Is America the Rome of the modern world? Ivor Chipman
Updated: Mar 13
Comparisons between civilisations millennia apart are naturally rather daunting. Inevitable differences owing to the sheer distance of separation in time make it seem an almost pointless enterprise. ‘The past’, says Hartley, ‘is a foreign country. They do things differently there’. Yet societies today, whether knowingly or not, invariably evoke precedent. While specifics and contexts always give events a certain uniqueness, the constancy of human nature will mean general parallels in activity are always to be found. As De Tocqueville mused upon his travels, history is ‘a gallery of pictures, in which there are few originals and many copies’. America is by no means a copy of Rome, a point so vehemently asserted by the historian Tom Holland, who considers any links made between the two to be ‘hazy at best’. Indeed, it would be ludicrous to compare the US, a republic, with the Roman Monarchy or Empire. Yet the Roman Republic in between serves as a reasonable analogue for modern America. Far in the reaches of time, its echoes are still to be heard.
In 1788, the governor of the Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair changed the name of a local settlement to ‘Cincinnati’. The change honoured the eponymous Society founded five years earlier to commemorate the American Revolutionary War. Yet it actively celebrated a figure whose accolades still resonated from archaic periods in time. In 458BC, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus assumed the role of dictator, at the prompting of his fellow Romans, against an impending threat. According to the traditional account of Livy, he achieved victory in 16 days and, uncorrupted by the extraordinary power vested in him, immediately resigned his authority and returned to his humble life of a farmer. It is thought that in 439BC he was summoned again and repeated this pattern of action. To the ancients, he became the model of good Roman mores, not only in his outstanding leadership but in his humility. Later confusions of this precedent, in the form of Sulla and, most fatally to the Republic, Julius Caesar, only reinforced the rectitude of his example.
For the Founding Fathers of a new nation, Rome served as a reservoir of models from which to draw inspiration. The vestiges of this great people offered building blocks for their own culture, one that was distinct from their colonial past and so could shape a fresh identity. George Washington became the Cincinnatus of the US. He relinquished control of the Continental Army, refused to assume monarchical roles, and voluntarily retired the Presidency after two terms after which he cultivated his farm at Mount Vernon. Lord Byron in his Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte called Washington ‘The Cincinnatus of the West’. Horatio Greenough’s statue of the first President, commissioned in 1832 to mark the centenary of his birth, portrayed him as a man of two parts. He dons a wig and a toga; his right hand raises a finger while his left bears a sword. The parallel becomes deeper when considering what they represented in the course of their national histories. In 509BC Rome cast off the yoke of tyranny, as America had rid themselves of British kingship in the War. Cincinnatus and Washington embodied the first expression of their new societies, committed to new values and so defined by new forms of behaviour. The Constitution that created America’s tripartite separation of powers may have derived more directly from the political theory of Blackstone, Locke and Montesquieu, but recalled most vividly the classical model. The existence of a Senate and a Capitol in Washington speaks loudly of Rome, as does the neo-classical architecture, columns, marble busts and all. This was a conscious emulation. In its infancy, the ‘great experiment’ of the American Republic could look to the first experiment in the Roman equivalent for reassurance.
The America of today however is a different creature inhabiting a different world. Despite its claims to democratic exemplarity, the US’ political system has been shaken to its foundations. The Capitol riots on the 6th January 2021 reflected the Roman Republic only in its most regrettable moments. It was the worst act of public desecration since 1812. Yet while it had been the British who had torched the great edifices of America’s republic, the riots were conducted by the very citizens whose freedom these monuments symbolised. Egged on by the recalcitrant Trump, they resorted to looting and desecration, injuring 134 policeman and suborning the death of Vice-President Pence, for whom gallows were prepared. Just as Rome conferred ideals to pursue, so she conveyed numerous horrors to avoid. In 121BC, the popular tribune Gaius Gracchus was either killed or forced to commit suicide for insisting on his right to pass popular legislation that would favour the poor and narrow the divide between commoner and elite. 3000 of his followers were murdered without trial by the consul Lucius Opimius, using the state of emergency that had been declared as a pretext. His brother Tiberius had been slain 12 years earlier by the pontifex maximus for advancing similar reforms, his body hurled into the Tiber. The late Roman Republic was characterised by crises, including two civil wars, mob violence, and a revolt by a disaffected Roman and his Italian allies to take over the city in hope, according to Cicero, of incinerating it. The street battles between political mobsters Clodius and Milo make Antifa or the Capitol riots seem soft. In 52BC, followers of the fallen Clodius invaded the Senate House, plundered its records and set it alight, the flames also consuming Rome’s first permanent law court. Round the decay of Rome’s colossal wreck lay the chaos that Trump’s hooligans were unwittingly imitating.
Recent figures articulate the deep fissures in US politics. 70% of Republican supporters believe the 2020 election to have involved voter fraud, and fewer than half are willing to accept the result. 64% believe that their democracy is in turmoil. 32% of Trump voters considered violence a necessary course of action to defend national interests. 80% of Republicans and Democrats believe the opposing party is a threat to the country. Such alarmingly partisan attitudes are a mirror to the political environment of the late Roman Republic in which suspicions and calumny were ever present features. Any opponent could be accused of any activity and it be considered plausible. In 70BC 64 senators were stripped of their positions for supposedly immoral conduct. Anti-bribery laws such as the Lex Calpurnia of 67BC were weaponised by political opportunists to slander rivals. In 66BC the consuls designate were convicted of electoral corruption by their defeated competitors, who took the role for themselves. Cicero, Sallust and Suetonius speak of a vindictive conspiracy involving the ousted politicians to forcibly regain power, but the wild inconsistency of their accounts and the irrationality of the project testify that this was not based on any firm evidence but mere suspicion, proof of the scurrilous public climate of the time. The divided modern America shares many of Rome’s most noxious traits.
America is also the only modern state that can match Rome for belligerence. On the level of the individual, military excellence was considered the zenith of a public career. A consul had imperium, an authoritative command which was militaristic in nature. He had the right to raise armies and appoint military tribunes. War was the ‘real kernel of the office’ (Mommsen). The Tabula Heracleensis specified that a candidate for office can only fulfil the requirement of service in any given year if he spends at least half the year in camp or in a province. Polybius reports that 10 annual military campaigns were a prerequisite for office-holding. Success on the battlefield bred success in politics. Gaius Marius was elected consul a record seven times on the basis of his accomplishments in the wars against Jugurtha and the Cimbri. Indeed, in the years between 227 and 79 15 out of 19 securely attested praetors who won military triumphs consequently reached the consulship. Monumental inscriptions from the middle Republic either exclusively or heavily concerned wartime feats. These feats became a part of one’s very identity. Cognomens were commonly derived from activities in conflict- hence Scaevola for Gaius Mucius Cordus and Africanus for Publius Cornelius Scipio. For Pompey it was as simple as ‘magnus’ (great). Bellicosity was part of the national character. Festivals heralded the beginning and ending of campaigns. Republican Rome was almost always at war, according to Cicero. The earliest Latin literature of Ennius obsesses over its glories- ‘omnes mortales sese laudarier optant’ (‘all mortals desire to win praise’). Even history strays into the romantic when on the subject. Sallust’s War of Catiline not only regales the exploits of past generations but even grants its treacherous antagonist a heroic battle narrative. Rome was not Rome without battle. It’s what sustained them and even their moral integrity. The way Sallust saw it, without any true rival to test Rome’s character, that character went into decline. The final defeat of Carthage in 146BC was the tipping point for public ethics, for a Rome that fed on battle for its sustenance. Rome’s victory amputated its body politic- from then on, it slowly bled out as citizens turned on themselves. Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome articulates this perfectly. Briefly interrupting the narrative of Horatius Cocles, the narrator, clearly a man of the Late Republic, muses on this moral decay: ‘The Romans were like brothers/in the brave days of old. /Now Roman is to Roman/more hateful than a foe’. The Republic never recovered from this illness, eventually tearing itself apart in favour of an imperial system that couldn’t have been more antithetical to the republican ideal. Cato the Censor used to end every speech with the refrain that Carthage must be defeated (‘ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam’). His opponent Scipio Nasica was closer to the truth in always saying that it must be preserved (‘Carthago servanda est’). Not only was war an essential part of republican Rome- it was the very air it breathed.
America does not romanticise war for its own sake in the same way. They honour their war heroes- the famous Gettysburg Address is enough testament to that- but for the sacrifice they made rather than for some archaic notion of glorification. Yet fighting is entrenched in both America’s history and its public identity. As of the beginning of this decade, the US had seen only 18 years of peace. That means for 92% of its history, it has been engaged in some form of warfare. It has launched 188 foreign military interventions. This intoxication with fighting perhaps stems from their origins in resistance. In reality, it was an army that facilitated the formation of the new nation. The Declaration of Independence was merely a statement of purpose- the British still had to be overthrown. The Second Amendment moreover permits not just the bearing of arms but the creation of citizen militia. The whole country is in fact capable of being an army. For the Founding Fathers, it was the unique affinity of Americans with weaponry that made them trustworthy with them. Madison contrasted the US with the European kingdoms that he described as ‘afraid to trust the people with arms’. It today remains, despite the controversies, tragedies and criticism surrounding gun use, an all-encompassing ruling. In Caetano v Massachusetts (2016), the Supreme Court reiterated that the amendment extends to ‘all instruments that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding’. The intransigence of the gun lobby to cede any modification to such rights is a mark of this pugnacious addiction. It is still easy to for any eligible citizen to purchase semi-automatic weapons such as the AR-15 rifle, primary weapons used in half of the country’s ten deadliest mass shootings. America’s penchant for militarism extends to federal spending. The US government expends more money on defence than the next ten countries combined. In recent years the conception of America as the policeman of the world has been called into question by none other than themselves. President Biden finalised the process begun by previous administrations of ending the ‘forever wars’. Diplomatic approaches to foreign problems have been somewhat successful; Trump negotiated peace between Israel and the Arab states of Bahrain and the UAE. He even became the first US President to visit North Korea, albeit to no avail. Yet the global might of America is still expressed in the most bellicose of terms, with troops still present across all continents in remarkable numbers. Just as in Rome this perpetual occupation provoked resistance, so national identities, particularly in the Middle East, have been refined by anti-American causes. Just as recalcitrant Roman client states, particularly in Hispania and Asia Minor, saw themselves in opposition to their Italian masters, so people in different countries with different cultures are quick to resent America’s international soft power. It's military presence in 150 countries testifies to its sometimes irritable position as the policeman of the world. Regardless of whether America’s sway in such regions is net positive, its interventionism often creates an antagonism that rivals its ancient forebear’s.
The obvious parallel today between these great powers is just that- that America and Rome’s standing in their worlds is and was preeminent. To compare their respective power to the detail is a futile endeavour. Amidst the sophistication of the global body politic, with all the international bodies and regulations that come with it, America can never dominate in the same way that Rome could. The former exists amongst too many checks and restraints. It can only exert an ‘informal imperialism’ through its influence in authoritative bodies such as NATO and the UN, whereas Rome could possess an empire long before they were themselves imperial, one which to them, represented the whole span of the globe. Indeed, America has never actually acquired an empire worth the name. Historically its possessions were limited to those acquired in the wars against Spain; Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Haiti. Only Puerto Rico remains a US territory today. Yet two trends, past and present, attest to America’s Rome-like status. The first is the simple conviction that it is better than others. From the earliest days of the American project, the US has fostered a belief that it had to Americanise its surroundings. This idea, coined in 1845 as ‘manifest destiny’, refers to three basic notions of expansionism: a commitment to the special virtues of the American people and their institutions, the mission of the US to redeem and remake the west in their image, and the divine mandate of such a duty. Today we know this as American exceptionalism, its roots stretching to the founding of the nation. In Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence, all these themes resound: ‘We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand’. Paine casts the American revolution as a global revolution. The theological underpinnings of the concept are highlighted by the biblical context he provides. Just as Noah restored the world to a godly order, so the US has the opportunity to enlighten the old with the new. Paine was at best a deist and certainly did not consider Genesis truthful, but religious allegory helped convey the importance of such a purpose to his contemporaries who did. Such language abounds in American rhetoric on the topic. Still in modernity, the phrase ‘a city on the hill’ from the Sermon on the Mount is used to cast the nation as a beacon of hope for the world. The special experiment in freedom and democracy, successfully enjoyed by its citizens, meant many agreed. Abraham Lincoln twice elaborated on this theme, first in his message to Congress on December 1st 1862, in which he called the US ‘the last, best hope for earth’, and then in the Gettysburg Address, in which he interpreted the Civil War as a struggle for the survival of such foundational principles as liberty and democracy. Much earlier, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Monroe that ‘it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent’. He accordingly doubled the size of the US with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France. This was the first sign of the providential mission manifesting itself. Monroe in his famous Doctrine of 1823 made this into an official foreign policy, defining an American ‘sphere of influence’ in which it could exercise hegemony in the Western Hemisphere in opposition to the European powers. This mindset often produced ugly results, not least in the suffering of Native Indians in America’s march westward. Continentalism was a hierarchical thing. Its currency today is most likely reduced in light of historical revisionism. Although the ‘Make America Great Again’ rhetoric captured huge swathes of the American demographic, it doesn’t carry the haughtiness, the sense of one’s right to rule over others, as Rome’s. Americans who prattle nauseatingly about how brilliant they are no longer wish to formally impose their rule outside their jurisdiction. Yet this self-belief has been a fundamental part of the American mind, and one which has fuelled its advance to international supremacy.
The Roman precedent for this is well known. Virgil in his Aeneid offers perhaps the finest expression of Roman exceptionalism in Latin literature. The locus classicus is the prophecy of Jupiter in Book 1, in which he mandates the future primacy of Rome: 'his ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono; imperium sine fine dedi' (‘in these matters I place no ends in space or time; I have given a power without end’). Jupiter goes on to cast Romans as the ‘lords of the world and the people who wear the toga’ ('rerum dominos gentemque togatam'). The divine mandate is clear, and the toga becomes not only the distinctive dress of the Romans but a symbol of their greatness. Augustus similarly was considered divine, not only because Virgil made him the ancestor of Aeneas, Venus’ son, but because he held command over vast swathes of land and sea. His adopted uncle Julius Caesar had reached Britain during his Gallic campaigns, the outer limits of the West to antiquity. A temple in his honour, called the ‘House of Divine Julius’ (Aedes Divi Iuli) was built in 42BC. Virgil and Horace, poets born in the Late Republic, saw Augustus’ ascension as ‘princeps’ to herald the dawn of a Golden Age, having cemented Roman dominion over her foreign enemies. This Roman sense of their own pre-eminence shines through in how protective they were over their own citizenship. Exclusivity was a necessity- to be Roman was to join an elite people. From 91BC-89BC Rome fought a war against the peoples of Italy when they demanded that they be granted full Roman citizenship. The Italians won, but were not incorporated officially as citizens until the census of 70BC. Such resistance emphasises the esteem Romans felt for their identity, one which conferred the title of masters. For Romans, every expansion, every victory, only furthered their conviction that they were the inevitable conquerors of the world. A good world was one governed by Rome.
The second articulation of this power parallel is in both nations’ provocation of rivalry. The stories of both vindicate the truth of Thucydides’ famous Trap, in which an emerging power threatens war when it can potentially challenge the established power. That this happened to both Rome and America testifies to their equal status as the superpower of their respective eras. Rome fell into this trap with Carthage. In 264BC it fought the first of three devastating wars against the North African power that had begun to vie with Rome for Mediterranean mastery. Carthage, founded as a colony of the seafaring Phoenicians in 814BC, enjoyed a remarkable rise in prosperity in antiquity. In contrast to most Phoenician colonies, Carthage grew larger and more quickly thanks to its combination of favourable climate, arable land, and lucrative trade routes. Within just one century of its founding, its population rose to 30,000. Against Phoenicia’s decline, Carthage became independent perhaps in the mid 7th century, and commercial successes built the foundations for the Carthaginian empire. Carthage by the beginning of the 4th century BC had taken control of all nearby Phoenician colonies, and occupied North Africa from Morocco to Western Libya. It held Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands, which offered crucial ports of trade across the Mediterranean. Carthage even managed to subjugate its mother country. If by the 3rd century BC Rome was the master of Europe on land, Carthage had become masters of the sea, and the wealth that came with it. As early as 509BC the two powers signed a treaty demarcating their respective influence and commercial activities. It conveys the extent to which Carthage was, at the very least, on equal terms with Rome. The war that broke out reflects the kind of power struggle that can only occur when there exists an idea of a supreme entity, that being Rome.
264BC was the 245th year since Rome had become a republic. 2022 is the 246th year since the Declaration of Independence, the date which for Americans marks the founding of their nation. It is an eery correlation. Just as Rome by that point had come into conflict with an ever-rising Carthage, so currently America is engaged in a Cold War with the ever-rising China. The US had of course survived a Cold War with the Soviet Union without it becoming hot throughout the 20th century. Direct animosity was diffused through proxy wars in the Middle East and South East Asia, and the threat of mutually assured destruction, with the notable near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, kept the real conflict at bay. China however is not only an ideological rivalry but, even more crucially, an economic one. America is the major trading partner of 37 countries- China 63. 149 countries as of August 2022 have signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, coined ‘the 21st Century Silk Road’. This has the potential for China not only to far outstretch America’s commercial capacity, but subject much of Africa and Asia to a form of economic imperialism, exploiting debts of poorer countries to leverage power over them. There is a clear geopolitical pressure point in the Taiwan Question which may well be a catalyst for battle. Just as the many treaties signed between Rome and Carthage failed to hinder war, so talks between America and China have been relatively futile. Rome and America are alike in their ascendency and, rather scarily, in the invitation of real challengers.
Such similarities are nonetheless underscored by two serious differences. The first relates to internal politics. Roman public life was, to an extraordinary degree, run by individual men. The course of the Roman Republic is a case for the Great Man Theory of history. To some extent this is owed to the ancient context. Literacy and education being minimal, the masses were scarcely able to represent themselves personally in the history books. Yet it is still alarming that when we think of Rome, we immediately recall names that echo through the centuries. Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus, the Catos, the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Catiline, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar- these figures influenced politics at Rome in ways that a US President simply could not. Although power was indeed balanced by the senate, the offices of consul and, at times, popular tribune, wielded immense soft power as well as hard. Consuls vested with imperium carried the glory of Rome into battle on their backs, and at home triumphs were celebrated in front of the masses in such a way that cemented their standing above all else. The belief in the ability of the individual is illustrated in the use of the office of dictator. Before it went into abeyance in the republic’s final century, it was employed very frequently, highlighting Rome’s idea of the great man at the centre of all things. In the final decades, public figures rose to extraordinary heights. Marius received 7 consulships, Pompey 3, Caesar won an unprecedented quadruple triumph, Cicero was the first Roman to receive a public supplicatio (a prayer) and was called ‘pater patriae’ (father of the country). In the 50’s BC, the first Triumvirate of Pompey, Caesar and Crassus monopolised Roman politics. Caesar was so dominant in his consulship of 59 that, according to Suetonius, it became a public joke. People would sign documents not with ‘in the year of Bibulus and Caesar’s consulship’ but ‘in the year of Julius and Caesar’s consulship’. We also have Plutarch’s testimony that Bibulus did not appear for 8 months during his consulship, and that he was indeed completely emasculated during this year, to such an extent that he spent time mainly in the domestic sphere. Caesar's Gallic command was of a remarkable length, and he was never even prosecuted for violating his own lex repetendarum of 59 which prohibited the expansion of a general’s military campaigns to regions outside of his formal jurisdiction. At the Conference of Luca in 56 the Triumvirate decided for themselves, successfully, that Crassus and Pompey would be joint consuls for 55 and to extend Caesar’s command. Pompey himself was sole consul in 52. He had even been afforded two extraordinary commands in 67BC and 66BC to fight Mediterranean pirates and the armies of King Mithridates in Asia Minor. Catulus noted that even then Pompey was ‘an illustrious man, but too illustrious for a free republic’. In its modern environment with a written constitution (as opposed to Rome’s unwritten and certainly more fluid one), American presidents cannot dominate public life like this. The other difference is with respect to culture. Both Rome and America managed to spread their culture to all parts of the globe. This is indeed a similarity that is almost too obvious to labour- just as there is a MacDonald’s or Apple store in all corners of the globe, so the paraphernalia of Rome appeared from North Africa and Britain to Anatolia and Syria. It is in the internal relationship between religion and politics that they differ. America has a highly religious demographic- in a Pew Research survey in 2014, only 9% of Americans professed that they did not believe in a god. Yet the Constitution is entirely secular, as the first amendment shows which prohibits any governmental ‘establishment of religion’. Church does not have any role to play in politics, officially speaking. In Rome religion and politics were indivisible. Augurs could and did on occasion dictate when elections were held on the basis of bad omens. The auspices could determine whether a decision to go to war was right or even a trade deal. Naturally this could be manipulated for political purposes. According to Cicero, the authority of the augurs’ prerogative included the right to adjourn and overturn the process of law, such as in elections and the passage of bills. He considered the pontifex maximus, the chief priest amongst the college of augurs, the most powerful person in Rome. It was religion that ruled.
America and the Roman Republic are the only two entities existing millennia apart that can be even reasonably compared. Both at the apogee of global affairs, with shared flaws and shared talents, and startlingly similar historical narratives in the broadest sense. Although occupying different worlds and thus inevitably different in every area to some degree, the US is certainly the closest modernity can get to the ancient powerhouse of Rome. As Senator Michael Bennet said after the storming of the Capitol, the Founding Fathers fashioned a republic in full awareness that they were not the first to do it. However radically estranged America might have become from the America then, the same spirit of Rome is still detectable at its heart.