Vigliotti: Of presidents and purpose, emperors and lost empires

Every so often, comparisons between America and the Western Roman Empire are made. The arguments tend to be more politically revealing than historically enlightening. Many on the Left tend to see the fall as the unavoidable outcome of history, while many on the Right see the fall as a warning for our own times.

The Left, after all, views history as an irresistible progression, while the Right sees history as a matter of human choices and different possibilities. It is more often the Left that attempts to apply history as a social, equalizing force rather than as an accumulation of wisdom through human events. It is more often the Left that uses the phrase, “the right side of history” when attempting to moralize politically.


The Left at large currently sees America as a country that must be held to account and radically altered, while the Right sees America as a promise of human freedom, but one which needs restoration. The past is a guide and a lesson, not a fatal flaw; and America is not Rome.

Roman historiography has long been a running dispute about what caused the Western Empire to collapse. While most now accept a variety of causes, recent scholarship has pointed toward two as being overarching factors. First, a loss of purpose; and second, internal dissension.

Men require purpose. So, too, do nations. Contentment and complacency undermine dreams and determination. When you misplace purpose and take earning for granted, you will lose everything.

Rome’s purpose of expansion, rooted in causes ranging from protection of the capital city to the glory of imperial conquest, ultimately became entangled in corruption, power rivalry, and civil wars among men whose purpose had become themselves rather than Rome.

I recently asked some of my closest friends whether they would prefer to be alive during the rise or fall of an empire or nation. All of them chose the rise. Why? Because there would be a sense of purpose and any number of possibilities ahead rather than a contest for survival.

Most people believe that the final chance the Western Roman Empire had for survival was under military commander Flavius Aetius, who defeated Atilla the Hun at Cataluanian Plains in 451 AD (but who was himself then killed by the fearful Emperor Valentinian III). Yet this too reveals a number of assumptions, including that Rome was fated to fall rather than reform and recover. It was one of the men who campaigned under Aetius who would ultimately prove to be the West’s last chance for revival.

The West was undeniably in freefall when Majorian became emperor in 457, with little territory beyond Italy still under Roman administration. Deeply Christian and conservative, and widely admired and respected, Majorian did not believe Rome was doomed. Within four years, he had instituted a number of crucial moral, legal, and cultural reforms, and led a series of striking military campaigns that essentially reconstituted the Western Empire in Europe. Even at this late stage, Roman troops were unmatched.

Majorian’s downfall was not at the hands of outside enemies, but jealous power players within Rome herself. Majorian, in 461, was preparing a massive fleet to carry an army to retake control of northern Africa from the Vandals, but the position of the fleet was betrayed to the Vandals, who destroyed it in a surprise attack.

Majorian was returning to Rome when he was taken by thugs under the command of the Roman-aligned barbarian general, Ricimer. Ricimer had been one of those power players who had supported Majorian’s elevation to the throne, and by all accounts expected Majorian to be a puppet.

Majorian’s genuine devotion to Rome, and his refusal to be manipulated like others before, riled Ricimer to murder. Ricimer used the destruction of the fleet to accuse Majorian of indecision, after which Majorian was tortured and executed. Fifteen years later, the Western Empire fell.

Majorian does not receive the credit or recognition he deserves. In part, this is because he had no singular villain like Atilla to foil; in part because of the timing of the fall of the West (in 476); and also because Majorian does not fit the convenient and accepted historical narrative of unavoidable decline and fall.

Under Majorian, the West did not just have a chance to survive. It had a chance to resurge. This occurred repeatedly across centuries, even long before Majorian’s time.

Rather than seeking restoration or a return to purpose, too many Roman leaders were content to fight each other. There were individual years, such as 193 AD, which saw multiple emperors installed in quick succession amid violence and chaos.

The stable American republican system of elections and government is a far cry from Rome as they are built upon the ancient empire’s bloody lessons.


But while America is not Rome, we do stand at a crossroads that is chillingly similar. We face many of the same problems — and that includes how we consider purpose in the context of history. Will we, to borrow from President Trump’s Reaganesque phrase, choose to seek out a purpose in making America great once more, or do we let the far Left decide a history of decline for us?

2020 is coming.