In a new biography by Keith Koffler, Breitbart News Executive Chairman Stephen K. Bannon shares his reminiscences about Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, calling the tome one of his six most formative influences, and comparing America’s challenges to those to which our forebearers succumbed.
“I’m not a multiculturalist,” Bannon relates in Bannon: Always the Rebel, explaining:
America has “an underlying culture, that has been passed down from Jerusalem, to Athens, to Rome, to London. It’s the belief in self-reliance, it’s the belief in the self-determination of the individual. It’s freedom to be the traditional family. The culture that is our way of life. I think it’s absolutely vital and important. And we have an obligation to those that came before us as much as we have an obligation to the people in the future to pass that down.”
The Romans, Bannon gleans from Gibbon, “[Are] the people most like us. … They built this great empire and how it all slipped away over time.”
First published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789, the Englishman Gibbon’s work is a landmark of historical scholarship, setting the pattern for modern history writing. The Roman Empire was the greatest power the Western world had ever known, and its long shadow still cast noticeably over Gibbon’s enlightenment Europe. His flowery narrative of three centuries of decadence and decline that followed the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius featured prominently in the schooling of ten generations of school children and university students across the English-speaking world. Like much of the classical Western Canon, it began to fall out of favor in the latter twentieth century.
Bannon, a devotee of the work, sees striking parallels in present-day America. Key to Gibbon’s depiction are the steady corrosion of the core virtues, and, while the term was still centuries from being coined, “social capital” of the Roman Empire by mass uncontrolled immigration, decadence among the elite, and the loss of cohesion around societal institutions with the rise of what Arnold Toynbee would describe – 140 years later – as the Empire’s “internal proletariat” of early Christianity.
“You can see that power of Roman virtue, these Roman virtues of manliness, and service to the state. And that’s why everybody in the world wanted a part of that,” Bannon told Koffler of the state of affairs in Rome at its peak.
That virtue, like the civic virtue of “melting pot”-era America, was enough to assimilate controlled immigration – the first waves of barbarians to the Roman citizenship 212 A.D.’s Edict of Caracalla granted them. But those barbarians came, in Gibbon’s view and Bannon’s, to overwhelm the capacity of the society to subsume them, like the unchecked mass of often-illegal third world immigration threatens to do to America today. And that “overrunning” of the Empire’s values at its frontiers was matched by the abandonment of them at its heart, among its elites.
As Koffler relates of his conversation with Bannon:
The Roman Senate “was bought and paid for by the elites. … The exact thing we face today!” he exclaimed. “What the Roman Empire faced is exactly what we face, that you lose the citizenship — and the power of citizenship — of the Roman Republic, you become an Empire, and that empire becomes a massive concentration of power and wealth, which is detached from the people. And then eventually, you’re having people who don’t want to serve in the legions, you have to go for foreign soldiers. Everybody is a mercenary. And therefore, no one really stood up or was prepared to die, really, in service to the country. And then what happened? Wave, after wave, after wave of migrations from the Goths, the Visigoths, the Huns. Coming into the empire and changing the culture and destroying the civic society they had in Rome. The empire could not withstand it.”
According to the biography, other works of the Western Canon and Christian tradition from which Bannon draws inspiration for his worldview include Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Brotherhood of the Common Life and Its Influence by Ross Fuller, The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.