Similarities between the United States and the Roman Empire.
September 25, 2002 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Similarities between the United States and the Roman Empire. With the comparrison having become common, it is interesting to consider just how much the two really have in common. What would Cicero think?
posted by homunculus (48 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
*closes his eyes and tries to picture the senate getting together and stabbing the president to death*
posted by ColdChef at 11:39 AM on September 25, 2002

Et tu, Pooty-poot?
posted by ptermit at 11:51 AM on September 25, 2002

What would Cicero think?

Hmmm, he'd probably think anyone who can't spell 'comparison' correctly should shut up.

*throws self to lions*
posted by homunculus at 11:53 AM on September 25, 2002

Bah. At least America isn't fixated on public games of physical conquest.
posted by ColdChef at 12:00 PM on September 25, 2002

My wife is a major in Italian, and when she was studying the history of the romanic languages, one interesting thing that she pointed out to me is that, rather than through brutal wars, most of the mediterranean area surrendered to the Romans peacefully and adopted the Roman costumes and language, just because it was "cool to be roman".

Makes you wonder if Hollywood hasn't been doing the same thing for ages. It's cool to be american.
posted by falameufilho at 12:06 PM on September 25, 2002

I'll have a double scoop of rocky road and tutti-frutti on a waffle cone.
posted by clavdivs at 12:07 PM on September 25, 2002

Well, if the comparison is apt, then perhaps you should all remember the Roman Empire lasted 1101 years.
posted by reality at 12:10 PM on September 25, 2002

Did you read Cicero homunculus? I was a little disappointed in it.....though the present is an auspicious time to read about a lone libertarian seeking to preserve a democratic constitution from dictatorial leaders...

I think articles like this are interesting, and provide great conversation for coffee houses and bars. But the past is never directly repeated (despite what Marx says.) Look to Rome, learn its lessons, admire its greatness, but don't assume that a modern nation is bound to any sort of ancient pattern.
posted by pjgulliver at 12:12 PM on September 25, 2002

Cicero would think you're plotting to overthrow the government and use flimsy legalese to execute you and all your rather powerful, if debauched, friends.

Then he'd brag in public about how he subverted the law to attain the safety and security of the nation.

Nice analogy. Next?
posted by WolfDaddy at 12:13 PM on September 25, 2002

One may argue that the public gladiatorial games were not for generating fear abroad but for pacifying the domestic audience. I believe Rome had pretty much reached its zenith when the games were at the height of their popularity.

What most people need to learn is that unlike Britain (which made English the lingua franca) America doesn't want to rule the world, but rather own it.
posted by infowar at 12:18 PM on September 25, 2002

I, for one, welcome our--wait a second! But, if we're the overlords, then...who am I...but...

<sparks fly from head, falls over dead>
posted by Danelope at 12:23 PM on September 25, 2002

Well, if the comparison is apt, then perhaps you should all remember the Roman Empire lasted 1101 years.

Think of the US as the Roman Empire on Internet time.
posted by shagoth at 12:39 PM on September 25, 2002

I think reality's point is apt, though. Everyone compares the US to the Roman Empire, which is true in some ways, but the Roman Empire didn't simply fall. It not only lasted a millennium, it provided the basis of thought from Arabia to the Western World a thousand years further on.

In any case, unlike the Romans:

our military bases are not required, except in a very few countries. They are all by voluntary contract. The few required ones have or had real purposes (such as the Platt Amendment protection from the Spanish in the US lease at guantanamo - Guantanamo was never Cuba...ever, anymore than Alaska was part of Canada just because they touch each other).

Further, America's international pervasiveness is primarily based on voluntary acceptance. For all the talk of unilateralism, we really haven't been all that unilateral.

Iraq 91 - Coalition, with Arab support and Asian money
Yugoslavia - Coalition opposed by very few
Afghanistan 01 - Coalition, with Turkish and German troops among others

If anything, a more unilateralist nature (such as moving to stop the problems in Uganda) would have been favorable.

The comparisons to Rome are quite a stretch; in any case, I'd take them as a compliment.
posted by Kevs at 12:48 PM on September 25, 2002

The Roman empire is still around. It's just mutated in to the Catholic Church.

I wonder what American religion will be around in 2000 years ... Praise Xenu
posted by Dillenger69 at 12:49 PM on September 25, 2002

rather than through brutal wars, most of the mediterranean area surrendered to the Romans peacefully

Let's see: Italy conquered through a series of wars . Major Mediterranean power Carthage beaten into destruction, gaining Sicily, the Iberian Peninsula and much of Northern Africa for Rome. France, conquered by Julius Caesar. Greece, conquered during wars against Macedon. Don't even talk about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Okay, Egypt was a combination of diplomacy (by Julius Caesar) and conquest (by Octavian).

and adopted the Roman costumes and language, just because it was "cool to be roman".

People in the Eastern Mediterranean kept their Greek language and did not dress like Romans.
posted by nobodyknowsimadog at 12:54 PM on September 25, 2002

I beleive it was George Santayana, Philosopher, who said: Those who don't learn their history will have to get it from The Guardian.
posted by Postroad at 12:55 PM on September 25, 2002

Rome lasted 1100 years, but its growth and development was rather slow. I second the call to think of things today in terms of "internet speed". Think of today as (hate to say it) the apex, during Marcus Aurelius' period.

Though, I would hardly call George W. Bush a "Philosopher King"...
posted by tgrundke at 12:57 PM on September 25, 2002

Poppycock. Entertaining article. Has no merit in the real world. Stuff like this is the Historians equivilent of Cold Fusion. Pseudo-science.
posted by stbalbach at 12:58 PM on September 25, 2002

The Roman empire is still around. It's just mutated in to the Catholic Church. The early church gained followers in Rome, culminating in Constantine naming it the state religion, but its quite a stretch to say that the Catholic church is the "genetic" embodiment of the Roman Empire. Unless you'd care to elaborate ...

(I find the notion amusing, and considering all the arguments 'round these parts about religion and its ties to Govt., I think its a worthwile tangent for discussion. Don't get me wrong, I still disagree.)
posted by Wulfgar! at 1:03 PM on September 25, 2002

Hmmm... then does that make the internet our oracle?
Or Oracle our... oh, nevermind...

In truth, I have always felt that we were very akin to the Roman Empire, but in its failing days.
posted by FilmMaker at 1:10 PM on September 25, 2002

Wulfgar, you are entirely right (I think its amazing I agree with you on something!). To say the Empire mutated into the Church is ludicrous. For one, four centuries before the final fall of Rome, the bulk of the wealth and military power in the Roman World was held by the Eastern Empire, which lasted technically until the 1450s and was NOT Catholic. Secondly, the strong centrally organized Catholic Church of the high middle ages, which could compel kings to kneel in the snow, etc, was not around in 476.

Lastly, how do you define the "fall of the Roman Empire." The fall of the city of Rome itself? The fall of the last purported emperor in the west? The time when the bulk of the legions stopped being composed of Roman citizens? When Rome was forced to withdraw the legions behind the Alps to defend Italy proper? When it became unsafe to travel throughout the empire without armed escort? Each of these points gives a very different answer.

Again, AMERICA is not Rome. Why compare us to Rome? Why not ancient Persia? Or China? Or the civilization that built Angkor? Or the Incas? Its all historical fallacy, comparison is interesting, and may provide insight into general trends, but direct comparison is futile and dangerous.
posted by pjgulliver at 1:13 PM on September 25, 2002

The United States is just as dominant - its defense budget will soon be bigger than the military spending of the next nine countries put together,

Compared to the 50's & 60's, it seems we spend less(take in account inflation of the dollar value), so then are we declining? As the article points were gaining. I know compared to Russia of old, yes ours is a bigger budget. I think you could compare any prominent nation to Rome. As history repeats you do likewise. I am objective to the article because I do not want to own the world. Like I said before, then what would be a foreign land for me to visit and hollywood you can have it, it's made of silicon(e) in body and film. So for the writing on the wall, When in America do as a Roman, no way, only in Rome.

To be positive this is a good comparison as your are doomed to repeat if you don't take notice of past experiences.( positive comment with negative connotation = 0 cents from me)
posted by thomcatspike at 1:16 PM on September 25, 2002

Just for a little balance, let's look at why some people say America is not an empire.
posted by WolfDaddy at 1:40 PM on September 25, 2002

America's informal empire is far greater than its formal empire, which makes it more like the British Empire. Commercial interests drove the expansion of the British Empire. The Brits went into several "failing states" at the time to protect commercial interests, not really wanting to annex them, but ended up sticking around.

So what happened to the British Empire? Well, it was not defeated in a military cataclysm heralding a new dark age, but rather made irrelevant by expansion of a new power (USA) and nationalism in its provinces. The center let the provinces go in a pretty orderly fashion, except for India/Pakistan. Many of the institutions built up by the Brits continue to serve their respective countries well. Not so bad, after all, if that will be the eventual fate of the US Empire, a few decades or centuries down the road.
posted by Triplanetary at 2:08 PM on September 25, 2002

Did you read Cicero homunculus?

Not yet pjgulliver, but I plan to.

The comparisons to Rome are quite a stretch

I agree Kevs, but I do find it to be an entertaining and useful exercise.

let's look at why some people say America is not an empire.

Thanks for the link WolfDaddy.
posted by homunculus at 2:10 PM on September 25, 2002

Again, AMERICA is not Rome. Why compare us to Rome? ... Its all historical fallacy, comparison is interesting, and may provide insight into general trends, but direct comparison is futile and dangerous.

I think that's all they're trying to do, though; look at general trends. It might be a fallacy to say that Alaska will be taken by Visigoths, but it doesn't seem untenable to me that in a finite system like nation-building there will be some not-insignificant and not-irrelevant simularities between Rome and the US. And since so many historians seem to agree that there are systematic simularites between the two, it makes sense to be informed by the mistakes that Rome made.
posted by Hildago at 2:36 PM on September 25, 2002

This gives me an idea -- deluxe vomitoriums for upwardly mobile bulimics. Any investors?

(No pedantic comments about the true meaning of the word "vomitorium" please.)
posted by Devils Slide at 2:52 PM on September 25, 2002

Mmm... Vomitory.
posted by Dark Messiah at 3:10 PM on September 25, 2002

The Romans had better orgies but we have cooler Gladiators, dammit.
posted by jonmc at 3:17 PM on September 25, 2002

But America was an Empire once. We even had an Emperor!
posted by CommaTheWaterseller at 3:58 PM on September 25, 2002

Interesting bit - Rome never fully conquered Persia. In fact, when they invaded what they assumed was a paltry force (say, when M. Crassus did it) they completely underestimated the enemy and were destroyed and enslaved.

Of course, Caesar didn't have nukes.

More useful would be to study Rome's attack on Parthia under Trajan.

The Parthian state, meanwhile, had declined considerably and could no longer mount an effective opposition to Rome. With at least eleven legions and other auxiliary troops at his disposal, Trajan was victorious everywhere, conquering Armenia, cutting through what is now Iraq, capturing Ctesiphon, and finally reaching the Persian Gulf. Carrhae had finally been avenged but only temporarily.

Revolts broke out in 116, not only in newly conquered Iraq but throughout the empire. Trajan was forced to give up most of his Iraqi and Armenian conquests and to hurry westward. He died en route, a broken man. His successor Hadrian immediately abandoned the rest of Trajan's eastern conquests, allowed Armenia to return to its client-kingdom status, and made peace with Parthia.

Some History
posted by swerdloff at 3:58 PM on September 25, 2002

I agree with the folks who say the US isn't an empire in the classic sense, like Rome, the Ottomans, Britian or even the Soviets. But I also agree with everybody else who say that (if the US isn't an empire) it sure as hell acts likes one. According the article I'm an academic and prefer hegemon. There is no hope for me.

The section of this piece that rings the most true is the cultural posture of Romans. They felt the nation was a beacon of hope and freedom and allowed immigrants to try an make a life in their country. At the same time their military was incredibly active in many parts of the globe. They wondered why anyone would try to destroy them; they wondered why they were so hated.

There is one specific episode in Rome's history that makes me pause in relation to current events. The Second Punic War saw Carthage defeated and forced in a treaty which left them totally unable to mount a serious military. Roman businessmen were getting hurt by Carthage's savvy business dealings in North Africa. Politicians used anti-Carthage sentiment to agitate for war, which they eventually got. It was a war led by blind greed and prejudice. It is too similiar to the current Iraq invasion politics.
posted by raaka at 4:16 PM on September 25, 2002

Following on from pgulliver's observation, the Roman Empire actually lasted 2078 years (until 1453 AD).

Again, AMERICA is not Rome. Why compare us to Rome? ... Its all historical fallacy, comparison is interesting, and may provide insight into general trends, but direct comparison is futile and dangerous.

While that's certainly true, the reason why America get compared with Rome is because it initially was also a republic. The question which gets asked all the time (and gets to be the subtext of Star Wars even) is whether America will remain a republic or some day slide into tyranny.
posted by lagado at 4:51 PM on September 25, 2002

Sounds like time for everyone to crack open the voluminous "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Gibbon...

...See you all in about 3 years, after you finish reading it. ;-)

Does that give you all an idea of the complexities of the matter? Please recall that historical analogies may be correct, but they must be scrutinized for their similarities and dissimilarities. I suggest taking a peek at "Thinking in Time" by Neustadt and May.
posted by tgrundke at 4:51 PM on September 25, 2002

Does that mean Clinton was Caligula?
posted by jtm at 4:51 PM on September 25, 2002

Does that mean Clinton was Caligula?

Well Caligula's horse did get to be a senator...
posted by lagado at 6:44 PM on September 25, 2002

If Clinton= Caligula, then G. W. Bush= Clah Clah Claudius the Idiot.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:44 PM on September 25, 2002

He actually never made the horse a senator. From VRoma's web site:

[...] such as the story that he intended to give a consulship to his favorite horse Incitatus no doubt originated from his continual stream of jokes. Probably he remarked that Incitatus would do the job as well as most of the recent incumbents; and meanwhile he ordered silence in the entire neighborhood, to prevent the horse from being disturbed” (The Twelve Caesars, [New York: Scribner, 1975], 113)

I wonder what will be the popular perception of Reagan's joke that the Soviet Union was unlawful and bombing was to start in 20 minutes will be like in 2000 years :)
posted by Triplanetary at 7:08 PM on September 25, 2002

In 1991 after the Gulf War, the returning troops marched in an enormous victory parade here in Washington, DC. At the time a relative remarked that, if this were Rome, Schwartzkopf would have driven up to the foot of the capital in a tank, with Saddam Hussein walking along behind, in chains. The image has always stuck with me.

We aren't Rome.
posted by coelecanth at 8:52 PM on September 25, 2002

On the other hand...
posted by coelecanth at 8:56 PM on September 25, 2002

Dubya is a closer comparison to Caligula than Clinton: the secret treason trials (which Tiberius started, but Caligula reinstated), the draining of the treasury, the reputation for making the executive office a part time job... Most importantly, the short, four year reign.

Oh, and...

Metafilter: What would Cicero link?
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 9:13 PM on September 25, 2002

I see the the US at present as more late Roman Republic. The idealism is still there, and the sphere of influence far surpasses the sphere of actual military control. Or, to put it differently, the US is an economic and cultural empire, not a military one. Yeah, I know there are bases everywhere, but it's not the same.

The domestic similarities are troubling. As many of you must know (look at all the Roman buffs in tha house!) it was Roman custom to appoint a dictator for a set term in times of emergency. J. Caesar was the one who really took this up a notch, but others abused their dictatorial powers before him, natch. So I see Bush as more of a Sulla than a Caesar. Caligula would be Dan Quayle on ecstasy.
posted by D at 10:55 PM on September 25, 2002

Previous discussion, by the way.

Rome maintained it's empire through military might, which is ultimately why it crumbled so quickly. The United States "empire" is a much more insidious creature; our icons and customs and currency are rapidly being assimilated into every global market—which is why you can buy a rice ball at McDonald's in Japan. Rome dominated other countries' armies, but American domiantes other countries' people.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 12:04 AM on September 26, 2002

Damn the boxes. Last time I try to use a dash.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 12:07 AM on September 26, 2002

No such discussion would be complete without the WaPo's two-year-old series The Proconsuls, about the role played by the Pentagon's top generals in acting as representatives of US interests in various world regions.

I found this article much more thoughtful than I expected; it made some biting observations that probably went over well with Grauniad readers but tempered them with countervailing interpretations. Some of his points are trite: hard diplomacy and soft diplomacy apply to any power, and certainly didn't originate with the Romans.

Surely the process of Roman assimilation was much more complex than mere conquest. Just as modern nations often find themselves extending their power into a region to protect not only vested interests but as alliances and even deliberate undermining strategies, so too did the Romans build up theirs by combinations of skillful diplomacy, trade, arm-twisting, and the comparatively rare military adventure. They would ally with one Italian tribe to outfox another, establish a base as a mutual defense agreement, use boycotts and embargoes to force political changes or diplomatic agreements, the entire swathe of techniques.

Ancient history shows abundantly that it is enormously difficult to hang onto conquered territories; the Romans, however, seemed to have figured out how to peacefully hold onto conquered territory with both liberal and militaristic policies. First, Rome didn't destroy conquered cities, but granted them certain rights. Some cities were allowed full Roman citizenship, particularly those near to Rome. Others were allowed certain Roman rights. Some were allowed complete autonomy. Some were allowed to become allies. All, however, were required to send Rome taxes and troops. In addition, Rome settled soldiers on the captured lands as payment for their service. Some of these land grants were especially lucrative. The soldiers got land wealth, and the Romans got permanent military settlers in the conquered lands. In this way, Rome was able to maintain a permanent military settlement in every conquered land. In order to reinforce these settlements, the Romans began an ambitious road-building project. Their roads were of the highest quality and went in straight lines—right straight over mountains in fact—so that soldiers and supplies could be quickly moved into rebellious territories. The response to revolt was swift and harsh. So the combination of granting conquered territories rights and citizenship (or the promise of future rights and citizenship) and the surety of a swift, harsh response to rebellion produced a lasting, peaceful empire on the Italian peninsula. -- The Conquest of Italy

Even so, the US use of military control is spare by comparison. A full look would have to take into account America's relationship with Europe and NATO as well as the use of organizations like the UN and WTO to serve American interests, culminating what is really a 200-year ambition to allow American businesses to trade freely in every country of the world. There are no real equivalents in the Roman era, and certainly nothing resembling modern views of human rights and national sovereignty.

I certainly wouldn't consider Iraq Carthage. At the end it was much reduced, but at its pinnacle Carthage was a seagoing empire that controlled more territory and had more political influence over a wider area -- a true equal. Both were expansionist powers clashing in North Africa but also the riparian areas of Spain and France, and in the beginning Carthage controlled the strategic islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily -- at a time when Rome's remit was limited to the Italian peninsula and Adriatic Yugoslavia, although they were beginning to exercise political control in parts of Gaul and Greece. It's not a stretch to imagine a different timeline where Carthage prevailed -- in particular, Hannibal's invasion of Italy, which lasted for years, sustained by anti-Roman feeling in the provinces, was a very close call for Rome.

The fall, too, was complex. The shorthand version has Vandals, Goths, and others simply "invading". In reality, many of these barbarian tribes had political alliances with Rome and certain privileges; some of them were invited in to deal with rebellions or declining agricultural populations. The frontiers were often patchworks of allies, reluctant colonies waiting for a chance, and opportunists working with the Romans when it suited them. While tracing their paths through the empire, they often remained treated as quasi-sovereign and under treaties or other agreements. Over the long run this weakened central control, of course, but the sovereignty at the "Roman border" was nothing like what it means today.

One thing Rome never had was a written constitution. This was a key reason the Republic descended into dictatorship. What they had were political traditions and vaguely-defined offices that were changed almost at will, invitations to the ambitious. The rights of Roman citizens being viewed as privileges, they were subject to arbitrary depredation. Inequality of legal status was a particular problem, including a large underclass of immigrants that had no particular rights.

I suppose if the US resorted to permanent unilateralism, as some warn, we could face blowback and undermining. But I don't see that happening; multilateralism is too good a tool for us to abandon permanently. (For most of its history, the UN has served US interests well.) The pendulum will swing back, and ultimately I do believe that systems of global law and transnational political movements will continue to gain traction. This will be better for the American "Empire" in the long run. But emergency conditions like al Qaeda may dictate a more self-interested strategy for brief periods, which is what I see happening.
posted by dhartung at 12:42 AM on September 26, 2002

Technology and science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle has been thinking about this for a while. He tends to rant, but he's a good writer so his essays can be interesting.

What would Cicero think?

I don't know what Cicero would think, but I believe Tacitus would repeat the words he put into the mouth of the Scottish chieftain Calgacus in Agricola 30: "they make a solitude and call it peace" (atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant).

Other writings by Tacitus might also be applicable to the current administration, though I certainly hope not:

"Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the Present to the dangerous past."
posted by moonbiter at 7:40 AM on September 26, 2002

Rome dominated other countries' armies, but American domiantes other countries' people.

What? Rome didn't dominate culturally? That's nonsense.

the Roman Empire actually lasted 2078 years (until 1453 AD)

No it didn't. Are you talking about the Holy Roman Empire? That doesn't count.
posted by Summer at 7:48 AM on September 26, 2002

look at all the Roman buffs in tha house!

Thanks Mom ==> I, Claudius ==> Robert Graves ==> Suetonius ==> Livy ==> Tacitus ==> anyone else I could get my hands on without having to go back to school (and with a little Colleen McCullough thrown in for fun).

dhartung I was going to e-mail you my plaudits for your always educational and well thought-out posts, but dammit, your contribution to this thread deserves public praise. Kudos!
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:37 AM on September 26, 2002

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