Tacitus: “In a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous.”

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Adapted from Sovereign Man

Publius Cornelius Tacitus c. AD 56 – c. 120) was a Roman historian and politician and widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians

He lived in the Silver Age of Latin literature and has a reputation for the brevity and compactness of his Latin prose, as well as for his penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics.

The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals (Latin: Annales) and the Histories (Latin: Historiae)—examine the reigns of the emperors TiberiusClaudiusNero, and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus, in 14 AD, to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War of 66–73. There are substantial lacunae in the surviving texts, including a gap in the Annals that is four books long.

“To ravage, to slaughter, to steal, this they give the false name of empire; and where they create a desert, they call it peace.”

Tacitus, “Agricola”

The core of the campaign history of the Roman military is an aggregate of different accounts of the Roman military‘s land battles, from its initial defense against and subsequent conquest of the city’s hilltop neighbors on the Italian peninsula, to the ultimate struggle of the Western Roman Empire for its existence against invading HunsVandals and Germanic tribes. These accounts were written by various authors throughout and after the history of the Empire. Following the First Punic Warnaval battles were less significant than land battles to the military history of Rome due to its encompassment of lands of the periphery and its unchallenged dominance of the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite their formidable reputation and host of victories, Roman armies were not invincible. Romans “produced their share of incompetents” who led Roman armies into catastrophic defeats. Nevertheless, it was generally the fate of even the greatest of Rome’s enemies, such as Pyrrhus and Hannibal, to win the battle but lose the war. The history of Rome’s campaigning is, if nothing else, a history of obstinate persistence overcoming appalling losses.

“He realized that monarchy was essential to peace, and that the price of freedom was violence and disorder.”

Tacitus, “Histories”

The year 238 AD began with Maximinus I as Emperor of Rome– a former peasant who had worked his way up through the ranks of the military before being chosen as Emperor by his troops.

By August of that year, Maximinus was dead, and five other men had briefly held the title of Emperor. Only one (Gordian III) was still alive by the end of 238 AD.

This is known in Roman history as the ‘Year of the Six Emperors’, and it was an obvious watershed moment in the decline of the empire.

It’s not like Rome hadn’t seen plenty of turmoil before–

There had been full-blown civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great nearly three centuries prior in 49 BC. Caligula managed to engineer a major supply chain crisis during his reign in the early 1st century AD.

Much of the city of Rome burned to the ground under Emperor Nero in 64 AD. Caracalla heavily debased the currency and caused widespread inflation in the early 200s.

And more than a dozen emperors had been assassinated up to that point in Roman history.

People were used to crisis and chaos. But the Year of the Six Emperors felt different. It was as if Romans suddenly realized they were no longer the dominant superpower.

“Prosperity is the measure or touchstone of virtue, for it is less difficult to bear misfortune than to remain uncorrupted by pleasure.

Tacitus

Although the crisis of the 3rd century was not the absolute beginning of Rome’s decline, it nevertheless did impose a severe strain on the empire as Romans waged war on one another as they had not done since the last days of the Republic.

Within the space of a single century, twenty-seven military officers declared themselves emperors and reigned over parts of the empire for months or days, all but two meeting with a violent end. 

The time was characterized by a Roman army that was as likely to be attacking itself as it was an outside invader, reaching a low point around 258 AD. Ironically, while it was these usurpations that led to the breakup of the Empire during the crisis, it was the strength of several frontier generals that helped reunify the empire through force of arms.

The next few decades, in fact, are known as the “Crisis of the Third Century”, with more than two dozen emperors seizing the throne in a power struggle, murdering their political enemies, and then being assassinated themselves.

Some emperors, like Silbannacus, Quintillus, and Saloninus, literally sat on the throne for a matter of days before being killed.

The government was extremely unstable, and notoriously corrupt. They rigged elections. They sent Praetorian guards to harass and intimidate their opponents. And they sewed social conflict so that Romans turned on one another.

“We are corrupted by prosperity. And when the state is corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.”

Tacitus

In the meantime, the Roman economy was collapsing. Inflation became so rampant that Diocletian infamously had to implement extreme price controls, and then threaten to kill anyone who didn’t follow them.

They also lost control of their borders, as countless barbarian tribes poured into the empire and squatted on Roman lands.

The barbarian migration eventually turned into full-blown invasions and military conflict, and the Roman military lost a number of major battles.

In 251 AD, for example, Rome suffered a crushing defeat by the invading Goths at the Battle of Abritus. The Goths decimated three Roman legions, killed the emperor, and stole TONS of gold.

Even the lowest peasant was able to figure it out: dominant superpowers don’t lose battles.

They maintain secure borders. They have strong currencies. They don’t blow through six leaders in a single year. They aren’t in a constant state of social revolution. And they aren’t bankrupt.

We could easily apply the same logic today.

And this is especially true after last week’s watershed moment in which the US national debt reached $30 trillion for the first time.

It’s hardly controversial to assert that dominate superpowers don’t accumulate $30 trillion in debt (which, by the way, is 25% larger than the entire US economy).

But it’s not just the debt. It’s so much more.

Dominant superpowers don’t surrender tens of billions of dollars of military equipment to their sworn enemy, and then fly away with local civilians clinging to the side of their aircraft.

Dominant superpowers don’t abandon their own citizens abroad.

Dominant superpowers don’t engineer historically high inflation… and then ignore it. Nor do they embrace socialism, i.e. the literal opposite of the capitalist economic system that created so much wealth and power to begin with.

Dominant superpowers don’t send their government agents to harass innocent citizens, or tell parents they have no say in the education of their children.

Dominant superpowers don’t suspend their Constitutions because of a virus. They don’t give people incentives to NOT work. They don’t constantly make it difficult for small businesses to succeed.

Dominant superpowers don’t deliberately reduce their military’s physical fitness standards in the name of diversity and inclusion. They don’t prioritize “equity” over national security. And they certainly don’t fire experienced intelligence operatives because of individual medical decisions.

Dominant superpowers don’t placate their adversaries and bow to their demands. They aren’t afraid to offend their rivals.

Dominant superpowers don’t create incentives for countless people to illegally cross the border and go live under a bridge.

And above all else, dominant superpowers are able to deal with challenges.

Yes, there’s always been conflict and disagreement. But dominant superpowers have stable, effective governments who can do what is necessary to solve problems. And they have societies whose people can coexist peacefully without being at each others’ throats all the time.

It might not be pleasant to think about, but these are all true statements about the United States. And like Rome, they are all obvious signs of decline. Simply put, the US is no longer the dominant superpower.

“The gods are on the side of the stronger”

Tacitus, “Histories”

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