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By T.S.Tsonchev


Is America the New Rome?


Rome's rise as a great imperial power was slow and uneven. Its expansion was not planned. The Romans were an energetic and active people; they won and lost battles, but never wars. They made alliances with friendly peoples or destroyed the cities of their enemies, but for centuries they had no consciousness of becoming an imperial power. Gradually, they subdued central and southern Italy and created a system of alliances with the Latins and other peoples throughout the peninsula. According to Roman historians, for a long time the Romans sincerely believed that their foreign policy was just and defensive, never offensive. They did not see themselves as invaders or conquerors. As in the early history of the American state, they bound the independent parts of Italy into a federal whole, sometimes by the power of the sword, sometimes by the power of the word. This "federal" union, initially called the Italian League, kept the constituent parts relatively independent in their domestic affairs, but in foreign policy all in the union were dependent on the decisions of Rome. Rome became the summit and center of the League.

The Italian League and Roman System of Alliances

The Romans were extremely efficient in their foreign policy. They often entered a war in defense of a particular nation (in most cases, they were asked for help), but surely this was not an altruistic impulse. The fact that the Romans had not lost a war shows that they carefully considered their interests and opportunities. Once "liberated," the nations were obliged to go into alliance with them, and only with them. Roman allies had no right to follow their own foreign policy. In their domestic affairs, they were relatively free, but their friends in Rome checked their every step in the domain of foreign policy. The nations closest to Rome were granted the right to become Roman citizens, do business with Romans, and marry Romans. They were accommodated and assimilated. Others, who lived further away from Rome, had a different culture, or were untrustworthy, were granted the right to domestic freedom, but not the rights of Rome's closest friends; they were denied the privilege of citizenship. 

The Wars with Carthage and the Growth of Rome to World Power

After the expansion in Italy, the Greeks and Carthaginians took note of Rome. At that time, the Greek city-states generally had more democratic political systems, while the Carthaginian political regime was more despotic than the aristocratic rule in Rome. Carthage, which dominated the western Mediterranean, Sicily, and the western coast of Africa, realized that Rome was strong enough to pose a threat to its interests. A narrow strait separated prosperous Sicily from Italy, and it was only a matter of time before the two powers clashed.

In 264 B.C., war broke out. Its official cause was the defense of the city of Messina. Situated in the straits, it was a colony of the Italian Samnites. They had asked Rome (and Carthage) for help against the attacks of neighboring Syracuse, which was ruled by a despot, Hiero. The Carthaginians hoped that Rome was inexperienced in naval power and believed that a war would halt their possible future expansion across the seas.

The First Punic War (the Carthaginians were of Phoenician origin, hence the name "Punic") lasted twenty-three years and was won by the Romans. After this war, Rome took over most of the Carthaginian dominions: Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. During the war, they learned how to build ships and support a fleet. For years, Carthage ruled these lands as the sole hegemonic power, and after the war, Rome, using the flexible semi-democratic structure of the Italian League, surprisingly had to deal with people and lands without indigenous political traditions and a strong aristocracy. The peoples of Sicily and Sardinia (with the exception of the city of Syracuse) were slaves with no political system of their own. Their culture and religion were alien to Rome. The victory of the First Punic War gave Rome a new destiny and a new future. The Romans decided to use the Carthaginian organization of government (which was very different from the Roman tradition) and made these new lands "provincia" (or "sphere of activity"). The provinces were not part of the Roman federation; their inhabitants were simple subjects with duties to their conqueror, without political or economic rights or any other form of independence. The Romans ruled Sicily through a proconsul or governor, an office previously unknown in Italy. After the first Punic War in the western Mediterranean, Rome gradually abandoned the old policy of alliances and accommodation. It became the hegemon of the West.

The Similarities Between Rome and the U.S. in Their Early Development

Was the early development of the United States similar to Rome's? Many of the signs that an empire was developing include the formation of the American republic, American idealism and love of freedom, the binding of independent states through the establishment of a federal government and a common foreign policy, Western expansion, the Mexican and Civil Wars in the nineteenth century, and, finally, the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Like Rome, the U.S. was far from the civilized world—the U.S. from Europe, and Rome from Greece. Both countries had no interest in the East. For a long time, they were only concerned with their own problems, and their early expansion was to the west and south, to sparsely populated, technologically backward, and politically weak areas. Neither had a mature national sense. To stay strong, they relied on immigration and settlers coming from foreign lands. In their early years, the Romans were so desperate for population that they once decided to steal the wives and the daughters of the neighboring Sabine people. The goal of the politics of accommodation with the allied nations that I have mentioned earlier was to sustain the growth of the Roman population. In a similar way, American power and development were dependent on the influx of immigrants. Rome was promising land, security, and freedom to her citizens. America also attracted settlers with promises of land, security, and freedom.

Rome expanded its domain over the western parts of the ancient Hellenic world and closed the way to future Greek colonization. There were ambitions in Greece for western expansion, the Greek king Pyrrhus had attempted to conquer the Italian peninsula before the first Punic War, but his venture ended without success. Similarly, the Americans barred Europeans from entering the western hemisphere. President James Monroe declared to the American Congress in 1823 that the American continents were closed to European colonization and that the United States would not interfere in European affairs.

America looked to Europe as an affluent, civilized, but corrupted society. For a long time, America, comparing itself with Europe, felt cultural inferiority and moral superiority. Rome had the same feelings toward Greece. Rome was culturally dependent on Greece but proud of her political institutions and civic virtues.

The Last Stages of Roman Rise

After the second Punic War (201 BC), when Rome became the undisputed leader of the West, taking over Spain and Northwestern Africa, the world looked similar to the world before the First World War in 1914. In 201 BC, there was a relatively stable West with one undisputed leader (Rome) and a divided, insecure East (free Greek city-states and monarchies, big Macedonia, and Syria) depending on the balance of power. Prior to World War I, there was similar stability in the Western Hemisphere, with the United States as the sole leader, and an unstable East, divided by old rivalries between Great Britain and France and new, despotic, and powerful players—Germany and Russia.

Rome became involved in Eastern affairs at the request of the free city-states of Greece. They considered her a possible defender against the aspirations and despotism of Macedonian King Philip V. Rome entered the Eastern scene by liberating the Greeks from the Macedonian yoke, and after the war, she retreated, leaving behind a net of alliances and treaties.

The Macedonian war and the Roman politics of "non-interference" in Eastern affairs (after the war, Rome did not make Macedonia a province nor create some form of league with its Greek friends) tempted the Seleucid king Antiochus III (from Asia Minor) to attack the Greek city-states. Rome again found herself involved in an Eastern war. The Romans defeated Antiochus and punished all of his allies.

After this war, there was a second Roman withdrawal and soon a third involvement, but this time Rome was the offender. The Roman Senate, led by a majority of nationalists and businesslike people, among whom was the popular Cato the Elder (shown on the title picture), decided to destroy Macedonia, Carthage, and Corinth, to divide their territories, and to turn them into provinces. The plan succeeded.

The destruction of Macedonia, Carthage, and Corinth, despite the fact that these nations posed no immediate threat to Rome, signaled Rome's new direction. She was no longer the democratic power, the liberator, the defender of the weak. Perhaps she attacked these nations for security reasons, but this is not a satisfactory explanation. The Roman Republic was at the height of her power at this time; she had never been more secure. In 146 BC, after these wars, Rome gradually transformed herself into a predatory hegemon and monarchy that punishes and rules the known world without constraint. And here begins the story of her slow and painful decline, which is a theme for another article.

The Story of America

The story of America as a great power is similar. It had a long period of isolationism while working on its internal political and economic problems. It was only gradually drawn into the world's problems. America was a young, strong, and idealistic democracy that, for a long time, was unaware of its power and potential. The Americans despised European monarchism and imperialism, just like the Romans despised despotism and the ambitions of eastern empires.

America was involved in the First World War against its will. After the war, it returned to its traditional isolationism. It did not want to be a world leader; it even did not want to take part in its own idealistic project of creating a new, international League of Nations.

There was a Second World War, and America again was involved at the request of its friends, saving them (and herself) from the barbarism of Nazi Germany. After this war, like Rome after her numerous wars, America was burdened with a load bigger than its ability to carry on. After the Second World War, half of the world fell under its sway. The U.S. started to build alliances and military bases; it took over the defense and foreign policy of Western Europe and other parts of the world; and it waged a protracted, exhausting war with the Communist world led by Soviet Russia.

After the first Punic War, Roman foreign policy became somewhat chaotic. The Romans seemed unsure what to do with their influence and power. Unlike Rome the United States, after the Second World War, had a clear task to balance against the power of Soviet Russia, but very often it found itself in the uneasy situation of having to wage bloody and meaningless wars in the world's peripheries—in Vietnam and Korea, for example. During the Cold War, American foreign policy, particularly in East Asia, was at times disastrous. America eventually won the war against the Soviet Union in 1989, but instead of long-awaited relief, the United States—now an undisputed global leader—has been burdened once more with the weight of world affairs.

Like Rome after the third Punic War, America, at the beginning of the 21st century, fell into the position of a sole leader. It was surprisingly detested by many, dealing with suspicious allies and cruel enemies.

The second Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan began as preventive wars. The last Roman wars against Carthage and Macedonia were also preventive actions against expected threats. It does not mean, however, that America, by starting "unnecessary" military campaigns, is heading to a republican decline or political centralization (like Rome after the Social Wars/Gracchi Revolution in the first century BC, when it lost its republican semi-democratic institutions), or that Iraq and Afghanistan have the same strategic importance as Carthage and Macedonia had in the past. The time will show if the recent offensive war campaigns have been reasonable or not. But it is sure that the U.S. still has much to learn from the Roman experience.

What we know now is that every state, no matter how perfect or just its institutions or intentions are or how powerful it is, will slide into decline from the very moment when it loses its sense of reality. Political prudence begins with the following: to control the world is an illusion; the only important thing in politics is to control your own self. History shows that all nations that succeeded in becoming imperial powers, at one point or another in their expansion, forgot about this truth.


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
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