Lessons from the Roman Empire

I'm a history buff, which is to say, I don't really know a lot of names of kings and important dates, but I love the stories of history and pondering how those events shaped life today. While I don't subscribe to the notion that history repeats itself, I do believe that the first step to successfully plan for the future is to develop a broad understanding of the past. Here is an opportunity.

A few years ago I read a book called Cities by John Reader. I was not expecting much as the book was on the discount rack and did not look particularly in demand, so I was pleasantly surprised by just how thorough and enlightening the book was. Reader takes the reader through the history of cities, skipping the more technical nuances and cutting right to the big ideas and concepts that has shaped them over the centuries.

The book contained a chapter on Rome, which focused on supplying food and the amazing feat that procuring an adequate and reliable food supply was. While that was interesting, I found the descriptions of the Roman grain allotment even more fascinating. Chosen excerpts from the book:

"In 123 BC, under the tribunate of Gais Gracchus, laws were introduced establishing the basic right of every Roman citizen to a monthly ration of grain at a fixed rate that undercut prevailing market prices. The intention here was to even out the price fluctuations resulting from variations in supply..."

"A law extending the number of grain distribution recipients was passed in 62 BC, and when Clodius become tribune four years later he abolished payment for grain ration altogether. From then on, supply a monthly ration of grain - free - to every eligible citizen became the responsibility of Rome's governing authority..."

"Clodius' law was popular with the Roman citizenry in general, but has some expensive consequences; not least in that the prospect of free grain increased demand."

"Cicero claimed that the abolition of the charge for grain distribution in 58 BC cost Rome more than one-fifth of all its revenues. Scholars caution that this could be mere rhetoric, but there is no doubt that a great deal of the city's resources and energy was devoted to securing grain and distributing it to eligible citizens. The system was struggling to meet the ever-increasing demand."

"But there was no escape. In AD 22, the Emperor Tiberius in a letter to the Senate sombrely stated the gravity of the problem and the Emperor's ultimate responsibility: 'This duty, senators, devolved upon the Emperor; if it is neglected, the utter ruin of the state will follow.' "

"In 46 BC, Julius Caesar attempted to cut the costs by limiting the number of eligible recipients, but disputes over who was eligible and who was not rendered his scheme difficult to implement. Caesar was assassinated three years later, and his scheme died with him, but the widespread free distribution of grain continued for centuries - ultimately becoming even more generous than in Caesar's day. Septimus, who was emperor from AD 193 to 211, gave out quantities of free oil along with free grain; Aurelian added pork and wine to the distribution."

Reader then goes on to describe the awesome effort that it took to supply free grain to hundreds of thousands of Roman citizens, many mobilized across parts of Europe and Africa. The thousands of transport ships, hundreds of thousands of troops, many wars and subjugated peoples and lands, and the tremendous amounts of money spent on infrastructure to maintain the grain supply was an undertaking in size and scale not seen again until modern times.

The chapter ends with this quote:

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long."

A few years ago I read a fun book called Rome, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the First Multinational Corporation, which essential told the history of the Roman Empire through the prism of a modern multinational corporation. It was an informative book, both in terms of the Roman Empire and the running of a modern multinational.

In examining those two books - the scholarly study of John Reader in Cities and the intelligent fun of Rome, Inc.,  - one concept is clear: It was not military defeat that brought down the Roman Empire. It was economic decline. 

Clearly, the single thing that could most dramatically alter small town America is the decline of the United States economy. Rapid inflation, high energy prices, high interest rates, sustained high unemployment, a switching of the world's currency away from the dollar, crippling debt, currency devaluation, etc...would all impact small towns far more critically than our country's urban areas. Small towns are overextended and thoroughly dependent on big government subsidies and transfer payments from urban areas to survive. That dependency, in turn, helps weaken the governments that continue to pay - and increase - the subsidy.

It was only a generation ago most small towns were struggling to survive - those days should not be lost from our memories. If the modern-day version of the Roman grain subsidy goes away, which is looking to be rather imminent at the moment, what becomes of our small towns?