedicated individuals at lower levels to permit them to function in spite of woeful management and inadequate resources. Yet the warning from the Roman experience is that major catastrophic failures often arrive both suddenly and unanticipated.
Time plays another role. One lesson of Rome's fall is that it happened very slowly. This means that we should not be too ready to predict rapid shifts in the balance of power in our own world. When Gibbon released the first volume of the Decline and Fall in 1776, he and others could be reasonably optimistic that Britain would win the war in America. The second and third volumes appeared early in 1781, when the picture was less rosy. By the end of the year Cornwallis had surrendered his army to the American and French forces at Yorktown. The final volume came out in 1788, when the American colonies were irrevocably lost to Britain and a new country had emerged. Gibbon's tone became noticeably more pessimistic as the book progressed. The subject matter was partly responsible for this. There is something very depressing about the collapse of Roman power (which may in part explain the tone of this epilogue). Yet, as we noted in the Introduction, the loss of America did not prevent the British Empire becoming even stronger and more successful in the next century.
In spite of its propaganda, no empire - or, for that matter, superpower - is guaranteed its supremacy. This is as true of modern America as it was of Rome. Such dominance requires not simply strength, resources and the willingness to use them, but also the ability to direct them efficiently. This depends to a great degree on culture. From the third century onwards Roman emperors lost a sense of their wider role and instead concentrated on survival. The rot began at the top, and in time a similar attitude pervaded the entire government and army high command. Sheer size meant that for a very long time the Romans either kept winning or, at the very least, did not suffer defeats that were catastrophic. The empire was in decline, but it was able to continue for many lifetimes.
Modern America is not perfectly efficient - no country has ever or will ever achieve this. Some of its weaknesses and problems may seem echoed in the Roman experience, but none are anywhere near as pronounced. Nothing suggests that the United States must inevitably decline and cease to be a superpower in the near future. We ought to be glad of this, since none of the likely alternatives to this situation are very appealing. This certainly does not mean that America can afford to be complacent.
The Roman experience suggests that imperial decline is likely to start at the top. In their case the fatal decline of the empire came from internal problems. If governments or agencies forget what they are really for, then decline will occur, however slowly. It is no easy thing to keep or to recapture this sense of perspective and purpose. Bureaucracies are stubborn, they tend to expand on their own and develop their own agendas. This is not inevitable, but it is always likely. If the trend is to be reversed, then this process needs to start at the very top. So perhaps we should expect more from our political leaders. If they do not set an example by placing the wider good before personal or party interest then it is most unlikely that anyone else will behave any better. A greater willingness to take genuine responsibility would be a good start, but seems unlikely to occur.
Decline is not inevitable, but the risk is always there. It is much easier to proclaim such remedies than for anyone to implement them. Rome's fall was to a great extent self-inflicted. It is hard to say when the process became irrevocable, but it began with the four-year civil war that followed the successive murders of Commodus and Pertinax. Emperors tried to make themselves safer and in doing so weakened the capacity of the empire to act. They also failed to prevent the regular appearance of internal challengers. Like Gibbon, it is difficult not to become somewhat pessimistic in tracing this story. My last words come from a comment made by an American student at a seminar during my days as graduate student at Oxford. After a paper discussing schisms within the Church in the fifth and sixth centuries, this rather urbane individual affected a rural accent to sum the debate up: `You know', he said, `people are kinda stoopid.'