The Roman Empire and the American Imperium
EDIT:This link should have been in the title, but it was removed after importing from Sake Light.
I’ve been thinking a lot on the Roman Empire and the current state of affairs in the world relating to America. I’ve always noticed a lot of parallels that were just plain spooky. Like the Roman Senate, how Rome was a Republic instead of an Athenian Democracy and how we were modeled after a representative republic.
Ir just gets better, and spookier. Case in point, found an article that tried to compare America to Rome. Didn’t do too good a job, but it is useful as a starting point for debate.
The word of the hour is empire. As the United States marches to war, no other label quite seems to capture the scope of American power or the scale of its ambition. “Sole superpower” is accurate enough, but seems oddly modest. “Hyperpower” may appeal to the French; “hegemon” is favoured by academics. But empire is the big one, the gorilla of geopolitical designations – and suddenly America is bearing its name.
America is a new kind of Empire, or Imperium.
Of course, enemies of the US have shaken their fist at its “imperialism” for decades:they are doing it again now, as Washington wages a global “war against terror” and braces itself for a campaign aimed at “regime change” in a foreign, sovereign state. What is more surprising, and much newer, is that the notion of an American empire has suddenly become a live debate inside the US. And not just among Europhile liberals either, but across the range – from left to right.
HIstorically, most people who didn’t like the ROman Empire and attacked them were either trying to defend their homeland or trying to attack a rich Roman protected city to do some murder, looting, and rapine.
The barbarians to the north and to the northeast, were especially dangerous in this regard.
The war against terror is against an Islamic proto-caliphate that wants to subjugate women as an incentive to acquire suicide bombers, and to perpetuate misery so that people will willingly die in the service of Allah (Tribal leader) for heaven.
The Islamic Fascists are the new age barbarians of our day. Vicious, without mercy or any hope of civilized redemption. And like Rome, the best way to get rid of the barbarians, is to conquer them. Rome’s conquering technique was superior to the Athenian city state method, which was to subjugate all people to Athens under Greek culture or as slaves. Rome’s found a better way, which was to allow conquered people self-autonomy, in return for paying Roman taxes. They get the protection of Roman Legions and Roman civilization works, as well as trade on the Roman Highways.
America, in this regard, did something else.
Today a liberal dissenter such as Gore Vidal, who called his most recent collection of essays on the US The Last Empire, finds an ally in the likes of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. Earlier this year Krauthammer told the New York Times, “People are coming out of the closet on the word ’empire’.” He argued that Americans should admit the truth and face up to their responsibilities as the undisputed masters of the world. And it wasn’t any old empire he had in mind. “The fact is, no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the Roman empire.”
I wouldn’t call them “allies” since conservatives see America as a good in the world when all or most liberals see America as an evil in the world worse than any other power, dictator or Islamicfascist alike.
Accelerated by the post-9/11 debate on America’s role in the world, the idea of the United States as a 21st-century Rome is gaining a foothold in the country’s consciousness. The New York Review of Books illustrated a recent piece on US might with a drawing of George Bush togged up as a Roman centurion, complete with shield and spears. Earlier this month Boston’s WBUR radio station titled a special on US imperial power with the Latin tag Pax Americana. Tom Wolfe has written that the America of today is “now the mightiest power on earth, as omnipotent as… Rome under Julius Caesar”.
Bush would be better characterized as Caesar, doing what needed to be done and because he thought that he was the best man to wield power at the time. All Presidential nominees believe they would do a better job than any other person, that is why they run, and that is why Caesar got into politics, to save Rome.
It is true that we are the mightiest power on earth, but Rome was not omnipotent and neither is America. To believe in one’s omnipotency is to ascend to the level of Gods, and eventually human frailties will drop us to the ground, impacting at a very high terminal velocity.
I like the Pax Americana bit though. Catchy.
But is the comparison apt? Are the Americans the new Romans?
In making a documentary film on the subject over the past few months, I put that question to a group of people uniquely qualified to know. Not experts on US defence strategy or American foreign policy, but Britain’s leading historians of the ancient world. They know Rome intimately – and, without exception, they are struck by the similarities between the empire of now and the imperium of then.
The problem is, they may know ROman history, but they don’t know a damn about American history or contemporary power structures. Big problem when comparing America to Roman Power.
It’d be more accurate to say that they are “struck” by the perceived similarities to what they think America is, to what they have studied about the Roman Empire.
The most obvious is overwhelming military strength. Rome was the superpower of its day, boasting an army with the best training, biggest budgets and finest equipment the world had ever seen. No one else came close. The United States is just as dominant – its defence budget will soon be bigger than the military spending of the next nine countries put together, allowing the US to deploy its forces almost anywhere on the planet at lightning speed. Throw in the country’s global technological lead, and the US emerges as a power without rival.
One must realize that Roman military power was heavily invested in the tax money acrued from the conquered provinces, as well as the fabulous loot of foreign cities and lands. It was this loot that attracted the men to the Legions, and it was this loot that motivated the Roman Legions to fight, and fight to win instead of running away. That and discipline, helped Rome conquer the world.
The reason why our defense budget in absolute terms is higher, is because WE PROVIDE MOST OF THE DEFENSE to the world, therefore most nations find it more profitable to invest in infrastructure and welfare benefits than a military. Also, the U.S. only uses about 4% of their GDP in military arms. You can’t say that about the Roman Empire or even the Roman Republic.
You see, Rome had a big army because they were “paid” to have a big occupying army by their conquered provinces. They also needed them to garrison the borders, to repel invasions, and to STOMP ON REBELLIONS. That’s not something America is required to do. We had a Civil War, once, and got over it. Rome was in continual civil war, and that was one of the reasons it self-destructed.
Another reason why we are a “power without rival” is because we have gravitas. It is a Roman Virtue. Our Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors have CHARACTER. The strength of character that only a warrior as well as a soldier has. Discipline, Honor, Duty, Self-Sacrifice, Humility, Courage, and various other duties and precepts that a Roman would not find hard to recognize. And the civic virtues of our civilians, are also strong, as was seen on Flight 93 when normal frightened citizens acquired the knowledge of their fate, and saw to it that one airliner would fail in its mission to kill a lot of innocent civilians on the ground.
Yet another reason why Rome fell was because they lost these good Roman virtues. To what you may ask? Easy, they lost it to a decadent lifestyle lived on the tax collected from conquered provinces. This tax, unearned, made the elite aristocrats in Rome rich, and decadent, and weak. Their weakness was evident in how many stupid ass Emperors they got after Julius Caesar was assassinated by a bunch of power hungry Senatorial aristocrats bent on keeping their power over the plebeians.
Britney Spears, Tom Cruise, Jane Fonda. Those are our Roman contemporaries so to speak.
You could say Rome was screwed because their political leadership kept screwing around, as you would expect if the Congress was filled with movie stars, and the President was Hugh Hefner.
The Europeans obviously already do this, else they’d have said something was weird with Clinton’s behavior, but all they said was that it was “to be expected”. Right.
There is a big difference, of course. Apart from the odd Puerto Rico or Guam, the US does not have formal colonies, the way the Romans (or British, for that matter) always did. There are no American consuls or viceroys directly ruling faraway lands.
Correct, because just like the Romans improved on the Athenian Model of Empire building, we improved upon the Roman way. We promoted self-autonomy just like the Romans did, of course, but we didn’t require taxation from the conquered provinces. And because of that, we were not required to setup an insanely huge bureacracy of corrupt tax collectors, and god knows what, to govern a nation thousands of miles away from our capital and military base.
It was pretty smart. We acquire our prosperity through free trade. Yet the protection we give to these “provinces” are the same as the Romans, only better, since we covered far more territory without military bases than the Romans would ever “dream” of doing. Simple logistics. If you had to protect tax paying provinces, then you had to station a base in each one to satisfy one or otherwise they would complain. Because Germany, France, Britain, and Japan pay NO taxes, they can complain all they want, we can just tell them to push off and we can move our bases around as we see fit. A great amount of flexibility is inherent in our system.
We do not owe the conquered provinces, Germany and Japan, anything. For one thing, they owe us, but we forgave their debts, both moral and economical. Thus, through generosity, we have cemented some of the people in some provinces to us. But whenever the threat of mutual destruction goes away, people start bitching that the “free protection” we give them is either, not enough or too “intrusive”.
What a bunch of spoiled children. Now you know why the Romans said it was better to be feared than loved, they really really got tired of being hated on for protecting a bunch of lazy arse merchants from the barbarians, and then to have them complain about “taxes” paid for such protection. So the Romans came up with the solution that if you didn’t care about being loved at all, then you can just ignore the complaints, and then threaten to cut off their tongues if they continued it. Or give them a taste of what a barbarian invasion can do for their precious “overpriced tax payments”.
No wonder we have no viceroys “ruling” other countries. We don’t want to hear their stupid and lazy ass complaints. It sort of goes like “Give us more electricity, before you came here, we had electricity, now after we have none”. That gets tiring fast, as well.
But that difference between ancient Rome and modern Washington may be less significant than it looks. After all, America has done plenty of conquering and colonising: it’s just that we don’t see it that way. For some historians, the founding of America and its 19th-century push westward were no less an exercise in empire-building than Rome’s drive to take charge of the Mediterranean. While Julius Caesar took on the Gauls – bragging that he had slaughtered a million of them – the American pioneers battled the Cherokee, the Iroquois and the Sioux. “From the time the first settlers arrived in Virginia from England and started moving westward, this was an imperial nation, a conquering nation,” according to Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
It is not so bad to be conquered. And we are the only nation to win the loyalties of conquered populations, such that those populations would fight for America. The Navajo Indians for example. They were instrumental in winning the Pacific in WWII.
Rome never did win the loyalties of their conquered populations. Too many slaves. Way too many. The Romans were good early on, but after they lost their gravitas, people just didn’t want to be a Roman glutton. They liked the riches, the statues, and the hot/cold running water. But not the decadence and the weakness. Roman culture was weak, the Greeks Hellenized it. That’s one danger of making too many conquered populations into slaves, you might get conquered culturally by the Greek slaves you have as your teachers.
The values of the Greeks really didn’t fit in with the Romans. The Romans originally valued strength over beauty, but the Greeks valued beauty over strength… not a good switch.
More to the point, the US has military bases, or base rights, in some 40 countries across the world – giving it the same global muscle it would enjoy if it ruled those countries directly.The muscle is entirely economic in origin, as those military bases power much of the local economy. Without those bases, you would hear a lot of screaming, as you have from states like South Dakota over Brac.
Unlike the Romans, the US doesn’t slaughter local citizens and put them on crucifixes to serve as an example not to “piss off Americans”.
(When the US took on the Taliban last autumn, it was able to move warships from naval bases in Britain, Japan, Germany, southern Spain and Italy: the fleets were already there.) According to Chalmers Johnson, author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, these US military bases, numbering into the hundreds around the world, are today’s version of the imperial colonies of old. Washington may refer to them as “forward deployment”, says Johnson, but colonies are what they are. On this definition, there is almost no place outside America’s reach. Pentagon figures show that there is a US military presence, large or small, in 132 of the 190 member states of the United Nations.
Imperial colonies, *scoffs*. We don’t even reproduce out on these so called “colonies”.
Must be the weirdest colony in the history of the world, if everyone in those bases would come home if nothing important was holding them up there.
The lack of “important things” holding them in those countries is a hint.
America extends our power through seabasing, not through “colonization”. That’s one problem with not studying American defense strategies. You make shit up as you go along as this guy did.
So America may be more Roman than we realise, with garrisons in every corner of the globe. But there the similarities only begin. For the United States’ entire approach to empire looks quintessentially Roman. It’s as if the Romans bequeathed a blueprint for how imperial business should be done – and today’s Americans are following it religiously.
About as quintessential as the Roman Empire was to the Greek’s Hellenization.
It shouldn’t be surprising that we have a Senate and the Romans had a Senate, nor should it be using that the Romans had a lower house and we have a lower house. It should not be surprising that the Romans believed in choosing wise leaders, and that direct democracy was flawed and ineffective. Our Marine Corps is modeled after the expeditionary nature of the Roman Legions. Our character virtues and values lie with Roman gravitas and values. In light of this, what blueprints are needed?
Lesson one in the Roman handbook for imperial success would be a realisation that it is not enough to have great military strength: the rest of the world must know that strength – and fear it too. The Romans used the propaganda technique of their time – gladiatorial games in the Colosseum – to show the world how hard they were. Today 24-hour news coverage of US military operations – including video footage of smart bombs scoring direct hits – or Hollywood shoot-’em-ups at the multiplex serve the same function. Both tell the world: this empire is too tough to beat.
That shows an ignorance of Roman culture that is simply appaling. Roman Propaganda was stringing up rebellious slaves on the Via Appia, all crucifixed, alive, and squirming.
The Colosseum was Roman “entertainment”.
The Colosseum itself was meant to impress and awe anyone who saw it, regardless of what occured in it. All Roman Architecture was designed with this idea in mind.
“too tough to beat”? Wrong. That’ll happen when we drop 10 nukes in succession on cities that won’t cooperate with us. That hasn’t happened yet.
The Romans liked to kill their enemies slowly, with a lot of people watching. I’d think a nuclear bomb with its attendant radiation would serve the same gruesome purpose of crucification… making an example out of some, so that others won’t be stupid enough to make the same mistake.
The US has learned a second lesson from Rome, realising the centrality of technology. For the Romans, it was those famously straight roads, enabling the empire to move troops or supplies at awesome speeds – rates that would not be surpassed for well over a thousand years. It was a perfect example of how one imperial strength tends to feed another: an innovation in engineering, originally designed for military use, went on to boost Rome commercially. Today those highways find their counterpart in the information superhighway: the internet also began as a military tool, devised by the US defence department, and now stands at the heart of American commerce. In the process, it is making English the Latin of its day – a language spoken across the globe. The US is proving what the Romans already knew: that once an empire is a world leader in one sphere, it soon dominates in every other.
Rome wasn’t even a sea power till they stole their designs from Carthage in the First Punic Wars. It is more like, Rome knew that if you wanted to survive, you had better get a balanced armed forces.
The highway we use to send troops and goods is definitely not the informational superhighway. This guy needs to stop being lazy and just collating things that sound alike and comparing them as if they are similar. We use air travel, our highways are in the air. We airlift battalions and brigades to Iraq. We ship things by sea primarily the bulky things.
So we have two highways. The seas, which we control, and the air, which we control. No longer do we have horse cavalry, now we have air cavalry. Make sense?
But it is not just specific tips that the US seems to have picked up from its ancient forebears. Rather, it is the fundamental approach to empire that echoes so loudly. Rome understood that, if it is to last, a world power needs to practise both hard imperialism, the business of winning wars and invading lands, and soft imperialism, the cultural and political tricks that work not to win power but to keep it.
Hard power and soft power has been exercised since the beginning of the city-state, there’s nothing imperialistic about the US doing it.
So Rome’s greatest conquests came not at the end of a spear, but through its power to seduce conquered peoples. As Tacitus observed in Britain, the natives seemed to like togas, baths and central heating – never realising that these were the symbols of their “enslavement”. Today the US offers the people of the world a similarly coherent cultural package, a cluster of goodies that remain reassuringly uniform wherever you are. It’s not togas or gladiatorial games today, but Starbucks, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Disney, all paid for in the contemporary equivalent of Roman coinage, the global hard currency of the 21st century: the dollar.
If youre culture is stronger and better than another’s, then indeed you don’t need to force anyone to convert to your lifestyle. They will already have done it of their own free will. A lot of people have problems with this, like anti-Americans, but those people just are envious and stupid.
When the process works, you don’t even have to resort to direct force; it is possible to rule by remote control, using friendly client states. This is a favourite technique for the contemporary US – no need for colonies when you have the Shah in Iran or Pinochet in Chile to do the job for you – but the Romans got there first. They ruled by proxy whenever they could. We, of all people, should know: one of the most loyal of client kings ruled right here, in the southern England of the first century AD.
Funny how he doesn’t mention South Korea, Japan, Germany, or Britain. Those must not count.
Or maybe our influence over Japan isn’t that of a “client state” to a master state, but an equal to an equal. That sure tarnishes his “imperial” model.
You’d be surprised how many proxies you acquire and how many wars you fight by proxy when a nuclear holocaust is hanging over your head between two superpowers.
His name was Togidubnus and you can still visit the grand palace that was his at Fishbourne in Sussex. The mosaic floors, in remarkable condition, are reminders of the cool palatial quarters where guests would have gathered for preprandial drinks or a perhaps an audience with the king. Historians now believe that Togidubnus was a high-born Briton educated in Rome, brought back to Fishbourne and installed as a pro-Roman puppet. Just as Washington’s elite private schools are full of the “pro-western” Arab kings, South American presidents or African leaders of the future, so Rome took in the heirs of the conquered nations’ top families, preparing them for lives as rulers in Rome’s interest.
Or they may be here because we offer the best education, and the least bureacratic red-tape to acquiring one. The hijackers who learned at flight school and martial arts school definitely weren’t “pro-western” all right.
And Togidubnus did not let his masters down. When Boudicca led her uprising against the Roman occupation in AD60, she made great advances in Colchester, St Albans and London – but not Sussex. Historians now believe that was because Togidubnus kept the native Britons under him in line. Just as Hosni Mubarak and Pervez Musharraf have kept the lid on anti-American feeling in Egypt and Pakistan, Togidubnus did the same job for Rome nearly two millennia ago.
The situation is not entirely analogous. Britania needed Imperial revenue, the money that the occupying Legions were bringing in (that sound familiar, it should). Anyone stupid enough to rebel against Rome, even if successful, was killing their own nation. Pretty stupid and power hungry, that is for sure.
Not that it always worked. Rebellions against the empire were a permanent fixture, with barbarians constantly pressing at the borders. Some accounts suggest that the rebels were not always fundamentally anti-Roman; they merely wanted to share in the privileges and affluence of Roman life. If that has a familiar ring, consider this: several of the enemies who rose up against Rome are thought to have been men previously nurtured by the empire to serve as pliant allies. Need one mention former US protege Saddam Hussein or one-time CIA trainee Osama bin Laden?
Something tells me that “sharing” wasn’t what they had on their minds.
For every Hussein and Laden, there is a hundred Northern Alliance Leaders, and a thousand pro-America Kurds. I have to wonder why their names are not as publicized or as popular as Bin Laden, they certainly outnumber Bin Laden.
Rome even had its own 9/11 moment. In the 80s BC, Hellenistic king Mithridates called on his followers to kill all Roman citizens in their midst, naming a specific day for the slaughter. They heeded the call – and killed 80,000 Romans in local communities across Greece. “The Romans were incredibly shocked by this,” says ancient historian Jeremy Paterson of Newcastle University. “It’s a little bit like the statements in so many of the American newspapers since September 11: ‘Why are we hated so much?’ “
I think the Romans were thinking, “When do we get to see them crucified and who do we send that is Roman enough to do it well?”
If you think that is a little bit like the American newspapers, then I have no regrets informing you that I disagree.
Internally, too, today’s United States would strike many Romans as familiar terrain. America’s mythologising of its past – its casting of founding fathers Washington and Jefferson as heroic titans, its folk-tale rendering of the Boston Tea Party and the war of independence – is very Roman. That empire, too, felt the need to create a mythic past, starred with heroes. For them it was Aeneas and the founding of Rome, but the urge was the same: to show that the great nation was no accident, but the fruit of manifest destiny.
And America shares Rome’s conviction that it is on a mission sanctioned from on high. Augustus declared himself the son of a god, raising a statue to his adoptive father Julius Caesar on a podium alongside Mars and Venus. The US dollar bill bears the words “In God we trust” and US politicians always like to end their speeches with “God bless America.”
I have trouble believing that Romulus who murdered his brother Remus, is analogous to George Washington to led his troops through freezing rivers and slept as his men did, ate as his men did.
It is also hard to believe that Romulus ascended to godhood, while the God of the Americans is a natural god that is not involved in human affairs, murder or not, and that this is somehow an “analogy”.
It certainly was Rome’s manifest destiny. To murder one’s brother, to committ civil war, to elevate oneself to Godhood. You certainly saw a lot of that after 50 A.D.
You also saw a lot of sacrifice, honor, duty, and courage on the part of the Americans, in fighting against slavery, fascism, and communism. Now terrorism.
Analogous to how not to use analogies perhaps.
Even that most modern American trait, its ethnic diversity, would make the Romans feel comfortable. Their society was remarkably diverse, taking in people from all over the world – and even promising new immigrants the chance to rise to the very top (so long as they were from the right families). While America is yet to have a non-white president, Rome boasted an emperor from north Africa, Septimius Severus. According to classicist Emma Dench, Rome had its own version of America’s “hyphenated” identities. Like the Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans of today, Rome’s citizens were allowed a “cognomen” – an extra name to convey their Greek-Roman or British-Roman heritage: Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus.
There are some large differences between the two empires, of course – starting with self-image. Romans revelled in their status as masters of the known world, but few Americans would be as ready to brag of their own imperialism. Indeed, most would deny it. But that may come down to the US’s founding myth. For America was established as a rebellion against empire, in the name of freedom and self-government. Raised to see themselves as a rebel nation and plucky underdog, they can’t quite accept their current role as master.
It is true that Americans dislike being thought of as masters, while the Romans glorified in it. But that shows you how stupid the Romans were. Glory is in deeds, not in words or riches.
One last factor scares Americans from making a parallel between themselves and Rome: that empire declined and fell. The historians say this happens to all empires; they are dynamic entities that follow a common path, from beginning to middle to end.
Like I said, Rome’s role model was Romulus who murdered his brother Remus, and then asceded to Godhood. America’s model is George Washington, a military man and a patriot, who fought side by side with his men under the same conditions.
America isn’t afraid of falling. We’re afraid the rest of you idiotic children in the stinking world will try and knock over America and ruin our day. 9/11 is definitely proof of that.
“What America will need to consider in the next 10 or 15 years,” says Cambridge classicist Christopher Kelly, “is what is the optimum size for a nonterritorial empire, how interventionist will it be outside its borders, what degree of control will it wish to exercise, how directly, how much through local elites? These were all questions which pressed upon the Roman empire.”
Anti-Americans like to believe that an operation in Iraq might be proof that the US is succumbing to the temptation that ate away at Rome: overstretch. But it’s just as possible that the US is merely moving into what was the second phase of Rome’s imperial history, when it grew frustrated with indirect rule through allies and decided to do the job itself. Which is it? Is the US at the end of its imperial journey, or on the brink of its most ambitious voyage? Only the historians of the future can tell us that.
· Rome: The Model Empire, presented by Jonathan Freedland, is on Channel 4 on Saturday at 6.50pm.
It doesn’t take an anti-American to misunderstand what is American. Though I give some credit to Freedland for making some coherent connections between the Roman Empire and the American Republic/Imperium. Tenuous perhaps, inaccurate and biased, but it was a start.