Wars of the 21st Century
American Empire:
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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."
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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?)
  7. 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.
Parallel Histories
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:
509 BCERoman Republic Established(1683)
(416 BCE)1776American Republic established
(367-317 BCE)1803-1853The United States expands west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the Gulf of Mexico-- at the expense of Spain, France, Mexico, Britain and a mess of Indian tribes.
338 BCEDissolution of the Latin League(1852)(This is probably important. I saw it on a timeline somewhere.)
(329-325 BCE)1861-65American Civil War: the last internal challenge to the integrity of the United States
(300 BCE)1890Ghost Dance Uprising. Last war against the Native Americans of the West.
298-290 BCE3rd Samnite War: "The Samnites were the aggressive, primitive Sabellian herdsmen of the central Apennines. They were the last major native opponents of the Romans in Italy."(1892-1900)
(292 BCE)1898Spanish-American War: First overseas war of conquest by the USA.
280-275 BCEWar with Pyrrhus of Epirus over Tarantum: First Roman war against a non-Italian army.(1910-1915)
(276-272 BCE)1914-1918First World War
264-242 BCEFirst Punic War: First Roman victory over a world-class power, and first acquisition of overseas territories (Sicily, Sardinia)(1928-1950)
(251-247 BCE)1939-1945Second World War: the US acquires permanent alliances/ protectorates in Japan and West Europe
(244-205 BCE)1948-1987Cold War
218-201 BCESecond Punic War: Last invasion of Italy and last serious threat to Roman existence and independence.(1974-1991)
(201 BCE)1991USSR breaks up
200-196 BCESecond Macedonian War [n.1](1992-1996)
(191 BCE)(This might be considered the equivalent of the Battle of Cannae 216 BCE. The last, darkest military disaster in the Roman heartland for a long time to come.)2001Islamist attacks on DC & NY.
(191 BCE)2001Operation Infinite Justice Enduring Freedom: Afghanistan Conquered
(189 BCE)2003Operation Iraqi Freedom: Iraq Conquered [n.1]
(187 BCE)2005Operation Righteous Retribution: Syria Conquered
(185 BCE)2007Operation Humongous Virility: Iran Conquered.
175-155 BCERelative peace in Spain, where Rome had occupied Carthage's former territories.(2017-2037)(Latin America fairly calm)
172-167 BCEThird Freaking Macedonian War. The Romans are getting mighty sick of having to fight the Macs every few years, so Macedonia is directly annexed by Rome. The rest of Greece is reorganized into independent (sort of) client states.(2020-2025)(Third Iraqi War: The whole Mideast is reorganized. New states include Kurdistan and Farsistan. Lebanon, Yemen and Kuwait disappear. All oil producing regions are administered directly by the USA.)
154-133 BCENasty, cruel wars in Spain(2038-2060)(Country by country, Latin America is taken over by the US)
151 BCEA Roman general in Spain massacres surrendering tribesmen. In Rome there are unsuccessful attempts to set up special courts to stop war crimes like this.(2041)(American troops commit atrocities while fighting in Colombia. The perpetrators are almost punished.)
153 BCECato the Censor: "Carthago delenda est."2001(Ann Coulter: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians."​)
149-146 BCEThird Punic War: Cathage utterly destroyed(2043-2046)(Tehran nuked)
(Although modern historians tend to shy away from passing moral judgements on the past, the destruction of Carthage is usually considered to be the point at which Rome went bad.)
146 BCERomans sack Corinth, dissolve the Achaean League, and take over Greece.(2046)(End of the European Community. Paris is nuked as punishment for blocking UN approval of the 2nd Iraq War 43 years earlier.)
133-121Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempt to curb abuses by the Senate and redistribute land to the poor. T. was killed in a riot, and G. was killed fleeing enemies. Their killers were acquitted.(2059-2071)(These are sort of the John and Robert Kennedy of the Roman Republic. Wealthy, liberal, unsuccessful, beloved and assassinated.)
132 BCEConcerning the killing of Tiberius Gracchus, Britannica says "Thus political murder and political martyrdom were introduced into Roman politics."(2058)(At this point, assassination and paramilitaries become commonplace in American politics.)
(ca. 93-91 BCE)ca. 2099-2101, depending on whether you're one of those math pedants who believes that all centuries begin with xx01, or whether you're one of the unwashed masses.End of the Twenty-First Century
90-89 BCESocial War: Rome's Italian allies rise up, demand, and are eventually granted, Roman citizenship.(2102-2103)(The Brits, Canadians and Aussies are incorporated as constituent states of the USA. Heck, let's throw in Mexico while we're at it!)
88-82 BCE1st Roman Civil War -- between Marius and Sulla(2104-2110)(Imagine that the two winning generals from the Mexican War, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott, had gotten into a civil war with each other instead of just running for president at different times on different party tickets. A bonus similarity is that both Taylor and Marius had relatives by marriage who became leaders in future Civil Wars -- Jeff Davis [son-in-law] and Julius Caesar [wife's nephew])
82-78 BCDictatorship of Sulla.(2110-2114)(In 2110, after the Second American Civil War, the Republicans declare marshal law and execute or exile leading Democrats.)
60-48 BCEFirst Triumvirate -- Pompey, Caesar and Crassus(2132-2144)(Ike Bush Dole, Kennedy Marshall Roosevelt and Rockefeller Gates form an unofficial cabal to run the republic.)
53-45 BCEThe 2nd Roman Civil War: Crassus is killed fighting the Parthians at Carrhae. Caesar beats Pompey at Pharsalus, and becomes dictator. A bright, glorious future stretches out before him.(2139-2147)(The Next American Civil War: After R. Gates and his whole army are lost in China, Roosevelt and Dole are left on their own to fight for sole supremacy. The Battle of Brasilia proves decisive.)
44 BCEJulius Caesar assassinated(2148)(General Kennedy Marshall Roosevelt is assassinated by Senator Taft Adams (and others))
42 BCEYet Another Roman Civil War, the Third I Think: At the Battle of Phillippi, Marcus Antonius and Octavianus defeat Caesar's assassins. Along with Lepidus, they form the 2d Triumvirate.(2150)(Taft Adams is defeated by Kennedy Clinton Roosevelt and George Bush Clinton at the Battle of Damascus. They pick some other guy and form the Second Trilateral Commission to run things.)
31 BCEBattle of Actium: Last fight of the Civil Wars. Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius are beaten by Octavianus(2161)(At the Battle of Singapore, Kennedy Clinton Roosevelt defeats the combined forces of George Bush Clinton and Indira Evita Thatcher, and assumes sole control over the Republic)
31 BCE-14 CEOctavianus rules as Augustus, First Citizen of Rome, retaining a facade of republican institutions and tolerating public debate, but consolidating real power into his own hands.(2161-2192)(President Kennedy Clinton Roosevelt makes President-for-life an actual part of the US Constitution. [n.3])
14-37 CE[Tiberius Claudius Nero ] Tiberius the Surly, stepson of Augustus, starts well enough, but eventually starts executing imaginary enemies left and right.(2206-2229)(Regime of William Bush Roosevelt, adopted stepson of KC Roosevelt)
ca. 30 CEJesus of Nazareth preaches, gets executed.(ca. 2222)(Lorenzo the Redeemer, a Brazilian New Age Shaman, teaches about an upcoming era of Joy and Judgement)
37-41 CE[Caius Caesar Germanicus] Caligula the Mad, grand-nephew of Tiberius (assassinated)(2229-2233)(Regime of Jefferson Walker Bush-Roosevelt)
41-54 CE[Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus] Claudius the Fool, uncle of Caligula (assassinated)(2233-2246)(Regime of Keanu Kennedy Bush-Roosevelt. Not all that bad as these things go.)
54-68 CE[Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus] Nero the Nasty, stepson of Claudius (assassinated, sort of)(2246-2260)(Regime of J. Edgar Fonda Bush-Roosevelt
69 CECivil war in which Nero plus two imperial usurpers are killed, and a third founds a dynasty(2261)(very brief terms of two Presidents: George Armstrong Rumsfeld and Ashcroft McArthur)
(74 CE)The Aeneid: the Next Generation.ca. 2266Star Trek, First Series
69-79 CETitus Flavius Vespasianus starts a dynasty that is not nearly as eccentric as the previous bunch.(2261-2271)(General Powell Colin Eisenhower emerges as victor in a series of military coups.)
79-81 CETitus Flavius Vespasianus(2271-2273)(President Powell Colin Eisenhower, Jr.)
81-96 CEDomitian (assassinated)(2273-2288)(President Julius Nixon Eisenhower)
(Again, keeping in mind that modern historians try to avoid passing moral judgements on the people of the past, here begins what Edward Gibbon called Era of the Five Good Emperors, the Golden Age)
96-180 CENerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius(2288-2372)(Your Bill Bradleys, your John McCains, your Harry Trumans, dull decent leaders)
180-192 CECommodus breaks Rome's lucky streak. (assassinated)(2372-2384)(Joaquin Phoenix)
(241 CE)2419Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
324 CEConstantine makes Christianity the official religion of the Empire.(2502)(New Age Lorenzan Redemptionist replaces Christianity as the official religion of the USA. The calendar is reformed so that the week is shorter, Spring is longer, animals are considered to be morally superior to humans, forests and nature are considered sacred, what you do in your own home is nobody's business but you and God, but there's a special circle of Hell reserved for telemarketers. Also, this God doesn't need any money, thanks anyway; she'd like you to give it directly to the needy instead.) [n.2]
433-453 CEAttila the Hun comes crashing down on the Empire(2625-2645)(Li Kuan of Rigel 7 attacks)
476 CEThe Western Roman Empire expired peacefully in its sleep today, with a pillow held over its face by Odoacer the Herul. It is survived by a brother, Byzantine, and a posthumous illegitimate son, Holy Roman.(2668)(The end of the world as we know it.)

"... 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.
Sources: Post Cold War Era
Miscellaneous comparisons between America and Rome:
There are some interesting parallels between the 2nd Iraq War and the 2nd Macedonian War:
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?
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?
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Last updated April 2003
Copyright © 2003 Matthew White
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