Victor Davis Hanson

By A.D. 200, the Roman Republic was a distant memory. Few citizens of the global Roman Empire even knew of their illustrious ancestors like Scipio or Cicero. Millions no longer spoke Latin. Italian emperors were a rarity. There were no national elections.

Yet Rome endured as a global power for three more centuries. What held it together?

A stubborn common popular culture and the prosperity of Mediterranean-wide standardization kept things going. The Egyptian, the Numidian, the Iberian and the Greek assumed that everything from Roman clay lamps and glass to good roads and plentiful grain were available to millions throughout the Mediterranean.

As long as the sea was free of pirates, thieves cleared from the roads, and merchants allowed to profit, few cared whether the lawless Caracalla or the unhinged Elagabalus was emperor in distant Rome.

Something likewise both depressing and encouraging is happening to the United States. Few Americans seem to worry that our present leaders have lied to or misled the Congress and the American people without consequences.

Most young people cannot distinguish the First Amendment from the Fourth Amendment -- and do not worry that they cannot. Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln are mere names of grammar schools but otherwise unidentifiable to most.

Separatism is believed to bring dividends. Here in California, universities conduct separate graduation ceremonies predicated on race -- sometimes difficult given the increasingly mixed ancestry of Americans.

As in Rome, there is a vast disconnect between elites and the people. Almost half of America receives some sort of public assistance, and another half pays no federal income tax. About one-seventh of Americans are on food stamps.

Yet housing prices in elite enclaves -- Manhattan, Cambridge, Santa Monica, Palo Alto -- are soaring. The wealthy like to cocoon themselves in Roman-like villas, safe from the real-life ramifications of their own utopian ideology.

The government and the media do their best to spread the ideals of radical egalitarianism while avoiding offense to anyone. There is no official war on terror or against radical Islamism. Instead, in "overseas contingency operations" we fight "man-caused disasters" while at home dealing with "workplace violence."


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.