Whither Byzantium


On June 29, 1956 Dwight Eisenhower authorized a 41,000-mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” to ensure safe, speedy and reliable transcontinental travel — and evacuations in the event of nuclear war.  Today much of the Interstate Highway System has exceeded its design life.  Unforeseen traffic and congestion stress concrete and commuters alike. In 2017 the American Society of Civil Engineers found that one out of every five miles of American highway is in need of repair and 188 million crossings were made each day on structurally deficient bridges. Rome maintained its roads for 800 years: at sixty ours are already showing their age.

America’s factories changed the course of World War II. They sparked a Black migration that turned the Motor City into Motown.  They were the great machines that turned America’s laborers into homeowners and sent their children to college.  In the 1950s more than half of America’s manufacturing, and 43% of its jobs, lay near the shores of the Great Lakes.  Today the “Rust Belt” is one of America’s most distressed regions and employment in America’s industrial sectors is at its lowest level percentage wise since the mid-19th Century.

Our farms fed the world. Families spent generations working Dixie’s red clay, New England’s stony podzol, the fertile Great Plains loess.   Today our small farms find themselves ground down in the name of “efficiency.”  Many families have sold their farms while others find themselves in serfdom to cooperatives and conglomerates.  Rural Americans are dying at alarm rates from suicide and from opiates: their methamphetamine crisis has been met with more scorn than support.

In 1931 James Truslow Adams wrote of an “American dream” of “a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank… a life in which they would not only succeed as men but be recognized as men, a life not only of economic prosperity but of social and self-esteem.” While Epic of America was a best-seller in its day, Adams’ phrase had a longer shelf life than his book.   Yet today that American dream seems a distant memory.   The income gap between America’s wealthiest and the rest of us has grown steadily for over 30 years while social mobility has decreased.  

In 2019 we might do well to ask ourselves the questions which won Ronald Reagan the Oval Office in 1980:

Are you better off now than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was?


Genseric Sacking Rome, 455: Karl Briullov, 1833-36.

On September 4, 476 the barbarian chieftain Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus, a 16 year-old boy who had not yet finished his first year on the throne.   For most historians, this marks the end of the Roman Empire. But Odoacer was more scavenger than conqueror.  By the time he arrived Rome had already been sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.  For decades tribes had been moving into territory Roman legions no longer controlled.  Gaul, Britannia, Hispania — all were abandoned in the face of the Great Migrations.

Villagers living in what was no longer the Western Roman Empire noticed that each year the fairs were smaller, the roads more treacherous, the rumors of war ever closer.  Hopeful minor nobles and third sons found their Latin studies no longer ensured them a career in the Roman bureaucracy.  Some took advantage of the growing demand for monastics and clergy.  Others swore fealty to whatever war band replaced the legions once stationed there.  Rome remained a spiritual ideal and Roman culture left an indelible stamp on local language, governance and traditions.  By 476 it had long been irrelevant as a temporal power.

For the prosperous merchants of Constantinople, Odoacer’s triumph was their opportunity.  Let the Huns keep the wilderness. Byzantium was mediatrix between Persia, Arabia and Africa.  The fortifications built by Constantine and supplemented by Theodosius II made the city impregnable.  Why rule over louse-ridden barbarians when you can just as easily hire them as guards?   And why fight with your  neighbors when you can do business with them?

Camden, New Jersey, 2014.

Apocalypse redeems our sins and casts away our burdens.  Cities vanishing in a flash of fire are more photogenic than generations hanging on amidst crumbling despair.   Yet most civilizations end not with a bang but with a protracted whimper.  As empires grow the mechanisms of power become increasingly complicated: a minor crisis can quickly balloon into a major one.  As the mechanism grinds on parts begin to fail. Public utilities grow increasingly unreliable: public services grow increasingly strained or fade away altogether.   Resources that could restore them are used instead to control an increasingly restive populace.  And so long as they maintain power, the ruling class generally has the resources to pretend everything is fine.

Like Constantinople, modern-day America has reinvented itself as a mercantile power.  Much as Byzantium declared Rome’s citizen armies obsolete, American technocrats have written off the farmers, workers and laborers who built their nation.   They have chosen  foreign silks over native looms and foreign gold over native soil.  We can expect no help from them or from their systems.  The American experiment will fall within my lifetime, certainly within my daughter’s lifetime.  I expect those living under its replacement to remember it as fondly as European peasants recalled Rome.  Our task is no longer to restore our country.  Our task is to decide what is to be saved and what will be consigned to the flames.


2 thoughts on “Whither Byzantium

  1. Byzantium/Constantinople did last a very long time, however. Maybe they were not completely wrong. Belisarius did a pretty good job of pushing back the hordes, but he was stabbed in the back by his emperor IIRC, always something to look out for. It’s like a 2nd Law of Thermodynamics for human behavior.

    Empires come and go. What remains are things like language – America and Britain have made English the “lingua Franca”. With luck, some cultural features will continue on, like the notion of heavily-armed peasants, or the Internet.

    I have always liked “Isaiah’s Job” when I get into this mood:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s