Is The United States the new Rome? Clearly, based upon the title of this essay, I think so. Let’s examine the case. Both the U.S. and Rome were forged as republics, after both threw off kings. In Rome’s case these were Etruscan kings, viewed as foreign and in the U.S. case, the British monarch, who had become foreign during the period of salutary neglect.
There were certainly differences. Rome by today’s standards does not look particularly egalitarian, yet by the standards of its day, it was notably so. On the other hand the U.S. systematically ignored the democratic rights of blacks, women and those without property. Yet, the U.S. was certainly more inclusive than Rome.
Rome and the U.S. grew by conquest, even during their republican years. Rome first subdued the Italian peninsula, then the western Mediterranean, then in time the whole of the Mediterranean. By the time of the explicit rise of the empire Rome controlled almost the whole of the Mediterranean basin, as this map shows. This conquest did not come without some defeats along the way, but the forward momentum was steady.
The United States also grew by conquest. This is not the way this is usually described, but it is true, nonetheless. The U.S. marched west past the Appalachians, and steadily moved the Indians out of the way. This was done both informally via armed civilians, as well as with the formal help of the U.S. military. The whole of the 19th. century can see the steady movement of the U.S westward at the expense of Indians, and Mexicans. This excellent book outlines this history.
After the closing of the west in 1890 the U.S. began to look overseas. It toppled what was left of the teetering Spanish Empire in 1898 and took control of the Philippines and other Pacific Ocean colonies. Along with this was a steady expansion into Latin American affairs and the overthrow of governments when it was convenient to do so. From there the U.S. steadily increased its influence until after the Second World War, when it became a global superpower, and after the end of the Cold War, the only superpower.
Many will object claiming that Rome conquered and occupied the various parts of their empire. The U.S., however, operates on more of a British model. Britain controlled vast swaths of the globe by placing a small military and civilian contingent in a nation, subverting the local powers and running the country for the benefit of the crown. The U.S. instead simply subverts the local powers, puts in place friendly governments, by coup or controlled “elections”, and thereby creates client states that work for the benefit of the U.S. I outlined the economic benefits here. Like Rome all of this has occurred during the time the U.S. can be described as a democratic republic.
The other parallel is the tendency in both cases to see the rise in the veneration of the military. Rome clearly loved its army and glorified it in an increasingly bizarre way as time went on. The marched for the glory and “defense” of Rome and Roman virtues. They were the epitome of what it was to be Roman. Leaders were consistently chosen from among the ranks of generals.
This is like the U.S .propensity to venerate the military. This is hardly a new phenomenon as 29 of 45 U.S. presidents were in the military, 13 of them generals. I discussed the cultural phenomenon of military worship, and its ahistorical nature here.
Rome and the U.S. both were societies that told themselves lies, really big lies. Rome, in its own mind, never fought an offensive war. To protect Rome, they conquered Italy, to protect Italy they conquered north Africa, to protect all of that they conquered Gaul and the rest of the Mediterranean. Pretty soon they were building Hadrian’s wall in the north of England to “protect” downtown Rome, 1468 miles away.
In similar fashion the U.S. continued to conquer and control, long after the continent was absorbed. The Pacific basin was controlled to protect the western U.S. Europe was controlled after WWII to “protect” the U.S. Atlantic coast. Latin America was controlled to protect the U.S. southern flank. Everything was also justified based on U.S. commercial interests. Oil wars anyone? Today the U.S. is a co-belligerent in the Ukrainian war to “protect” downtown Washington DC, 4881 miles away. Yet, in the U.S. mind they have only been going about promoting “democracy” and goodness and light. Rome’s subjects knew the hollowness of such proclamations as well as those subjugated by the U.S.
Both Rome and the U.S. during their imperial growth phase saw the rise of a parasitical class, which was most assuredly not the poor. I discussed the U.S. version of this here and here. The military-industrial complex only lines the pockets of the wealthy, same as in Rome. The middling classes were bought off with payments from the government. Bread and circuses in Rome and Social Security in the U.S., meanwhile the rich got richer in both situations.
The growth of this parasitical class both served and was served the same ends in both Rome and the U.S., the needs of the empire. Rome and the U.S. saw the growth of an overseas governing class, that enriched itself in both cases at the expense of subjugated populations, as well as benefactors domestically. The needs of foreign empire drove the growth of government in both cases. The rise in the size and scope of the U.S. government has clearly coincided with the increase in U.S. control of other nations. This was true for Rome as well. This control bled into domestic policy as the predations of the ruling classes intermingled with foreign policy. Managing trade for the benefits of a few connected elites drove Roman policy as much as it drives U.S. policy.
The Inconsequential Differences
No historical analogy is perfect and that includes the comparison between Rome and the U.S. Rome was more authoritarian, more militaristic and more openly imperialistic (even with the lies they told themselves). The U.S. is more market oriented, certainly more capitalistic, and more inclusive regarding its domestic politics. It directs more resources to domestic consumption by political elites than Rome did, reflecting this more democratic reality.
Yet, as real as these differences are, I think them relatively inconsequential. Rome did, and the U.S . does control vast swaths of the world (the U.S. much more global than Rome could ever dream). The U.S. devotes vast resources to the maintenance of this imperial control. They are not hesitant to use overwhelming violence to attain its ends, perhaps even more so than Rome. Both grew by violent conquest and maintained its position due to violence and the threat of violence.
Both cultures treat the military as a glorious institution and state worship as a requirement for public life. Both see the state as a thing to worship and the source of much of life’s meaning. Both built a vast empire while maintaining the outward form of a republic.
This takes Rome to the year 133 BC. This is a notable year for it marked the beginning of serious political violence that lasted, off and on, until the explicit formation of the empire under Augustus in 31 BC. I maintain this is approximately the situation for the U.S. This is our 133 BC. Part II will dive into how the U.S. compares to Rome at this point, and how it may all end the same. Also I will discuss the one key difference that may make all this moot.
Praise Be to God