Are we witnessing the decline and fall of the American Empire? Is Trump like the last emperor of the Rome, the end of whose reign allegedly ushered in the “Dark Ages”? Some people certainly think so. The mayor of Sarnia, Mike Bradley, has recently been quoted as saying as much. Unlike the New York Times, Newsweek goes further than merely quoting Bradley, reminding their readers that the deposing of the last emperor in 476 is “widely considered to mark of the start of the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages”.
The comparative study of political regimes is of course a perfectly legitimate form of inquiry. I’m reminded of a classic study of this kind I first encountered as an undergraduate, Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions (Cambridge University Press, 1979). So there is nothing inherently wrong with proposing analogies between one political empire (Rome) and another (U.S.A.). However, when any such analogy is put forward, an important question to ask is whether or not the comparison is accurate, as well as whether or not it fits. Just consider the fact that the Roman empire was ruled by emperors, which doesn’t exactly match with the democratic selection of American presidents. An equally important fact to keep in mind when judging analogies is their ideological provenance, which often plays a determinative role in why it is being made in the first place and how it is characterized. In the example above, a Canadian political leader is being quoted by American news outlets in order to try and underscore the sense of anxiety Americans (should?) feel about their current leader. Although I think it likely that the Times trusts its knowing liberal readers to fill in the blanks, Newsweek makes the analogical threat explicit by suggesting the big, bad “Dark Ages” might follow in the wake of the Trump presidency.
At least three points are worth making about this claim. First, the suggestion that the Roman empire fell all of a sudden, in the year 476, with the removal of Romulus Augustulus, is, quite simply, false. Most historians, including the very historian from whom we get the phrase “decline and fall,” Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), see this as a process that was centuries in the making. To cite a recent account, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2005), Peter Heather affirms that it was at least a century-long process.
Second, what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the year 476 concerns the Western Roman empire. The Eastern Roman empire, with its capital at Constantinople, continued to exist for centuries. At best this weakens the analogy with America, at worst it renders it meaningless. Again, Gibbon himself carried his narrative in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (vols. III-VI) right up to the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium in 1453. Many modern historians take time to underline the same point, as Chris Wickham does in his history of Europe from 400 to 1000, The Inheritance of Rome (Penguin, 2009).
Third, to use Newsweek’s own words against it, it is “widely considered” inappropriate and inaccurate to describe the period of history following 476 in Europe as the “Dark Ages.” When I looked up the course descriptions for the history of medeival Europe at several prominent universities just now (admittedly, not a scientific survey), I didn’t find a single one that referred to the “Dark Ages.” This term is pejorative and misleading, deriving as it does from internecine battles waged between scholastics and humanists in the Renaissance, which was then developed and popularized in the Enlightenment. Moreover, as J. G. A. Pocock has shown repeatedly in his magisterial series, Barbarism and Religion (Cambridge University Press, 6 vols., 1999-2015), even Gibbon had a much more nuanced view of medeival history than that which is evidenced in popular understandings like that of the Newsweek article.
The temptation to compare America’s current political situation, with Trump as president, to the fall of the Roman empire, is evidently irresistible to some. Frequently, though, this betrays nothing so much as a high level of historical ignorance and the woeful underdevelopment of historical thinking. It isn’t too hard to imagine the motivating reasons at play here. In a time of global pandemic, during a period where large numbers of people are facing difficult economic circumstances, with a growing sense that America is no longer the superpower it once was, many inside and outside the United States view it as being at a critical juncture, signalled by the person and politics of Trump. Understandably, but mistakenly, they reach for an analogy that underlines the gravity of the situation. To put it mildly, those who make this comparison have a lot more work to do if they truly want to substantiate their point. But many will not be interested in such subtlety, preferring to idolize the muse of history as a teacher of straightforwardly soothing “lessons.” It will be enough that they find others who agree with them, or that major newspapers quote their views. Careful scrutiny is apparently too demanding, requiring as it does generous curiosity, critical sympathy, and genuine effort.
Historical ignorance and shallow historical thinking are precisely what scholars attempt to address in their classrooms, in their books, and in their other public activities. Historians teach not only the what, where, and when of history. Much more importantly, they teach the how and the why. Why did the Roman empire fall? How should one answer this question? What types of evidence should be considered? Which developments are most important? What kind of narrative should be used to make which type of argument? And so on. Perhaps this particular gap between popular historical understandings and their scholarly counterparts can serve as yet another reminder of why democratic societies need the humanities. If historical analogies are part and parcel of the collective decision-making process, as undoubtedly they are, then democracies will be best served if historical knowledge and historical thinking are as widespread and as highly developed as possible.