Decline and Fall

     “The government appeared every day less formidable to its enemies, more odious and oppressive to its subjects. The economy was neglected, and the injustice of the rich shifted the unequal burden from themselves to the people, whom they defrauded of the indulgences that might sometimes have alleviated their misery.”
     Such was the state of the Roman Empire in the year 450, after the invasion of Attila the Hun, if you can trust Edward Gibbon.
     Nor were those the only parallels between the state of the degenerate Roman government 1,560 years ago, and the degenerate state of our own.
     In those days the eunuch Eutropius, who had gained control of the Western Empire from his feeble emperor, posted in the emperor’s antechamber “a large tablet exposed to public view, which marks the respective prices of the provinces. The different value of Pontus, of Galatia, of Lydia is accurately distinguished. Lydia may be obtained for so many thousand pieces of gold; but the opulence of Phrygia will require a more considerable sum. The eunuch wishes to obliterate by the general disgrace his personal ignominy; and as he has been sold himself, he is desirous of selling the rest of mankind.”
     And that was before Citizens United.
     As the Roman Senate did in the days of Eutropius, the U.S. Senate has ceded its powers, with a tug of the forelock, to the people who bought them their office.
     There was no valid reason for the members of the U.S. Senate, and the House of Representatives, to turn themselves into eunuchs – but they have.
     They have willed themselves into inconsequentiality. They have not done this because the rampaging barbarians are at the door. They did it for personal gain – to hold onto their increasingly grubby offices rather than attend to the problems of the nation.
     Nor should we neglect Gibbon’s observation on the uses of religion – any religion, or all of them – which are “considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
     No sooner had Constantine Christianized the empire than his wealthy subjects hastened to declare themselves, and their estates, devoted to God – to take advantage of the exemptions from laws and taxes to which such a declaration entitled them.
     God became the rich folks’ hobby – and the rich folks had a powerful lobby.
     Military service? In the days of the Republic, all male Roman citizens were expected to serve in times of need.
     In the days of Empire, Rome privatized its wars – it contracted out its national defense to barbarians, who sacked the treasury, and Rome itself, thanks to the indolence of the Roman citizens, who had forgotten that each one of them was no more than a small part of a being greater than themselves.
     To be accurate – a small part of a being that once had been greater than themselves.
     Eventually, the emperor himself became a powerless sham, of no use to anyone except the ones who’d bought him his office, and relieved him of it.
     Recognize these names? Anthemius, Olybrius, Glycerius, Nepos, Augustulus. They were the last five emperors of Rome. Useless, all of them. Deservedly forgotten. Remembered, if at all, with contempt. Their combined reigns lasted just a bit longer than the reign of a two-term president of the United States.
     How about John Boehner? Remember him?
     History, Gibbon wrote, is “little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

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