Rome and America: A Cautionary Tale

Until recently comparisons between the United
States and ancient Rome,
at least outside the classroom, have been mostly limited to conservative
Christians railing that the moral decay that destroyed Rome
will do the same to us.  No serious
historian of course believes that Roman power collapsed because of excessive
partying or a breakdown in family values, but is there any substance to the
increasingly frequent assertion that the Roman Empire
and America in
the post-Soviet world share an identity?
Does the expanding Pax Americana, enforced across the globe by military
might, recapitulate the Pax Romana of the Mediterranean two millennia ago?  Is the United
States truly the Rome
of the twenty-first century?

Well, yes
and no.  There are in fact very
compelling similarities between the two states, but there are also profound
differences, and to a great degree it depends upon precisely what is being
compared.  The answer is also complicated
by the fact that the history of post-regal Rome
falls into two very distinct parts: the Republic (c. 507-31 BC) and the Empire
(31 BC – fifth century AD).  Not only
does Rome’s political structure
change dramatically across this divide, from a constitutional oligarchy to a
frequently hereditary military dictatorship, but the nature of and motivations
behind her imperialism also evolve.  In
many ways there were actually two Roman Empires.

Americans know Rome of the
Principate (the name given the Empire up to AD 235), the Rome
of emperors, Christians, Ben Hur and the Gladiator, but America
owes far more to the Republic, wherein lie the roots of our Constitution.  As educated gentlemen of the eighteenth
century, the Founding Fathers were steeped in classical history, and their
knowledge of the Roman Republic
and the Athenian democracy, together with their suspicion of the masses, led
them to the former as the better model for stable democratic government.  The Senate-centered government of the
Republic had after all functioned well for four centuries, accommodating
economic and social changes and taking Rome from a small power in central Italy
to mistress of the Mediterranean, while the fifth century democracy of Athens
had devolved into demagoguery and civil strife and brought about the collapse
of Athenian power in less than a century.
To be sure, our debt to the political traditions of England
is immense, but the Roman Republic
was never far from the minds of the framers of the Constitution.  Take a stroll through the Senate chamber in Washington:
on either side of the podium hangs a depiction of the fasces, the bundle
of rods and axes that symbolized Roman political authority (which must have
been at least a slight embarrassment when we were fighting fascistItaly).

constitution of the Roman Republic
was technically democratic, with ultimate power resting in two citizen
assemblies, but in practice the state was completely dominated by the Senate,
which for a variety of reasons was a more or less exclusive club of wealthy
landowners.  The Roman
Republic was governed by an open
but very slowly changing oligarchy of wealth, and it is difficult not to
characterize the government of the United States
in the same fashion.  The nature of that
wealth is of course very different, since unlike Rome we possess a
consumer-oriented capitalist economy, and a member of the American governing
class need not actually be a wealthy individual, though most are.  But given the immense cost of election to
federal office and the consequent influence of powerful economic interests,
wealth dominates our political system as surely as it did that of the Republic,
albeit less directly.

The Roman
character, at least in its idealized form, also influenced many of the Founding
Fathers, most notably Jefferson, who saw Cincinnatus as
the model citizen, the small freeholder who leaves his plow to defend his
country and then returns to his farm, rejecting any reward or glory, the
Minuteman of ancient Italy.  An almost overwhelming sense of duty or obligation,
forged through centuries of warfare, was the strongest element in the Roman
character, and completely unlike the Greeks, the Romans were the ultimate team
players, ready to sacrifice everything for the group.  The ruling elite, the Senatorial class, of
course competed for political power and advantage, but the real prize was dignitas,
a kind of prestige associated with serving the group, that is, Rome.  Dignitas was a real though non-legal
form of power, enhancing an individual’s political authority and influence in
the Senate and assemblies, but it was also an end in itself, the ultimate goal
of any Roman statesman until the decline of the Republic.

The citizen
armies of America recapitulate those of the Republic, and to some extent the
small farmers colonizing the expanding westward frontier and fighting the
native inhabitants reflect the spirit of Cincinnatus and the yeomanry that
formed the backbone of the Roman army into the second century BC.  But despite the vast tracts of land the
continent offered, the Cincinnatus model was ultimately incompatible with a
country on the threshold of industrial revolution, and America’s fighting
forces, even in periods of mass conscription, would increasingly be drawn from
the landless and the poor, as indeed were Rome’s during the late Republic and
Principate.  Further, while educated
colonials admired the patriotism and self-sacrifice of those “noble Romans”
they read about in Plutarch, their society placed far more emphasis on the
individual, a regard that the frontier experience apparently only
deepened.  Average Americans of the
twenty-first century may well be as inclined to the group as their Roman
counterparts, but unlike them we proclaim individualism a virtue and pay at
least lip service to the individual.

For all the
differences in the cultural and economic environment, however, the rise to
prominence of Rome and the United
States display striking similarities, at
least on the surface.  The Republic was
born out of the violent overthrow of the monarchy, and the early history of Rome
was filled with conflict, as the tiny city-state on the Tiber
River fought first for her life and
then for domination of the Italian peninsula, which by the middle of the third
century BC was controlled through a system of dependent alliances.  The allies were nominally independent states,
but Romanization of the peninsula and the grudging extension of the citizenship
(the allies finally revolted to get it) had created an essentially Roman Italy
by end of the first century BC.  Drawing
from the vast pool of Italian manpower, in the years from 264-188 BC the Romans
took on and defeated every major Mediterranean power, becoming the effective
mistress of the Mediterranean world.  At
this time Rome actually directly
ruled relatively little territory outside Italy
and Sicily, since the Senate
preferred to control areas through compliant client states rather than shoulder
the financial and military burden of immediate provincial rule.  The empire at this stage was hegemonic rather
than territorial, but in the sense that there was no longer any state that
could conceivably challenge her Rome
had become the sole superpower of the Middle

During this
crucial period of expansion the major motive behind Rome’s
foreign policy was the question of Italian security, but by the second century
the desire for personal wealth and power had begun to seriously infect
Senatorial decision-making, resulting in a governing class increasingly
inclined towards furthering its own interests rather than those of the state.  This growing corruption of the Senatorial
class led to the Revolution, the century-long collapse of the Republic that
began in 133 BC when a Senate now interested chiefly in defending its power and
prerogatives resisted needed reform and soon employed state-sanctioned violence
to further its ends.  Political activity
became more and more extreme, foreign policy became little more than a
reflection of domestic politics, and ultimately the army was drawn into the
fray, leading to civil war and the rise of military dictators like Caesar and
Augustus, the first emperor.  Because of
the absence of any serious external threats, the empire and Roman power
survived this turmoil, but constitutional government did not.

Much of
this history has a hauntingly familiar ring to the American ear.  Our republic was born in the violent
rejection of a king, and constant low intensity conflict accompanied our
occupation of North America.  It is true of course that our conquest of
this continent was relatively peaceful when contrasted with the Roman capture
of Italy, and
until the emergence of nuclear weapons we did not, as did the Romans, face foes
who could seriously threaten our national existence.  Yet, for all the differences, especially in
intensity, violence is a shared theme in the forging and growth of both
nations, and an inclination to violence as a legitimate problem solving
mechanism seems embedded in our national character.  We may not permit gladiatorial contests or
proclaim war a good and ennobling activity, but in many areas of American
culture, from our tastes in entertainment to our love affair with guns, there
is almost a celebration of violence.
With their bloody spectacles and unabashed acceptance of martial glory
the Romans were perhaps just a bit more honest about it.

As they
expanded their authority over Italy
and out into the Mediterranean, the Romans developed the
notion that it was in fact their destiny to rule, that their national gods had
granted them this dominion in the days of the founder-hero Aeneas, centuries
before Rome even existed.  In similar fashion the American tide of
expansion, washing rapidly westward over Mexicans and Indians, was quickly seen
as a “manifest destiny,” granted us by our own national god.  In both instances success was seen as ample
evidence of the favor of heaven, and that material success and perceived divine
favor amplified an arrogance and sense of superiority already present in both
societies, though in the case of the Romans the racial element important to
white Protestant America was missing.  Less
pernicious perhaps than the race-connected attitude of Americans, Roman
arrogance was more equal opportunity, and contempt for other peoples was
essentially based on their not being Roman and thus the products of soft (e.g.,
Greeks) or barbarous (e.g., Gauls) societies.
During the Principate, when the imperial focus was more on the barbarian
lands of central and western Europe and Stoic ideas were affecting the ruling
elite, some idea of a civilizing mission emerged, but it never reached the
intensity of American paternalism towards the Indian tribes (and now the rest
of the planet) and was never government policy.

With the end
of the Revolution and the establishment of the autocracy or Principate the
nature of Roman imperialism changed.
While there would be the odd burst of aggressiveness, as under Trajan (AD
98-117), imperial policy became essentially defensive, guarding the frontiers
established under Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) and gradually transforming Rome’s
clients/allies into provinces directly ruled from Rome.  Until the empire began to come apart during
the Anarchy (AD 235-285) this policy was generally rational and based on
strategic interests, though domestic concerns sometimes intruded: Claudius’ (AD
41-54) invasion of Britain
in AD 43, for example, was mainly motivated by his need for a military
reputation.  And of course, since the
empire was governed by a generally hereditary autocracy, imperial affairs
occasionally suffered from interference by an incompetent (e.g., Commodus [AD 180-192])
or unbalanced (e.g., Caligula [AD 37-41]) head of state.  Further, though incredibly disciplined and
loyal to the state, at least until the Anarchy, the Roman military was not
always inclined to passively accept whatever loser might gain the imperial
purple, and on two occasions prior to the Anarchy – under Nero (AD 54-68) in AD
68 and again under Commodus in AD 193 – the army revolted and fought brief
civil wars, after which the troops returned to their camps and allegiance to
the state.  Actually, given the potential
political power of the legions, which were the ultimate basis of the autocracy,
it is amazing how quiet the army was over the two and a half centuries of

could in fact occasionally indulge in bad government and even civil war without
serious risk of losing the empire because she was something of a superpower in
the Mediterranean-European world.  During
the Principate Rome faced only two real threats on her frontiers: the Germanic
barbarians beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier and the Parthian Empire (and its
successor after AD 226, the Sassanid Persian Empire), centered in Iraq.  Neither could come even close to challenging
Roman power, and both were no more than a nuisance, easily repulsed when they
took advantage of a lunatic emperor or a civil war to violate the imperial frontiers.  Further securing the empire was the fact that
until the Anarchy Rome did not overly need to concern itself with the revolt of
subject peoples.  With the exception of Judea
once Roman rule was established, it was generally accepted within a generation
or so, as the provincials realized the value of the Roman peace and other
benefits of the empire.  The Jews were
the exception because their monotheism and divine promise of a national state
prevented them from being easily assimilated into the Greco-Roman, polytheist
culture of the empire, as were the other provincials.

The Roman government did not consciously export its
culture, but Latin and Greco-Roman ideas nevertheless spread among the urban
populations of the empire, and the townsfolk at least came to think of
themselves as Romans, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.  And as Roman culture and Romans streamed out
into the provinces, provincial influences and provincials flowed back to Rome.  The emperors Trajan and Hadrian (AD 117-138),
for example, were ultimately Iberian in their bloodlines, the thoroughly
Romanized products of the Spanish provinces.
In a very real sense the Roman Empire was a
multicultural melting pot, and in AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the
Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the empire.  He did it for economic reasons and the
citizenship was by then politically meaningless, but the fact remains that a
Briton whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and killed invading legionaries
now possessed the same legal status as an Italian who could trace his roots
back to the birth of the Republic.  This
cosmopolitanism was one of the greatest triumphs of theRoman Empire.

It is tempting to compare the post-Soviet United
States to Rome
of the Principate.  Both enjoy the status
of a superpower, hassled but not seriously militarily challenged by their
neighbors (at least in the conventional sense – nuclear weapons have changed
the rules); one might even compare the Parthian Empire to Russia and China and
the lower intensity threat of the barbarian tribes to terrorists.  As Latin and Roman culture seeped out into
the empire, so also is English and American culture spreading about the globe,
and as provincials gradually appreciated the benefits of the Pax Romana,
so, we confidently expect, will the rest of humanity appreciate those of the Pax
.  And like Rome,
America is so powerful,
possesses such a loyal military and has such an excellent bureaucratic
structure that it can periodically suffer an incompetent head of state without
losing the ball game.

Despite these points of contact, however,
twenty-first century America
is more aptly compared to Rome of
the Republic, especially its last century and a half of existence.  The empire was then primarily hegemonic,
relying, as do we, on clients and allies as the preferred mechanism for
exerting influence.  Further, for all
that American Presidents, especially a recent one, might occasionally remind us
of less attractive Roman emperors, the constitutional government of the
Republic is far more akin to our own than is the military based dictatorship of
the Principate.  The Senate-centered
oligarchy of wealth that dominated the Republic in fact has a great deal in
common with our own national political oligarchy, whose members are utterly
dependent upon and typically beholden to those interests that possess the
financial resources necessary to get elected.
Even more to the point, as Roman foreign policy became little more than
an extension of domestic affairs during the Revolution, so also is American
foreign policy, especially with the end of the Cold War and most especially in
the case of Israel, increasingly a reflection of domestic politics and personal
interests rather than of strategic concerns and the national interest.

The growing political ambition and self-centered
attitude of the Roman ruling elite led in the first century BC to civil war and
the emergence of autocratic government, but while our own governing class is no
less venal and preoccupied with retaining power, our republic seems unlikely to
collapse in the near future.  Unlike the
Romans we have a written constitution that is very difficult to circumvent in
any serious ways, and our military has traditionally held a strong aversion to
political involvement, at least as soldiers, if not as lobbyists.  The Constitution also provides for a
government of three independent branches, each in theory independent and able
to check the others from any abuse of power, while the Roman Senate had a four
hundred year tradition of completely dominating every aspect of the national
government, which fact led to an almost overnight collapse of political
stability when that authority was challenged during the Revolution.  Finally, the American people have the
constitutionally guaranteed power to change the entire governing elite ever few
years, whereas our Roman counterparts could not touch their Senate, whose
members held their positions for life.

On the other hand, because of the power of
incumbency and the passivity, growing ignorance and lack of interest of many
Americans, our elected national leaders (excepting the President and Vice
President) enjoy potentially unlimited terms of office and constitute almost as
much a permanent political oligarchy as did the Roman Senatorial class.  And that oligarchy, the American Congress,
has recently demonstrated a disturbing willingness to take measures of dubious
constitutionality and grant very broad war making authority to a single
individual, the President.  Americans
citizens, moreover, have demonstrated an equally disturbing willingness and
quickness to surrender civil liberties in the face of vaguely defined threats
and in return for security measures of questionable value and
effectiveness.  Every politician worth
his salt, be it Gaius Julius Caesar or George W. Bush, recognizes the domestic
political capital that can be squeezed from national security issues, even if,
as in the case of the Gauls and now Iraq, the threats need to some degree be
manufactured.  The American President may
not, like Caesar, be seeking a loyal military following, but he certainly knows
as well as the Roman dictator that war is a wonderful distraction from domestic
ills and that cheap gasoline, like cheap grain in the dying Republic, will keep
and buy political support.

Twenty-first century America
is certainly not ancient Rome, even
Rome of the Republic: for all the
imperial points of contact the economic, political and technological
differences are simply too great.  Yet,
while the ultimate fate of the Roman Empire should not
overly concern us, being the result of internal conditions that are utterly
alien to this society  – at least for the
foreseeable future – the fate of the Republic may well be instructive.  The Senatorial government functioned in many
ways similar to ours, and after a long run of success an increasingly
self-interested governing elite, more concerned with its own prerogatives than
the national interest, resisted needed reform and found itself less and less
able to deal with the country’s problems or even to maintain political and
social stability.  And in the end that
instability called forth the perhaps inevitable recourse to autocratic
government, and Roman liberty was traded away for security and the trappings of
imperial glory.  At least the Romans got
that: because of economic problems Americans have little security and imperial
glory went out with theBritish Empire.


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