Why does the United States think it is the Roman Empire?
If you don’t believe that it does, then check the headlines:
“Is America collapsing like the Roman Empire?” — Fox News, October 18, 2016
“For America, the Fall of the Roman Empire Is the Best Case Scenario” — Townhall, March 28, 2016
“The Romans Have Much To Teach Us About The Costs Of Empire” — Huffington Post, December 5 2016
“Dealing with Emperor Trump: Field Notes from Ancient Rome” — CommonDreams, November 2016
“How Republics End” — New York Times, 19 December 2016 [As in the Roman Republic]
“No, America Is Not Collapsing Like The Roman Empire Did” — The Federalist, April 6 2015
“8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire” — Salon, December 26, 2012
But why the Roman Empire? Why not the British Empire? The Inca Empire? The Ashanti Empire? The Mongol Empire?
I’m not sure how deep the belief in the US as Rome goes, whether the comparison is made across breakfast in the Denny’s diner Nampa, Idaho or only in big city media offices, think tanks, and universities.
The Rome obsession is no less influential if only US intellectuals are preoccupied with togas, but if it is only confined to intellectuals the preoccupation says something — I’m not sure what — about that class.
Before I go further, a brief note on terminology. In this post I use the term ‘Rome’ to refer in a lazy way to the whole history of Ancient Rome including its monarchical, republican, and imperial forms.
The Rome obsession differs slightly from observer to observer. One observer will claim the US is the Western Roman Empire about to fall. and another that the US is the Roman Republic about to become the Empire.
The common element is a belief that Rome’s history maps on to US history, even if there is no agreement as to what stage in Rome’s development the contemporary US represents.
The most literal comparison between the US and Rome I ever saw was a website that matched with a timeline the Roman and US history.
On this reading, the last thirty years matched — if my maths is right, and there is no guarantee that it is — the close of the wars against Carthage, which was likened by the site’s creators to the Soviet Union.
This meant that, following the strict comparison, an equivalent figure to the general Scipio Africanus is about to emerge in the US.
Whether Trump’s General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis can fill Scipio’s sandals is a matter for military historians to the decide.
That website was an overly literal attempt to match Rome and the US. And, I should add, a strictly amateur attempt. I don’t think even historians with a cyclical eye, such as Oswald Spengler or Arnold Toynbee, would insist on a one-for-one match between individuals and societies during different historical cycles. They wrote a rhyming history, a history with flex.
What I read on that website was a humourless history in steel.
But the very attempt — even at an amateur level — retains the anxiety found in grander, saner articles that draw the comparison between the US and Rome.
The anxiety is that certain traditions, values, and advantages are about to be wiped away.
The idea is that if we can only understand history by comprehending our developmental stage in analogy then catastrophe can be averted.
This is not a uniquely US way to talk about history. When Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech he appealed to classical history, not surprising since he was a classicist, in just this way. And history is probably used in a similar way in non-English speaking countries.
History is often ‘sold’ to the general public and students on this basis — for everything in our societies must be useful and utilitarian if it is to be permitted to exist.
If we can understand terrible historical events, goes this argument, we can avoid similar catastrophes in our lifetime. In the late-1990s, the BBC made a documentary series called ‘The Nazis: A Warning From History’ that exemplifies this conceit perfectly.
Once we had watched and understood this series, so the producers thought, the United Kingdom would never be susceptible to a Nazism.
Never susceptible to Nazism, mind. And this is the hitch with the approach outlined above. If a revolutionary conservative movement emerged in the 21st century United Kingdom it would not have Nazism’s subjective character. There would not necessarily be a ‘Himmler’ figure, a ‘Goebbels’ figure, and the rhetoric would be entirely different.
To know about the Nazis is not sufficient to be able to identify a revolutionary conservative movement and counter it.
A further limitation in using history to foretell catastrophe is that while the spirit is to encourage action to avert disaster the actual effect on the audience is fatalism.
The Roman Empire collapsed for multiple reasons. For the centurions, senators, and plebeians there were factors at work outside their control, and there were also factors that we as distant observers can see that they could not.
If we assume, as the Rome analogists do, that the US is about experience a Roman catastrophe the reader will mostly feel despair. And this is why the analogy is appealing rhetorically. The analogy relieves anxiety. It foretells an uncertain future, tell us why we are doomed, and reassures us that there is nothing to be done anyway.
Rome fell. We are Rome. This is our fall. And what’s on Netflix now?
A side line can also be developed in ever-saleable prurient comment, if the writer is so inclined.
The Empress Theodora allowed geese to nibble grain from her naked body, and afterwards she serviced countless men in brothels. Can we say that our country is much better after the last performance by [insert celebrity] at the Super Bowl….
All good, dirty fun. The reader can feel virtuous in lamenting their country’s ever so sexy depravity, decadence, and Romanness.
The inflexion given to the Rome analogy varies according the political divisions in the US.
For US liberals, the US is usually portrayed as the Roman Republic about to become the Empire. Civil liberties will vanish, and the military-industrial complex will preside over bloody wars for booty under their Nero or Tiberius.
Whether this is accurate to the actual transition from the Roman Republic to the Empire is not the issue. This is how the transition is imagined in its contemporary form.
The science fiction writer Philip K Dick and novelist Gore Vidal both produced much writing in this line over their careers. For Vidal the transition from republic to empire took place during the Second World War while for PK Dick. “the empire never ended”. T he US had always continued in the Roman imperial tradition from its inception. The repression was only matter of degree.
A US conservative approach to the analogy is a little more flexible. The focus is often the fall of the Western Empire, an event blamed on debt, decadence at home, general funk in the Roman citizenry, and military overstretch.
Contemporary concerns for US conservatives are read back into Roman history, with what’s left of LBJ’s Great Society taken as analogous for whatever spending over taxed the Western Roman Empire.
Drugs, sexual liberalism, and abortion are read back onto the ailing Rome, though this is not historically consistent. The Empire was Christianised and homosexuality, for example, had been outlawed.
What we see here, I think, is Hollywood Rome clashing with historical Rome.
A conservative’s ideology says that sexual liberalism leads to a country’s collapse. Rome was a powerful empire that collapsed and, therefore, sexual liberalism must have played a role.
That Roman familial relations differed to those in all US history is not relevant for the analogy to have force — although doubtless there are conservatives who would enjoy being a pater familias.
Rome in the popular imagination is Spartacus. Sword, sandals, and sexual decadence.
There is a reason why the vast Las Vegas casino is called Caesar’s Palace.
This is enough for conservatives to believe that Rome’s fall was tied up with sexual turpitude, and that the contemporary US is edging towards the maw, one twerk at a time.
A conservative can also appeal to the republic-empire break in Roman history, as the liberal does.
This approach is taken by US conservatives with strong constitutional concerns. Their contention here being that attempts to reinterpret the Constitution (always capitals, dear reader) by liberals are similar to the rise of the emperors.
The state has become as the emperor, an unlimited tyrant in its taxation, because the law has been subverted. This appeal is strong to libertarians.
The republic-empire break is now also popular with Republicans displaced by Trump’s victory. Conservatives who see themselves as an elite against the mob do not much care if that mob is liberal or traditionalist.
This clique set great value in what’s known as the Great Books Tradition, a long reading list that includes the Ancient Romans.
Understandably, they wish to emulate Seneca the Younger rather than continue to serve Trump. Whether they follow Seneca’s noble example and slip quietly into their bath tubs with slit wrists remains to be seen.
Behind all this lurks a certain Edward Gibbon. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire says it all. This was not merely a history of the Roman Empire. This was an investigation into why that empire ceased to exist.
The text is behemothian, but I think DFRE is a book similar to War and Peace in that educated people feel they should have read — or should pretend to have done so — because that is what educated people do.
In the Wikipedia age it is so much easier to have pretended to read a book.
Thus many are called, and many are (half)chosen.
Full disclosure: I have only read parts of DFRE.
Here’s Gibbon on those ever troublesome barbarian hordes:
“The Romans were ignorant of the extent of their dangers and the number of their enemies. Beyond the Rhine and Danube the northern countries of Europe and Asia were filled with innumerable tribes of hunters and shepherds, poor, voracious, and turbulent; bold in arms, and impatient to ravish the fruits of industry. The barbarian world was agitated by the rapid impulse of war; and the peace of Gaul or Italy was shaken by the distant revolutions of China. The Huns, who fled before a victorious enemy, directed their march towards the West; and the torrent was swelled by the gradual accession of captives and allies. The flying tribes who yielded to the Huns assumed in their turn the spirit of conquest; the endless column of barbarians pressed on the Roman empire with accumulated weight; and, if the foremost were destroyed, the vacant space was instantly replenished by new assailants.” — The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1840), Vol. 2, Chp XXXVIII, p. 530.
When we think about ‘the fall of Rome’ we think about one awful moment.
There is no gradual slide. No long epochs punctuated by destruction and reconstruction. Rome’s fall is as we imagine our own deaths, although an empire is not a person.
The barbarians break into the city feeling ‘voracious and turbulent’ — not unlike a pedestrian on Oxford Street.
The ineffectual, effeminate citizens are slaughtered. There’s plunder, rape, excessive drinking, fire, fury, wailing, gnashing of teeth — overall a lot more exciting to imagine than answering another email from procurement.
Rome fell more than once. Rome was burned down and rebuilt. But the fall of Rome, the Western Empire’s final extinguishment, is thought about in a different way. This is not an historical event.
This is a sensuous, terrible, and flesh-renting experience.
This is a Michael Bay film.
Rome is a Monday morning coffee break fantasy. The politically dull imagine they are Batman smashing their way through Gotham City. The politically acute imagine they are in a falling Rome.
C.P. Cavafy captured the lets-pretend-we’re-Romans appeal in his poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.
— C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992
So far we’ve seen how the US imagines itself as Rome and the satisfaction it gains from doing so, along with how the various political groupings in the country use the analogy.
The above tells us why the analogy is satisfying, particularly for the different political factions — but there is a missing element.
This is the role Rome played as an inspiration for the US itself — a role that is reflected in Washington DC’s architecture, which has more than a few Romano-imperial nods.
Agrippa, Americanus, Caesar, Cato, Cincinnatus, A Plebeian, Publius, Senex, and Tulliua.
A few pen names used by the Founding Fathers as they discussed the US Constitution.
For the educated in the 18th century familiarity with Latin was as assumed as knowledge of English is for educated people today. That meant familiarity with the classics, with the history and philosophy of Rome and Greece.
This knowledge informed how the Constitution and the political life of the US was organised from the start.
This isn’t the place to list all the ways the classics influenced the Founding Fathers, but the influence was substantial.
Cicero’s observations on Roman laws provide one example, for we are all aware that the US Constitution attempts to balance different political forces through a separation of powers.
In theory, the Constitution combines the advantages of a monarchy (the President), an aristocracy (the Supreme Court) and a democracy (the Congress).
The way these different forms of government can decay were observed by Aristotle (monarchy to tyranny, aristocracy to oligarchy, democracy to ochlocracy or mob rule).
Cicero advocated combining the benefits of each so as to mitigate against decay.
“Cicero was an eclectic in political theory, as well as in other branches of philosophy. Most of his originality appears in provisions which have the character of compromises, and the resulting balanced constitution is an attempt to find the golden mean between the extremes of different periods and different parties.” — Clinton Keyes (1921) ‘Original Elements in Cicero’s Ideal Constitution’, The American Journal of Philology.
In the United Kingdom, politics turns upon Parliament. Parliament is sovereign. The distribution of parties in the Parliament is decisive for how the country is governed.
In the US, it is the Constitution that is sovereign. Politics, left or right, turns back on the Constitution. And this in turn puts the Founding Fathers and their Roman interests up for repeated examination.
Since the Founding Fathers believed that they had thrown off tyranny and founded a republic, the next question — a question posed in Ancient Greek philosophy and Roman history — was how long would the republic last?
And the Americans have been watching ever since, as their country has grown ever larger, ever more powerful. And, perhaps, evermore Roman.
There were other influences on the Constitution – the United Kingdom’s common law, for example. But these were in their very nature piecemeal influences rather than the comprehensive philosophies drawn from the classics.
To compare the US to the British Empire is surely tempting. Common language, law, and other traditions link the two states.
But the War of Independence still counts, for a US citizen their country broke decisively from Britain and such comparisons are pointless.
This does not mean that comparisons are not true or worthwhile, but what I am considering here is why Americans think what they think about themselves, and not whether it is reasonable that they think in this way.
An analogy to Rome is acceptable whereas an analogy to Britain is unthinkable to an American, whether or not such an analogy is more reasonable.
I’ve sketched out why the comparison to Rome exists in the US mind, but is this comparison reasonable, even if it is very satisfying?
I think not.
There are two reasons for this:
First, the Founding Fathers were inspired by Rome’s laws, history, and philosophy, but they were not recreating Rome in America. The Founding Fathers could pick and choose from classical history in its entirety, and they knew how the story ended.
“The owl of Minerva takes flight at dusk,” wrote Hegel. And the dusk owl has its choice of mice to eat, I’ll cheekily add.
What the Founding Fathers created from this historical knowledge was the US Constitution — not a new Rome. To take, for example, Cicero as an inspiration was not to take Rome as an example — for Cicero did not make the laws of Rome in his own time. He interpreted. He argued for his ideal. The US political order is as much an invention of Cicero’s abstract thought as the actual history of his city.
The very idea that the republic might be in danger, a fragile political order that needed to be protected, is a product of the knowing how Rome developed through history.
My second point is rather obvious, and I have alluded to it earlier when discussing the differences between Roman families and the family in the US.
The US and Rome exist in entirely different technological and social contexts to each other. This is not a matter only of scientific knowledge or technology, but also social institutions, such as slavery, and different realities cultivated through different language and traditions.
This does not mean that historical comparisons are trivial or pointless, but the close analogy between the US and Rome says more about the narrow focus on the Constitution that the US political system cultivates than any greater historical truth.
There may well be worthwhile comparisons to make between the Golden Horde and the US but these comparisons are not made because the Founding Fathers did not — to my knowledge, and if they did they didn’t spend much time on it — think about how the Golden Horde was relevant to the thirteen colonies.
To believe in the close analogy between the US and Rome is to be meshed in the ideology of being an American not to necessarily make a truthful historical point.
And why the Western Empire only? I feel sorry for the Byzantine Empire, which is often cruelly remembered for a complex bureaucracy.
The Eastern Roman Empire outlasted its Western counterpart by hundreds of years through skilled diplomacy and warfare.
And the Hagia Sophia was quite an achievement, too.
But no-one worries about declining like the Byzantines — if only we could all decline like Byzantium.