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By T.S.Tsonchev


Is America the New Rome?


There are astonishing similarities between the rise of the American state and power and the upsurge of Roman Republic. These likenesses are not due to the specific character of both states, rather there is a common pattern in the development of every powerful state and the U.S. and Rome are examples of this pattern. In foreign policy both states, despite their remoteness in time, share a common approach and direction.

The Americans began their path to greatness breaking their ties with the British Crown and building a republic. Romans did the same with the expulsion of the Etruscan dynasty of Tarquins. The Etruscans, like the British for the Americans, were the people who gave culture and direction of the early Rome. After the expulsion of the kings, which happened about 200 years after the supposed foundation of Rome, Brutus, the chief organizer of the revolt, announced the creation of Roman republic and proclaimed the beloved Roman freedom (508 BC). Like in America, where liberty is the highest national ideal, freedom became the highest ideal of Rome and her long lasting disdain toward despotism was used with great skill to excuse or assert many political decisions at home and abroad. In Rome, all political battles were waged in the name of liberty, abroad all military campaigns were under the flag of liberation and justice.

The rise of Rome to power

The rise of Rome as a great imperial power was slow and unsure. Its expansion was not premeditated. The Romans were energetic and active people; they won and lost battles, but never wars. They made alliances with friendly people or destroyed the cities of their foes, but for centuries, they did not have the consciousness that they are becoming an imperial power. Gradually they submitted central and southern Italy and created a system of alliances with the Latins and other peoples throughout the peninsula. As the Roman historians argue, for a long time the Romans sincerely believed that their foreign policy is just and defensive, never offensive. They did not think themselves as invaders or conquerors. Like the early history of the American state, they glued the independent parts of Italy in a federal whole, sometimes with the power of sword and sometimes with the might of word. This "federal" union, called initially the Italian League, kept the composing parts relatively independent in their domestic affairs, but in foreign policy, all in the union were dependent on Rome's decisions. Rome became the summit and the center of the League.

The Italian League and Roman system of Alliances

Romans were extremely efficient in their foreign policy. They often entered into a war in defence of 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 counted 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. In Italy, the closest to Rome nations received the right to become Roman citizens, to make business and to get married with Romans. They were accommodated and assimilated. Others, living farther from Rome, or with different culture, or not deserving to be trusted, received the right to have domestic freedom, but they did not enjoy the rights of the closest friends of Rome, the citizenship was barred for them.

The wars with Carthage and growth of Rome to world power

After the expansion in Italy, the Greeks and Carthaginians noticed Rome. At that time, the Greek city-states had generally more democratic political systems, while the Carthaginian political regime was more despotic than the aristocratic rule in Rome. Carthage, who dominated western Mediterranean, Sicily and the western coast of Africa, realized that Rome is enough strong to pose threat to its interests. A narrow strait divided the affluent Sicily from Italy and it was a matter of time the two powers to go into a conflict.

Now, with America no longer perceived as invulnerable, engaged in protracted fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, comparisons are to the bloated, decadent, ineffectual later Empire. In Why America Is Not a New Rome, Vaclav Smil looks at these comparisons in detail, going deeper than the facile analogy-making of talk shows and glossy magazine articles...

In 264 BC the war broke out. Its formal cause was the defence of the city of Messina. Located in the straits, it was a colony of the Italian Samnites. They had asked Rome (and Carthage) for help from the attacks of neighbouring Syracuse, ruled by a despot, Hiero. The Carthaginians hoped that Rome is non-experienced in naval power and believed that a war will arrest its possible future expansion over the seas.

The war, called the First Punic War (Carthaginians had Phoenician origin and from here the name "punic"), lasted twenty-tree years and the Romans won. 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 was dominating these lands as a sole hegemonic power, and after the war Rome, used with the flexible semi-democratic structure of Italian League, surprisingly had to deal with peoples and lands without indigenous political traditions and strong aristocracy. The nations in Sicily and Sardinia (except the city of Syracuse) were slave people, without their own political systems. Their culture and religion was strange to Rome. The victory of the first Punic war gave Rome a new fate and future. The Romans decided to use Carthaginian organization of governance (that was very different from 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 any political or economic rights or any other form of independence. Romans ruled Sicily with proconsul or governor - an office previously unknown in Italy. After the first Punic war, in Western Mediterranean, Rome gradually abandoned the old politics of alliances and accommodation. She 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? The creation of the American republic, the American idealism and love to freedom, the binding of independent states through creation of federal government and common foreign policy, the Western expansion, the Mexican and Civil wars in the 19th century, and at the end the proclamation of the Monroe's doctrine consist many of the signs that an empire was developing.

Like Rome the U.S.was far from the civilized world - the U.S. from Europe, and Rome from Greece. Both countries did not have interest in East. For a long time they were concerned only with their own problems and their early expansion was to the West and to the South in areas sparsely populated, technologically backward and with weak political institutions. For a long time both did not have 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 once they decided to steal the wives and the daughters of the neighbouring Sabine people. The goal of the politics of accommodation of the allied nations that I have mentioned earlier was to sustain growth of Roman population. In similar way, the American power and development was 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 finished without success. Similarly, the Americans barred the way of the Europeans to the western hemisphere. President James Monroe declared to American Congress in 1823 that the American continents are closed to European colonization, and 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 to Greece, but proud with her political institutions and civic virtues.

The last stages of Roman rise

After the second Punic war (201 BC) when Rome became 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 divided, insecure East (free Greek city-states and monarchies, big Macedonia and Syria) depending on balance of power. Before the First World War, there was similar stability in the Western hemisphere, with the sole leader - the United States, and an unstable East, divided by the old strives between Great Britain and France and the new, despotic and powerful players - Germany and Russia.

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

Vanity Fair's US editor-at-large Cullen Murphy argues that America most resembles Rome in the burgeoning corruption of its government and in its arrogant ignorance of the world outside; in these conditions, idealism, however well-meant, can too easily be a form of blindness. Lively and richly peppered with historical stories, Murphy's book brings the ancient world to life, and casts today's biggest superpower in a provocative new light...

The Macedonian war and the Roman politics of "non-interference" in Eastern affairs (after the war Rome did not make Macedonia a province, nor created some form of league with its Greek friends) tempted the Seleusid king Antiochus III (from Asia Minor) to attack the Greek city-states. Rome again found herself involved in Eastern war. 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 which 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, without these nations be an imminent danger for Rome, marks the new direction that Rome headed. She was not anymore the democratic power, the defender of the weak, the liberator. Perhaps she attacked these nations for security reasons, but this is not a satisfactory explanation. Roman Republic was on the high of her might 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 constrain. 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 passed through a long period of isolationism while it was working on its internal political and economic issues. It was slowly involved into the problems of the world. America was a young, strong, and idealistic democracy that for a long time was unaware of its power. The Americans despised the European monarchism and imperialism, same like the Romans despised the despotism and the ambitions of Eastern empires.

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

There was a Second World War; America again was involved in 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 luggage bigger than its ability to carry on. After the Second World War, half of the world fell under its wing. The U.S. started to build alliances and military bases, it took over the defence and foreign policy of Western Europe and other parts of the world, and waged a long, exhausting war with the Communist world led by Soviet Russia.

Roman foreign policy became somewhat chaotic after the first Punic war. The Romans seemed not sure 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 to wage bloody and meaningless wars in the world peripheries - Vietnam and Korea, for example. The American politics during the Cold War, especially in East Asia, was sometimes disasterous. Eventually in 1989 America won the war against the Soviets, but instead of long awaited relief the U.S. -- now an undisputed global leader -- has been burdened again with the weight of world affairs.

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

The second Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan have began as preventive wars. The last Roman wars against Carthage and Macedonia also were preventive actions against expected future threats. It does not mean that America, starting "unnecessary" military offensives against possible threats, is heading to a republican decline or political centralization (like Rome after the Social Wars/Grachi 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 America still has 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, no matter how powerful it is, will slide into decline from the very moment when it lose its sense of reality. The political prudence begins with the following: control over the world is an illusion; the only important thing in politics is control of your own self. It is a historical fact that all nations who succeeded to become imperial powers, at one or another point of their expansion, had forgotten this truth.


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