“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay…”
– William Shakespeare
So said Marc Antony as he drew the Queen of the Nile into his embrace.
Rome did eventually melt into the broad Tiber; its kingdom of clay broke into a hundred pieces.
But what a run! What a show! What a story!
We were reading up on Rome over the weekend…preparing for a speech we just delivered this morning. “What can we learn from Roman history?” was the question. “A lot,” was our answer.
“The credit of the…money market is intimately bound up with the prosperity of Asia.”
That sentence quoted in our speech perfectly describes the economic situation of the United States of America in the 21st century. The Asians make; America takes. The Asians save; Americans spend. The Asians lend; Americans borrow. Were there no Asians, the economic situation would be far less appealing in America today, since those nice people in Asia actually make it possible for Americans to spend far more than they earn year in and year out. Asians sell valuable goods and services to Americans. Americans pay for them in dollars of no particular value at all.
But that quote about Asia did not come to us from last week’s Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. It came to us from Cicero, writing two thousand years ago.
Then, as now, the Empire of the West depended on the economy of the East. And when the expansion of the empire ceased under the reign of Trajan, so did the big flow of slaves and booty. And then, it became hard to squeeze enough tribute out of the captured territories to pay the centurions.
But, by then the old Republican families had disappeared. Many of the farmers and tradesmen were disappearing too – how could they compete with the grain shipped in from Egypt or North African…how could they compete with the new, abundant slave labour?
In their place was a new class of upstarts – who made their money from the slave trade…or by lending money…or by finagling government contracts. And the simple folk who had made their living as honest farmers and hard-working tradesmen…these ‘plebes’ were no longer the supporters of the army and the government; now, they expected to be supported by the government.
Markets and Money