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5 Reasons Why America Will Not Collapse Like the Roman Empire
While often compared to the Roman Empire, the United States is not likely to collapse in the same way.
We look to history to figure out if the past is either a prologue or a lesson to the present. In terms of political history, the comparison between the United States and the Roman Empire is attractive because not only do these two represent the most powerful nations of their time, the U.S. actually modeled some of its institutions and thinking after the Roman example. The recent political strife plaguing the U.S. seems to be getting worse by the day and invites the question whether America, like its ancient predecessor, is headed for a downfall. Certainly, from the historical perspective, no empire has lasted forever (so far) and the U.S. is due for a challenge.
The Roman Empire was one of the most successful political and social entities in human history, lasting for over 500 years, from 31 BC to 476 CE. At the height of its power, the empire extended over 5 million square kilometers, controlling around 70 million people, about 21% of the world’s population at the time. Like the U.S., the Roman Empire spread its influence around the world through its culture, languages, religion, philosophy, laws and technology.
But while the U.S. is the world's only current superpower, pronouncements of its Rome-like fall are greatly exaggerated and not entirely appropriate. Here's why:
1. Political Instability Is Here but the U.S. Is Still a Republic
The period we know as the time of the Roman Empire actually followed another nearly 500-year block when it was the democratic Roman Republic (509 BC - 27 BC). A period of unrest and civil wars precipitated the transition to the empire. This is when the infamous assassination of Julius Caesar took place in 44 BCE. After a power struggle that followed Caesar’s demise, Augustus (Caesar’s nephew) was crowned as Rome’s first emperor. More or less effective emperors followed, with much internal intrigue and corruption that led to coups and assassinations. The infamous Caligula (12-41 AD) was killed by the Praetorian Guard, while the corrupt and mad Nero (37-68 AD) committed suicide.
The U.S. is certainly undergoing a period of political upheaval, with the country often split on major issues and animosity rising between different sides. The election of Donald Trump both increased the divide and is a symptom of it. Still, the U.S. is a democratic society, with checks and balances, and Trump is no emperor.
It is also not the first time in recent history the country dealt with divisive issues, with the civil rights struggle and Vietnam War being quite contemporary events (especially from a historical perspective). The country has survived more turmoil, and barring unprecedented measures from the new administration and ineffectiveness of other branches of the government, the U.S. is poised to continue with its political system relatively healthy and functioning.
The Roman Empire in 117 AD during the reign of emperor Trajan. Credit: Tataryn
2. The Economy Needs Work but Is in No Danger of Collapse
Rome was engaged in regular wars and constantly overspent to keep protecting the borders of its huge empire. But eventually the expansion slowed due to stronger opponents and even pirates like Vandals operating in North Africa. This dwindled the supply of cheap slave labor and additional taxes. Roman rich also worked just as hard back in their time to pay less taxes, creating an increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. Historians also point to a trade imbalance that eventually grew between Rome and China and India. These factors led to a slowing economy and a decline in Roman power.
The U.S. economy is not dependent on colonies or slave labor, but the rising inequality between the rich and the poor, and the resulting political repercussions and unrest are certainly here to stay. The emergence of Donald Trump, who capitalized politically on the job losses in the manufacturing industry and fear of job-taking immigrants, as well as the need for foreign trade reform, points to just how much Americans are worried about the future of their country’s economy.
Still, despite Trump’s rhetoric, the unemployment is low and the country’s steady, if unimpressive, annual GDP growth rate of about 2% point to the fact that the economy is not in such shambles as to predict an imminent collapse. The military spending in the U.S. has been hovering around 3-4% of the GDP, a sizable but not unusual amount, comparable to other world powers.
3. The Military Situation Is Vastly Different
After fighting off all challengers for centuries, Rome’s military power waned and it was finally overtaken by a series of military losses to Germanic tribes, including the sacking of Rome in 410 by the Visigoth King Alaric, and another sacking by the Visigoths led by Geiseric in 455. In 476, the Germanic warrior Odoacer led a revolt from within that deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus, making him the last Roman emperor to rule Italy from Rome. The Eastern part of the Empire actually survived until 1453 CE, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.
The U.S. has powerful military opponents like Russia and China, but an all-out conflict involving any of the nuclear powers seems highly unlikely due to mutually assured destruction. However, asymmetrical warfare like terror attacks by Islamic fundamentalists or cyberattacks and subterfuge from Russia can cause more gradual decline in American power due to weakening confidence in its leaders and institutions. Still, this is not likely to result in a serious military loss unless a more direct confrontation takes place, which at this point seems impossible. So the world’s most powerful military should keep America intact for the time being.
The Emperor Nero commits suicide with his own sword after the Roman army overruns the city, 9th June 68 AD. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
4. U.S. Is Not in a Cultural and Social Decline
This point is certainly debatable as some would argue the U.S. is undergoing a weakening of its values. The country is transforming from a Christian and white-majority nation into an ever-more multicultural melting pot. Interestingly, some like the historian Edward Gibbon, in his seminal “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” have pointed to the adoption of Christianity and its weakening of traditional Roman values as the reason for the empire’s eventual collapse.
Others have blamed the overspending and dumbing down of Rome via gladiator games and debauchery via crazed emperors like Nero for its decline. This, of course, makes an easy parallel to America's preoccupation with sports and reality tv stars, with the left painting Trump as a latter-day Nero. On the other hand, it can easily be argued that these types of entertainments and politics are nothing new historically and can be found in any century. As if they didn't have Kardashian-type subjects of everyone's gossip in Renaissance-era Florence of the ruthless Medicis and the Borgias.
While the U.S. is undergoing transformation, with social changes like the adoption of gay rights, and rapid technological changes via the internet and automation, there’s little reason to point to some kind of major worsening of society. It’s more likely that it’s changing and adapting appropriately, in step with the rest of the Western civilization.
5. Technology, Not Politics Will Transform the U.S. (And the World)
With so much attention focused on the political strife, the lasting changes to America and its power are not likely to come from invading barbarian hordes. The coming world of complete automation, major life-extending medical advances and space exploration will transform the U.S. in ways the Roman Empire never experienced. The Romans did employ and advance the technology of the day but their life was not upended because all the jobs were suddenly staffed by robots, something likely to happen within this century.
How technology changes America and the political entities around the world will not be clear until the singularity hits. Perhaps the battle by President Trump and his ideologues against “globalism” which has a strong anti-intellectual and anti-technology component, is a last ditch effort to fight back against what is really a war that’s already lost.
Still, the political is not to be discounted. As this passage from Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” shows, we have reason to look at Roman history for warnings:
“The provinces, long oppressed by the ministers of the republic, sighed for the government of a single person, who would be the master, not the accomplice, of those petty tyrants. The people of Rome, viewing, with a secret pleasure, [Augustus’] humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows; and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus. The rich and polite Italians, who had almost universally embraced the philosophy of Epicurus, enjoyed the present blessings of ease and tranquility, and suffered not the pleasing dream to be interrupted by the memory of their old tumultuous freedom.”
Pax Romana, the period of relative peace at the height of Roman power lasted about 200 years. We are over 70 years into Pax Americana (from the end of WW II). How long we can make it last is still up to us.
Cover: Sacco di Roma. Painting by Karl Briullov. 1833-1836. Tretyakov Gallery. Moscow.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.