The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that the military might of the United States vastly overshadows anything else the world has to offer. Not only can the Americans clobber countries that have stood up to the Soviets and the Iranians, but they can do so with an almost trivial sacrifice in lives. American soldiers face more risk from friendly fire and accidents than they do from the enemy. In fact, during the 21st Century, America has probably lost more secretaries than soldiers to enemy action.
Barring alien invasion or a devastating plague that passes through fast-food beef patties, American hegemony will remain unbroken for the next generation or two. That's a given. There will obviously be small setbacks here and there, like Mogadishu or Lebanon, where a sudden upturn in the body count makes the US reconsider the wisdom of getting involved overseas, but these will be mere insults to national dignity rather than defeats that shake the foundations of the empire. Wherever America decides to project its power can be conquered.
The New Rome
Making comparisons of America to Rome have become trendy nowadays, almost cliche, definitely controversial. The similarities are eagerly listed and stubbornly denied by people who obviously don't know the first thing about ancient history. In fact, listening to these people has made me realize how little I know about Roman history, but now, after spending nearly three days of intense study, drinking and napping, I'm all set to properly pontificate in the debate.
I'd say that there seem to be seven major misconceptions that most syndicated columnists have about the Roman Empire:
- Romans were bad people. After all, they crucified Kirk Douglas. And Jesus. They threw criminals to the lions. Their soldiers wore tiny little skirts, and they spoke a pretentious language that makes everything sound like a diploma or state motto.
This seems to be the most common misconception in the whole debate. Both sides seem to consider the comparison an insult. Well, two hundred years ago, the Romans had a better reputation. The framers of the American constitution loved the Romans. They built their government buildings to look Roman. They named the principle lawmaking body "the Senate" after the Romans. They chose the eagle as their national symbol. They even called their new system of government a republic, using a Roman word instead of an English word like commonwealth or a Greek word like democracy. Why if Thomas Jefferson could hear us calling America the New Rome, he would dance a happy dance and hug every columnist who made the comparison.
- The Roman Empire was ruled by an Emperor.
- In the intervening 2000 years, we've taken to using anglicized/russified/germanized variation of Roman terms like Emperor, Czar and Kaiser to label absolute rulers of vast territories, wielding godlike powers that pass with dynastic regularity from father to son across the centuries, but this represents a kind of semantic drift. The original meaning of the Latin word imperator was probably closer to the modern generalissimo.
- If the classical Roman Empire were planted in the modern world, we probably wouldn't call it a monarchy. It was more of a military dictatorship, and we'd call the emperor a strongman, a person who pulled all the strings, but didn't necessarily hold any fixed constitutional office or have any kind of title beyond princeps - first citizen.
- There wasn't any kind of established rule as to who became emperor after the old one died. Generally, the role fell to a close associate or adult relative with combat experience and influential connections. Almost as often, the office was grabbed by coup d'etat. It wasn't until the accession of Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, that Rome got its first emperor born to the purple, that is, born to a father who was already emperor. That was in 180 AD, or 211 years after Augustus. Since American constitutional history begins in 1789, that would be the equivalent of seeing a major dynastic first in the 2000 election, let's say the first presidential son to be appointed to the presidency by the Supreme Court -- not that I'm implying anything.
- The Romans sucked their conquests dry through crippling taxation.
The Empire lasted as long as it did because the Romans weren't idiots. When the governor of Egypt sent Tiberius more taxes than he was supposed to, Tiberius reminded him: "I want my sheep shorn, not skinned."
- The Roman Empire deliberately conquered everything in sight.
Actually, it was the ambitious, glory-seeking politicians of the Republic that did most of the conquering. The Emperors generally tried to keep the frontiers as quiet as possible.
- Alright then, the Roman Republic deliberately conquered everything in sight.
Actually, the Romans often tried their best not to conquer their neighbors. They would have preferred leaving independent client states under puppets. Generally, the Romans fought three wars with every country around the Mediterranean. The first war was a warning not to mess with Rome; the second was a reminder that Rome won the last fight, so mind your manners; and the third war resulted in an exasperated Rome taking direct control of a troublesome client state.
- Roman procurators enforced the law throughout the Empire.
Because we draw maps of the ancient world with the Empire shaded all one color, we sometimes forget the complexity of the Roman government. It's only a slight exaggeration to say that each province had a unique relationship to the central government. Peaceful provinces were ruled by the Senate. Provinces that were under martial law because of rebellion or proximity to the frontier were ruled by the emperor. Some Roman lands were ruled by client kings like Herod and Cleopatra. Many tribes and city-states remained under self rule, and would probably have considered themselves independent allies -- certainly not conquered vassals. (By way of comparison, the diplomatic community of today counts Kuwait and South Korea as independent countries, but they only exist because the US keeps troops planted there. Is that independent?)
- Rome fell.
- Yeah, after about a thousand years. At that rate, the United States will survive well into the second half of our new millennium. Woohoo! USA! USA! USA!
- Sorry. The point I should be making is that it's a mistake to cram the thousand year rise and fall of the Roman Empire into the four (or eight) years of the Bush administration. Rome wasn't built in a day. You can quote me on that.
One final nitpick. The syndicated columnists liken the US to the Roman Empire at its decadent peak, the Rome of Russell Crowe, when the better comparison is to Rome at the end of the Second Punic War. After whipping the Carthaginians at the battle of Zama in 202 BCE, the days when enemies like Hannibal would threaten the homeland and march to the gates of the city had finally ended. Carthage, the only expanding rival in the Mediterranean world, had been knocked out of the fight and shorn of its empire, but it was mercifully left alive as a nation. Substitute Russia for Carthage, and you should begin to see the similarities. At the end of the Second Punic War, the Romans could proudly and plausibly deny imperial ambitions. Although they had beaten the other peoples of Italy over the course of several previous generations, the Romans had allowed them to retain self-government in exchange for military alliances that put Roman garrisons up and down the peninsula. (NATO?) The Romans hadn't even picked a fight with Carthage this time around. They had honorably gone to war to protect the tiny Greek city-state of Saguntum from the Carthaginian aggressors. The time when Carthage would be sacked by Roman legions without provocation, its people massacred or sold, its land plowed with salt, was still half a century in the future. In short, President Bush is not Julius Caesar. He's barely even Cato the Censor.
If America is the New Rome, it might help to study a side-by-side timeline of Roman and American histories and get a feel for whether we are travelling down the same road. This will give us the opportunity to make several pointless and unfounded, yet totally irritating, predictions of what to expect in the next few centuries.
I have put hypothetical comparisons in parentheses. For example, if we calibrate our two timelines by placing the 2nd Punic War alongside of the Cold War, then the American equivalent of Caesar's assassination in 44 BC should take place in 2148. Also, I have parenthetically suggested what modern day occurrence might be the emotional equivalent of major Roman events, such as Carthage=Moscow. Since distinguishing Tiberius Drusus Claudius Nero from Drusus Nero Tiberius Claudius is as difficult as telling one George Bush from another, I've tried to match the main Roman patrician families with their equivalent American political dynasties -- left wing with left wing, right with right, military with military, etc.
We'll start both nations as calm, moderate republics of merchants and landlords, where men of means discuss and decide the fate of their nations, and slaves toil on the land:
"... well, that and California, Florida, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah ..."
When in England at a fairly large conference, Colin Powell was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury if our plans for Iraq were just an example of empire building by George Bush.
He answered by saying that, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return." -- widely circulated e-mail.
Miscellaneous comparisons between America and Rome:
- Lacking any clear provocation, there was no obvious, immediate need for the war.
- Arguments in favor of the war focused on past and (possibly, but unpredictably) future hostility, rather than any clear and present danger.
- King Philip of Macedonia was (ostensibly) threatening an overseas Roman protectorate.
- It was difficult for the war party to drum up support. In fact, the Roman assembly actually voted no the first time.
- In public, the Romans put forth noble motives -- and they generally stuck to their principles.
- After removing the threat, the Romans went home: "[At wars end] Flamininus, successfully argued that Rome should not retain any permanent positions in mainland Greece. At the Isthmian Games, [Rome] proclaimed to the assembled Greeks: 'The Roman Senate ... having defeated King Philip and the Macedonians, leave the [Greek] peoples independent, ungarrisoned and tribute-free, letting them live according to their own laws.'"
The major accomplishment of Augustus was to organize the Roman government in such a way as to make monarchy palatable to such diehard republicans as the Romans. He couldn't just declare himself king. That would be political suicide. Imagine the outcry -- even among capital-R Republicans -- if George W. Bush held a coronation with a crown and purple robe in the Lincoln Memorial.
No, if President Bush wants to become virtual king, he'd have to be more American about it. First lets assume that a major war on terror had pretty much gutted the opposition. Anyone accused of abetting terrorism disappears into Guantanamo without trial. Democrats still exist in Congress, but they're in the minority, and they're afraid of speaking too loudly or else they'll be branded as unpatriotic. So how do you turn this into an Empire?
- Step 1: First ask yourself, do you really want an empire? Empires are a lot of trouble, and maybe you can get what you want without the hassle of watching your back and executing all your close family members; however, if your country has just come out of a civil war that will probably start up again as soon as you're gone, maybe empire is the way to go.
- Step 2: Remove foreign policy from Congressional oversight. All it would take is a couple of dry, technical amendments that wouldn't even arouse public debate because they wouldn't affect the voters personally. This means that the President could do anything he wants, anything at all, to the 95% or so of the world that doesn't carry American citizenship. If America has already conquered most of this 95% percent, this alone makes you master of mankind.
- Step 3: Put yourself on the Supreme Court. Think of the power a Supreme Court Justice has even without monkeying around with the constitution. First, he's appointed for life. Second, there's no appeal from a Supreme Court decision. And there's no law that says the President can't be Chief Justice at the same time. Or if there is such a law, you're on the bloody Supreme Court; you can change it.
- Step 4: As the other Supreme Court Justices retire, accept appointments as ambassadors, or meet with tragic accidents, neglect to replace them, until it's just you on the big bench.
- Step 5: Sure, the Supreme Court is a great gig, but it's essentially a passive role. If you want active executive power, you have to hold on to the presidency. Repeal the 22nd Amendment.
- Step 6: Get control of the Electoral College. Pack it with family members. Appoint your father, George HW, your brother, Jeb, your wife, Hillary, your sons John John and John Quincy. No one will care. No one ever pays attention to who the actual Electors are. Technically, Electors are chosen by the states in proportion to their Congressional representation, but I'm sure that if there are any irregularities in the Florida votes, the Supreme Court will support you.
- Step 7: Every four years, get reelected.
- Step 8: Chill. As tempting as it might be to micromanage the lives of your citizens like puppets, in practice, the less you do, the better. Let the masses keep their dignity. Let Congress debate trivial policy changes. Let Leno make fun of your bald spot. The less dangerous you are to the majority of the people, the less they'll conspire to assassinate you.
Congratulations! You've achieved absolute power and left the Constitution largely intact.
"... animals are considered to be morally superior to humans ..."
This, of course, is true. What's the worst thing an animal has ever done to you? Now, what's the worst thing a person has ever done to you? Animals were here first, right? Even the Bible says that. So, explain again, why can we drive animals into extinction and not trouble our conscience over it?
Last updated April 2003