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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What Can We Learn From History?

Is America Rome?

In the current edition of the TLS there is a review of two new book about the fall of the Roman Empire (here is a related review, The review I read as well as the link I’ve provided make clear that historians are newly interested in Rome and its fate because they see an analogy to America. Here’s one summary, "Justinian’s big mistakes…included an unwillingness to negotiate with Persia (that is, modern Iran), an inability to secure peace in the Balkans and a reluctance to tolerate religious diversity in his empire (“mistaking faith for destiny”, as he puts it)." That America-Rome analogy was especially "hot" when the Iraq war was the center of our political debates, just as — as another review in the TLS a month ago pointed out — many more books on the Crusades have come out recently, in the wake of 9-11. So the question is, can we learn from history? And if so, what is that we should be on the look out for in the past that will be useful to us now?
          I think history offers three distinct kinds of answers for us — which, in turn, suggest three different strands to emphasize as we teach it. One is that, of course, history is the record of what people have done. If by looking at history you can see patterns in human behavior, you have a really valuable tool to use in understanding the present and shaping the future. A Marxist sees class interest in the past, thus in the present and the future. My experience in writing Race is that really looking closely at history breeds a sense of tragedy. Too often we teach the past in terms of heroism and exceptions — people who have made change. Those people are important, of course, but so is a sober sense of human limitation, of our willingness to be cruel to each other. So one goal in looking at the past to understand why people act as they do.
         A second goal is to understand one particular person, place, or issue. In other words, if we want to help kids think about energy policy in the future we should understand how energy policy was shaped in the past — that will give us a sense of the actors involved, their power, and their ambitions. If our first goal was to understand people in general, our second goal is to get a deeper sense of one instance.
      The most important lesson of studying history, though, is the process itself — how to do research, sift results, formulate a theory, test it, and share it. In other words, whether Rome predicts America, or America makes us see Rome differently, we gain by making the comparison. The result is the effort. The lesson of history is the challenge to young people to examine, probe, question whether history holds lessons. Inquiry is its own reward/

What lessons do you see in history? What do you hope young people learn by reading about the past?


  1. Mira
    I was pleased to see this article because I teach middle school world history and the fall of the Roman Empire is part of our curriculum.
    I had an aha moment when I realized in the course of my own research that Rome fell over a very long period of time and some of the most damaging ( or productive, depending on your point of view ) decisions were choices to settle various ethnic groups or pay them not to act out.
    Another important area of interest is how the Roman Empire survives in the modern world. A Spanish philosopher whose name escapes me now suggested this as an area for further study many years ago.
    I recently read a chapter detailing how Islam replaced the Roman Empire geographically.
    It seems to me that the morals of the decline of the Roman Empire is ripe for propaganda. I remember hearing as a student myself that the Catholic Church had adapted the organization role of the Roman Empire and I personally heard Daniel Berrigan proudly quote Gibbon’s blaming of Christianity.
    I know that the study of Empire was ” hot ” in academia a few years ago. What are the non=fiction narratives of the new books you refer to ? The whole area of study sounds like a fine opportunity for “Teaching As a Subversive Activity “

  2. Mira: take a look at the review which appears in the link. You touch on some of the parallel issues — “outsiders” (read, immigration); over reach (Iraq) clash with Persia (Iran); loss of democracy to executive power (the whole post 9-11 doctrince of the president’s power); as well as more generally — when does a power get too big, too powerful, and thus stumble and crack. As you say, many teaching opportunities.

  3. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Just discovered your blog, so forgive me for coming in late on some discussions. There are SO MANY things that we can learn from history–if we take the time–but as I read your piece, I thought of Rome during the wars with Hannibal and how, in its terror, the Republic significantly eroded civil liberties (going so far as to create laws demanding that women not wear jewelry or cry in public lest it remind citizens of their losses) and even sacrificing people(NOT Romans of course) in a desperate plea for help from the gods. I thought of this often after 9/11 and during the Bush years: how FEAR drives people/governments to create a false sense of control and safety at the price of individual liberty…

  4. Vicky: I happen to have just written a YA book about fear and how it effects American policies — both after 9-11 and since World War I — so your post is perfect. I’ll give details about the book soon.