Those of you who may have been following the Covid 19 outbreak will have observed that the response of the United States of America has been, ah-shall we say, patchy- to say the least. Heroism and hard work on part of medical professionals. A great deal of squabbling among political leaders and news organisations. It seems to be another expression of the deep hyperpartisan mania which seemed to settle into US politics around a quarter of a century ago. Everything, and we mean everything, seems to be about winning the next election. Matters such as the economy, external threats, and the well being of the people seem to be secondary at best. And all this in a nation whose technical and administrative excellence once seem so assured. Think Second World War, Liberty ships and so much else. The Apollo project. Harvard, Hollywood ..stop me before I drown in a sea of H’s.
Fans of History will note an immediate parallel. The Roman Empire in the Third Century AD was racked by endless civil wars, and every last one over who was going to be Emperor. The details of every candidate who rose and fell need not concern us here. What matters is that the attention of every general and Emperor was on the succession, not on the formidable external threats-such as Persia and the German tribes. The result was devastated provinces, sacked cities and an all pervasive cynicism and loss of confidence from which they never truly recovered.
Assertions of American Decline, and theories of Roman decline, are common-and many. Perhaps more fruitful might be to investigate the point at which a society suddenly tips into this acute psychological crisis, when winning power becomes more important than the existential threat.
But Rome in AD 200 was very like America in AD 2000. Supreme, confident, the envy of all-and with problems that could be managed. The position was very different only a short while later. And-get this-both of them had eagles as the company logo!
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