Félix Parra, Episodes of the Conquest: <em>Massacre of Cholula</em>, 1877, oil on canvas
Félix Parra's Episodes of the Conquest: Massacre of Cholula, 1877, oil on canvas.

Americans love comparing their country to older and grander civilizations. Usually Rome. Even if things look grim, people take comfort in knowing they live in Interesting Times.

For example, historian-turned-farmer-turned-AM radio scold Victor Davis Hanson is so comfortably bored at his San Juaquin vineyard that he pretends he lives “on the frontier near Carthage around A.D. 530, or in a beleaguered Rome in 455” because of a rash of metal theft and illegal dumping plaguing the valley. (Liberal bureaucrats, California DREAM Act beneficiaries, and “the media” peddling “Ministry of Truth Groupthink” are unsurprisingly to blame.)

There’s danger in “laundering hot takes through history.” The true nature of both current events and the past is distorted. Likening the U.S.’s trajectory to the Pedagogue’s Saga of Rome in which a scrappy republic is corrupted into a decadent empire with a cataclysmic finale is flattering but it’s also worth remembering the other empires.

John Dolan and Mark Ames from the Radio War Nerd podcast like to compare the U.S. to Spain. From their recent episode on Simón Bolívar:

Dolan: In 1600, Spain seemed like the dominant world power, but by the time Bolívar was born in 1783 that hasn’t been true for a very long time. And the Spanish elite knew very well that it wasn’t true and there were plenty of theories, many of them quite valid, floating around on why it wasn’t true.

Ames: It’s a good lesson too because you want to believe that the big events will happen at the right time, that would make sense and in your lifetime and a lot of people just sort of think, you know, ‘the American empire is on the verge of collapse.’ It doesn’t have to happen like that.

Dolan: No.

Ames: It can be a long, drawn out, barely discernible decline.

Dolan: Very much so.

Ames: With ups and downs—Ottoman Empire is kinda like that too.

Dolan: Yeah, yeah. I mean long-term, I would bet against the American Empire, but I wouldn’t take any bets about the next ten years. You’re right it doesn’t happen like that. And, part of the reason Spain lost is because of a kind of excessive and just stupid cruelty towards its own colonies in Latin America.

That analysis sounds about right to me. A meteoric rise, followed by an protracted, humiliating, expensive decline peppered with episodes of shameful cruelty.